What I saw in the prison chapel

Thank you for bearing with me as I have been working on the subscriber function for this blog. It looks like we are all set up now so that subscribers will receive an email message when there is a new post. I have not been as faithful in writing lately, partly because there has been quite a bit of travel for speaking engagements. But I hope to get back into a rhythm of posting at least once a week.

I wish you all could have been with me when I spoke this past Tuesday at a men’s prison in the Dallas area. I don’t know the crimes for which most of the men there are doing time (and I generally don’t feel the need to know), but they are serving long sentences. A few of them told me they had been in for 25 years. Think of that. Never used a cell phone. Maybe never even used a computer. No idea what Facebook or any social networking experience is like. Can you imagine? In my talk I mention a metaphor using GPS, and of course I had to explain that to them.

Prisons vary greatly from one to the next. The one where I spoke on Monday placed us in a large gym with no air conditioning and huge fans blaring so loudly that I felt like I had to shout. But on Tuesday, this prison had a new air conditioned chapel with a huge gorgeous stained glass window, perfect rows of chairs, an excellent sound system with a wireless microphone, and screens on either side where an inmate projected slides with my photo and the title of the talk. The same inmate gave an eloquent introduction that he appeared to have copiously prepared. At the end of the talk during our discussion period, he was helping me to answer some of the tough theological questions that came up. It was a beautifully uplifting experience for me just to witness these men so sincerely seeking answers and sharing from their hearts. And, oh, did they know the Bible! I kind of wanted to just shut up and listen to them talk, which I did for a while.

At the back of the chapel as I walked in I had noticed a plaque with this verse from (the King James Version): “For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God” (Romans 8:14).  The worship space had been dedicated as the “Sons of God” chapel. Before I started the talk, I felt led to mention that I had seen the plaque at the back and to ask them, “How many sons of God do we have here today?” Many of them raised their hands. I told them that I knew each of them to be a son of God and that I felt so honored to stand before them.

What stood out to me in this experience is that people respond to how we treat them and the conditions in which we place them. The inmates I spoke to on Monday were respectful and for the most part attentive. It was a good experience despite the heat and the poor sound system. But on Tuesday, joining them in that beautifully appointed chapel with gleaming floors and high ceilings, a chapel that bore a name that would remind them of who they truly are every time they entered, the experience was on a whole different level. These gentlemen sat forward for the whole talk and followed up with a half hour of insights and thoughtful questions that could have continued all night. On their way out, they pleasantly shook my hand and expressed appreciation for the visit. There was something about this experience that set it apart from my visits to other prisons, as positive as each one has been. It was like these men were more awake to who they really were. And I honestly wonder if it had something to do with that chapel and the spirit there.

People respond to how we see them. Mary Baker Eddy realized that Jesus’ ability to heal was directly connected to how he viewed those who approached him. She says, “Jesus beheld in Science the perfect man, who appeared to him where sinning mortal man appears to mortals” (Science and Health, p. 476). The “Science” Eddy is referring to here, in my understanding, is simply a term for a set of laws governing the universe in a way that we can prove in our daily experience. One of those divine laws is found in Genesis 1:26 where it says that God saw everything in creation and pronounced it good. That applies to each of us, including these men I met on Tuesday.

When I was on my flight down to Dallas, I was sitting across the aisle from a sweet family with a two year old boy named Alex. He was quite friendly, even giving out free hugs as people walked by. But he was also a bit restless and really wanted to run up and down the length of the plane, which his father would not allow. Alex was wearing suspenders, and every time he started to run off, his dad would give those suspenders a little tug to bring him back to safety where he could see him. This image really stuck with me, and it kept coming to mind as I was standing before these inmates on Tuesday. In fact, I shared the image with them, telling them that just as Alex’s dad gave his suspenders a tug when he was trying to run away, our Father-Mother God keeps us close and draws us back gently if we start to wander off.

And even if we have wandered far, as it seems these men in prison have, each one of us is still, and always will be a son or daughter of God. Seeing that in one another is a tremendous gift that can yield results beyond what we might envision.

For a special treat, take a look at this video I found online of a service that another group did in the prison I visited Tuesday. You can see the beautiful chapel and the lovely faces of these inmates who are also called sons of God.