My Kairos Prison Ministry brothers and I, who visit with inmates and have fellowship with them, have freedoms because we are on the outside that they do not have since they are on the inside. But—just like them on the inside—we are confined by walls. Just like them, we are confined by the walls of our sin.
Yes, we can walk out our front doors, get in our cars, and drive up into the mountains in order to walk miles through a forest and listen to birds sing. They can’t do that.
But I tell you, readers, we may drive back to our houses and park our cars and walk back in through our front doors and find ourselves confined by the walls of our sin.
Inside our houses there may be relationship problems with our wives or our children that are persistent. There may be a health problem that frightens us. There may be a financial problem that wears us down. There may be a work problem we have no knowledge how to fix. There may be an addiction problem that forces us to act in a way that is disrespectful of God.
Inside our houses, inside that wide world that appears to be open and free to us, we are confined by the walls of our sin.
WHY ARE WE CONFINED BY THE WALLS OF OUR SIN?
We Christians know that Satan exists. He’s why we are confined by the walls of our sin. Satan has existed since the Garden of Eden, and he will exist until he is thrown down in fire by Jesus at the end of the world. His purpose is to create pain and discord and hatred—and then, having been successful, to create even more pain and discord and hatred—among all of the people.
Ultimately he seeks to overthrow God Himself. He wants to BE God.
He cannot overthrow God because God wins. He cannot BE God because God already IS…and because God wins. But in the meantime, Satan can make us writhe with pain and misery and make us blast out at one another in sin-filled ways.
Satan’s power is formidable. But ultimately he is a loser.
All he can provide is hatred and fear and pain. Hatred and fear and pain LOSE in the face of what the Christian Trinity provides, which is love and forgiveness and peace.
So why are we confined by the walls of our sin?
Because there is—and there will be—a struggle within us to do good when we are enticed by Satan to do bad.
Until we find salvation in Christ Jesus, we feel an URGENCY to do bad. It is an URGENCY to hurt—either other people, or ourselves, or God Himself. When we do find salvation in Christ Jesus, immediately our URGENCY disappears.
We still sin—I DO—but our URGENCY to sin disappears.
We are still confined by the walls of our sin—but we are safer, as saved people, within those walls than we were before we were saved.
Stay with me now…
It’s cold outside while I write this. Apparently, it’s cold everywhere while I write this. When you read this, on Saturday or after, it’s not going to be as cold outside as it is today. Today at dawn it was 9 degrees here on the Blue Ridge.
But here’s the thing. I’m thinking about the cold because our son Sam and I are attending another Special Olympics ski meet next Monday and Tuesday in northern Virginia—time trials Monday; races Tuesday. Hoping forward, I’d love some of this cold air to hang around until then, to keep the snow harder, easier to turn on, faster.
But no. The current prediction for those two days is high 50s/low 60s and showers about 40% of the time.
Now, Sam has done well on wet, sloppy snow that clogs his skis on the slalom turns—three weeks ago in North Carolina, on that same sort of snow, he came away with a silver medal at his competition level.
But skiing in that kinda snow just ain’t any fun.
Now, maybe you are a reader who doesn’t care a fig about skiing, but hang on a moment—I’m getting to something.
At many times in my past life, particularly before our children were in their teens and needed me to ski with them as they improved, I skied by myself very aggressively, although I never formally raced.
Here’s the “something” I am getting to. Many of you readers—skiers or not--you may have had similar pleasures, when you were young. But now you have put them aside, and they have gathered dust—as my skis did—in the barn. There was never quite enough time to drive to the mountain. There was never quite enough money to afford the expense.
Here’s what I conjure for you. I conjure that you stop. I conjure that you come with me on a trip to the mountain—to your mountain—wherever that is, right now. Reach out—let’s do it—right now, let’s reach out for muscle memory.
I snapped my ski boots shut, stamped into my bindings, and poled/skated my way to the lift at the bottom of the mountain. The chair swung round—I was a solo this time—and I sat. I pulled down the bar, settled my skis on the footrest, and looked around. The sky was clear in northern Maine, and the trees all around were rimed thick with ice. It was cold, cold, cold—ten degrees and a twenty mile NW wind, making it seem as though it was about fifteen below. I pulled my balaclava up over my nose and cheekbones, glad I had my ear warmer snug round my head under my woolen watch cap. Loved my minus-twenty parka and mittens.
I reached the top and dismounted smoothly, slowed to a stop. There was an operator inside the upper hut, secured away, maybe with a kerosene heater. His eyes and mine met for a second. Yes, I tried to signal to him, I’m good for this. Hope you are, he seemed to answer, and his eyes shifted away.
I studied the trail map—black-diamond trail or a more moderate blue? I’ll return for that black diamond, I thought, but I need the slower beginning, the reaching for muscle memory, the remembering that my next big birthday is seventy now and no longer thirty-five. And the blue trail winds along the ridge to the north, seems to dip and then flatten, dip and then flatten—that would be good.
I picked blue. I started down. It was a long, broad run, a good one to wake up upon. Muscle memory is a wonderful thing: if you had it once, you’ll have it now.
Halfway down that first tentative run all diffidence blew away. Deliberately, I set my downhill inside edge, forced my knees into the hill, bore forward with my downhill ankle…and steered a course closer to the fall-line, shot forward, nearly doubled my speed. From then on, with my mind plucked out, it was a dance, every muscle falling familiarly back into its racing place, attacking the hill.
I reached the bottom, winded and sore of thigh. But I had been relieved also of quotidian duty, for a moment, which had been plucked away from me, this once. I was relieved that I could still carve five or six perfect turns, each one increasing my speed by a percentage, each turn wrenching out a fear and leaving it behind me to shiver in the snow.
Do—you—the same, my friend.
What do you fear? What bears you down, as you age? What brings you despair? What leaps out at you when you encounter it and, this time, shrieks at you—‘NO YOU CANNOT!’
That is Satan.
He may have been the greatest of the angels, but he is FALLEN.
He wants to--
Don’t you let him. He is fallen. God is on YOUR side.
…and God wins.
Reader, I want to look behind me on our next ski run together and to see you, smiling as broad as heaven, carving your turns, transported, over your wall of limitations!
Ah! Won’t that be blessed!
Reader, go ski your own mountain. Attack your own hill.
I have a question for you. Remember Christmas? This post’s question for you is prompted by a discussion that came up at our house just before Christmas and that is based on two considerations.
One consideration is related to the way that early Christians experienced the anniversary of Jesus’ birth during their own time. The second consideration is not about what you might suppose. It is NOT about how differently we today encounter the anniversary of Jesus’ birth.
Of course there’s a difference between then and now. After two millennia, how could there not be a difference? But my question today is not to explore that difference.
In order to tell you what the second consideration is, I need to describe how this discussion arose in the first place.
My wife Channa and I host a weekly dinner and Bible study at our house on Thursday evenings, dinner being provided on a rotational basis among our group. We are eleven Christian men and women of approximately the same age and family status.
Our evening’s discussion usually begins by reviewing the sermon of the previous Sunday. However, on the Thursday before Christmas we suggested each person—who cared to do so—might bring along a Christmas-related essay or poem or song, and we would focus our discussion around those.
Searching for my own contribution, I found a short passage from a book of Advent readings by Dietrich Bonhoeffer entitled God is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas. I’ll provide the gist of Bonhoeffer’s passage below and then articulate the second consideration that powered my question for the group and engendered our discussion.
Here’s Bonhoeffer’s quote--
When the old Christendom spoke of the coming again of the Lord Jesus, it always thought first of all of a great day of judgment. And as un-Christmas-like as this idea may appear to us, it comes from early Christianity and must be taken with utter seriousness. …. The coming of God is truly not only a joyous message, but is, first, frightful news for anyone with a conscience. …. God comes in the midst of evil, in the midst of death, and judges the evil within us and in the world. And in judging it, he loves us, he purifies us, he sanctifies us, he comes to us with his grace and love. He makes us happy as only children can be happy. (Emphasis mine.)
So here’s what I asked our group, related to the two considerations.
The first. Bonhoeffer articulates what I believe are correct cultural and theological conditions concerning believers and their encounter with the birth anniversary of Jesus during the early church—their encounter is one of fright and judgment. Not—in the modern sense—very Christmas-like.
The second. Note that Bonhoeffer is speaking to us, to his contemporary audience. He reminds us—again correctly—that God’s love for us purifies and sanctifies us despite the evil of the world. But my question arises from what Bonhoeffer says next, which is bolded above.
Is it possible that God’s sanctifying grace and love makes us happy…as only children can be happy?
I acknowledge that children have the capacity in their innocence to experience total and unalloyed happiness. However, I do not believe that we adults have such a capacity, due to our mature acquaintance with doubt, misery, and sin.
Further, I believe that our limitation may remain with us even after God’s loving gift to us of purification and sanctification.
Yes, we are saved—thank the Lord!—but we are still aware that once we were not saved, that we are guilty of past failings (though God has mercifully un-remembered them), and that we retain our inherent evil inclination.
Does God’s sanctifying grace make us happy? Yes. But at a level at which anyone who has children and grandchildren has seen them attain, and which Bonhoeffer states is only available to them?
I don’t think so.
On the whole, the rest of the group did think so. I’m glad that I was in the minority—that fact testifies happily for the happiness of the others!
What do you think?
Let me know, if you care to….
[This post was originally published several years ago, one year after the event occurred. Since then, I have posted it annually as close to Christmas Eve as my posting schedule allowed. This year, Salem Media desired it as part of a Crosswalk.com article I did called "The Meaning of Hallelujah," which you can find under the Crosswalk Articles tab at the top of my website.]
Don’t skim your eye down the words. Go back and say the words. Say them with measured solemnity, four syllables to each word. Sixteen syllables all together.
You are praising the Lord. This is the Gloria in excelsis Deo that you are pronouncing.
It was late morning on the eve of Christmas Eve. I called my wife at the church. Since she and I came to Christ six years before, she had been our pastor’s secretary. I was checking in, concerned about errands I needed to finish while I was out on the road. We spoke briefly about the errands.
Then I asked her when she planned to come home from the church. Uncharacteristically, she did not know. Usually, she knows. Usually, she knows because she knows what tasks she must finish. Usually, she responds with a time—an hour, two hours.
But this time, she was vague. It was odd of her—my wife is not a vague person, about time or about anything else. “I don’t know,” is what she said, and she said it with a puzzled intonation, as though she wondered why she did not know and yet she said it anyway. I was puzzled, too, when I hung up.
I thought perhaps I should call her back, to ask if she were all right. I thought perhaps I should question her tone of puzzlement, which suggested she did not feel in charge of her time that afternoon. But I did not call her back. I had errands to do.
Here’s what I learned later. After I hung up, an hour or two passed at the church. My wife was alone. She finished tasks. There is always a task to finish on a secretary’s desk. But, puzzlingly, she did not formulate a plan for the finishing of her tasks and for her getting home. Then the church’s door opened and a man entered whom my wife had never seen. The man introduced himself and asked if the pastor were in. The pastor was not in.
