Tuesday, March 02, 2010

A New Heritage

From Psalm 61

Hear my cry, O God;
listen to my prayer.
From the end of the earth I call to you,
when my heart is faint.

Lead me to the rock
that is higher than I;
for you are my refuge,
a strong tower against the enemy.

Let me abide in your tent for ever,
find refuge under the shelter of your wings.
For you, O God, have heard my vows;
you have given me the heritage of those who fear your name.

So I will always sing praises to your name!

Every Tuesday I drive to the prison where my husband, Ken, is chaplain. I lead a weekly Bible study there, "Principles for Successful Living." We're studying the Sermon on the Mount. First the gatehouse, scanner and metal detectors, razor wire, fences and a gate and then a van ride to the pointy-topped chapel building.

In the chapel basement, men are milling about, checking out books from the chapel library, heading upstairs to practice for choir, selecting greeting cards to send home, talking to the chaplain. There are smiles and friendly conversation. The little room where our Bible study is about to begin is crowded with very uncomfortable plastic chairs. The air is a stuffy and smells like sweat, hair pomade, floor wax and something unidentifiable.

In come "my guys" as I always think of them. Today the room is crowded, all but one chair occupied. I look around the room. There is J, young, sad eyes, always smiling gently. J is quiet but when he does have something to say it is worth hearing. He wants to learn Greek so he can study the New Testament in its original language. I don't want to know what this handsome young man, who worries about his mom and prays for his family, did to come here.

Across the room is H, pale and freckled with red hair pulled back in a long ponytail, always leaning forward in anticipation, Bible on knee. There is S, the slowest of the group, dumpy, stringy blond hair, thick glasses, not very clean. He never speaks, but he nods when he likes a point we are making. He always has a sort of questioning look on his face. I'm sad for him because it seems like normal interaction is beyond him. He comes every week though, so he must be enjoying something.

T is smiling broadly. His skin is as smooth as a child's and is a beautiful coffee-with-cream shade. It is impossible to tell his age. He speaks without a trace of the urban accent so prevelant in prison. "I'm so glad to be back, pastor! I spent six weeks in AODA programming. I'm glad I did it and I learned good things, but I certainly missed you and the others here," and he gestures happily around the room before shaking my hand warmly.

W is an elderly man, grizzled hair, deep wrinkles. I'm pretty sure he is a "lifer." He always treats me with grave courtesy. He's been here a long time. The others respect him and if I didn't know better I might think he was an elderly pastor or church deacon. He knows his Bible and has spent a lot of time studying over the years. His words are measured and insightful. C is the loud one, short and broad in stature, and always wanting to be heard. He is a little hard to deal with, but if I ask for someone to pray he always volunteers and his prayers always touch my heart. He is a kid in a grown body. He worries if he will make it when he gets out and frequently asks me to pray that he will learn what he needs to learn in order not to come back. P is scary, the only one in the room who actually looks like what most of us picture when we hear the word "felon." He looks like a biker bad boy, has a hard face, tattoos on his hands, scars on his face and a perpetual wary, closed expression. His arms remain folded, and he leans back in his chair, but he stays.

There are several more. As we find Bible verses, ponder, discuss, and pray, it could be any Bible study in any church basement, but I am always acutely aware that some of these men have no home to return to, or they have families who gave up on them long ago. Many are from the inner city and will return there when they are released. This week one man quietly confides that his mandatory release date is approaching but so far his social worker has found no halfway house for him. He is worried and the fear shows in his eyes, but he shrugs and says, "Something will turn up."

Why am I sharing this? Because when I read this:

Let me abide in your tent for ever,
find refuge under the shelter of your wings.
For you, O God, have heard my vows;
you have given me the heritage of those who fear your name

I think of these men. They are out of sight and out of the minds of most of us, except for when someone complains about the country club atmosphere of US prisons. (I always wonder if any of those people have actually been inside a prison. It is not a country club.) But they are here, behind walls, razor wire fences, and locked gates. They cry, laugh, go to church, sing in the choir, study over at the prison school. There are exceptions, but mostly they are men with dreadful pasts and little hope for the future. Their heritage has been poverty, absent fathers, sexual experiences no child should have, drugs, gangs, violence and hopelessness. Those who do find their way to the chapel often are longing for refuge, for shelter and safety they may have never known.

But as I look at them, here to study God's word with me, I rejoice that they have received a different kind of heritage. They are my brothers in Christ, and I always sense the presence of the Holy Spirit when I am at the prison chapel.

God loves them. God sees them--drab clothes, guarded faces, shuffling with nowhere special to go. For the few who are willing, he grants a new heritage, one of hope and love and possibilities.

Are you among those who do not have a heritage of a godly home and loving parents? You do not have to be incarcerated to be among those of us who inherited pain.

God sees, and God loves you. God is the safe place.

Psalm 16:1-2
Keep me safe, O God, for in you I take refuge.
I said to the LORD, "You are my Lord;

apart from you I have no good thing."
As for the saints who are in the land,

they are the glorious ones in whom is all my delight.

No comments: