Monday, September 14, 2009

What I Learned in Prison - Part 1

Situated outside of Columbia, NC is Tyrrell Prison Work Farm, a minimum custody facility. It houses many offenders. Most of them are young men who have drug offenses, usually selling them. There are also some non-violent offenders there. They committed crimes like check forgery, credit card fraud, and similar offenses. Yet there were also MANY older men who had been locked up a long time who have just worked through the prison levels from maximum, to medium, to minimum security. These have committed serious and violent crimes. Many had life sentences given to them. Through time served and good behavior they worked their way up to minimum custody to finish their sentences.

Prison was indeed the last place in my life I would have imagined finding myself. The chain of events that led me there for 15 months was something I’d never desire to go through again. It was far from the ‘hard time’ of a close-custody facility, but it was still prison. And it was inside the gates and razor wire over the course of many days, weeks, and months that I learned numerous lessons about my faith and what a Christian lifestyle really looked like.

Right now many of you are shocked and thinking, “I didn’t know Yager went to prison! Just what did he really do?” Put your minds at ease! I went to prison for 15 months, but each day I got to go home! I was employed by the NC Department of Correction, put there by God, not by the legal system. Although, I can think of a handful of people that would have liked me to have been permanently incarcerated there!! But I digress. For 15 months I had the unique opportunity to be a Clinical Chaplain, and was blessed to be able to minister to men (and occasionally their families) who had experienced far worse things than I ever have, or ever hope to experience.

My new-found congregation had as many 570 members. The numbers shifted from week to week, but that was the average. They all wore the same green jumpsuit every day, whether it was to church, to work, or to eat. Church services were held each Sunday night for about 90 minutes. An outside group called “Yokefellows” came each week for peer counseling; and I even taught a mid-week Bible study. Once a year we even had what could only be called a Revival with services each night for a week. One of the maintenance crew had built a baptistry for us where I immersed many men into Christ for the forgiveness of their sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. We had an inmate choir complete with a praise band. Plenty of stories could be told about that group, sometimes referred to as “the Christian mafia” by the staff!

I always smile to think that I went from upstanding, clean-cut {for the most part!} Bible College students with a bright future to murderers, rapists, child molesters, and more drug dealers than I could count. The first inmate who greeted me each morning as I came to work is serving life for burglary and rape. The second one I usually passed each morning is doing life for 2nd degree murder. I had a Chaplain’s Clerk, now released, doing 6 years for 2nd degree rape. Fortunately for me, he was one of the most ‘respected’ inmates there, and one of the biggest. His nickname was “truck.” That pretty much sums up his size!

The first week or two that I passed under the razor wire, and through the various gates were very intimidating. Every prison movie I ever saw came to mind as I passed through the yard filled with many more inmates than Officers. After that I just viewed it as going to work, and hardly noticed the ‘prison’ aspect. Well, that’s mostly true. There was one day I was near-by where a fight broke out and ended up getting in the cross-fire of pepper-spray. This vividly reminded me I wasn’t in the local church building any more. I did have the officers who wrote the report include, “The Chaplain was inadvertently sprayed in the fight, but took it like a man!”

You’ll hear people often scoff that “everyone gets religion in prison.” But such is not the case. Many inmates chose not to attend the various services we offered, or attend the peer counseling groups, etc. It is also true that some may have attended just as a diversion from a very routine schedule. Some, I’m sure, abandoned their faith as soon as they were released. They may be like the inmate who told me he had been locked up ’27 times.’ And that guy was younger than me. But I’d like to believe that some who found Christ in prison took their faith beyond their sentence and incarceration and have experienced new lives outside the prison fence. I’m reminded that I know many people who have never been arrested who once claimed a relationship with Jesus, but for whatever reason do not desire to have one with Him any longer. I’ve seen countless kids at camp or youth groups have conversion experiences who are no longer in the Church. The same thing holds true for both those in and out of prison. Sometimes long-term faithfulness isn’t part of their plans.

