According to Merriam-Webster a prodigal is a son/daughter who leaves his or her parents to do things that they do not approve of but then feels sorry and returns home. In Luke 15:11-32 Jesus tells the story of two sons and their life choices. The point of the story was not about passing judgement on the irresponsible son but about repentance and forgiveness on one hand and unforgiveness on the other. I’m not going to focus on the reaction of the older son but on the journey of the younger son and the father’s response as it applies to my own spiritual life journey.
From my teenage years I wanted to distance myself from my family. I went off to college and then further away for graduate school seeking to gain my freedom. I then got married and started my career to establish my independence. I filled my time with what I wanted and only made grudging appearances for holidays. My brother grew up and got married. My parents grew their business and took up square dancing. They had their lives and I had mine. I didn’t live in a faraway land but halfway between my parents and my wife’s parents. Close enough to make the trip but far enough to not have to make it frequently. My focus was on my career, my interests, and my friends. I didn’t have time for family obligations or responsibilities. Even after my daughter was born, I continued to pursue my dreams without any concerns for how this affected anyone else. This is the very essence of being a prodigal.
I didn’t appreciate what my family had to offer me: a stable nuclear family, deeply held religious beliefs, education, strong work ethic and financial security. Growing up my extended family including grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins always got together for the holidays. Family reunions happened every year exposing me to an even larger group of family members in which I didn’t take the time to learn who they were or what our family history was. I dreamed of being anywhere but there. With age comes wisdom and only now do I appreciate what I had. My parents will be celebrating their 58th wedding anniversary this year. My family wasn’t perfect, but I was given all the advantages. My time in prison exposed me to people who came from not just dysfunctional but truly broken homes. Growing up on the streets and in some cases literally killing to get what I had.
Growing up, Sundays were all about church. My parents were active members in their church. My brother and I attended church for as long as we lived in their house. Not attending wasn’t an option. Even when I was older, I attended church, but it was more social and cultural than spiritual. My entire life my has been lived in the shadow of the cross. My parents brought me up in church, raised me with conservative Christian values, and sent me to a college founded by our denomination. I knew the hymns, the books of the Bible, and the tenants of the faith, but even though I confessed my faith there were areas of my life that weren’t surrendered to God.
I was a very average student in high school. When I went to college, I became a much better student when I started dating a girl who spent her time in the library. While we parted ways, I still graduated with honors and double majored in chemistry and biology. I went to graduate school and found out how really smart I was by consistently outscoring some of the best and brightest students at one of the state’s most prestigious universities. But academic knowledge isn’t the same as wisdom and the more I learned the more foolish I became. According to Proverbs 10:1b “a foolish son brings grief to his mother.” And I certainly caused my mother a lot of grief.
My pride of life, gluttony, intellectual arrogance, and selfishness kept me from following Christ fully. Proverbs 11:2 says, “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.” It was in quiet desperation that I truly called on the God of my fathers when I found myself in jail. Many who find faith in prison point back to someone in their family, like a mother or grandmother who modeled it to them. Those without a model have a much harder time coming to believe.
As a tutor in prison, I was able to use my education to help those who did not have the opportunities that I had. I would encourage my students to look forward to a brighter future that would only be possible by completing their GED. Not because of what education had done for me but what they could do with it to help their families. On more than one occasion I had students tell me that they were determined to get their GED to challenge or encourage their own children to complete their education. Those inmates were the ones that really got it and tried to make the best of their prison experience.
My father earned money by delivering papers when he was young. He served in the military and afterwards went to night school while working and starting a family. While I was still in elementary school, he made a life altering decision and became an insurance salesman. He was consistently one of the top salespeople in his company. He had his own agency for 47 years and did all right. His hard work set the example for me. I worked occasionally for him while I was in high school but knew that I didn’t want to follow him into business. I chose a different path as part of my rebellion. I had different skills and abilities but much of the same drive and work ethic. In prison I encountered those who worked hard at not working. Those who plotted and schemed at making the big score. Always more talk than action. Uneducated and unethical, a far cry from my up bringing.
I had a moderately successful career in the sciences. I worked hard. I worked long hours. I provided for my family. I never really had to worry about money to pay the bills, put food on the table or buy a few toys. A lot of my satisfaction and self-esteem came from my work. I liked getting above average employee annual reviews. I liked my steady advancement up the corporate ladder. And it was gone in the blink of an eye like the parable of the rich fool in Luke 12:13-21. The barns I had built for myself were gone and life as I knew it was over.
In prison I had plenty of time to reflect on my life choices and the decisions that lead to that low point in my life. I was in a pig sty and my thoughts often drifted back to life at home and how much better it would be to live there. My thoughts weren’t fantasies of some make-believe fairytale life, but of a home that wanted me there as a part of the family. While I was in prison my parents were the only ones who did not abandon me to my fate. I knew very few inmates who had more visits than I did. Approximately every two weeks I got to spend time with my parents who made the trek to wherever I was incarcerated to see me. I received mail and/or emails from them regularly keeping me up to date on the happenings in the family. I talked to them weekly on the phone and was occasionally blessed to call into a family get together were I could talk to my brother. Not once in what was literally thousands of communications, did I hear any condemnation but rather endless encouragement. I got to know about my extended family and all that I had missed out on over the years. I got to hear about what was going on at church, the office, and with their friends. I received postcards from all over the country and even around the globe as my parents traveled. There was no doubt that I would be welcomed home, it was only a question of when.
When I got home, I wept with overwhelming emotions. I had a room of my own. Access to good food anytime of the day or night. I was given the keys to one of the family cars to go out on errands and work. I was given a family credit card so I could start rebuilding my credit and make purchases for the family. I cooked meals, cleaned house and laundry, shopped for groceries, made home repairs, painted around the house, and gardened like Martha Stewart. I did it, not because I had to as if I was expected to pay my parents back for supporting me while I was in prison but rather to express my gratitude for all that they had done for me. I wanted to be fully engaged in the very family life that I had previously shunned. I focused on completing my parole without any violations just like I completed my sentence behind bars without any violations. I wanted to do and be my best because like the Grinch my heart had grown three sizes.
My time on parole flew by. It was quite anticlimactic when I was discharged from parole. The parole officer that had managed my case wasn’t even in the office on the day that I signed my discharge papers, there was no need to say goodbye. I was a free man but running away from home never crossed my mind. My parents are aging and need my help now more than ever. I don’t worry about what I might or might not inherit when they pass. I am secure in my position as a beloved son. I don’t live at home anymore, but I live nearby so that I can stop in and check on things. I have a new job and recently got married so I have more responsibilities too. But they are not a way of establishing my independence again but rather a celebration of the new life I was given. I have confidence that “all things work together for the good of those who love God” (Romans 8:28). I never imagined that my life would turn out this way, but the Bible and church history are full of convicts that God called to do His will and I guess that I’m just one more.
As far a prodigals go I would say that my experience is not typical. My parents did more than keep a vigil by looking down the road for my return. They walked with me through my period of incarceration confident that God would make a way for me to return to them. God used them to encourage and sometimes even feed me in a difficult situation. Their faithfulness is what got me involved in the church behind bars and with Keryx. It was there that I truly began to understand about grace, mercy, forgiveness, and repentance. And more importantly to truly appreciate these foundational principles of the Christian faith and how important they are to rehabilitation and restoration of those convicted as opposed to punishment and retributive justice that are the hallmarks of the current criminal justice system. There are far too many men and women behind bars that will never get to experience the celebration of homecoming because regardless of how bad things get in prison they either haven’t come to their senses or don’t have anyone waiting for them. One of the strongest indicators for successfully completing parole is placement back into the family. Prodigals need to be welcomed home whether it is their nuclear family or some other group that can act as a surrogate. I’m proud to be part of a group called Freedom Dreamers Chapel who’s mission is to provide that surrogate family for those coming out of prison who have come to their senses but don’t have a family of their own to return to. We provide small accountability groups, mentors, and worship experiences in a Christ-centered judgement free atmosphere to encourage success while on parole and beyond.
(While I was at Central Michigan Correctional facility, I was involved with the Protestant All-Faith church and with Keryx. I was never chosen to be a leader of either group, but I was active in supporting roles. For a while I helped run sound for the church and volunteered to read scripture, pray, and give a testimony, or a meditation from time to time. In Keryx I was a small group leader and served on the inside team for several weekend spiritual retreats. Prior to that I had served as the inmate leader for the church in Level IV and as a soundman for the Level I/II church at Cotton Correctional facility.
This article came from my attempts to help when there was a sudden change of leadership because the MDOC rode out the leader and a relatively inexperienced replacement was chosen. I firmly believe that church leaders are called by God and that scripture has a lot to say about the characteristics of church leaders. Different organizations have different organizational charts, some have individual leaders listed while others rely on leadership teams. In reality they are all teams of one sort or another, since no one can do it by themselves and especially in prison where there is no guarantee that you will be there tomorrow. Continuity is a problem when there are not individuals in the church willing to help in the transition or provide support to leaders who are often placed into difficult and chaotic situations. As I have said in a previous article: Being a church leader involves the arcane art of herding cats.)
This article is also a little unusual in that it is not strictly a meditation or instructional narrative. There is also a fair amount of commentary about my experience with the prison church looking back on my time there, which ended nearly four years ago. The church in American prisons is a persecuted church. There are many in prison both inmates and staff that have no respect for the Christian faith. Those who profess faith in prison are often singled out for abuse. Like the early church or those in non-Christian countries there is a different dynamic at work. Many volunteers that come to worship with us commented on the differences they saw between the free world churches they attend/represent and the prison churches. There was a unanimous acclamation that they loved to worship with us because they could feel the movement of the Holy Spirit and the earnest faith expressed by men whose freedom was only on the inside.
Timothy was a young Christian taught the scriptures by his mother and grandmother. He traveled with the Apostle Paul on a missionary tour because the Christian brothers in his hometown spoke well of him (Acts 16:1-3). While they spent time together Paul trained Timothy for leadership. Confident in Timothy’s ability to do the job, Paul left him at Ephesus to deal with the issues of the church plant there (1 Timothy 1:3). We are blessed to have two letters written by Paul to Timothy providing tremendous insight into pastoral ministry.
Paul did not do this once, but at least twice that we know of. Paul left Titus in Crete to complete the task of organizing the church planted there (Titus 1:5). By this we can see that it is a model for preparing young Christian leaders through training in a hands-on way and then mentoring them once they have been appointed to a position.
In modern times, training for ministry has taken on formal academic methodologies in divinity schools in the western world. However, the old model established by the Apostle Paul still works in the third world church and in places such as prisons where it is practical, efficient, and necessary. While every prison has a chaplain who oversees religious programming, it doesn’t mean that he actually runs any specific faith- based programs in a Clerical sense. Prisons rely extensively on outside volunteers from the thousands of organizations from across the country and the religious spectrum to provide religious instruction to inmates. Some of these groups may provide mentoring programs for the inmate leaders of the church, however that was not the experience at the first prison where I was incarcerated. The chaplain there, who I worked with when I served as the inmate leader of the Level IV Protestant All-faith church, did not provide much in the way of guidance, let alone mentoring when it came to how I was to lead my flock. I never heard him preach at any services and do not believe that he was ordained by any faith group. At the second prison the chaplain was an ordained minister and worked with the inmate leaders, but I believe in the MDOC that this was the exception rather than the norm.
To be clear I am not referring to discipleship, I am specifically referring to leadership. Every leader should be actively involved in his own personal discipleship with other mature believers. As the mission statement for a church I attended stated: “We are to be disciples who make disciples.” Any discussion of Christian leadership must begin with the premise that those called and chosen for leadership are earnestly working out their own salvation within the body of Christ.
So, what do you do when you find yourself in a situation as a young inexperienced leader selected for a position for which you have received little training? Do you assume that based on your previous life experience and knowledge that you will be able to figure it out as you go? Do you try to model your ministry based on a TV preacher adopting the affectations and mannerisms you admire? Do you assume because you’ve been appointed as leader you must act the part by being large and in charge? We all like to think we’ve got some new, innovative, or powerful concept we’d like to implement to put our signature on the ministry to mold it to fit our vision and personality. There is no doubt that a lot of thought and prayer goes into the process; but just as there are no Lone Ranger Christians, there can be no Lone Ranger Christian leaders.
As a young leader in the church, who are the Christian brothers you are receiving mentoring and advice from? Even Billy Graham had an inner circle of prayer warriors who he often turned to for guidance. They were always free to speak their minds and faithfully held him up in prayer for every decision in the ministry. If Billy Graham would not operate without a support team, can any Christian leader believe that they don’t need one?
In Exodus, Moses literally needed the support of Aaron and Hur when the Israelites fought the Amalekites. While Moses held up his staff, the Israelites were winning the battle; but when he put his arms down, the Amalekites would start winning. Aaron and Hur made a place for Moses to sit down and then they held his tired arms up to ensure the victory (Exodus 17:8-16).
Moses couldn’t do it on his own. Moses who is listed among the great people of faith in Hebrews 11 needed help. Joshua was in the thick of the battle acting as Moses’ general. Aaron who was high priest and Hur was one of Moses’ aides had accompanied Moses up onto a mountain that overlooked the site of the battle. Aaron and Hur are the ones who diagnosed the problem and came up with the solution to Moses’ dilemma. By supporting Moses’ arms, they ensured that God’s power flowing through Moses would continue until the enemy was defeated.
Even with God’s power flowing through him Moses got tired. The same is true for any Christian leader, after all they are only human. No matter how filled with the Holy Spirit you are, you can’t do it on your own. Burn out is the top reason why many clergymen quite the ministry. Leaders need their strongest laypeople to come alongside them to support them.
These mature believers, operating out of Christian love, prior experience, and guidance from the Holy Spirit are a resource provided by God. They may be former church leaders themselves or possess a lifetime of experience sitting in the pew. These counselors, having a sense of the congregation are able to provide young leaders, especially, with insight or information they themselves may not perceive or possess. Leaders make decisions and these counselors may provide confirmation of a course of action before implementing it or suggest alternate possibilities for consideration. The counselors are not presently called to be leaders but are pillars which support leadership while living in the body.
Everyone, especially those in positions of authority need to be actively engaged in accountability relationships. They must be willing to place themselves into a situation where those who are capable can speak truth to power. These counselors must be able to pray intelligently for the leader by getting to know this person, not in a casual friendship type relationship, but in a strictly confidential, deliberate, honest, spiritual way.
Leadership tends to be an insular position, so it is not recommended that a leadership team serve exclusively as the support team for each other. Experienced members of the leadership team should be actively engaged in mentoring the new members and assist them in establishing their own support teams. This multi-layered approach should ensure that leaders remain in touch with and accountable to the church body which they oversee.
I attended a church for many years near my home where the denominational organizational chart for each congregation called for both a Pastor’s Cabinet and a Leadership team. The Pastor’s Cabinet was comprised of the elected delegates that represented the church at our annual conference. They would meet with the pastor to talk about issues facing the church and served as the team that would work with the conference superintendent when conducting a search for a new senior pastor. These people would serve for several years and would then be replaced by others voted into the position by the church membership during an annual election. The Leadership team was also elected by the church membership to serve for several years to discuss and plan for local church issues and events. There were even several other small groups such as a Worship committee that provided input on specific areas of ministry. With all of these dedicated people advising the pastor you’d think that he would have all the input necessary to make decisions, right?
One wise pastor who served there did something that many of his predecessors didn’t, he put out a call to the congregation for a prayer team. He wanted people to commit to pray for a specific member of the pastoral team. The pastors would then communicate to their prayer partners areas of specific needs both personally and in the life of the church that they needed others to lift up to the Throne of Grace. Like Billy Graham, this pastor got it. It’s not about technical, financial, or theological expertise, it is about the power of prayer. When we follow the admonition to “Be still and know” only then are we able to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit.
Pastors and other church leaders tend to be some of the busiest people I know, and it can be a challenge for them to truly be still. Don’t assume that because they have the title and responsibility that they don’t need specific prayer support. Prison is one of the noisiest places to live. There are only a few hours of the day when it is truly quiet in the housing unit, generally in the dead of night after lights out or during count time. There are also no places where when can go to be alone. Jesus set the example of retreating to a lonely place to pray and in prison it is hard to follow that example. I would use count time, the forced periods of inactivity that happened several times each day to read the Word, meditate and pray. These regular daily times provided me with the power, clarity of thought, sense of purpose, and direction that I needed to write what became the basis for many of the articles posted to this blog. It is what allowed me to redeem my time in such an evil place.
The secular model of leadership often paints leaders as strong, decisive, charismatic, and knowledgeable in their field of expertise. That is not how the Apostle Paul described Christian leadership. Below I have listed 12 characteristics from Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus. I have paraphrased them into modern language with the goal of making them practical in a prison setting.
Suggested Qualities for Leadership Team Candidates
A mature believer- knowledgeable in the Word and grounded in prayer – 1 Timothy 1:18-2:4; 2 Timothy 3:10-17.
Sensitive to the needs and concerns of the people – 1 Timothy 5:1-16
Wise enough to know when to get out of the way and let others speak – 1 Timothy 1:3-7
Always seeking to encourage and develop talent- grooming others for leadership – Titus 1:5.
Has a good reputation both inside and outside of the church – 1 Timothy 3:7.
A track record of involvement in available ministry activities; more than consistent attendance – Titus 3:14.
Humble- has a real servant leadership mentality – Titus 1:6-9.
Able to control his tongue – 1 Timothy 3:2-3.
A passion for seeking the lost and teaching those new to the faith – Titus 2
Willing to accept criticism, seek guidance, and work toward consensus as a team member – 2 Timothy 2:14-26.
Willing to place himself into relationships where he can be mentored by those more senior to him in leadership, to develop his leadership skills – 2 Timothy 1:13-14.
Willing to place himself into relationships where he can mentor those more junior to him in leadership, to develop their leadership skills – 2 Timothy 2:2-7.
There are many other characteristics that could be mentioned, but the point I’m trying to make is that God uses us whether or not we feel that we are ready, if we are willing to make ourselves available to be used as a vessel for the Holy Spirit, which is the one doing the work through us. We will make mistakes, but the best leaders are the ones who can admit their mistakes, learn from them, and continue to move forward.
The last observation I want to make is that Christian leaders have a bullseye painted on them by Satan. He works extra hard to bring down those who are in authority, because he thinks it undermines the message of the Gospel. All throughout Paul’s ministry he encountered opposition. An example is recorded in Acts 19:23-20:1 where there was a riot in the city of Ephesus, because the local silversmiths felt that Paul’s preaching of the Gospel was hurting their business of making idols of the local goddess Artemis. Paul had to leave Ephesus where he was having a tremendous ministry because of this and left Timothy to take over the ministry. Which takes us back to the beginning. A young leader finds himself in the position because the previous leader was ridden out. The very issues that the previous leader was dealing with will become your issues. Satan will come at you hard right out of the gate in order to stop you even before you’ve had a chance to get started. Paul reminded both Timothy and Titus about this in his letters. It will happen and you’ve got to be aware of it. The only protection you’ve got is prayer. James 5:16 says that “the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” So, find some prayer warriors to go into battle with you because “greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4).
In closing I want to mention the second half of the title for this article. ‘Who is the Timothy to your Paul?’ If you are a seasoned ministry leader, who are you bringing along to lead after you’ve gone? Moses had Joshua to lead the children of Israel into the Promised land. Eli the High Priest mentored Samuel. The prophet Elijah mentored Elisha to be his successor as prophet to the nation of Israel. Jesus had the 12 disciples to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. Don’t get so caught up in the daily struggles of ministry that you forget the future. Use the talents God has entrusted you with to multiply. Invest in the individuals whom God brings to you to grow and expand the ministry by teaching them the ropes and when the time comes delegating authority so that they can experience leadership while there is still someone there to guide them and answer their questions like Paul did.
(I presented this at the All-Faith Protestant Tuesday night bible study at Central Michigan Correctional Facility on March 1, 2016. The inmate leader of the church had previously called for others in the pews to step up and bring the word of God, so I did.)
The book of Jonah is found in the Old Testament near the back in a section referred to as the “Minor Prophets.” These books are called minor, not because they are unimportant, but rather because the ministry of the prophet was often of short duration and their impact on the nation of Israel was less than the major prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah or Ezekiel. Often little is known of the lives of the minor prophets, but their messages from God to the people of Israel and the surrounding countries warning of God’s coming judgment were both timely and true.