The man seemed puzzled by the circumstance that the pastor was not in at the church. “But God told me I must come to see him now.”
“Well, would you like me to make an appointment for you, for later?”
“But God told me I must come to see him now.”
After all—this is how my wife reported the conversation to me—after all, the man was puzzled himself. He had done what God had told him to do. Now, it was the pastor’s turn.
The pastor had left the church not long before, with several plans in his mind. He had not been certain which of the plans he would undertake. He would let my wife know which plan he would undertake, he said, when he knew himself.
My wife dialed the phone. The pastor answered.
“There’s a man here,” she said, and she gave his name. “He says he needs to see you.”
“I wasn’t certain about your plan.”
“Well, I haven’t selected the plan yet. I don’t know why. Right now, I’m eating lunch.” The pastor thought for a moment. “Can he wait ten minutes?”
My wife looked at the man. “Can you wait ten minutes?”
She turned back to the phone. “He can wait.”
“See you in ten.”
In ten minutes, the pastor arrived at the church. He and the man went into the pastor’s office. Two hours later, the man accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord, and his name was written in Glory.
Late that same night, on the eve of Christmas Eve, my wife and I relaxed on our couch. Our house was aromatic with baking gift breads. Our Christmas tree was lit with white bulbs, wax candles burned among our mantel display of spruce boughs and red balls, and twinkling candles were alight in our windows so that, as my mother told me when I was a child, if the Christ Child should need a place to lie down, He would know by our candles that He would be welcome here.
My wife had explained to me the odd events of that afternoon—the man puzzled why the pastor should not be at his office when God had indicated that he would be, my wife puzzled about her inability to manage a time to return to our house so that she was available just at the right moment to make that telephone call to our pastor, our pastor puzzled that he had not selected among his plans for the afternoon so that he was, at the necessary time for the man, just eating lunch.
My wife lay back on the couch and put her feet in my lap. In silence, I stroked her feet. The wine was red in my glass, and white in my wife’s. We listened to Susan Boyle sing Hallelujah. The words of poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen filled the room.
We are busy people, she and I, with several jobs between us—retirees who still work hard, and I had a new book coming out, a memoir recounting my life as the son of a poet father—a father whose poetry molded my relationship with our Father.
Relaxing on our couch, weary after days and days of heavy work for both of us, nearing the completion of our Advent anticipation of a miracle—humbly trying to experience our anticipation with patience—the beauty of the season and of the Christ lights overthrew me.
My wife looked her question, but gently: this was her emotional husband.
“It’s beautiful,” I said.
I wept for Cohen’s spare, elegiac poetry. I wept for Boyle’s easy voice. I wept for the still, calm beauty of our decorated home. I wept for giving gift bread to our friends, bread which my wife had created. But mostly I wept that, on the eve of Christmas Eve, the Lord Himself had used my wife and our pastor for His own purpose, which was to bring another soul to salvation—that godly using, which had puzzled each of them, as their planning of their day was set aside.
One of my first activities since I joined Kairos Prison Ministry is to begin reading everything I can about Kairos and about prison ministry in general. For those interested, I recommend Rev. Earl Smith’s memoir Death Row Chaplain which recounts his 23 years as chaplain at San Quentin Prison (the book is not specifically about Kairos). Simply and unhesitatingly written, this is the story of a young thief, drug runner, gang member, and fighter who—after being shot six times in a drug deal—turned his life around and dedicated himself to bringing redemption as a possibility into the lives of incarcerated men jailed on the shore of beautiful San Francisco Bay.
San Quentin is “a dark and isolated place,” as Smith describes it, but there he found “many examples of redemption, kindness, love, patience, courage, compassion, generosity, joy, and yes, even humor.” However, he continues, “I think the primary thing I learned during my tenure was the value of forgiveness” (page 179, emphasis mine).
Friends of mine in Kairos, who enticed me to join with their excitement about their ministry, often said that the most vivid experience they had during years at Pocahontas was closely to encourage and to observe the redemption of men who were otherwise considered by the general population to be the “least of these” (See Matthew 25:34-40).
Forgiveness occurred; redemption happened.
Inmates have nothing that we of the free world prize. These men, though, come to a Kairos “walk” (a four-day weekend, intensive experience presenting them with the possibility of Jesus’ redemptive grace for them) because they hope to gain everything.
During my first walk, I saw men confess, give themselves to Jesus, become saved, and then turn around, bathed with relief, to try and save their fellow inmates. My friends would say words to me like, “I promise you, Dikkon, they have given me far more than I can ever have given them.”
We of the free world, figuratively, we have everything. Yet having everything already, we of the free world sometimes are secretive about what we need to give away—which is not our things but our emotions, that is, our hurts, our defenses, our fears, our selfishness.
As an imprisoned inmate might do, some of us choose to hold onto our hurt. Alas, we of the free world, sometimes we imprison ourselves.
If you are reading this post during the afternoon of December 1, 2018, I was back in prison that morning.
We Kairos volunteers were at Pocahontas State Prison in SW Virginia for a reunion with inmate members of our Kairos #15 walk, which occurred last October, and with other prisoners who desired to attend.
I’m writing this post earlier in the week, so I don’t yet know what Christian theme was explored during Saturday morning, but my personal theme for that reunion will be forgiveness. Not just their forgiveness, but mine, too.
In an earlier post about my new experience of Kairos (see 10/19/2018, under the GOD heading), I stated that there were four major high points for me as take-aways during my first 4-day “walk” inside. In that post, I reflected on one of them, on agape love—and I reproduced the agape letter that I wrote to each of our prisoner attendees.
