Prayers of a man in prison

In an earlier post, I observed that the church’s mission goes beyond our preferences and perceptions of how, where and who to serve. The church’s mission is rooted in Jesus’ command in the great commission defined in Matthew 28 v 19 – 20 to teach others about who God is and what it means to follow Him.

True it is that there are many people who won’t be reached initially through Biblical teachings. Like Jesus, we also have to commit ourselves to activities that cater to both the physical and spiritual well-being of others. This is what sets the Church apart from other social service organizations.

Christians must commit to intentionally and actively understanding the needs in our communities and beyond and make a collective effort to address these needs by spreading the Good News in word and action. Acting on this understanding of mission in the local context will require the abandonment of assumptions and judgements about people and their circumstances. Mission will require us to go into places where all hope seems to be dimmed by the darkness of sin, suffering and despair. In the face of resistance, we must still press on with sharing the Good News.

Prisons are dangerous, difficult places where inmates have many reasons to have very little or no hope. With lives rooted in poverty, abuse, abandonment, addiction and crime, some are repeat offenders, never having been given any guiding principles, labelled as incorrigible, despised and forgotten by their families.

The Prison Chaplaincy Programme at the Cowansville Correctional Centre offers the opportunity for mission. Under the leadership of Rev. Canon Tim Smart, volunteers visit the prison to participate in Bible studies and fellowship meetings lasting more than an hour each week. These meetings provide the opportunity for inmates to hear the Good News and commit themselves to personal transformation and eventual reintegration in the society.

During a visit nearly two years ago, one inmate, serving a life sentence, expressed his helpless, hopeless frustration at being locked away from society and his desire to die, rather than continue living in prison. The inmate, who I will call “Louis,” is a repeat offender with a heavy criminal record, once considered among the most dangerous criminals in Québec. In his frustrated state of mind, he vehemently declared that the teachings of the Bible on hope and salvation could have no meaning to him.

On the face of it, we could empathize and take a hands-off approach, offer to say a prayer and not persist with bringing the message of hope and the Good News to this frustrated man. However, in the months that followed, it was the commitment of the Prison Chaplaincy Programme volunteers to fulfill the Church’s mission that has led Louis to share the following prayers that he wrote earlier this year and has taped to the wall of his cell:

Prayer of an inmate
Lord, from the depth of my cell, here I am humbly before you, calm and at peace by your great mercy O God my Saviour.
I thank you for this day – one more has passed. Even if the other inmates say that I’m serving a long, hard sentence, in this way I’m getting to know you better O Jesus.
It is not easy to be on the inside, in prison and to call on Your Name. When the other inmates hear Your Name, they say that they are here because of You. This is why I need Your strength. Increase my faith so that I may live each day in the joy of Your forgiveness and in the hope of Your presence.
Watch over my family who are on the outside. Fill them with your love and peace and may we one day,
By Your grace, be reunited. Amen

I’ve changed
Lord, I no longer recognize myself. I, who was violent and impulsive, have become calm and patient.
I, who wanted to win always and everywhere, have learned to become a good person.
I, who was lazy and a thief, now work to earn my living.
I, who would always be ashamed to pray to you alone, here I am, praying to you along with other people.
Frankly Lord, I have come a long way. Never would I have believed that I am capable of changing this much. You know how happy I am. I am comfortable in my own skin. I am at peace and I feel free.
But what I want to say to you, above all, is that I am aware that this change does not only depend on me. Much of it comes from You. For this reason, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. Amen

These beautiful prayers of a former criminal are testimony to the work of the Holy Spirit working through people who are committed to mission.

Sharing the Good News and helping to transform lives, everywhere, at all times and in all places as God leads is the best and right use of the teachings of the Bible. That is what mission is all about.

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When God sends you to the dogs and pigs

A few years ago, my parents had just returned home from church on Easter Sunday.  They were met at their gate by two people who were going door to door, and in their words, “making disciples, teaching others to observe all that Jesus commanded in the great commission.”   My father pointed out that his was a Christian home and that our family has always been involved in acts of Christian witness and service.  He suggested that the visiting couple should consider reaching out to the helpless and hopeless, people who needed to hear the Good News, particularly those in an economically depressed, crime-ridden area a few kilometers away.    In response, one of the visitors said that “those people” are not interested in the Bible and she went on to quote Matthew 7 v 6:  “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.”

Easy excuses

The common interpretation of this verse is that Christians shouldn’t waste time preaching to people who don’t want to hear the Good News.  The assumption is that some people are beyond God’s redemption.  Apart from being a subjective and judgemental interpretation, my reflection leads me to believe that this interpretation is also an easy excuse to avoid doing the essential work of mission.

Isn’t is easier to be hands-off – write a cheque or donate food and used clothing – rather than be committed to the going into the places to meet the marginalized, gravely ill and those relegated to the scrapheap of society?  Isn’t it easier to preach to the converted within the comfort zone of our circle of influence, than to bring the Good News to the hopeless and helpless among us?  I suspect that the comment made by the visitor to my parents’ home was rooted in the fear of stepping out of his comfort zone.  This fear is very often shrouded in judgemental comments and personal preferences that are then justified by subjective interpretations of Bible verses such as the one quoted by the visitors.

Going beyond our preferences

Conventional wisdom teaches us to offer our help to people who ask for help and to contribute towards the obvious material needs of others.    The church’s mission transcends conventional wisdom and goes beyond our preferences and perceptions of how, where and who to serve.  The church’s mission is rooted in Jesus’ command in the great commission defined in Matthew 28 v 19 – 20 to teach others about who God is and what it means to follow Him.

Going back to Matthew 7 v 6, “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces,” I am convinced that Jesus is saying that Biblical truths are precious – like pearls – and should not be wasted.  By being hands-off, judging others, avoiding difficult places and people, we are not properly acting on the Biblical truths and we are wasting our call to mission – like throwing pearls to pigs. God’s truth is meant to be put to good use.  Sharing the Good News and helping to transform lives, everywhere, at all times and in all places as God leads is the best and right use of the teachings of the Bible.  That is what mission is all about.

The following observation made in the Mission-Shaped Church report published in 2004 by The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Council on Mission and Public Affairs, sums up the call to mission in today’s world:

The missionary situation faced by the church has changed… The change is to an outward focus: from a ‘come to us’ approach to a ‘we will go to you’ attitude, embodying the gospel where people are, rather than embodying it where we are and in ways we prefer.