The book of Jonah is a little different. Jonah was a prophet to the northern kingdom around the time of Jeroboam II, who reigned 41 years from 793-753 B.C. Jonah is mentioned in 2 Kings 14:25 regarding a prophecy he spoke about the king recapturing territory, to restore the boundaries of the kingdom. But the book of Jonah does not contain this prophecy. In fact, it contains only one prophecy that is eight words long in the English translation, regarding the capital city of the country of Assyria.
The book of Jonah instead focuses on the prophet himself, and his response to God when he received his commission. Unlike most of the prophecies that God gave to the prophets to speak to foreign nations, God wanted Jonah to go and deliver it in person, rather than send a letter. Jonah who was already serving as a prophet, was now being called as a missionary. But Jonah, a man who had a relationship with God, who heard His voice and saw God work was now being asked to step outside his comfort zone. I believe that the book of Jonah is real, that all the miraculous events recorded in it really happened, even it they can’t readily be explained. And that many Christians today can relate to Jonah because they see themselves in this man of God who lived nearly 3000 years ago. What I would like to do is read to you the book, only 48 verses long, and along the way share with you my observations and insights about the Christian life from it. The book of Jonah isn’t about an ideal or perfect man that is setting up some impossible standard, instead it is about how God can use a man to do great things in spite of his imperfections, rebellion, and selfish desires. I’ll be reading from the NIV, beginning in chapter 1 verses 1 through 3:
“The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because it’s wickedness has come up before me.’
But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port.”
Nineveh was one of the ancient capitals first mentioned in Genesis 10:11. Later it became the capital of the Assyrian empire. Modern archaeology has confirmed how cruel and brutal the Assyrians were. Documents and paintings discovered in the ruins of Nineveh detail how one king would torture his victims by tearing off their lips and hands, and how another flayed captives alive and made great piles of their skulls. They were a war-like people set on conquest during the time of Jonah. They had warred against Israel during the reign of King Hoshea, capturing the country and deporting some of the people to Assyria and both Jehu and Jeroboam II paid tribute as vassal states.
So, Jonah was familiar with the Assyrians and when God called him to go to Nineveh, he did what many of us would have done. He went running in the other direction as fast as he could. Nineveh was about 500 miles northeast of Israel. But Jonah went to Joppa, the nearest seaport on the Mediterranean Sea with the intention of sailing to Tarshish, which was a trading outpost in Spain, about 2000 miles away.
How many when faced with what we believe to be a dangerous or unpleasant task have tried to get out of it? Jonah didn’t bother to argue with God like Moses did saying send someone else, or that he didn’t have the necessary language or skill set. Instead he tried to run from God. How many of us have tried to run from God? I know I have. There was a time in my life when I was afraid God was calling me to the mission field, so I ran the other way. I choose a secular profession, got married, and stayed busy. However, because of my disobedience to God, the spiritual power and fervor for the Lord diminished in my life. Picking up in verses 3 through 6:
“After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord.
Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to breakup. All the sailors were afraid, and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship.
But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep. The captain went to him and said, ‘How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us, and we will not perish.’”
Jonah thought he was through with God. In fleeing from God, he thought he could avoid his call as a missionary. But you can’t run from God. Psalms 139:7-10 says, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.” Jonah should have known this. I believed he panicked, his fight or flight reflex kicked in and he chose to flee. But it is a long walk to Joppa, and he would have had more than enough time to think it through. So, it became a deliberate act of disobedience to continue and buy his ticket, get on the boat and sail away.
Sounds familiar doesn’t it? Don’t we do the same thing? Sometimes we run, sometimes we get angry and dig in our heals on some subject that in the grand scheme of things is relatively minor, but we chose to make a big deal out of it, like it is the end of the world. Sometimes we slow down or cool off, think better of it, and do what God asks, and other times we keep on going, stubbornly refusing to obey.
But the story doesn’t end there, God wasn’t through with Jonah. God loves his children too much to leave them the way they are, in their disobedience and sin. Proverbs 3:11-12 says, “My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline and do not resent his rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.”God permits adversity to come into our lives to get our attention and call us back into obedience, to serve as a wake-up call. How many of you have experienced difficulties in life because of disobedience? Since we’re all here, we all have. How many of you have taken this experience as a wake-up call? I hope you all have. Moving on to verse 7 through 10:
“Then the sailors said to each other, ‘Come let us cast lots to find out who is responsible for this calamity.’ They cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah.
So, they asked him, ‘Tell us, who is responsible for making all this trouble for us? What do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?’
He answered, ‘I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land.’
This terrified them and they asked, ‘What have you done?’ (They knew he was running away from the Lord because he had already told them so.)”
Now this would have been an experienced captain and crew to be undertaking a long sea voyage and would have no doubt been familiar with the weather in the Mediterranean Sea. But this was a supernatural storm that God sent for Jonah’s benefit. The sailors did the routine storm survival activities; dropped the sail, let out the anchors, and lightened the load, but it obviously wasn’t enough. They were truly afraid for their lives.
It’s true what they say, ‘there are no atheists in fox holes.’ When faced with serious life and death situations men will call on their gods. They call on the gods they know, in the ways they know how. Sailors are not known to be a deeply religious bunch and the same was true 3000 years ago. Each man called on any god he knew from his childhood, in the hope that one of them would listen and save them. The method of determining the will of the gods was to cast lots, today we would roll the dice or draw straws.
How often do people seek to find someone else to blame for the problems they face? But a Christian needs to take responsibility. Jonah didn’t deny who he was. When confronted he didn’t do like Peter and deny Christ. In our lives, even when we have disobeyed God’s direction for our lives, do we acknowledge our relationship with God and the reason for the adversity we face? Picking up in verses 11 through 16:
“The sea was getting rougher and rougher. So, they asked him, ‘What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?’
‘Pick me up and throw me into the sea,’ he replied, ‘and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.’
Instead, the men did their best to row back to land. But they could not, for the sea grew even wilder than before. Then they cried to the Lord, ‘O Lord, please do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, O Lord, have done as you pleased.’ Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to Him.”
Rather than jump overboard and commit suicide Jonah had the sailors throw him overboard. Jonah knew the storm would calm and thereby save everyone else by his sacrifice. Christians will often sacrifice themselves to save others and this selfless act can bring glory to God. And verse 17 says:
“But the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights.”
G.K. Chesterton said, “the incredible thing about miracles is that they happen.” While Jonah may have thought it was the end, it was only the beginning of a second chance. The timing was perfect, God placed the great fish in the right place at the right time to rescue Jonah. It may be baseless speculation on my part, but I believe that if Jonah had not taken responsibility and acknowledged his disobedience, the story would have ended right here with Jonah drowning. Many people who have once served God have died unrepentant and unreconciled to Him because they didn’t accept the Lord’s discipline. Hebrews 12:11 says, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.”
In my own life I have learned that when I accept the Lord’s discipline, even during the storm I experience the peace that surpasses all understanding. His grace and mercy return and once again I can live life with power.
Note that each chapter in this short book represents a different scene with Jonah experiencing different situations which bring out different emotions, different aspects of his character and different spiritual conditions. This is the same thing that we as Christians experience in our own journey through life. Some situations bring out the best in us while others bring out the worst. We are works in progress, don’t think for a moment that we have reached perfection, but rather we are being perfected by God as He works in us and through us.
From the inside of the fish, Jonah prayed to the Lord God in Chapter 2 verses 1 through 9:
“’In my distress I called to the Lord and He answered me. From the depths of the grave I called for help and You listened to my cry. You hurled me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the currents swirled about me; all your waves and breakers swept over me. I said, ‘I have been banished from your sight, yet I will look again toward your holy temple. The engulfing waters threatened me, the deep surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head. To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in forever. But you brought my life up from the pit, O Lord my God. When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you Lord, and my prayer rose up to you, to your holy temple. Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs. But I, with a song of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. Salvation comes from the Lord.’”
The only thing recorded about the time Jonah spent in the belly of the great fish is a prayer. A prayer of Thanksgiving that sounds an awful lot like the Psalms that David prayed when he was in trouble and fearing for his life. Jonah acknowledged his situation, but rather than ask God to rescue him from the newest disaster he thanked God for saving him from the sea and renewed his commitment to serve God.
Going through trials is one of the best schools of prayer. When faced with dire need many Christians call on the Lord with truly profound prayers. Helplessness not hopelessness leads to complete dependence upon God. So don’t despair, state the facts of your condition and steadfastly cling to your faith in God and trust in Him by obediently submitting to His call and let God bring about the miracle because He can do more than we ask or even imagine. And verse 10 says:
“And the Lord commanded the fish and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.”
God is large and in charge! If He can tell a fish where to go, when to be there, and what to do then He can, in his perfect timing rescue you from your trouble and open the door and set you free, when we have fully submitted to Him. Scripture doesn’t tell us where the great fish dropped Jonah off along the cost. I have visions of a stunned Jonah standing there soaking wet on the beach probably smelling like dead fish, looking back out to sea searching for any sight of the great fish, then looking up to heaven for a sign. Can you imagine how really confused the first person that he meets would be when he asks them where he is, and Jonah then tries to explain what has happened to him?
Scripture also doesn’t say how much time if any passes between chapters 2 and 3. Continuing on in chapter 3 verses 1 and 2:
“Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time. ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I gave you.’”
Our God is the God of second chances. When we stumble and fall, we get back up by the grace of God. He doesn’t say, “My bad, I gave you more than you can handle. Let’s try something else.” No, he calls us back to service because he has faith in us. He will never give us more than we can bear. Moving on to verses 3 through 5:
“Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very important city- a visit required three days. On the first day, Jonah started into the city and he proclaimed, ‘Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.’ The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast and all of them from the greatest to the least put on sackcloth.”
Nineveh was a large city the walls of the ancient city were 7 3/4 miles around. The population was approximately 600,000 or more, and the greater metropolitan area was 30-60 miles across. The people of Assyria were a superstitious people who believed in magic and looked for signs and wonders to predict the future. Dagon was one of the ancient Assyrian gods who was part man and part fish. What better divinely sent messenger than a man who had been thrown up out of the mouth of a great fish? So, when this foreign prophet shows up with a message of disaster, the news spread like wildfire throughout the city. And the people believed.
