I hugged a murderer the other day. This was a first. He certainly wasn’t the last murderer I would hug that day. I always wake up early, but that morning I really couldn’t sleep. In the dark quiet hours of the morning, I opened my laptop. I was going to prison today. Not jail, not a detention center, but a maximum-security prison. See, a great friend of mine from work invited me to the closing ceremony of a prison ministry called Kairos. He’d tried to get me to come for over two years. I finally laid down my cowardliness and excuses and went. I realized I was unprepared. I didn’t know what to say, what to do, how to act or react. I Googled how Christians should talk to prisoners. I found a great website with many resources. I thought it would be a quick read, a simple refresher on a few scriptures to share with these men if given the opportunity. I soon found myself reading verse after verse from the Old and New Testament about God’s feelings on prisoners.
Little did I know in that quiet darkness I would weep for the better part of the next 45 minutes. Every verse pierced my soul. I was reminded of how the Bible tells us the word of God seeps down into the very marrow of bones. I am not a crier. I haven’t sobbed uncontrollably like that in years. I kept asking God to take it from me. What was I doing? I don’t even know these people. Why am I weeping? I haven’t stepped foot near RJ Donovan Correctional Facility yet. As I prayed, God impressed upon me to just let it happen. He would explain it later, so I obeyed. I wasn’t just weeping over the prisoners, but also over the enemy that I know is alive and well in that place.
Later that day as we were processed into the prison, things got real. As we stood in Yard A waiting to go into the chapel, prisoners all over the yard stopped to stare, mock, and laugh at us. We were in the heart of darkness, but I knew we were covered in prayer. The prisoners of the Kairos program had already gone through four days of intense unconditional love from strangers, from courageous Christian men. We were there to support them at their graduation, Kairos Class 127. They were at lunch and had no idea when they returned, there would be a group of 30 people from the outside there to support and encourage them. Most of these men only get one or two visitors a year, usually from their lawyers.
Over the weekend, they received drawings and bags full of letters from children all over the world, giving them encouragement and prayer. One of the facilitators opened up the ceremony and shared the theme for the weekend. It came from John 11:35, “Jesus Wept”. I almost fell out of my chair when he said this. All made sense as to why I had wept so bitterly that morning. In this passage, Jesus wept at the sight of his friend Lazarus lying dead. He felt the deep sadness of his friends, of a lost brother. He wept because Lazarus had succumbed to the darkness, defeated by the enemy. By the power of God Jesus raised his brother Lazarus from the dead that day. I had wept for these men because of their bondage, hopelessness, and the destruction they left outside the prison walls. I knew God could raise them from the dead as he did Lazarus, but would he? I soon had my answer.
As the ceremony began, the prisoners were able to stand and give their testimonies. With tattoos on their faces and hate permanently inked on their bodies, they began to cry as they tried to choke out coherent words. These were not superficial tears. They were tears of guilt and tears of joy as they began to proclaim what God had done for them over these last four days. God gave them salvation, forgiveness, and brothers in Christ that weekend, brothers from all different people groups.
Some of these men were in their early 20’s, some wheelchair bound, and one struggling with multiple sclerosis. They had never been able to forgive themselves for what they had done. These men were here for murder. Most were fatherless, lost, in gangs, abused, hated, told they were worthless, and believed in hating other people groups. Most of them had committed crimes in their youth. One of them had been in prison for 39 years. Another stood, a man with demonic tattoos all over his freshly shaven scalp. He said he didn’t know what the Christian angle was. What did they want from me? What’s the catch? Unconditional love and salvation was the catch. It changed him. It changed all of them. It changed me. They had never known what it meant for someone to love them, let alone love them and want nothing in return.
Not only were they remorseful for what they had done, they had to forgive the people in their lives who had wounded them so deeply. They also struggled to forgive themselves, which was probably the hardest thing to do. There was nothing fake about this. These men could face ridicule or be killed for showing emotion or saying they loved someone of another race, but that’s exactly what they did. In that small chapel I saw the Spirit of God at work and it’s something I will never forget. Instead of seeing hardened murderous gang members, I began to see the little boy that once was come out of them as they described how the love of Jesus had changed their lives. They made a commitment in front of a multitude of witnesses to bring what they had learned back into the yard. They wanted to show unconditional love to all people groups, just as it had been shown to them. They even prayed for the very Correctional Officers who control their lives.