One of the first lessons I’ll share from my prison experience is how when the masks, or veneers, or facades are removed, there is both a realness and a realization of who you are, and where you stand in life, and before Almighty God. There is a perception among many that every inmate claims they weren’t guilty. They were set-up. They were “victims” of false identification; police corruption; or for some other reason they didn’t deserve to be locked up. Ask some law enforcement officers some time how many of the people they arrest claim to be innocent.

This is one thing that truly surprised me and it blew away that preconceived idea: I only met one person among the hundreds that came in and out of that unit while I was there who said, “I didn’t do it.” The majority readily admitted their guilt to me. It was as if they were seeking someone who would listen. They had been found guilty by the State of NC, and rightly so. They wanted to know, however, if a Higher Authority had anything other than judgment and condemnation for them. It was my opportunity, even privilege, to introduce them to the God of forgiveness and salvation. I couldn’t do anything to shorten their sentence, but since I had them as a ‘captive audience’ {forgive the pun} I did endeavor to share with them the love, mercy, and forgiveness offered by Jesus!

Each week as dozens of men came in and out of my office I heard the confessions of crimes they committed. I could read the chilling reports in their files of what they had done. From gruesome murders that could make even Hollywood squeamish, to unspeakable crimes against small children, these men told me things I wasn’t expecting to hear. My office became a confessional of sorts, and the only absolution I could offer them was the blood of Christ. They still had to do the time, but I wanted them to know there was something better for them, something life-changing. They didn’t deserve it, but then neither did I. Neither do you. That is what God’s grace is all about.

I’ve come to believe that these inmates saw me in a far different light than the Correction Officers who made sure they obeyed the rules, or could write them up, or throw them in the hole (i.e. solitary). They didn’t see me as the police, the prosecutor, or the judge. Most saw the Chaplain as the one person in their world who just might listen to them without more condemnation or judgment. I think they had plenty of that already. They saw the Chaplain as God’s representative, the Lord’s servant, who just might have a kind word, or be able to present some better options for them.

Being a Chaplain in prison taught me that I had previously been too quick to judge and pronounce sentence. I was good at labeling sin, and proclaiming what was right, and what was wrong. Maybe I had even become too good at that. I previously had no use for those who committed these heinous and wicked crimes. Yet I was now reminded that these offenders were also sinners who could be forgiven. These were indeed the very lost that Jesus came to seek and save (see Mk. 10:45). Too many are quick to judge, but slow to reach out to the ones who stand condemned.

So many examples from Scripture come to mind. Perhaps none so compelling as that woman caught in the very act of adultery. The guilt of her sin, specifically condemned in the Ten Commandments, was never in doubt. It was never even debated what she deserved. But what she found from the Savior Jesus was far different than what everyone else was prepared to do to her. She found in Christ a voice of forgiveness not another joining in the shouts of condemnation. His admonition to “sin no more” said all that was needed about her guilt. His offer of pardon to her tells the story of God’s grace and mercy: “Neither do I condemn you” (See Jn. 8:3-11)

People can get accusations, gossip, judgment, and condemnation anywhere. But God’s servant must be a voice of hope carrying a message of forgiveness through the blood of Jesus. This doesn’t mean that we cannot stand opposed to violent behavior and even agree with strong punishments for the convicted criminal. But in the spirit of, “there but for the grace of God go I” we offer God’s plan of forgiveness, reconciliation, and redemption. I want to be a Christian who can see beyond guilt and short-comings. I like so well the words of the hymn, “Seeking the Lost” that say:

“Thus would I go on missions of mercy, following Christ from day unto day; Cheering the faint and raising the fallen, pointing the lost to Jesus the Way” (William A. Ogden, 1886).