Jonah didn’t have to set up a big tent and hold revival meetings every night for a month, with an alter call, singing endless verses of “I Surrender All.” He simply spoke to the people he encountered the message God gave him and God did the rest. Going on to verses 6 through 9:
“When the news reached the king of Nineveh he arose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. Then he issued a proclamation to Nineveh:
By decree of the king and his nobles: ‘Do not let any man or beast, herd or flock, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let every man and beast be covered in sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish?’”
The Assyrian king was also the chief priest of their religion, so when he called a fast it had the effect of being law. In the archaeological records of Persia there was recorded a funeral for a general in the army where all the horses were covered in sackcloth. Sackcloth was the way people showed that they were in mourning. Even today, in a military funeral for the president of the United States, the horses drawing the carriage with the casket will have a blanket covering their backs, which represents sackcloth.
So, when the king and people put on sackcloth, they were humbling themselves and acknowledging their condition. Notice that the king commanded the people to urgently call on God. Jonah told them exactly how long they had before God would destroy them. I imagine that on the second day of Jonah’s visit he would have said, “only 39 more days!” The clock was ticking. And the king and his people repented. Verse 10 says it all:
“When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.”
True repentance results in salvation. God’s word never returns empty. Isaiah 55:10-11 says, “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth. It will not return to me empty but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”All we must do is speak the words of the message God wants us to deliver and He will take care of the rest.
There was a period of over 100 years between Jonah’s time and that of Nahum who prophesied the destruction of Nineveh in 612 B.C. Conversion is always an individual decision and never inherited. While Jonah’s generation turned to the true God, that didn’t mean that their successors could not fall back into idolatry. Just look at the history of the Israelite kings.
Ending the story here would have a happy ending for all concerned, but there is still one more chapter to consider and the real point of the book. Chapter 4 verse 1 says:
“But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry.”
Even after all he had been through, seen the mighty miracles God performed to save his life, had experienced God’s grace and mercy for himself, Jonah got upset with God. Why? Because he lacked compassion and harbored bitterness in his heart. Remember the Assyrians had attacked Israel, dragged off some of the people as captives and imposed a tribute on the Israelite kings who would have raised the money to pay it by raising taxes, which made life difficult for the common man. Most people love to see their enemies get what they deserve. But God spared Nineveh because by heeding the warning, the city qualified for mercy. Continuing in verses 2 through 4:
“He prayed to the Lord, ‘O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I know that you are a gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in love; a God who relents from sending calamity. Now O, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.’
But the Lord replied, ‘Have you any right to be angry?’”
Have any of you ever prayed an angry prayer to God? When you compare this prayer to the prayer in chapter 2, you’d think it was a different person. What happened to the beautiful language? The humility? The reverence? The acceptance of God’s will? Instead there is self-justification, accusation, and demands that are clearly not within the will of God.
How could the prophet who had just been a part of one of the greatest revivals in history be so disappointed that he would rather die than live? How could Jonah fail to be happy? How many of us today try to justify themselves before God? We know the truth, but we just don’t get it. We argue with God, demanding our own way even when we know it is contrary to the will of God.
As with many of us today, Jonah lacked peace, because although he obeyed God, he was not wholly reconciled to the will of God. True Peace comes only from full submission to and acceptance of the will of God in everything. Nothing saps spiritual activity more effectively than hidden rebellion against the divine will.
Consider a parallel from the life of Elijah. After his tremendous victory over the priests of Baal on Mt. Carmel in 1 Kings 18, the great prophet ran away from Jezebel, the evil queen. In 1 Kings 19:4 he prayed to God to end his life. How can Elijah go from seeing the power of God work in such a miraculous way as to send down fire from heaven to consume a water logged sacrifice, and then being filled with the spirit of God, kill all the priests of Baal, to such despair over a death threat from the king’s wife that he tells God to take his life? To go from a spiritual high to a spiritual low in a matter of a few minutes. How does this happen? Because we are human.
As Christians we are not to let our emotions rule us. We are to take captive every thought and make it obedient to God. To walk by faith and not by sight. To crucify the flesh with its passions and desires. To put off the old man and put on the new man in true righteousness and holiness. We don’t have the right to be angry with God, we can’t presume to judge God and his motives. Isaiah 55:8-9 says, “’For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thought.’”
When God responded to Jonah it’s a lot like when he responded to Job in Job 40 when God asks, “Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him?” Job’s response in chapter 42:1-6 is the response that we as Christians should make. “Then Job replied to the Lord, ‘I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted. You ask ‘Who is this that observes my council without knowledge? Surely, I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you and you shall answer me. My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore, I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”
But what did Jonah do? Verses 5 through 8:
“Jonah went out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. Then the Lord provided a vine and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was happy about the vine. But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the vine so that it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die and said, ‘It would be better for me to die than to live.’”
Jonah was like many of us. He was stubborn and prideful and let his anger get the best of him. He pulled up a front row seat to watch the destruction of Nineveh. He pitched a tent on the east side of town, so he was facing west. He would have had morning shade, but full sun during the hottest part of the afternoon. You ever notice that when you’re angry you don’t make the best decisions? It’s like he’s throwing a temper tantrum trying to coerce a parent into doing what he wants. But God doesn’t give in to his demands, instead he provides Jonah with another teachable moment. He grew a plant to provide shade from the hot afternoon sun and it made Jonah incredibly happy. But then just as quickly God took the shade away and Jonah gets angry again. An emotional roller coaster and again tells God he just wants to die. First, because God didn’t destroy Nineveh, now because he lost his shade, just a downward spiral of emotions.
Compare this to how Job handled all the adversity that came into his life. In Job 1:21 Job said, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.” If anything, Job’s wife responded to adversity more like Jonah when she said in Job 2:9, “Are you still holding on to your integrity? Curse God and die!” And Job’s response was, “Shall we accept good from God and not trouble?” So which character are you? Are you a Job or a Jonah? Do you handle adversity well or are you an emotional basket case? I know which one we are called to be, God wants us to be men of integrity like Job.
Concluding chapter 4 verses 9 through 11:
“But God said to Jonah, ‘Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?’
‘I do’ he said. ‘I am angry enough to die.’
But the Lord said, ‘You have been concerned about the vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up over night and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than 120,000 people who can not tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Shall I not be concerned about that great city?’”
How many of you have received an unexpected blessing only to lose it shortly afterwards? Something that you got that you didn’t have to work for, but it was stolen or taken away? Did it make you mad to lose it? I bet it did. It didn’t cost you anything to get it, so why are you so upset? We grow attached to things very quickly don’t we? We value things that cost us nothing. God’s object lesson to Jonah is about what has more value from the kingdom perspective – the shade plant or the city with 120,000 children in it. Jonah walked through the city, he interacted with the inhabitants, he saw the repentance that took place. A repentance that far exceeded anything ever done in Israel, and yet he was unmoved.
In Luke 19:41 as Jesus was approaching Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, it says he wept over it. He had compassions for the people who were shouting “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord” and Jesus knew a week later they would be shouting “Crucify Him!” And yet Jesus was willing to die for them. Jesus knew his Father’s will and acknowledged it by saying “Thy will be done.” It wasn’t easy. The scene in the Garden of Gethsemane spoke of his anguish, his earnest prayer, how his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. Jesus was more than obedient to the Father’s will. He not only accepted it, he gave everything he had to see it carried out, and in the end said, “It is finished.”
That is what we are called to, nothing less, obedience is only the first step. Don’t be like Jonah who tried to avoid the call on his life and then only did his job grudgingly. We need to be men of integrity, accepting what the Lord gives us and completely surrendering to the will of God. Then you will have peace, then you will have power, then you will have wisdom and knowledge. Then you will hear “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”
We thank you for your Word, for the Truth that it contains. You have called us to be obedient and because of your love, grace, and mercy we want to be obedient. But as we’ve seen in the book of Jonah, that is not enough. We not only need to accept your will Father but work to see your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. To accomplish this, help us to surrender our foolish pride, our personal agendas, our right to retribution against our enemies, and instead have compassion, as our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ had compassion.
Forgive us Father, for our disobedience, help us to say “Yes Lord” the next time you call us into ministry. Through the power of the Holy Spirit lead us deeper into relationship with you, to trust you more, to not rely on our own understanding, but to walk by faith. We acknowledge the discipline you have sent into our lives we accept it and commit ourselves to learn from it and not despise it.
Lord, plant these lessons from the life of Jonah into our hearts and minds to encourage us to speak boldly the message you would have us speak, to get ourselves out of the way and praise you when it returns a harvest of righteousness and salvation.
With everything that is going on in the world now because of this novel corona virus pandemic and the widespread disruption to everyday life I don’t know where to begin. My thoughts and prayers are with you and the others incarcerated in jails and prisons in Michigan, America and around the world. The spread of infectious diseases in prison have been a fact of life since the very first prison. Conditions involving confinement with limited access to hygiene products, personal protective equipment and medical care never have a positive outcome. In modern America no one ever intended that being sentenced to incarceration for a finite time in prison would result in significant damage to health or loss of life. It was not included in your sentence guidelines; it is an unintended consequence that comes about due to negligence or willful behavior on the part of those tasked with the responsibility of overseeing corrections.
There is a strong prison reform movement all across the country seeking to rescind or revise the laws, policies and procedures in the criminal justice system that have led to mass incarcerations at the highest level of any country in the world. There have even been a few cases where reform minded prosecutors have been elected to office. With the advancement of the internet, information is widely available and easily disseminated to large numbers of people who are in the grass roots movement for change. The reason I am telling you this is to let you know that many people know of your dire situation. While you may be experiencing feelings of isolation, desperation, and fear; I want you to know many people are working tirelessly to address the current situation in order to stop further harm or loss of life to one of our most vulnerable segments of society.
In addition to CCP Ministries I am also working with Freedom Dreamers Chapel, a new ministry that is in the process of launching monthly worship services, small accountability groups, and mentors in a variety of life areas including: personal finance, job skills/placement, and addiction. While not specifically targeted at parolees, providing a judgement free place to help returning citizens to worship and fellowship is a priority. As you can imagine, with the quarantine and social distancing measures enacted across the country we have had to postpone our upcoming events. However, the current world-wide pandemic is only a temporary phenomenon, not the zombie apocalypse. We continue to plan for the future even if we don’t know exactly what the future will look like. I tell you this to say that you also need to look to the future by planning and taking measured steps forward.
