Tag Archives: god

I went to jail. This is what I learned.

I went to jail. My hands were sweating. My breathing got heavy. I wondered if anyone I know would see me. I wondered what people would think.

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I started in booking. There was a guy near me in cuffs and he was getting patted down. He slipped off his shoes so the officer could search his socks.

“Turn this way,” I heard as he was instructed to have his mugshot taken. One to the front, one to the side.

Wow, this is real.

I looked to my left and saw a waiting room full of people who recently came out of a police car. They were waiting their turn for processing and meeting with the magistrate. Eyes were rolled. Heads were in hands. There were no smiles.

I saw the holding rooms where inmates would sit for hours or even days until they sobered up or decided they wanted to cooperate. I was told the windows were regularly replaced because people would smash their fists, or heads, into them.

Behind me was a padded room.

Clang clang clang. An officer walked by dragging shackles behind him.

I was so glad I could walk out at any time.

I receive a lot of mail at my office. Some are addressed to me, some to our senior pastor, some just to the church. Some are thank you letters from our ministry partners, some are newsletters, some are advertisements for mission trips. Last week, I received a letter that was unlike anything I had received before. This letter was from an inmate at the county detention center.

inmate_letter

The handwritten letter was photocopied and sent to many churches in the area pleading for Bibles for the inmates. Our church does not have a prison ministry of any kind. We have some members who participate with a local ministry by playing basketball or softball at prisons around the Southeast, but we don’t have any formal affiliation with the local prison.

This letter certainly piqued my interest and I wanted to know more about this inmate, the chaplain and the ministry in our detention center. After a quick search of the public database, I found that the inmate who wrote the letter was no longer there, but I contacted the chaplain who offered to take me on a tour of the facility.

I was excited for the opportunity, but as I drove to the detention center, I found myself growing more nervous. I’ve never been to jail before, so my presuppositions are strictly based on TV shows like Prison Break, reality shows like Locked Up and movies like The Longest Yard and The Rock (Say it with me in your best Sean Connery voice: “Welcome to The Rock.”)

The tour and discussion with the chaplain were very humbling and it was a privilege to be allowed access to the detention center. Here are a few of the more tangible things I learned.

  1. When you enter, you have no privacy. Each inmate is innocent until proven guilty. That’s a given and I was reminded of that very early on the tour. But, you have little to no privacy. As we stood in the processing area, the chaplain described the routine for incoming inmates. These people were feet away either being processed or waiting their turn. I wanted to interrupt and say, “Stop talking about them…they’re riiiiiight heeeere and can hear you.” As I already described, at the very moment we started talking about mugshots, there was a guy having his taken. Real life stuff.

    Each inmate’s records were there for the processors to see and review. Their past records were on display for those who had access. This is how God will judge one day. All our records will be on display. Nothing will be secret, nothing sacred, nothing hidden. My past is nothing to be proud of. My sin is wretched. But, through Christ, God sees me as clean.

  1. We saw the inmates the way God sees us. The chaplain mentioned this statement in passing, but it struck me as quite profound and it caused me to literally stop in my tracks to consider that statement. Looking out across the maximum security wing, I could see slivers of windows each filled with a set of eyes staring at us as we walked freely around the prison. I knew nothing of their crime other than they were guilty of breaking a law. But, hearing those words from the chaplain helped me see that in God’s eyes, my sin is no different than theirs. Romans 3:23 tells us that “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” My sin is every bit of disgusting to God as those of the inmates. My sin may not break the laws of our country or state, but they break the commands of God.

    But, there is great hope. In the very next line Romans 3:24 says “and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” By faith in Christ, I am able to be presented as pure and holy before God at the time of judgment.

  2. The unknown is terrifying. We stood in one of the more moderate security pods and the inmates walked around us. Some played cards, some were mopping the floors, some were making phone calls and some were separated in an exercise area just pacing. I’m embarrassed to say that I felt like I was in the middle of a jungle and I didn’t know which plants or animals were friendly or threatening. For a while, I tried not to make any eye contact with the inmates. I didn’t want anyone to think that I might be staring or judging. Some of the guys seemed like they did not belong. Others, it was obvious that they had been there before.

    Over time, I started considering how I would feel if it were me wearing the orange jump suit and locked up 22 hours each day. I would want love. I would desire friendship and a kind word. So, I began to make eye contact and greet the guys who walked around me.

  3. The officers and guards are amazing people. I met several Christians who worked with the inmates each day. They were steadfast in their job of keeping order and making sure the inmates conformed to the structure and expectations of the prison. Simultaneously, they were prepared to share the Gospel if initiated. They treated the inmates as brothers who needed help, because that is exactly what they were. The inmates may have been broken spiritually and apart from God, but they were not to be written off.

