Being in Prison

Jeremiah 18:1-4
The word of the LORD came to Jeremiah: “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he refashioned it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.

Philemon 1-21
I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you.

Mother Teresa
May God break open my heart so completely that the whole world falls in.

* * *

One year ago this week, my son stood in federal court in Martinsburg to be sentenced by a federal judge for a crime to which he had pled guilty. Jonah was sentenced to 13 months in federal prison for the possession and distribution of marijuana. He began serving his time last October at the Federal Correctional Institute near Morgantown. His sentence ends on Nov. 9.

In case you hadn’t heard, he is now scheduled for early release at the end of this month and will finish the last six weeks of his sentence at our house under “home detention.” He will be free to return to his job at HBP, a printing plant in Hagerstown. He also may be allowed to attend church but not much more than that until his sentence is officially complete on Nov. 9.

Free, but not completely—like many of us confined in other kinds of prisons. Free but not completely.

Before my son’s incarceration, I had not given prisons much thought. I now think about prisons and prisoners a lot.

It was, of course, heartbreaking to see my son walk into that prison. Little did I know at the time that when a heart is broken the world might fall in. And that’s what happened to me. A whole world of prisons and prisoners fell into my broken heart. Little did I know that my heart would be refashioned by the Grand Potter. And little did I know that Jonah would be refashioned as well.

The word of the LORD came to Jeremiah: “Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house. The potter was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in his hand. He did not quit. He did not walk away. The potter refashioned his work into another vessel, as seemed good to him.

Over the past year my broken heart has been refashioned by the Grand Potter. Over the past year I’ve seen things and learned things I had not seen or known before.

Jonah was treated fairly and kindly by law enforcement officers and by the judge. But over the past year I learned that is not always the case. I learned that there is much injustice in the criminal justice system in the way laws are selectively and often racially enforced.

Over the past year I learned that the USA which is 5% of the world’s population holds 25% of the world’s prisoners. Prisons are bursting at the seams and we just keep building more and more prisons at great profit to a certain industry.

Over the past year I learned that more than half of the prisoners in state and federal prisons are men and women of color. I learned that the escalation of the war on drugs in the 1980s became a ruse for incarcerating and shackling millions of young African American men. I learned that as bad as prison can be, being an ex-con, a felon is even worse.

Over the past year, I also learned that nearly everyone is in one kind of prison or another, shackled and unfree. You know, those prisons of fear, grief, shame, guilt, resentment, despair or addiction to name just a few prisons that don’t come with iron bars or armed guards. And let’s not forget the prison of “perfectionism” that comes with self-inflicted torture and solitary confinement that can drive a person insane.

Over the past year I learned that we are all less free than we might be. There are many kinds of prisons and I’m guessing you are an inmate in at least one.

Over the past year I also learned that there is hope.

Observing the gradual transformation of my son I learned that though prison is hard, even there grace abounds. Being in prison, as it turns out, is like being anywhere else. Freedom is a state of mind more than a situation or location.

I once thought being in prison must be the end of the world. But I learned it can be the beginning of a new world, a new day. For, you see, no prison with or without walls can keep out the love of God.

As the Psalm (139) for today puts it:

O my Beloved, You have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up. You find me on the journey and guide my steps. Where could I go from your Spirit? Or how could I flee from your Presence? If I ascend into heaven, You are there! If I make my bed in Sheol (which is to say prison), You are there!

You may be famous, infamous or unknown but still the love of God is going to find you. The Holy One found Nelson Mandela in prison and fed him with the bread of life. Mandela was transformed—his life refashioned by the Grand Potter.

Once upon a time the Apostle Paul was in a Roman prison when a young man named Onesimus landed in his cell. Onesimus was a runaway slave and a criminal. Paul befriended him and taught him how he could be a prisoner of Christ, which is to say, a prisoner of Love, and thus a prisoner of nothing or nobody else. As it turns out, Jesus is the best warden a body could ever have.

Just before Onesimus was released Paul wrote a letter and sent it to his friend Philemon who owned, or thought he owned, Onesimus.

From Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, to Philemon my dear friend. Grace and peace to you. I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become while being in prison with him. I am sending him, that is, I am sending my own heart back to you. Perhaps he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but as a beloved brother. And so, my brother Philemon, refresh my heart in Christ.

Like Onesimus, prisoners today are sent back to their former homes and neighborhoods all the time. If only our society could learn to treat ex-cons and felons as brothers and sisters what a world of difference that would make.

Perhaps he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but as a beloved brother.

I now know that God’s love reached Jonah in many ways including through your letters, cards, magazines and good wishes sent to him through Jade, Paula and me. And God’s love reached a certain despondent inmate named Rick whom Jonah befriended on the first day and to whom many of you sent cards, letters and a subscription to the Wall St. Journal. Those acts of compassion lifted Rick’s spirits and he tells Jonah often.

Over this past year I learned of organizations that visit inmates to coach them in how to better survive once they are released. I learned of the Restorative Justice Program and groups that adopt inmates and help them find jobs and housing once they are released.

I once thought being in prison was the end of the world. But I learned it can be the beginning of a new world, a new day.

I don’t know what prison you’re in—maybe it’s the prison of perfectionism, or grief, resentment, addiction, fear, or just hopelessness. I don’t know what prison you’re in, but I know this: wherever or however you are shackled and bound, in the shadow of the night, you will hear the Beloved’s voice.

You don’t belong to the prison. You don’t belong to the jailer. You don’t belong to the guards. You don’t belong to the warden. You belong to me. In life and in death, in prisons of one kind or another, you belong to me. I love you and you are Mine.

* * *

You Are Mine.
I will come to you in the silence
I will lift you from all your fear
You will hear My voice
I claim you as My choice
Be still, and know I am near

I am hope for all who are hopeless
I am eyes for all who long to see
In the shadows of the night,
I will be your light
Come and rest in Me

I am strength for all the despairing
Healing for the ones who dwell in shame
All the blind will see, the lame will all run free
And all will know My name

I am the Word that leads all to freedom
I am the peace the world cannot give
I will call your name, embracing all your pain
Stand up, now, walk, and live

Chorus
Do not be afraid, I am with you
I have called you each by name
Come and follow Me
I will bring you home
I love you and you are mine