One of the best scriptural analogies that I can think of is from Matthew 14:22-33. The disciples are in a boat traveling across the Sea of Galilee and a storm comes up. In the midst of the storm they see Jesus walking on the water. Peter calls out and says, “Lord, if that’s really you call me to get out of the boat and walk to you on the water.” Jesus does call him, and Peter gets out of the boat. “But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and began to sink.” Jesus rescues Peter and asks him a simple question, “Why did you doubt?” Then Jesus helps Peter get back into the boat and immediately the wind died down.
Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. After he dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone, and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it. Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear. But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.” “Come,” he said. Then Peter got down out of the boat and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!” Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?” And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. Then those who were in the boat worshiped him saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
Scripture says that Peter saw the wind. As I am sitting here writing this newsletter the wind has been gusting over 30 mph. I can see the tree branches sway and debris blowing across the ground. I hear the wind whistling thru the trees and causing the windows to shudder, but I don’t see the wind. On a body of water when the wind blows hard it pushes the surface of the water and creates waves. In a storm the waves can get whipped up and water can get blown off the top of the wave providing a visual indicator of wind direction and speed. I don’t believe that scripture is in error or that the translation is questionable. I think that Peter was so overwhelmed by his surroundings that his fear caused him to see things that weren’t there. After all Peter’s challenge to Jesus started with “if it is you” because the disciples thought they saw a ghost. When things really start to get crazy and your senses begin to get overwhelmed by all the information coming at you, it is possible for the mind to miss-assign information. This is known as Synesthesia and is a perceptual phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. The result could have been that Peter who was a fisherman by trade and used to being caught out on a lake during a storm was facing a situation where he was unable to process the information correctly in his mind.
In a similar fashion, you have plenty of experience with prison during “normal” times. Sure, a norovirus outbreak that results in a quarantine is bad, but a pandemic with an invisible killer like COVID-19 is not at all within your experience. The last major pandemic was the Spanish Influenza of 1918, and none of us is old enough to remember what that was like.
I really wish that Matthew had recorded Peter’s answer to Jesus’ question “Why did you doubt?” That is a million-dollar question and the answer would have been priceless. Why did Peter doubt? He was walking on water! A fisherman has a lot of experience when it comes to water, however no one in their wildest dreams would have thought it possible to walk on water, but he was doing it. He saw Jesus walking on water and then asked for an invitation to join him. I wonder if it is a bit like teaching your child to ride a bike. You hold the handlebar while they first learn to peddle, then when you think they are ready you let go and run along side of them. With your presence the child will continue to peddle and balance the bike, but when they sense you aren’t right beside them…into the ditch they go.
There are definitely times in my life when I feel I have the confidence of sensing the presence of the Holy Spirit to accomplish the task set before me and I go out and get it done. There are also times when I don’t have that confidence and the task looks like a burden too heavy to bear, so I shy away from even attempting it. The third situation is the one where I start out confident in the Holy Spirit’s presence, and at some point in the process, I feel like I am going it alone. I get really scared and begin to make a mess of things or freeze up and find myself unable to go forward. This is when I can most relate to Peter. I must cry out to Jesus to save me because I’m in over my head.
If you feel like you are in over your head, then I encourage you to cry out to Jesus. Notice that he didn’t calm the waves before helping Peter back into the boat. But Jesus saved Peter from drowning. So right now, offer up your prayer asking for help. Tell Jesus what you are afraid of, ask him to lift you up out of the water so you no longer feel like you are drowning. The storm may be raging around you, but you will be safe in the Savior’s arms. Seek his guidance to find your way back into the boat and trust Him to calm the storm.
You are not forgotten; I and many others are praying for your health and safety during these difficult times. The only advice I can give you is to wash your hands, keep your area of control clean, use a mask to protect your lungs if you can, and if at all possible stay away from anyone who is sick.
While I was incarcerated, I spent a lot of time in prayer. I studied prayers in the Bible and what scripture had to say about prayer. I read many books on prayer by both classic and contemporary authors. All for the purpose of understanding how to pray better. I was in a dark place and needed to learn how to prayer rightly. I needed to learn how to not just make my requests before God, but how to talk with Him.
In prison I memorized several hundred verses from Genesis to Revelations. As I power-walked around the track on the back forty I would recite the scriptures adding one upon another until I could speak scripture non-stop for over an hour. I would meditate upon the scripture to understand its meaning and application in my life. I often needed to pray about the scripture because it convicted me of my sinfulness, my failure to be obedient in this or that area of my life.
My Bible became a coloring book as I underlined and highlighted verse after verse. Re-reading scripture gave me new insight and understanding as I connected more and more scriptures together. I wore out several Bibles in the 8 years I was behind bars, but the tattered and worn pages spoke volumes about how I spent my time. In a place where Satan rules God reigned over me. My time in prison wasn’t a cake walk and it certainly had its moments of pain and heartache. Even though I walked through the shadow of the valley of death on a few occasions, God was with me and in me. His Word comforted me, encouraged me, guided me and sustained me.
Every year I read the entire Bible through from cover to cover. I read different translations like the NKJ, NIV, RSV, The Message and several others. Each time I would learn something new as I gained deeper understand about the text I was studying. Even though the translations might use different words to say the same thing, each one I read helped to bring out a more complete understanding of scripture then I had before. I filled journals with notes on my studies of the Word, the commentaries, and the libraries of Christian books that I consumed.
All my education, my enlightenment, my revelations led me to one over-riding conclusion: the Christian faith is about a personal relationship with God Almighty. The only way to have a relationship is to communicate and the only way to communicate is to talk. But what do you say to the one who knows you better than you know yourself? If you do have something to say, how do you say it? What is the right way to talk to God? While I can write well enough, I do not consider myself a public speaker by any stretch of the imagination. I had no idea, so I turned to what other’s had to say in order to figure it out.
There is the model of the Lord’s Prayer that Jesus taught his disciples. There is the Book of Psalms, the original prayer book. There are acrostics like ACTS; Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication that organize prayers. There are the traditional prayers of the Daily Office, some of which date back hundreds or even thousands of years. There are simple popcorn prayers that are spontaneous, short, and to the point. There are earnest cries for help when all hope is gone, and words fail us. There are songs of praise and worship that are prayers set to music.
The Bible is full of examples of both right and wrong ways to pray. Abraham, Moses, King David, King Solomon, Jabez, Job, Elijah, Peter, Paul, and Cornelius to name a few prayed in a way that was pleasing to God. All saw God working in their lives as a result of their prayers. Cain, Nadab and Abihu, King Saul, the Pharisees didn’t pray in an acceptable way and it had disastrous consequences.
One of the most important concepts that I learned was the power of praying scripture. When we speak to God using his own words in the correct context there is power. The power of praise, especially in the midst of battle. The power of repentance in the face of sin. The power of Truth in a world of lies. The power of forgiveness instead of retribution. The power of God’s unmerited grace and mercy to redeem lives. The power of hope in the face of overwhelming odds. The power of certainty in a chaotic situation.
Praying scripture fills us with the Holy Spirit so that we can have the power of love in response to hate. The power of joy in a time of sorrow. The power of peace in the middle of the storm. The power of patience in a moment of haste. The power of kindness in a cruel world. The power of goodness in a heartless situation. The power of faithfulness in a faithless generation. The power of gentleness in a brutal environment. The power of self-control in an impulsive society.
Praying scripture gives us the power to change lives, especially our own. The power to defeat the devil, because he can’t stand against God’s word. The power to heal physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. The power to alter the future through divine intervention in the lives and situations of man and nature. The power to forgive, including ourselves. The power to overcome fear, doubt, and the lies that have been spoken at us by others. The power to grow deeper and stronger in our faith. The power to influence others for good. The power to overcome addiction when all other methods have failed. The power to obey God in opposition of man. The power to save the lost.
Praying scripture brought the Word to life in me. Praying scripture taught me the ways of the ancient church. Praying scripture connected me with millions of other people around the world. Praying scripture awoke in me a desire to learn more scripture. Praying scripture changed my way of thinking. Praying scripture set my mind on things above. Praying scripture gave me the answers to life’s questions. Praying scripture taught me whose I am.
Praying scripture is poetry in motion. Praying scripture is faith in action. Praying scripture allows no room for self. Praying scripture leaves our souls bare before the Almighty. Praying scripture is claiming the promises of God. Praying scripture is a child speaking to his Father. Praying scripture is humble obedience to our Creator. Praying scripture is the most honest thing we can say to God.
Dear Heavenly Father,
Create in me a clean heart and renew a right spirit in me. Cast me not away from your presence, take not your Holy Spirit from me, restore to me the joy of my Salvation and grant me a willing spirit to sustain me.
You have told me through your word to pick up my cross and follow you daily, to crucify my flesh with its passions and desires, to flee youthful lusts and sexual immorality. To put off the old man that grows corrupt and put on the new man made by God in true righteousness and holiness.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart the acceptable in your sight. You have called me to walk by faith and not by sight. To forget what is behind and press on toward the goal that you have called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
Lord I submit to you, resist the devil, draw near to you and humble myself before you. You are the potter and I am the clay I cannot tell you what to make me into. However, I would humbly ask that you would make me into a vessel fit for your service whether of noble or common use.
Surround me with your angels. Put a strong hedge of protection around me. Shelter me in the shadow of your wings. Protect me from spiritual attack. Protect me physically. Guard my character and my reputation.
May your love and faithfulness never leave me that I will have favor and goodwill with both God and man.
Spirit of the living God fall fresh on me. I thank you for your unconditional love and generosity. For providing for me according to your riches and glory. I knowledge that all I have comes from you. You have blessed me beyond what I could have ever asked for or even imagined. Thank you! Now to him who is able to keep me safe until the day of Christ’s return, I ask this in the name of Jesus Christ.
I have included an example of one of my scripture prayers that became like breathing for me. I would not just recite my prayers, but rather let my prayers ascend to heaven as an incense offering filling the air like a sweet perfume. Sometimes spoken out loud, other times whispered in my heart but always with the space for God to respond with his still, small voice. I have observed that we often are in such a rush to pray to the extent that we don’t allow God to get a word in edgewise. How can we have a conversation if we don’t take time to listen?
