Recently Acts 29 member and Network Director for Georgia, Matt Adair, had the opportunity to preach to a group of 400 inmates a state prison. More than just seeing up to 50 conversions, he got the jaw-dropping gift of seeing “cultural outcasts discover that they could be part of God’s family because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus on their behalf.”
‘…he is not ashamed to call them brothers.’ (Hebrews 2:11)
I was arrested twice in high school – once for stealing a pack of baseball cards from an Albertson’s and then again several months later for using the same five-finger discount at a record store next door to pilfer a cassette single of Aerosmith’s ‘Sweet Emotion’. I spent a couple of hours in the juvenile detention center, was grounded by my parents for seemingly all of the 1991-1992 school year and dealt with the ignominious shame from the kids at church for being a thief and for my buddies on the baseball team for getting busted for something as weak as a Dean Palmer rookie card.
Somehow that criminal record (long since expunged from my record by the state of Texas) paled in comparison to what I walked into last week at Central State Prison in Macon, Ga. A medium-security facility, the prison houses 1,100 men, mostly mental health inmates and sex offenders. The warden is a man named Bill Terry, and two of his older sons have been part of the church I pastor in Athens, Georgia. So when Mr. Terry was looking for preachers for a 21-day revival in the prison, my name came up and I was invited down to preach and to bring a few men down from our church to be part of the event.
Grace and Peace to All
So we end up in a gym that looks a lot like a worship gathering for a church plant – temporary stage, folding chairs, audio/visual guys trying to build a production from scratch, a band that had everything from keys to drums to a saxophone to a guy on a Fender Strat warming up by playing Stevie Ray Vaughan’s ‘Pride and Joy’ note-for-note.
“God weaves the tapestry of our lives together for the declaration of his glory and the offer of grace and peace to men whose lives bear little evidence of either.”
I preached on Luke 7:18-23 where John (in prison) asks his cousin, Jesus, if He is the Savior-King, sent by God to rescue his people. It’s a great story to preach in a prison because what John wants to hear is Jesus say, “I am the King and I’m coming to set you free.’ And while Jesus does affirm that He is the One, he never promises to get John out of jail, even as he assures John that he is enough.
It was probably the most fun I’ve ever had preaching, which sounds odd given the gravity of the environment I was in, but the ethnic diversity and cultural Pentecostalism among the 400 men in the gym made for a very interactive sermon. And if I ever wondered why I’ve always had friends from different ethnic backgrounds and believe in the active work of the Holy Spirit, that night in the gym provided clear evidence that God weaves the tapestry of our lives together for the declaration of his glory and the offer of grace and peace to men whose lives bear little evidence of either as I listened to many of their stories afterwards.
Cultural Outcasts, Brothers of Christ
The night was a mile-marker for me, not simply because it’s the first time I’ve preached surrounded by razor wire or the fact that there were conversions and other evidences of God’s saving grace in the room. It was a surreal night, a jaw-dropping gift to see cultural outcasts discover that they could be part of God’s family because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus on their behalf.
But what hit me the hardest was the deep affection that the Spirit gave me while we were in the prison. It began when we walked to the gym with the warden’s wife and high school-aged son and watched grown men be forced to stop what they were doing and stand still as we walked past them. On one level, I was quite appreciative of the security measures being taken, but I couldn’t shake an empathy that couldn’t imagine being in their shoes, being asked to quit existing momentarily to let other people pass by like royalty. We walked into the gym and were greeted with hugs and hellos and more joy than I’ve ever experienced in any worship gathering or Christian event in my lifetime.
It wrecked me. I sat on the second row with tears streaming down my face as we sang songs with sketchy theology and listened to older men sing songs about heaven. What grabbed me then – and what continues to grab me as I write – is the Spirit-prompted reminder that many of these men are my brothers. And because of my past work with sex offenders, I know that many of their stories carry a great deal of shame because the stigma of their offense had convinced many of their biological family and friends to abandon them.
“Jesus knows every detail of their story and he is not ashamed to call them his brothers.”
So when I got up to preach, they gave me a 30-second standing ovation just because I was a dude who was going to preach to them (pretty sure you don’t get that on Sunday mornings in your gathering. That’s OK, it was a first for me!). And before I jumped into Luke 7, I told them I had a word from God to every man in the room who was a follower of Jesus. Now again, there’s a lot of Pentecostal mojo in the water, so they ate that up and listened loudly as I read Hebrews 2:8-11 and reminded them that Jesus knows every detail of their story and he is not ashamed to call them his brothers.
Church planter, I’m not sure what doors God will give you to proclaim the manifold glories of God’s passionate pursuit of love and justice that we call grace. But when that moment arrives with one person or a room full of convicted prisoners, my prayer for you is that God might grant you the grace of seeing them through Jesus’ eyes of brotherly love.