Another experience of a Kairos walk is the forgiveness ceremony, which occurs late in the afternoon of the third day. By then—three-quarters through the whole walk—attendees have heard many talks delivered by Kairos volunteers. These talks are designed to build a rising tide of awareness among the inmates that they are personally responsible for their condition of incarceration. Their personal choices have incarcerated them. It was not those others whom they may have hated as their enemies. Each talk lasts about 20 minutes and involves confession by the man giving the talk regarding his own pathway through the theme of that talk.
Then the inmates gather in small groups at assigned tables and discuss the ideas of the talk with assigned Kairos volunteers. Their comprehension of the issues is also stimulated by graphics: the inmates draw and color a poster dramatizing what they’ve discussed. Often, throughout the three days, the word forgiveness occurs--choice and forgiveness are among many Kairos themes.
By the end of the third day, inmates have had three intense days of being prepped for an upcoming event. And we’ve all had plenty of singing, music, worship, prayer, and cookie eating (yay!).
So…what is this forgiveness ceremony?
Early on the third day, all inmates and volunteers are given a square of rice paper and a pencil and encouraged during the day to write down the name of a person or of several persons to whom, in their hearts, they now feel they should provide forgiveness. We are challenged to consider real forgiveness, not mere casual forgiveness—real forgiveness of the sort that for three days we volunteers have been attributing during our talks only to Jesus’ glory.
And these rice papers, with the names we write on them, are to be kept secret, until….the forgiveness ceremony.
Since I’d received my paper, I had thought a good deal, and I had prayed some, too. I had put one single name on my rice paper. Sometimes I thought to erase it. But then I thought, no.
I thought, “I’m a spectator here, a helper only. This ceremony isn’t for me. It’s for them, the ones who are in figurative chains and behind actual bars. The ones here on the inside. Not for me. Should I even participate in this ceremony, whatever it is? Well, I suppose so, yes. After all, I did write a name on my paper.”
An hour later, I stood in one of two long lines of volunteers and inmates. Each of us held a paper in hand. All of us were quiet. One by one, we stepped forward and eventually knelt on a mat. Before each of us was a bucket of water. On the other side of each bucket was one of us volunteers, a professional pastor, equipped to pray.
I bent over the bucket, paper in hand. My volunteer brother nodded, “Drop it in.” I did. The paper and the name dissolved. He asked me, “What?” I named the name that had now dissolved and our relationship, and I said only one sentence more. He reached across the bucket and laid his hands on my shoulders and began to pray.
Three minutes later I could barely stand, so shaking was I. My tears were so copious I could not see. One of my Kairos friends saw this and came over and helped me up. We embraced tightly.
“See?” he asked.
I sniffed, wiped my eyes. Soon, I believed, maybe my knees would begin to function again. I embraced my friend a second time.
I thought, “I should have put more names on.”
Then I thought, “I’ll have another chance…during our next walk.”
Rev. Smith speaks about the societal purpose of incarceration. He uses two words, rehabilitation and regeneration. Times change in society and ideas about how best to address public problems come and go. Yes, evil-doers must be kept separate from the general population, for its safety.
Rehabilitation means to change back to the person the inmate was before he began his life of crime—or, if he has been a criminal always, then back into the ideal person he could have been, as he was when he was an infant and in God’s palm. A rehabilitated criminal is able to enter the free world and to live a successful and productive life without recidivism.
But Rev. Smith speaks of regeneration as the ultimate goal. Regeneration comes from, among other things, forgiveness as well as salvation. It comes from forgiving the ones against whom the inmate has continued to stoke his rage, and forgiving himself with the realization that he is not his crime.
He does not need to continue to imprison himself. Yes, he did the crime(s), deserves the punishment(s), is doing the time. But also he is a fallen and a loved child of God.
As Rev. Smith concludes, “Regeneration sets the standard for kingdom choices” (page 201).
My theme regarding myself on December 1 is forgiveness. I’ll be at the prison where we outsiders and those insiders bond. We will have fellowship, some good rockin’ gospel music, some exciting theological talk, a few intense prayers, perhaps the moment of salvation for one or two more of those who are chained.
I can’t wait for Kairos #16 next year in April.
I’ll choose to put more names on my paper. I’ll choose to forgive them. I’ll drop some more of my own chains.
(This post was originally published the week before Thanksgiving last year. Maybe I’ll publish it each year at the height of leaf-raking season. As shown here, I’ve varied its details slightly to accord with 2018 instead of 2017, and shortened its original length, but its metaphor—I hope—remains good.)
During summer, our house swims in shade.
I love shade!
Otherwise our experience of summer in SW Virginia is hot, hot, hot. But our house is surrounded by large oaks and maples, and they keep us in shade, blessedly.
When we bought our house, the woman next door said, “You poor guy, you have no idea what trouble you’re in.”
I wasn’t in trouble—I was in shade!
We are grateful for our trees, which keep our house cooler and reduce our cooling cost all summer long. The trees cool us because they are covered with leaves. Come fall—which begins in November—the leaves turn yellow, and…they fall.
Billions of them.
Billions upon billions upon billions of them.
They inundate our yard, roof, gutters, porch, driveway, patio, and parking area in back.
Our neighbor was right. The raking job is an enormous task. It is an enormous, on-going task, and it lasts through most of two months.
There is a God point to this blather about leaves. The God point is metaphorically about the last leaf to fall.