For me prayer has become a special time that I cherish and savor. Like a fine meal, each course brings its own sensation, its own unique flavor and when I’m done, I know that I have been in the presence of Almighty God. He satisfies my hunger and thirst. He gives me more than I dare to ask for. He fills me with anticipation for the next time. His infinite variety means that it never gets old, stale or routine. It is always a balanced meal in which I receive exactly what I need at the time I need it.
Even though I had the support of my family, a prison church fellowship, and a few men I would dare call friends it was prayer that got me through my time. Despite the overcrowded conditions of the housing unit, most inmates experience a deep sense of isolation and loneliness. While the drone of everyday life there made it difficult to sleep and hard to concentrate at times, I was assured that God heard my prayers and that his abiding presence would never leave me nor forsake me. He was closer than a brother and always just a heartbeat away. I trusted Him with my life, I still trust Him, and I will always trust Him because He is faithful.
There is an analogy that compares the Christian life to the formation of diamonds, where a lump of coal undergoes a transformation by exposure to tremendous heat and pressure. But as Paul Harvey used to say, “and now for the rest of the story.”
Where does coal come from originally? Coal is the remains of organic organisms, both plant and animal that have died and been buried. To become a Christian our old natures must die and be buried. (Romans 6:4)
That organic material decomposes, losing its original shape and structure. But not all coal becomes diamonds. It takes a special set of circumstances for coal to be exposed to the right combination of heat and pressure for the diamond to form. Likewise, the Christian having put off the old man must now put on the new man made in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:24) God uses the circumstances and situations that we go through in life to make us into a new creation. (Romans 8:28)
For a diamond to form, the impurities must be eliminated from the carbon. Then the carbon itself must undergo a transformation where the atoms themselves must be aligned into a specific crystalline structure. The Holy Spirit working in our lives purifies us from sin, sanctifying us. (Hebrews 9:13-14) As our thought processes and actions become aligned with the Word of God, we become humble, selfless, and ready to listen for the still small voice of God. (Colossians 3:12-17)
But this isn’t the end of the process, only the beginning. The diamond is now trapped in the rock deep underground and isn’t in any position to do anything. It takes a seismic upheaval to bring the diamond to the surface. This upheaval can either be a natural or man-made event. In either case the diamond must be separated from the rock before it can be collected. In obedience to the will of God the Christian must be separated from the world. We must leave behind anything that could come before God. (Matthew 8:18-22)
Diamonds in the rough are not all that attractive and have little value. Only when the rough diamond is examined by a master jeweler, who can see its potential and can chip away the rough edges to reveal the beauty that lies within, will the diamond take on value. In Jeremiah 18 God directs the prophet to go to the potter’s house to receive his message. There Jeremiah watched as the potter took a lump of clay and with skillful hands formed it into a useful pot. God then proceeds to compare himself with the potter and the clay to the nations and individuals whom God can shape as he sees fit. In several different verses the prophet Isaiah also cautioned that it is the potter who decides, the clay has no choice in the matter. (Isaiah 24:16, 45:0, 64:8) The diamond also has no say in what will become of it. God sees our potential when no one else does. (Psalms 139:13-16) He knows his plan for us, to prosper us not to harm us, to give us hope and a future. (Jerimiah 29:11) We just need to submit in obedience to his will for our life. (1 Samuel 15:22-23)
Diamonds are one of the hardest substances on earth. Only a diamond can cut another diamond. Diamonds are very useful both as jewelry and in industrial applications, so nothing goes to waste. Every chip that is removed will be used in some fashion. Proverbs 27:17 says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” God uses other Christians that are serving the purpose that he created for them to shape us. Nothing that happens in a Christian’s life goes to waste. Romans 8:28 says, “all things work to the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose.”
Flawless diamonds are of greater worth than flawed diamonds, which may contain impurities or imperfections in their structure. Flawless diamonds refract light in a beautiful rainbow of color. Flawed diamonds may crack under pressure. They may look good at a distance, but they don’t stand up to scrutiny or hard use. Christians may also be flawless or flawed. Christians that most clearly let the light of God shine through them can be used by God for great effect. (Matthew 5:16) Flawed Christians have little value because they can’t be trusted in difficult situations. (1 Corinthians 3:1-4) A jeweler will often break a diamond down into small pieces in order to remove the flaw. Likewise, God will continue to refine an imperfect Christian until he becomes flawless. (Romans 5:1-5)
Diamonds are measured in carats; large diamonds are much rarer than small diamonds. Large diamonds will become the center piece of a royal treasure, while small diamonds find life as a wedding ring and even smaller diamonds become accent pieces. God has called some Christians to do great things before the rich and powerful of this world, while he has called others to serve the common man. But each of us has a place assigned to him by God, that will bring glory to God. (Ephesians 4:11-12)
Diamonds often become family heirlooms passed down from generation to generation, increasing in both monetary and sentimental value over time. God is shaping us not just for use in this life but in the eternity to come. (1 John 2:24-25) Christians can also pass on a legacy of faith and service to their spiritual children, those who come to faith in Christ because of their obedience and testimony. (Galatians 4:19)
No analogy is perfect when you carry it out to the nth degree, but the comparison of the Christian and a diamond holds together pretty well. 2 Corinthians 4:7-11 says:
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body.”
2 Corinthians 4:7-11
As Paul Harvey said in conclusion of his radio broadcast, “And now you know the rest of the story.”
While I was in prison, I had time to read, study, and meditate on scripture. Articles like this one came from those times of quiet reflection on God’s Word and from discussions with my brothers in Christ. For my brothers and I, prison was a time of significant growth in our walk with Christ. We were in the fiery furnace and the impurities of our former lives were being burned away. God was working in each of us and using each of us to support, encourage and challenge one another to grow stronger and deeper in our spiritual journey.
My time in prison was by far the most productive time as a writer that I have ever experienced in my life. Not because I had lots of time on my hand, but because I was in tune with the Holy Spirit. God had my undivided attention and was able to work through me. For many, prison is a waste of time because they fail to learn anything from the experience. I have learned a great deal from my prison experience and tried to share it with the readers of this blog. I have written about my experience in prison in The Warehouse of Lost Souls and I would encourage you check out those older postings.
(A Tuesday night Bible study meditation that I did not get a chance to present while I was in prison)
For the majority of my life I failed to distinguish between discipline and punishment. This may in part have been due to my upbringing. Not that I suffered from abusive treatment, but rather the lack of guidance from parents more focused on careers than their children’s lives. Not long ago I was out jogging on a track and noticed the dedicated athletes exercising around me. In my Bible reading that morning I had read Proverbs 3:11. “My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline and do not resent his rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.”
As I was moving around the track and meditating on this verse God spoke to my heart. He said, “You see all these people around you exercising? Are they being punished or are they training their bodies?” Discipline is training. While you are out on the track, huffing and puffing, sweating and straining, it is not pleasant. However, later after you have recovered, you are stronger and feel so much better.
Athletes understand discipline. Football players study the playbook, eat at the training table and the coach has them run drills until their technique is perfect. Sports physiologists speak of muscle memory, training the body until the response becomes automatic not requiring conscious control by the mind. When a player fails to execute a play properly the coach may have the player out running wind sprints after practice, or during the game may bench him. Odds are the player will not make the same mistake again. The coach has his undivided attention and in the future the player will perform as he was trained to do.
Dieters understand discipline too, when they choose the apple for desert instead of the giant piece of chocolate fudge triple layer cake. The reward is a swimsuit body.
Parents usually do not require their children to make their beds or pick up their clothes as a form of punishment. They are seeking to instill discipline. Punishment is reserved for willful disobedience- when you know the right thing to do and do not do it and choose to do the thing you know is wrong instead.
Proverbs 22:6 says, “Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old, he will not turn from it.” Discipline instructs, while punishment corrects. Both are necessary however they serve very different functions.
For the Christian, God’s discipline brings the body, mind, emotions and spirit under the control of the Lord Jesus Christ. When we are born again, we are infants in Christ and must grow in our faith. As children we must be educated and trained. In Hebrews 12:11 it says that, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.”
Discipline results in wisdom. Our Heavenly Father loves us and like a concerned parent wants the best for us. He loves us too much to leave us the way we are. He knows that in our fallen nature when left to our own devices, nothing good happens. As willful creatures we often think, in our limited understanding, that we know best. But God in his infinite love and wisdom patiently instructs us.
Punishment is the result of foolishness, which is defined as moral corruption in the Old Testament. Proverbs 22:15 says, “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child, the rod of correction will drive it from him.” You do not punish a baby because it has never been trained to know right from wrong. However, after a child has been trained it is appropriate to punish them for disobedience. Punishment servers as a reminder of the consequences for misbehavior and is intended to reinforce training.
When punishment is not timely or linked to a specific deed then it does not have the intended effect. Proverbs 13:24 says, “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him promptly.” Good parent know that you should not punish your children in anger and that it must be appropriate and proportional to the offense. A parent takes no pleasure in meeting out punishment. It should be a true statement when they say, ‘this hurts me more than it does you.’
Parents punish out of love because they care about us and our behavior. Proverbs 23:13-14 says, “Do not withhold correction from a child, for if you beat him with a rod, he will not die. You shall beat him with a rod and deliver his soul from hell.” Corporal punishment is not intended to inflict damage to the body, rather is uses pain as a tool that will serve as a reminder to discourage future bad behavior.
It is important that the child understand the reason for the punishment and that while the parent loves the child, it is the behavior that is unacceptable. It is no different with our Heavenly Father. Hebrews 12:7-11 goes straight to the heart of the matter.
“Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us, and we respect them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! Or fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness.”
Discipline and punishment are like the two sides of a coin. You cannot have one without the other. Discipline provides the context within which punishment may be used.
And finally, discipline and punishment must be consistent. Ephesians 6:4 says, “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” Nothing is more frustrating than failing to grasp the rhyme and reason for what you are going through. As human beings we have a strong desire to know the answers to the question: Who? What? Where? When? How? and Why? For older children it is possible to reason with them. Answering their question will help, but there is also an element of trust. Proverbs 3:5-6 says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.” God has a plan for our lives, and we must be obedient and trust Him. Jeremiah 29:11 says, “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, to give you hope and a future.”