Hear again the words of the writer of Hebrews, “Remember the prisoners, as though in prison with them….” (Heb. 13:3). Who do you know that has been judged, condemned, and thrown away by the world, and maybe even by Christians? They still need to hear about the love and forgiveness offered by Christ. Become a Chaplain to them!

“C’mon, Murphy. Let’s go outside!”

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

When Did Worship Become a Spectator Sport?

For the past couple of months I've been excited about the approach of Sept. 27th. Mary bought us tickets for my birthday present to go to Phoenix so we can watch Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts play the Arizona Cardinals. I'm counting down the days for that trip! I've always enjoyed going to games, whether it was the Reds games I watched when I was in grad. school in Cincinnati, or the local minor league Norfolk Tides. I love to go to the hockey games when the number of fights exceed the number of goals scored in the game!

When it comes to sports I have to confess I'm a spectator! Whatever gifts or talents I received in life did not include much in the area of athletic abilities. And I'm ok with that! If Lebron James won't try to teach Greek I won't try to match up with him on the court! We all have our place, and mine will be happily in the stands with a hotdog in one hand, a coke in the other! Let the games commence.

But I'm concerned that the gathering of the Lord's people in many congregations has also become a spectator event rather than a participatory opportunity. Even the phrases that are frequently used make me think we are but lowly spectators to the worship of others. For example, it is typical to hear that (insert name here) is "doing" worship. What does "doing worship" mean? Is he or she the only one worshiping? Am I worshiping by proxy? Is my worship experience only as good as the person singing or playing up front? If they aren't that good have I not really worshiped?

Years ago preachers used to joke about the revival speakers who had "7 good sermons and a fast car." Perhaps that should be amended to the Worship Leader who has "7 good songs and some great speakers." For some, the quality of "worship" is only as good as the band! If they stink, I guess worship stinks. If they are great, then worship is great. Is it even possible to worship without them doing it for me? Sounds almost like we have "worship priests" who do what we poor peons in the chairs are now sadly unable to do for ourselves. We have strayed far from the practices of the New Testament Church, and this is a glaring example!

All God's people can - and should - worship! When we go to worship it is not to watch someone else show how close they are to God, it is for us to "bend the knee" to Him ourselves. As Jesus approached Jerusalem and the people were crying out Hosanna, the Pharisees told Him to tell them to stop. Jesus said, "... if these become silent, the stones will cry out" (Lk. 19:40). Christ was to be praised by all people, not just the apostles, or the elite of the day. In fact, God is not so impressed with those who offer lofty, eloquent prayers as the one who goes into his prayer closet and pours out his heart to God (Mt. 6:5-7). The "look at how good I am" prayer of the Pharisee earned him nothing, but the humble prayer of the publican brought forgiveness (Lk. 18:10-14).

The Restoration Movement ideal of the "priesthood of all believers" must extend to the worship of all believers. God seeks - He actually looks for - people who will worship Him. Jesus declared that God seeks those people who will worship Him in "spirit and truth," going on to say that the worship God accepts is done just that way, in spirit and in truth (Jn. 4:23, 24). Yet in our "seeker sensitive" mentality we have let just one guy pray, and one group sing, and we have watched passively from our seats as good spectators, but have we worshiped? We stand when they tell us, and sit when they tell us, but have we been active in worship?

Our gathering with the Lord's people on the Lord's day around the Lord's table is preparation for eternity. Paul noted that "every knee will bow" and "every tongue will confess Jesus as Lord" (Phil. 2:10, 11). Church leaders must not be content with hiring staff or finding volunteers to do the worship. They must teach God's people to be active participants in the worship experience, not mere spectators at the show.

So look for me in amazing HD on September 27th on the NBC Sunday night game. I'll be in my seat - ROW 8 - on the 30 yard line. For those 3 hours or so I will be one happy spectator. But when God's people gather for worship, don't just sit passively in the stands while others have the joy and responsibility of worship. Be active in worshiping the Lord yourself!

C'mon, Murphy, let's go outside!