Here in our valley we get wind storms. We got a big one five days ago. It was a strong, cool wind (thank the Lord!) roistering through the trees from the northwest, sending that day’s billion of leaves before it—like snow. We had a blizzard of leaves.
Have you noticed something about leaves?
They like moving in a gang. They all make up their minds at the same time, and then they do what the others do. When the wind comes along, they all let go and tumble, as though they were the crazy idea of some slap-dash painter, flinging yellow flakes of tinsel down the air.
But—no—not all of them.
Our blizzard died away. I went outside. The day was cooler than before, and the air was still now, with the sun bright and slantways from low down in the west. Everywhere that I could see, I saw inches—even a foot—of depth of yellow leaves.
I had intended to start by sweeping the porch, but I stopped.
High in one tree, way up, there was one single yellow leaf all by itself out on the end of a twig. It hung there, very still. It caught my eye because it was brightly lit against the blue of the sky by the shaft of the sun.
I watched it for a time, standing as I was in the quiet yellow of the aftermath of the blizzard. That leaf seemed almost to be making up its own mind. That leaf had hung on tight while the wind buffeted it, and while all its friends had let go and had flown. That leaf had hung on, waiting, maybe thinking something through.
What was the something that leaf was thinking through?
Perhaps its allegiance to the Lord.
Everyone else among its leaf friends had known what was right—what was manifest—to do. Everyone else had said, “We are a tide of Christian consciousness sweeping joyfully through the air and then covering the landscape of the Lord.” And they had done just that.
I thought to myself, that last leaf is like we were, my wife and I, eleven years ago.
Then I laughed to myself. Of course, that leaf has no soul—it’s a leaf.
But, I thought, I am a writer and a chaser after metaphor. I have a soul. I have a soul, and—like my one leaf—I had hung on tight to my anchoring point during my wife’s and my nine months of soul struggle, whether to press beyond Judaism toward our rebirth in Christ.
We had hung on, battling that stormy struggle through.
Yes or no?
To deny or to accept?
To let go and to go?
Or not to let go?
And—just as I reached this point in the framing of my thought—up there above me, after the end of the wind storm, that last yellow leaf let go.
As we had, too.
I watched that last yellow leaf flutter peacefully all the way down until it nestled comfortably with its yellow fellows.
Finally at one with the Lord.
I was back at Pocahontas Prison last Saturday, for a reunion.
Reunions occur monthly, on the first Saturday. Two church services occupy the first half of these Saturdays, with two different groups of inmates, and then the reunion is over, insofar as we volunteers are concerned. It’s an early-start day for those of us who come to the prison from our homes, many of which are, like mine, about 130 miles distant from the prison.
During reunions, the inmates arrive from the cell pods, are searched and then allowed through the door into the gym, and then they gather their cookies and seat themselves in groups of five or six—randomly: no assigned tables—each group with one Kairos volunteer. A reunion service commences with prayers and songs; then it moves to a homily, and ends with an open-ended study discussion.
While the walks are the work of Kairos, the reunions are the work of the church that has been planted inside the prison and are administratively overseen by the prison chaplain. The masters of ceremony are inside church elders. During reunions, we Kairos volunteers are the guests of the inside church.
Our role is (1) to distribute cookies, (2) to facilitate the study discussion, and (3) as always to listen; listen; love; love.
Upon my arrival Saturday morning at the front-search entrance to the prison, a volunteer friend asked me excitedly, “Wasn’t that a wonderful letter from David?”
“What letter from David?”
“You haven’t seen his letter?”
“No. How did it come? What did it say?”
“David is saved!”
“Oh, yes, I knew that. It’s wonderful! I got a text about it two days ago.” I named the volunteer who had texted me. “But a letter? I haven’t seen a letter.”
“I’ll make certain you get a copy.”
“I have so much wanted to see David, after this news, to give him the hug of a brother. I hope he comes to reunion today.”
“As a newly saved man, I think he will!”
David did attend Saturday’s first reunion service. I hugged him and blessed him on account of his salvation. He sat next to me in our small group, and we had friendly talk about this change in his life during the few minutes of cookie-eating and getting comfortable as a group. Then the service began.
After a prayer, the church band began to sing. They are an enthusiastic group, skilled, and dynamic—eight backup singers, two charismatic lead singers, three electric guitars, and a keyboard. Pretty soon we were all rocking along with them, captured by the southern Baptist-style beat, repeating the refrain over and over again--
I cleaned up
What I messed up,
I start my life
There we were—men of the free world, men of the inside world—some of us saved, I suppose some of us not—we were getting louder and our hands were stabbing upward as we acclaimed that we were cleaning up what we had messed up—as all of us had messed up something—and we vowed to start our life over again.
It was both empowering and FUN!
I glanced at David. He was not standing as most of the rest of us were, and he had a grimace on his face.
I sat down. “What’s wrong? Are you okay?”
This powerful man gestured to his thighs. “Can’t hardly move,” he said. “Hurts so much.”
Worried, I asked about the pain. While the music faded, he explained to me that something really huge had just happened to him just a few days before.
I agreed with him that something really huge had just happened to him just a few days before.
“No, Dikkon—writer man—not that.”
It turned out that the other really huge thing that had just happened was that he had just won a gold medal in the prison’s weight-lifting contest, doing squats with barbells across his shoulders. His thighs were toast.
We laughed--a lotta huge things had just happened for David!
The theme of Saturday’s prison services was FEAR. The homily for the first service was presented by a Kairos volunteer, the homily for the second by a prison church elder. Fear is a big deal in prison; good choice for our theme. Easy for me to get the discussions going after the homilies, using open-ended questions.
While I was leading prayer during the end of our discussions, the Lord made it clear to me that fear is a big deal outside of prison, too.
C, about whom I hinted during an earlier post, came and sat with David and our group and me during that first service. C provided a dramatic confession about fear—about his fear.
How could that be?
Does not compute.
No, come to think of it, it does compute. Even C.
As David and I were parting, I said, “I heard you wrote a letter.”
“I haven’t read it yet but I’m supposed to get it this afternoon.”
“It’s about being saved, right?”
“I wanted you all to know.”
“Well, God bless you. You know, I sometimes write about this Kairos experience. Would you mind if I use something from your letter sometime?”
“Use whatever you like! I want you all to know.”
Here is part of that wonderful letter from David. David is the man who, in my earlier post, I named S.
(I’ve regularized some spelling, but the sentences are otherwise verbatim.)
My life has changed so much since I took the Kairos 4-day walk. I had made it a habit to pray to God every chance I get. Also I prayed today at 4 pm asking God “What is my purpose in life?” I sat there quietly and sat there. Then something in my heart and soul said to me, “Stop putting all your energy and worries on when you are getting out of prison, and put all your energy and faith in me.” Listen everybody, my stomach got tight, tears came from my eyes, my heart was beating fast, and my mind was clear. And for a brief second I saw myself free. But not out of prison. I saw that I was free with God. I was smiling and helping people find God in prison.
David recounts that he went to supper and spoke to another prisoner about being saved and about his desire to be baptized. That other man said to David that he could be saved while they walked back to their pod.
So guess what? I am SAVED!! I feel more free than I ever felt in my whole life. I still have a long way to go but now I know that Jesus is walking with me all the way.
Thus saith writer man Dikkon.
I am praying generally for 35 men in a prison in the remote mountains of SW Virginia. I am praying specifically for four men among them—for P, W, F, and S, which are not their actual first initials.
I know these men, in my estimation quite well. I do not know them in the sense that I could accurately recount for you all the circumstances of their lives.
What we in the free world (outside the prison) consider the major circumstance of their lives is something I know nothing about, except in the case of S. S told me the detail of his crimes, so I have information—as he told it—about why he now lives in prison, and why he will continue to live in prison for many years.
Here is something else I do know quite well about S, and I know this because I observed it occur during the four days I spent recently with him and with the other three men.
I know that S was persuaded by a friend to choose to attend our recent Kairos walk because he was dissatisfied with what Islam offered him. Yes, Islam offered him the satisfying routine of daily prayer, five times each day, but that it lacked grace.
Islam is rules. If you miss a rule, S told me, you are effectively dead—dead to the world of Islam. So S was susceptible to attend our Kairos walk because he had heard that Christ, instead, was love, and forgiveness—part of what I would include under the word grace.
S’s curiosity about Christ was exciting to me, being a man of the free world, because every ounce of my fallen being knows for certain that Christ indeed is love and forgiveness. Chained as I am to my sin, despairingly sometimes, I need divine love and forgiveness—and I get it.
But my reaction to S’s information about Islam’s rigidity is not what causes me to report that I believe I know S quite well.
Among the other men at our Kairos table, W was a man in deep trouble. Part of his trouble was—to all appearances—mental illness, for the control of which he was prescribed a powerful drug, and our Kairos schedule of activities interfered with the proper timing of his taking of his drug. Consequently, his behavior became erratic as the days wore on. Once we understood this, we made what administrative adjustment we could, and the problem was partly relieved.
However, that was only one element of W’s trouble. W is a man who had received—apparently from his parents and from his family at large—as well as from his urgent reading of his Bible while in prison—a strong sense of Christian rectitude. W’s theological understanding of Christianity was all works.
W knew his Bible, but he got it wrong.
W was desperate to be assured of his eternal life.
W has a fluid and articulate vocabulary of Christian thought, and when he was not overpowered either by the drug or by his lack of it, he could deliver emphatic and absolutist statements like a new seminarian.
But he got it wrong.
Who assisted him during our four days? We three Kairos volunteers at our table assisted him—that was our role: listen; listen; love; love.
But it was S who was most persistent in his ministry to W, and—as I interpreted what I observed of this ministry—its extra power was the fact that S shared with W something we others did not share. Yes, it is true that we outsiders of the free world are enchained, but it is not true that we are enchained in the same many-layered and practical sense that S is enchained like W.
S loved and forgave W with a persistent and instinctual grace that was inspiring. S was usually the first to reach out and to engage W in whatever Kairos learning procedure we were assigned at the moment. S was the one who pressed W gently to respond when he was locked inside. “I know you know the answer, W. Please tell us.” Then he would speak to the rest at the table. “We all know that W knows the answer, don’t we? We want to hear what you know, W. Please tell us.”
Sometimes, pressed by S’s love, W would speak. Theologically, what he said usually was works, but at that moment it was—as it were--softer works.
By the last day of the walk, at least two of us from the outside were engaging S on the subject of his instinctive suitability for Christian ministry in the church which has been planted inside the prison. S was hesitant, shy, unconfident about his gift—but my instinctive assessment was that he yearned, also.
S will be in prison for a long time. I think he thinks he needs what I would call a mission. He and I talked quite fully about his crimes and about his perception of our criminal justice system. He seemed accepting of the fact that he deserves to be in prison, though he misses his daughter intensely. He believes his sentence is too long, although he understands how—legally speaking—it was justified. I sense that he is a man who has been gifted by a deep sense of helpfulness and a desire to lead his fellows away from emptiness and toward fullness.