The Lord spoke to me a second time and gave me the key to understanding discipline.
“You exercise to discipline your body. You study the Word of God to discipline your soul (mind and emotions). You pray to discipline your spirit. You meditate to unite the three.”
Spiritual discipline is the key to the Christian life. In John 10:10 Jesus said that the reason that he came was so that we could experience a more abundant life. The way we experience this abundant life is through Prayer, Fasting, Reading and Studying the Word, and Meditating on it.
The Apostle Paul compared spiritual discipline to a race in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27.
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, be we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore, I do not run like a man running aimlessly, I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”
Which brings me back full circle to my jogging on a track. I choose to exercise because I know it is good for me. It burns calories, helps me control my blood sugar, lowers my blood pressure, strengthens my heart and reduces stress, all of which improves my quality of life. Likewise, I chose spiritual discipline because I want the abundant life that Jesus promised. To accomplish this I must live intentionally every day, submitting myself in obedience, accepting the Lord’s discipline and His punishment for my disobedience.
(Adapted from apresentation that I gave at a Protestant All-faith Tuesday night Bible study in March 2015)
For those of you who don’t know me my name is Tim. In the world I called myself a Christian, but since I came to prison, I’ve learned what it means to be called as a Christian, to be a disciple of Christ. Tonight, I want to speak to you about one of the things I’ve learned.
As Christians we are called to be a blessing.
Psalms 103:1-5 is a Psalm of King David where he describes God’s blessings.
1 Praise the Lord, my soul;
all my inmost being, praise his holy name. 2 Praise the Lord, my soul,
and forget not all his benefits— 3 who forgives all your sins
and heals all your diseases, 4 who redeems your life from the pit
and crowns you with love and compassion, 5 who satisfies your desires with good things
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
Verse one in the King James says, “Bless the Lord.” In the Hebrew there are several different words for bless. When we bless God that means we praise Him, kneeling in humble adoration. Praise is our response for what God has done for us. Verse two through five go on to describe how God blesses us.
Forgiveness of sin
Healing from sickness
Redemption from a life of destruction
What are the conditions under which we are blessed? In Deuteronomy 28:1-2 Moses says, “If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. All these blessings will come upon you and accompany you if you obey the Lord your God.” And then Moses goes on to list the blessings. You see, under the Old Covenant God blessed man in response to obedience in keeping the law. But we aren’t under the Old Covenant, we are under the New Covenant. Hebrews chapters 8-10 describe the differences between the old and new covenants. I would encourage everyone to take the time to read them.
Hebrews 9:14 says, “How much more then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God. Cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!” Under the New Covenant obedience is our response to blessing not the means of obtaining it.
I hear the phrase “Bless you brother” all the time. What does this really mean? According to Jewish understanding a blessing between people is something promoting or contributing to the happiness, well-being or prosperity of another. Not just wishing somebody well, but more like a prayer on their behalf. It is a sacred promise, an obligation you are committing yourself to aid that person.
1 John 3:16-18 says, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person. Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” I believe that Christian love and blessings are related. Love is the motivation and blessings are the works.
James 2:14-17 says, “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes or daily food. If one of you says to him. “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” No empty words or worthless platitudes, but actions from the heart. God never gives his blessings to us simply to be hoarded. He gives his blessings to us so we can share them. So how many of you have truly blessed someone else today?
I want to take this a step further. Matthew 10:5-8 says, “These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel. As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.”
“Freely you have received; freely give.” Besides looking out for our brothers in Christ what is the #1 thing we as Christians are supposed to do? As we just read Jesus empowered the 12 disciples and sent them on a missionary trip to preach the gospel, heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who had leprosy and drive out demons. Christ does the same for us today, empowering us for service, so we can bless others the way we ourselves were blessed.
So how can we do this?
Preach the gospel– St. Francis of Assisi said, “Wherever you go preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words.” When the opportunity arises, all we have to do it tell others what God has done for us. Remember Psalms 103, we all have a testimony.
Heal the sick– When someone asks you for an aspirin give it to them and pray for them. We know what James 5:13-16 says about the prayers of a righteous man.
Raise the dead– We are surrounded by the walking dead. People who are dead on the inside. They are spiritually dead with seared consciences, who need life breathed back into them. God told the prophet in Ezekiel 37 to prophesy to the dry bones and so should we.
Cleanse the leapers– Modern day leapers are the social pariahs, outcasts from society. In prison these are the outcasts of the outcasts. We know who they are. Lonely, friendless people who need to see a smiling friendly face and hear words of encouragement.
Drive out demons– Demons are things that keep people from knowing peace. Alcohol and drug addicts and those with mental disorders have demons. We need to be their support group.
The lost, sick, dead, leapers, and demon possessed surround us and we choose to interact with them or avoid them on a daily basis. It takes a conscious effort on our part to not shy away, but rather to bless those who are most in need of our blessing.
I encourage you to bless someone today and every day.
Give a kind word to those who are lonely or discouraged.
Perform simple acts of kindness such as holding the door for the guy with the cane or in a wheelchair.
If you’re not going to eat a meal, give it to someone who is hungry.
Count the cost for befriending the social outcast.
Then those who are around us will know that we are Christians by our love. Actions speak louder than words. Love them until they ask why. Paul told the Ephesians in Acts 2:35, “In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”
John Wesley, the 18th century evangelist said:
Who has tried to do good and been taken advantage of?
Who has tried to do good to someone who was ungrateful?
Who has tried to do good and had it rebuffed?
1 Peter 3:8-9,14 says, “Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.” “But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. ‘Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.’”
We need to value the welfare of others more highly than our own self-interest.
Give without expectation of return or reciprocation.
Give because it is the right thing to do.
Compassion is one of the blessings we received listed in Psalms 103. According to Webster, “compassion is the deep awareness of the suffering of others, coupled with the wish to relieve it.” I’m not talking about sympathy, and compassion is more than empathy. God through Christ has given us the means, but until we have compassion for those around us, we won’t be able to win this prison compound for Christ. So, who are you blessing? Just your Christian brothers? Close associates? The lost and truly needy?
I would like to close with a prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi:
(A word of encouragement presented at an All-faith Protestant service in August 2016)
“I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth. And in Jesus Christ, His only begotten Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried; He descended into hell; the third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven. And sitteth at the at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit; the holy Christian church, the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen”
How many of you recognize these words as the Apostles’ Creed? This is a statement of the main Christian beliefs whose earliest versions can be traced back to the A.D. 100’s. It is likely that the creed grew out of the life of the church. It was probably derived from an earlier creed, which was a baptismal confession.
Rich Mullins, the Christian singer/songwriter once said about the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe what I believe. It’s what makes me who I am. I did not make it. No, it is making me. It is the very truth of God and not the invention of any man.” He was echoing the words of the Apostle Paul recorded in Galatians 1:11-12. “But I make known to you, brothers, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
The Creed touches on the central issues of the Christian faith, but there is much it passes over. It says nothing about Satan, angles, demons, predestination, baptism, church government, or the details of Christ’s future Second Coming. It gives us the big picture of what Christians believe. We may believe more than what the Creed says, be we don’t believe less than that.
At its heart, the church is a community of believers who are joined by their shared faith in Jesus Christ. That’s why the church for 2000 years has affirmed the Apostles’ Creed. It expresses our common faith in Christ.
Dorothy L. Sayers in her essay ‘Creed or Chaos’ wrote in the 1930’s that “the Creed – that precisely formulated and clearly defined set of Christian beliefs – is our only defense against chaos.” The Creed reminds us that Christianity has a doctrinal basis. Although we talk a lot about a personal relationship with Jesus, that more than a feeling or personal experience. It’s a relationship based on the truth revealed in the Bible.
In this room we represent a wide range of denominational backgrounds: Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Mennonites, Pentecostals, Evangelicals, Adventists and Fundamentalists. A real all-faith worship service. We come together in Christian unity where we focus on what we have in common rather than what makes us different, an Ecumenical Movement. Psalms 133:1 says, “How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity.” And verse 3 goes on, “for there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life forevermore.”
The oneness of the church is the basis for true Christian unity. Paul explains the basis of our unity in Christ by using the word “one” seven times in Ephesians 4:4-6. “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.”
When Jesus prayed in John 17:21 that “they may be one,” he was asking the Father to help believers demonstrate on earth the perfect unity that exists in heaven between the Father and the Son. We are never told to create unity; God has already done that in Christ. We come together from different backgrounds, different levels of education, different places in our spiritual walks; we bring with us different preferences in worship style and different understanding of the spiritual gifts. But we are all members of one body with Christ as the head. And as a result, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
“For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many are one body, so also in Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free – and have all been made to drink into one Spirit. For in fact the body is not one member but many. If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not the hand I am not of the body,’ is it therefore not of the body? If the whole were hearing, where would be the smelling? But now God has set the members, each one of them, in the body just as he pleased. And if they were all one member, where would the body be? But now indeed there are many members, yet one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you.’ Nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ No, much rather, those members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary. And those members of the body which we think to be less honorable, on these we bestow greater honor; and our unpresentable parts have greater modesty, but our presentable parts have no need. But God composed the body having given greater honor to that part which lacks it, that there should be no schism in the body, but rather that the members should have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it, or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.”
-1 Corinthians 12:12-26
According to C.S. Lewis, “We as Christians are not called to individualism but to membership in the mystical body. By ‘members’ St. Paul meant what in the Greek are called ‘organs’ – things essentially different from and yet complementary to one another. In modern usage, such as in logic, you find the expression ‘members of a class’ where the items or particulars are homogenous. We would call members of a club merely units. A row of identically dressed and identically trained soldiers set side-by-side. So, when we describe a man as a ‘member of a church’ we usually mean something different from the Apostle Paul. How true membership in a body differs from inclusion in a collective may be seen in the structure of a family. The grandfather, the parents, the grown-up son, the child, the dog and the cat are true members precisely because they are not members or units of a homogenous class. They are not interchangeable. If you subtract any one member, you have not simply reduced the family in number you have inflicted an injury on its structure. Its unity is a unity of unlikes.”