Later in the ceremony, we had the blessing of worshiping together. I cannot describe what it’s like to hear a room full of prisoners stand and sing with their hands raised to God, shouting like a choir, his praises through worship music. As they sang, I closed my eyes for a moment and just listened to them. How powerful. I also can’t describe what it’s like to hear a man who knows he is never getting out of prison stand and say that he is free. That he has no more chains on his mind and that Christ has set him free. Most of these men knew something of God or religion prior to this weekend, but their testimonies, written on old napkins and scraps of paper, revealed they had disqualified themselves from the love of God. God could never love them. God could never forgive them.
Psalm 107 speaks of how God “shatters the doors of bronze and cuts in two the bars of iron”. I truly believe I witnessed this. To know that you will never be physically free, that someone else controls every minute of your day, and to proclaim that you are free is something I wish for all of us to know. After the ceremony, we had a chance to talk with them. I had the privilege of praying over some of them. I tried to pray for another prisoner and he said, “No, I’m going to pray for you”. Oh how humbling it was to place my hands into the solid grip of a man set free in his mind and soul and have him pray for my family. We weren’t supposed to, but I hugged as many of them as I could with the biggest bear hug I could muster. Touch is an incredibly powerful thing. These men probably don’t receive much good touch. In the last fleeting moments of the ceremony, before their lives became hell again, we prayed, we hugged, and we cried.
As Easter approaches, I want us to think deeper about what Christ has done for us. It’s not just pretty colors and Easter eggs. Sometimes our Christian Holidays become mundane, even routine. Yes, we know the story, but what does it mean to us personally? How many times have you murdered a brother or sister in your heart? Jesus says it is the same thing as actually murdering in God’s eyes. How many people in your life do you need to forgive? Who abused you, didn’t love you, lied to you, and told you that your life was worthless? Are you just pretending like it’s ok? Do you believe that because it happened so long ago it doesn’t matter? What walls have you built to keep everyone out? Do you live in a prison of your own mind?
Just like the prisoners who wrote down the people they needed to forgive, I encourage you to do the same. Be sure to write your name at the top of that list. There is no amount of darkness, anxiety, depression, or lies… absolutely no place where God will not meet you and save you. Your titles in life mean nothing. No person or institution can ever give you a name that is greater than what God calls you. You are called Beloved, Child of God, Forgiven, Redeemed, Blessed, Cherished, Known, made in his image, and are his everlasting inheritance. All you need to do is cry out to him for his Grace and Mercy. Ask for forgiveness and he will freely give it. Ask the Holy Spirit to fill your life. Ask him to change you and be Lord over your life. He will free you from the prison of lies, addiction, loss, and hate. He will make your sorrows turn to gladness and in the end will wipe away every tear. You will be truly free.
I implore you to be bold and invite everyone you can to Church to celebrate Easter this year. Invite the worst people you know. Invite those who you think have no hope. Invite those who you think do have hope. In God’s eyes all have hope. God made all people in his image and likeness. We have all have sinned. Invite the lost and wretched. Let them witness the hands and feet of a people who practice what they believe and are willing to reach out and show God’s unconditional love.
We believe that God resurrected Jesus from the dead in a real and literal way. If he can raise the worst criminals from the dead, he can also raise you from the dead. This is the power of the cross. This is why we celebrate Easter. We may think we wouldn’t, but every one of us would have swung that hammer as hard as we could at the nails which pierced Jesus’s precious body. The amazing thing is, he would do it again 100 billion times to save you, but he doesn’t have to. He paid the price once and for all. He loves you more than you can ever know.
He did it because his love has no measurable height, length, or depth. His love for you is unimaginable and inconceivable. He calls out to dry bones and the spiritually dead. He loved you before you were conceived, before the foundation of the world. He is the chain breaker. He will always love you. Christ calls you so listen to the whispers of his voice. As Christians often say, God does not call the qualified, he qualifies the called. If God can reach down into the darkest prisons, through the strongest walls, into the hardest of darkened hearts and save someone, you better believe he can save you or anyone you love. The gates of Hell will not prevail against his Church. We are the Church.
Please… join us at Covenant Grace Church to celebrate the greatest story ever. Easter is His-Story. Come and be forgiven, be changed forever and welcomed into the family of God. Cling to the precious hope of the cross. Be blessed and be filled with the Holy Spirit.