Those qualities exist in prison just as much as they do in the free world. I pray that P, W, F, and S will find fullness, that W’s illness will be identified, treated, and monitored in the best way for him, and that S will give his soul to Jesus Christ, be saved, and with satisfaction—if so called—commence a ministry inside the walls.
He may, then, even become like C, an extraordinary man, to whom I may introduce you later.
I was in prison during four days last weekend, at Pocahontas Correctional Institution in Pocahontas, Virginia.
I was there as a volunteer for Kairos Prison Ministry. I sat at a table with two other Kairos volunteers and with four inmates. Our purpose was to assist these inmates to find—if they needed to find—and to come closer to—which they did need—Jesus Christ.
Our work at our table was Spiritual Listening. Kairos’ refrain in training is “Listen, listen; love, love.”
Each table participated in a succession of spiritual exercises, delivered to the group as a whole—to about 35 inmates seated at the tables with us volunteers. These exercises included listening to spiritually themed talks of about a half hour each during which the volunteer deliverer included intimate revelations from his own life.
These were the times when the prison’s gym—where our Kairos walk occurred—was absolutely silent. There were detailed revelations of missed opportunities, of bad choices, of abuse in various ways. Each talk was riveting to the inmates.
Following each talk, each table group was asked to speak among its members about how the talk had been received by each inmate, and then to do a second exercise. The inmates at each table were instructed to make an illustration with colored markers on poster board that represented the table’s conclusion about the talk.
By the end of Day Four, about fifty of these posters were pasted up on the walls around us—both moving and informative, and in some cases excellent in terms of graphic design.
The sequence of talk subjects is ordered by Kairos for increased Christian impact during the whole walk. The talks alternate with music interludes—we have a guitar player and singer whom we followed in song—and chapel services that included brief homilies, prayers, and also the reading of metaphorical stories.
There was also sufficient unstructured time between planned events for an increased amount of table chat and also of heartfelt intimate personal revelation. This unstructured time sometimes occurred when we were waiting for meals to be brought from the kitchen.
As the days passed, I could feel at our table and see when looking at other tables that inmates’ body language changed.
Day One—some tightness and stiffness, perhaps defensiveness. Day Two—more relaxation, some easy laughter. Day There—earnest two-way discussions for many minutes between an inmate and a volunteer. Day Four—long, full-body hugs.
There were four major high points of the weekend toward which Kairos’ sequence was leading us all. I mean all, not solely the inmates. I believe that we volunteers were affected, too. As a new man, I know I was powerfully affected by each of these high points.
Among my next few posts, I will illuminate these high points.
Spiritual Listening is a discipline of Agape.
Agape is a Greek term for the full, selfless, and self-sacrificing love modeled on the love Christians experience from God. The term has been used actively in Christian spirituality since the early church.
One of the high points of the walk was the delivery to each of the attendees what Kairos calls The Agape Letter.
Each volunteer writes a letter regarding his sense of agape to the inmates, the same letter goes to each of them. At a certain time on Day Three the letters are delivered to each inmate.
As I said in an earlier post, some of these men have scarcely ever received a piece of mail at all—even from family members outside. It can be an overwhelming experience.
I modeled my Agape Letter on one shown me by a volunteer who has attended many walks and who recruited me. I am grateful for his guidance.
Here’s what I wrote.
October 13, 2018
This weekend’s Kairos event will leave me with many memories, and I hope the same will be the case for you.
I don’t presume to understand the challenges you face or how you cope with them, but I do believe that you and I are each men who have made mistakes and at the same time who desire acceptance, forgiveness and reassurance that we are loved.
I hope you have given—or that you will give—your life to Jesus Christ. His is the life through which we receive the enduring love of God. During the weekend, I hope you have felt that enduring love of God. I have.
It is my experience that God provides His love all the time and without testing you or me.
There certainly have been times when I did not feel God’s love, or when I thought He had abandoned me. But that was on me, not Him.
His love was there (and it is there) all the time. I needed to allow my heart to soften. Once it softened, I could again experience the flow of God’s love, as demonstrated to me by the actions of His Son, Jesus Christ.
When I feel alone, sometimes I am sad or frightened (or sad and frightened). There are two things I do that help me recapture my assurance that God loves me. I hope you will do them, too. One is I read my Bible. The other is I pray.
I have two ways when I open my Bible. One is to have a particular passage in mind and turn to it. The other way is simply to open the Bible to whatever page falls open (I think of this as receiving the particular page God wants me to read right then). In either case, I read carefully, slowly, attentively.
Usually reading my Bible leads me into prayer. Often my prayers have a certain order, but sometimes they don’t. I judge that to be okay. God is our heavenly Father. He made us and loves us. He wants to hear back from us. In His wisdom, he answers our prayers—He may say yes, He may say no, He may say wait. Also, He may say nothing at all.
There have been times when I resented it that He didn’t say anything at all. You might have felt that same way. But then I thought about it again.
Imagine it this way. Maybe there was a time when you spoke urgently and importantly to a very close friend of yours. You told him about your most private failures and also about your need for forgiveness and to become a better man. But your friend didn’t answer you directly. Instead, he just nodded to reassure you he had heard you.
If you are like me in that situation, you were reassured and were comfortable that he was taking time to decide how to answer you. You were eager for his answer. And you were confident his answer would come at the right time.
Same with me.
Prayer, really, is a conversation between you and God. Always close your prayers by stating that you are sending your prayer to God through Jesus Christ, who is your savior—or I hope He will become your savior. It is Jesus who passes your prayers along to his Father, the Lord of the universe.
Bible reading and prayer are personal and often private activities. They are wonderful.