    I heard stories of attacks, people high and in a rage and others with several mental disorders. The officers who operate the facility are brave. I certainly could not experience what they have and continue to come back to work each day. They do a wonderful job of protecting our community and keeping the safety of the inmates as a priority. Everyday they go to work and see people on their worst days, but they press on. They should be commended.

  4. The ministry needs are real. The chaplain told me they go through 100-150 Bibles every month. Legally, they are only allowed to hand out a Bible if an inmate requests one. How terrible would it be to not be able to respond to that request? This is no different than a believer or someone desiring God in a country where the Gospel is forbidden. It should break our hearts to have someone crying out to read the Word of God but to have no resource to obtain it.

    After challenging our missions committee with the letter from the inmate, they wasted no time in committing a portion of our budget to purchase the Bibles they need. In a few days, we will have 600 NIV Study Bibles ready for inmates to consume God’s Word and learn of its offer of redemption and hope.

  5. The Gospel is real. I was told of stories of murderers who committed terrible, violent acts and will be locked up the rest of their lives. But, through the Gospel, they have been saved, purified and redeemed. One day, when they are no longer held to the laws of man, they will be seated in heaven as forgiven children of God. What great hope that gives us!

    It is estimated that about 85% of the people at the detention center are good people who made a selfish and poor decision. The others fell in to a spiral of crime or drugs. No matter the purpose for their arrest or incarceration, the concept of prison ministry is 100% real. These men and women have hit rock bottom and have nowhere else to turn but to the hope of heaven through Christ. Lives behind bars are not lived that have ended. In our very nature, we desire a higher being. When we struggle and want to cry out, we want someone to hear us.Many of the inmates have an idea of who Jesus is, but they lack a committed relationship with him. How will they gain this if they don’t have access to the Gospel? How will they have access to the Gospel if we don’t respond?

If you are interested in providing funding or actual books for the detention center in my community, please let me know. If you want to provide Bibles for your own detention center, contact the local chaplain and ask about their requirements and needs. For my local center, they can only receive books that are still sealed in the box from the publisher so no tampering can be done. The preference is for the books to be delivered directly to the prison. As for the type of Bible, they like to have KJV or NIV versions and large print would be a great added bonus since many inmates have poor site and no glasses. There are many option and some great deals at http://www.biblica.com.

Some Bibles are published specifically for prison ministry and include testimonials such as this one: http://www.biblica.com/en-us/search/?filter=&q=free+on+the+inside

The ones my church is sponsoring include study material like this one: http://www.biblica.com/en-us/niv-outreach-bibles.aspx?product-variants=1223

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But God.

I might be over the hill.

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After making the decision to answer God’s calling on my life and head into full-time ministry, I started having a tough time fully grasping that the best years of my career are ahead.

For the last decade, I had built a strong reputation in the digital advertising industry.  Colleagues respected me, clients enjoyed me, employees liked my training.  I was asked to speak at seminars, colleges and networking events.  I was driving revenue and evolving my long-term vision for the company.  I was wrapping up 10 consecutive years of increased income.  I had another couple decades of strong growth, increased earnings and advancement ahead.  And I was leaving it behind. 

I would be starting completely over.  I would be entering a new job with no formal training.  I would have peers with Master’s degrees and doctoral degrees and tons of practical experience.  I would have the least amount of seminary education on staff.  It would take me another decade to feel caught up, let alone ahead of the curve (where I try to be).

Sports, technology and entertainment have done a great job of skewing everything for us average joes.  LeBron James was drafted at 18 and became an overnight millionaire with contracts and endorsements.  Daniel Radcliffe’s popularity and frequency on magazine covers exploded when he took the role of Harry Potter at age 12.  Tech moguls are even more ridiculous – I think Zuckerberg created Facebook when he was just a fetus.

With all the hype surrounding these young entrepreneurs, actors and entertainers, you don’t often hear about people making an impact at a later age.  In the NFL, teams start casting aside their players when they hit 30.  If I were a professional athlete (wishful thinking) at this stage in my athletic life, I’d be considered washed up as a running back, on the decline as an outfielder and over the hill as a small forward.

As someone who was about to make a career change, I started struggling and doubting the impact I would really have.  My Christian education is way behind.  I’m starting seminary.  In my head, every student around me will have full books of the Bible memorized, know the full lineage of Christ and be profound ecclesiological thinkers.  I’m guessing (hoping) that’s not the case, but it certainly feels like I’m about to be parachuted right in to some astrophysics class.