We come together with our rich diversity of religious backgrounds to form something that is both unique and organic in nature. That’s why no two prison chapels are the same and why if you are here long enough, you’ll see changes in the style of our worship. For example, forms of music come from the gifted musicians and singers. These are not permanent groups but simply the amalgamation of the individuals presently participating. We are blessed to have who we have and should rejoice that they are willing to share their gifts with us. It may not be your personal preference for worship style, but it gives glory to God and lifts the spirits of others in the group. There is no place for criticism simply because that is not how you worshipped at your home church. If you want a say in the worship style, get involved with the worship team. Then we will all be able to benefit from your background and perspective.
The volunteers who bring us a message come to us from a number of different denominational and non-denominational churches and sometimes they speak on areas of belief that are outside of the Apostles’ Creed and that’s okay. In order to grow we need to progress from spiritual milk to meat and meat requires chewing. Bring your Bible, pen, and paper. Take notes. Take them home and study them carefully. You may not agree with everything you hear in the service but don’t discount everything a speaker has to say. It may be a matter of understanding the translation utilized, scriptural context, and/or theological perspective. We only grow stronger when we exercise our muscles and the same is true of our Christian walk. The Bible contains no inconsistences, no errors, but it is full of mysteries that can not be fully understood from our finite human perspective.
The word of God is Truth that towers over our personal experience and stands in judgment over our personal opinions. So, let the Holy Spirit be your guide. The Bible is full of statements on the importance of and power in reading, studying, memorizing and meditating on the scripture:
“I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.” -Psalms 119:11
“Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.” -Psalms 119:105
“For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of thoughts and intents of the heart.” -Hebrews 4:12
“All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” -2 Timothy 3:16
“Be diligent to present yourself approved of God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” -2 Timothy 2:15
“We also have the word of the prophets as confirmed beyond doubt. And you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” -2 Peter 1:19
After all this you may still not agree with everything you hear. However, Paul warns in Titus 3:9, “Avoid foolish disputes, genealogies, contentions, and strivings about the law, for they are unprofitable and useless.” Just let it go. It’s not good for us to be arguing amongst ourselves over a theological point. One day it will be revealed. Better minds than ours have wrestled with some points of Scripture from the time they were first written down without reaching consensus on the exact meaning. It is just a trick of the devil to separate us. We should simply agree to disagree and then move on without diminishing our love or respect for one another.
Don’t forsake the fellowship of the body even when it rubs you the wrong way. We must look past the messenger to receive the message God has for us. A mature person should be able to do this. Rick Warren in his book “The Purpose Driven Life” says that we must passionately love the church in spite of its imperfections. Longing for the ideal while criticizing the real is evidence of immaturity. On the other hand. Settling for the real without striving for the ideal is complacency. Maturity is living with the tension.
Other believers will disappoint you and let you down, but that’s no excuse to stop fellowshipping with them. They are your family, even when they don’t act like it, and you can’t walk out on them. Instead Paul tells us in Ephesians 4:2, “Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love.” Not only should we remain in fellowship for the sake of our brothers, but also remember that the world is watching.
“They’ll Know We Are Christians” (also known as “They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love” or “We Are One in the Spirit”) is a Christian hymn written in the 1960s by Fr. Peter Scholtes. It was inspired by John 13:35, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” The title of the hymn originates in a phrase that non-believers used to describe Christians believers of early Church: “Behold, how they love one another.”
People become disillusioned with the church for many understandable reasons. The list could be quit long: conflict, hurt, hypocrisy, neglect, pettiness, legalism, and other sins. Rather than being shocked and surprised, we must remember that the church is made up of real sinners, including ourselves. Because we are sinners, we hurt each other, sometimes intentionally and sometimes unintentionally. But instead of leaving the church, we need to stay and work it out, if at all possible. Reconciliation, not running away, is the road to stronger character and deeper fellowship.
Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book “Life Together” had a lot to say about how we should live together in Christian community. I would like to bring out a few points from the book that are especially true for us here in prison.
First, we should not take for granted the privilege we have of openly living among other Christians. Visible fellowship is a blessing that not all of our brothers and sisters around the world get to enjoy. The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer.
Second, we need to recognize that as Christians we need our brothers when we become uncertain and discouraged to speak God’s word into us to provide certainty and courage. God puts the word into the mouths of men in order that it may be communicated to other men.
Third, our community with one another consists solely in what Christ has done for us. The more genuine and the deeper our community becomes, the more will everything else between us recede, the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing that is vital between us.
Forth, we must realize that in a Christian community each individual is an indispensable link in the chain. Not only do the weak need the strong, but also the strong cannot exist without the weak. As a body we are only as strong as our weakest members. Therefore, we must do all that we can to strengthen all our members. Romans 15:1-2 says, “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not please ourselves. Each of us should please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.”
Christian community involves service to one another and that starts with listening to one another. Listening is by far a greater service than speaking. Once we begin listening only then can we be truly helpful in performing service. The greatest service we can perform is to bear one another’s burdens.
Fifth, Christian community requires forgiveness. We must forgive one another on a daily basis, and it occurs without words as we pray in intercession for one another. C.S. Lewis once said that “to believe in the forgiveness of sin is not so easy as I thought. Real belief in it is the sort of thing that very easily slips away if we don’t keep polishing up on it.”
And finally, in the Christian community thankfulness is just what it is anywhere else in the Christian life. Only he who gives thanks for little things receives the big things. We prevent God from giving us the great spiritual gifts He has in store for us, because we do not give thanks for daily gifts. We think we dare not be satisfied with the small measure of spiritual knowledge, experience and love that has been given to us, and that we must constantly be looking forward eagerly for the highest good. Then we deplore the fact that we lack the deep certainty, the strong faith, and the rich experience that God has given to others, and we consider this lament to be pious. We pray for the big things and forget to give thanks for the ordinary small gifts. How can God entrust great things to one who will not thankfully receive from Him the little things?
If we do not give thanks daily for the Christian fellowship in which we have been placed, even where there is no great experience, no discoverable riches, but much weakness, small faith, and difficulty; if on the contrary, we only keep complaining to God that everything is so paltry and petty, so far from what we expected, then we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow according to the measures and riches which are there for us all in Christ Jesus.
Christian community is like the Christian’s sanctification. It is a gift of God which we cannot claim. Only God knows the real state of our fellowship, of our sanctification. What may appear weak and trifling to us may be great and glorious to God. Just as a Christian should not be constantly feeling his spiritual pulse, so too, the Christian community has not been given to us by God for us to be constantly taking its temperature. The more thankfully we daily receive what is given to us, the more surely and steadily will fellowship increase and grow from day to day as God pleases.
(A word of encouragement presented at aProtestantAll-Faith Church service in October 2015)
In the October 16th 2015 Daily Bread devotional written by Lawrence Darmani, the key verse for the devotional was Matthew 6:20 NKJV, “Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.” I’ve probably read that verse a hundred times and understand that earthly treasures and heavenly treasures are not the same. But at the end of the devotional were two thought provoking questions that stopped me dead in my tracks. The first question was, “In what ways are you storing up your treasures in heaven?” and second, “How might you change and grow in this area of your life?”
After thinking for a few minutes, the answer to the first question seemed obvious. I would like to think that every time I:
Pick up my cross, crucify my flesh and deny myself;
Love my family, neighbors, and enemies as I love myself;
Visit the sick, orphans, widows, and prisoners;
Bless my family, friends, strangers, and those who curse me;
Give my time, talents and gifts to benefit others;
Give out of my riches and my poverty – tithes, freewill offerings, and monetary gifts without conditions;
Serve others by giving a cup of water, washing their feet, and seating them in a place of honor ahead of myself;
Humble myself, turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile, give both my cloak and tunic;
Walk by faith and not by sight;
Pray, praise, and give thanks to God, and;
Trust and obey rather than having to ask forgiveness, I was storing up treasures in heaven.
I thought that every self-sacrifice I made, every good deed I did, every act of devotion was like the old S&H Green Stamps I earned and could trade them in for crowns or a bigger mansion in heaven. It was the answer to the second question that showed how shallow my thinking was.
How might I change or grow in this area of my life? What more could I possibly do! As I began to meditate on this question the Holy Spirit reminded me about the Rich Young Ruler from Mark 10:17-31. Could it be that I was being proud of my works? Jesus told the young man to “‘sell whatever you have, give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow Me.’ At this, the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.” To be a disciple of Christ we cannot put any conditions on our service, the only way is complete obedience.
Then it became clear to me. As I live my life in true righteousness and holiness my every time must become all the time. As I mature in my faith- my eyes, ears and heart must become more sensitive to both the heavenly call on my life and the pitiful conditions surrounding me. I must come to the realization that my righteous acts are like filthy rags. How could my works hope to buy anything in heaven, which is a city paved with streets of gold?
2 Corinthians 4:7 tells us that we are treasures housed in earthly vessels, and John 3:16-17 says that Jesus came than none might perish. The truth is that the treasures we store up in heaven are people, those who come to know Jesus because we were salt and light, the hands and feet of Jesus, a living testimony to the reality of our God.
Shortly after I presented this word of encouragement to the church one of our regular preachers, Jim Jones from Rock of Ages came and preached a sermon that confirmed my conclusion that the treasures we store up in heaven are the people that we reach for Christ. Over and over my insights into prison life and spiritual life have been confirmed by a variety of sources. Some of these confirmations have been of a more universal nature showing that some things never change over time and distance like books, newspaper articles or television documentaries from all over the country and around the world. Others have been very specific such as this instance where Rev. Jones’ language was almost verbatim of my own.
Since I am neither an expert in criminal justice nor theology, I tend to be widely read to better understand the subjects. However, in prison there is no access to the internet and unless someone sends you a book from out in the free world all you have to read are books in the General Library or Chaplin’s library. Until preparing this blog post for publication I had never heard “The way you store up treasure in heaven is by investing in getting people there” quote by Rick Warren.
That being said, most of my blog posts are essays written to help me process and share information based on my own experience, perceptions and insights. Meditation features prominently since to me the leading of the Holy Spirit is a crucial component to how I gain understanding and wisdom. My friend Daniel once called me a ‘wise man’ and my response was to say that I was only a ‘wise guy.’ I humbly acknowledge that I am free and forgiven only by the grace of God, that all my words are from Him, and are intended to give Him praise and glory.