There is one more activity which I recommend for you. Find a community of friends who are followers of Jesus and spend time with them. Open yourself to these friends—we are all of us men who have made mistakes but who long to be accepted and loved. Be together with these men who you may grow to love, and who will show their own love back to you, since you are all lovers of Jesus Christ.
As for me, I will pray for you as a participant in our Kairos weekend. I will pray that you have experienced the love of God. I will pray that you will truly and deeply know you are loved, and that you will seek out ways to show that love to others around you at Pocahontas.
May you be blessed!
I have joined the Kairos Prison Ministry. As you read this, I am participating in my first “walk.”
A walk is a four-day weekend visit by about 25 brothers and me to Pocahontas Correctional Institution, which is located in Pocahontas, Virginia—for many of us about a two hour drive from home, close to the West Virginia border.
Pocahontas is a medium-security man’s prison housing just over 1,000 prisoners. A walk occurs twice annually, generally in October and in April. It is followed-up by members of our group who attend once-monthly “reunions,” when we return and meet with incarcerated men who have attended previous walks.
Members of our group have been visiting Pocahontas during fourteen previous walks; this weekend I am participating in number fifteen. That means our group has been working both with the inmates and with the prison administration and particularly with its chaplain for seven years now.
Kairos’ ministry has the purpose of “sharing the transforming love and forgiveness of Jesus Christ,” as Kairos’ Program Manual puts it, “to impact the hearts and lives of incarcerated men, women, and youth, as well as their families, to become loving and productive citizens of their communities.”
No one is forced to attend, and an attendee may leave at any time during the four days. However, if he leaves, he can’t come back in.
Each half year, about forty men choose to attend. They need to apply to attend ahead of time. Therefore, some attendees we are with right now have waited between six months and a year to spend four intense days with us. Just so, we have waited and have prayed about being with them.
A prisoner may attend a walk only once. After that, former attendees can meet with us again at reunions.
The prison’s population changes over time, of course, but during our Kairos group’s seven years visiting Pocahontas, approximately 280 men have had the opportunity--
to learn about Jesus—of whom some of them have scarcely heard except as a curse word,
to hear brief salvation-oriented talks,
to discuss those talks in groups of six inmates and three volunteers,
to share meals with us volunteers,
to be bathed in prayer, by name, not only by us inside volunteers but also by outside prayer-partner volunteers in Virginia and sometimes in multiple states,
to have an opportunity to forgive those who they believe have harmed them,
to receive, addressed to each one of them personally, an agape letter of love and encouragement from each of us volunteers—each man gets a letter from each one of us (some men have rarely received mail at all during their incarceration, and today—Saturday—each man will get more than twenty personal letters).
This shower of written love is powerful. Another shower that is powerful is this. I mentioned being bathed in prayer.
During each four day walk, we divide the 24-hour periods into half hour segments, and we get commitments from our free-world brothers and sisters to pick a segment and to pray, by name, for each of the men attending the walk during that half hour—each half hour segment is covered, 24 hours per day.
A big chart is displayed on the wall—at Pocahontas we meet in the prison’s gym—and the detail of the prayer shower is clear and, for some of the men, almost overwhelming.
In addition, they get a lot of fresh-baked cookies!
We volunteers, and as many of our friends with ovens and freezers whom we could enlist, we have all been busily baking cookies for about the last 10 days
previous to our walk. We entered Pocahontas hauling large, transparent plastic, storage barrels of fresh-baked cookies.
We have six recipes we use—chocolate chip, peanut butter, sugar, oatmeal, molasses, etc. On and average walk, we bring in approximately 1300 dozen cookies!
By the inmates, these are called the Jesus Cookies. The Jesus cookies are a big draw!
Not only do the men attending the walk enjoy a lot of cookies, but during the walk our volunteers go through the pods of cells and bring a bag of Jesus Cookies to every single inmate, whether he has the slightest interest in Jesus or not. Irrespective of Jesus, virtually all of them have an interest in fresh-baked cookies!
To subscribers and others, I covet your prayers.
If you are reading this on Saturday or Sunday, October 13th and 14th, my first walk is moving toward its close. There is an open-mike event tomorrow—Sunday—during which attendees can speak about what has happened to them during the walk.
I am told that sometimes the testimonies are extraordinary!
I’m looking forward to that!
We Kairos volunteers are moved by compassion for the inmates. We are all of us—both the inmates and we men of the free world—we are all men who have made our mistakes, and all the Kairos volunteers and some of the inmates, we acknowledge our on-going sinfulness.
We are all of us “in chains.”
We are here at Pocahontas, moved by the Holy Spirit, to come to, and to visit with those whom the free world sometimes considers the least of us.
What is it that Jesus says of this?
In Matthew 25:40, he says, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these, my brothers, you did it to me.”
We are here to glorify the Lord, to honor Jesus, and to experience the presence among us of The Holy Spirit. Jesus is the one who is both able and faithful to unshackle the imprisoned and to set all peoples FREE.
(Please note that the last sentence above is not mine. It came to me in a prayer written by one of my Kairos brothers, who has walked many walks at Pocahontas and who has been stirring by many salvation testimonies of the formerly chained.)
We are here to light a candle at Pocahontas. I covet your prayers that we may succeed.
When I was young, I once asked my Christian mother why Christians light candles in their windows at Christmas time. Here’s her answer. “Dikkon, we light candles in our windows so that if the Christ Child should need a place to lie down, He will know by our candles that He will be welcome here.”
Help us light a candle “in the window” of Pocahontas so Jesus will know that He is welcome here.
Pocahontas Correctional Institution