January 1, 2017
As I drove to my destination this morning, I was asking myself why I let myself get talked into these things. 'This thing' being preaching. At a state prison. During our prison ministry weekend last November, one of my teammates threw me under the bus by telling the chaplain that I was retired. The chaplain approached me later that day to ask if I would be willing to preach on Christmas and New Years Day. I thought about it, and replied that I wouldn't be able to do Christmas, but I would be happy to do New Years. Now I was regretting my decision.
Prison ministry doesn't lie within my comfort zone. Actually, it isn't anywhere near my comfort zone. It's in a different solar system than my comfort zone. But I gave my word, and I went.
I'm so glad I did.
The worship of these men was heartfelt, enthusiastic, and moving. The gentleman who led worship could have been a preacher himself, leading the singing then launching into a mini-sermon, among other things, asking if any of them liked to dance, then telling them that they used to dance with the devil, but now it was time to dance with the Lord. All the while, he is moving and gyrating, demonstrating in body language what he was saying verbally. He would go from a whisper to shouts of praise, leading in song, prayer, and spoken word.
I felt that anything I had to say would be anticlimactic, but it was enthusiastically received with shouts of "Amen!" and "Hallelujah!" My sermon was about getting one's joy back, from Luke 1; the contrasting stories of Zechariah and Mary. They both received good news, but Zechariah refused to believe it, and missed the joy of proclaiming to the world that he was going to be a father. Mary received the news, believed it, and rejoiced in it, even though it meant hardship for her.
I told of how Zechariah kept praying for a child long after he stopped believing that God would hear his prayer, and compared it to ourselves, asking how long they've been praying yet not believing God was listening. You might imagine they would be thinking of how they prayed to be released and God wasn't answering, but that wasn't their focus. The worship leader whose joy was overflowing mentioned in passing that he had already been in for twenty five years, enough to make most men bitter. But he was overflowing with joy. Another said that he hadn't been on the streets since the middle nineties.
I wish you could have been there worshipping with these men, seeing the joy on their faces, hearing the harmonies of their praise. They are paying the price for whatever crimes they committed, but in the process, have found true freedom in Jesus. As the worship leader said, "There are people on the outside who are more in jail than we are." Prison is not a nice place to be. I cannot imagine being incarcerated, knowing that I would not see the outside for even a year or two, much less twenty five or more. And yet, I could not imagine a better way to start out the new year than with what I experienced this morning, and I am deeply thankful for the privilege of learning from these men what real joy looks like.