I believe that the answers to our questions are contained within the pages of Scripture, so that’s where I turned for clarity and reassurance. Luke 3:23 tells us that Jesus’ ministry really didn’t start until he was in his early 30s (it helps when you are the firstborn Son of God, too).  Moses and Aaron were each in their 80s when God called them to speak to Pharaoh and lead people out of Egypt.  Peter served as the Rock in the church during the second half of his life.  God has a way of using people wherever they are for his glory.  God has knack of keeping us in check, for the good or for discipline.

I recently had the privilege of hearing a new friend and pastor preach.  He talked about his favorite two words in the Bible – ‘But God.’

Conjunction junction, what’s your function?  The function of ‘but’ is used to introduce something contrasting with what has already been mentioned.  ‘But God,’ is a phrase that offers hope, redemption, peace and life.

Acts 13:29-30 says, “When they had carried out all that was written about him (Jesus), they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. But God  raised him from the dead.” 

Sin had seemingly crushed the Son of Man, but God gave us hope!

Romans 5:7-8 says, “Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

Aside from maybe our families, most people won’t lay down their life for someone else.  But God sacrificed his son for all, even while we were acting against him.

I was questioning myself and assessing my inadequacy, But God had other plans.

Simultaneously, while I was going through the process of sorting out my future in ministry, our church in SC was already praying about how they could bring us home.  My wife and I helped start our Acts 1:8 missions team several years earlier and continued to be a committee run by lay leaders.  But, our church had continued to be faithful to missions both physically by going and financially through giving.  Our activities and partnerships had grown so much that it became more than the lay lead committee and a portion of a pastor’s time could handle.  The time had come to add a full-time missions pastor.

That’s when I got the call.

I was in North Carolina leading seminars that taught advertisers how to effectively use digital marketing for their businesses and also going on four-legged sales calls with the local team.

“When are you gonna be around these parts again?” our executive pastor asked.  I was in a town 45-minutes from our home church and about 20-minutes across the border in North Carolina.  I told him I was nearby and we agreed to meet for dinner at an Outback Steakhouse (apparently all my life-changing religious events happen at restaurants.)

Throughout the next day, I kept getting text messages from the executive pastor.  He had a busy day of counseling and our dinner appointment kept getting moved later and later.  I figured if he needed to move it again, it might not happen at all.

“Do you think this is ‘the talk’?” my wife asked.  “I sure hope so,” I replied.  We had been praying regularly that one day we would have the opportunity to be on staff at our church, but this seemed so unreal and unlikely that it would happen so fast.

The time finally came for us to meet.

“So, you guys still want to be in ministry one day, huh?” he said.

“Definitely,” I replied.  “We’re just trying to be obedient and available whenever and wherever God wants us to serve.”

Hearing the questions and seeing the huge smile on my friend’s face, I could easily see where the conversation was headed.  I answered a few more questions about our direction, family support and willingness to leave behind a fantastic job.

“Well, we’re ready to have a missions pastor and we’d like it to be you.”

That was the best steak dinner I’ve ever had.

That one statement, that one conversation, that one offer made everything that had gone on over the last 18 months, the last five years, even the last 32 years make perfect sense.  It was the ultimate But God experience.  I was starting to question the timing and my ability to benefit a church, but God showed me a church body that was praying for me and wanted me to come serve them just as I was.  They knew I didn’t have any seminary training yet.  They knew I had only been involved with missions for a handful of years, but they wanted me anyway.

It’s the same way with God.  He knows we aren’t perfect.  He knows all our faults.  He knows our sin.  But, he wants us anyway.

The dinner conversation with the executive pastor was wonderful, but not nearly as beautiful as the one I was about to have with my wife.

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Plans, pigeons and prayers

Ten days after we made the decision to pursue ministry full time, I called my best friend.

“That just made my whole day,” he said when I told him the news.

It felt good hearing that.  We were excited and it was an amazing feeling to finally tell some people, especially him.

I had been on a mission trip with him and some others during the summer of 2012, while I was still living in Florida.  We have some dear friends who live in North Africa and we went to support them.  As the trip neared the end, we had a special prayer time in our friends’ apartment.  I was so teared up and torn up that I couldn’t even express a verbal prayer.  I realized then how much I missed my friends.  Leaving that trip was going to be like leaving South Carolina all over again.

This is why it was so comforting to start telling people what God had put on our hearts.  We started feeling the comfort of our friends again.

I considered the plan we made.  Step one, find a job in SC.  Step two, get into seminary.  Step three, graduate and find a job in ministry. Very early in our process of moving back to South Carolina, I had a job interview.  I just knew that I was going to get the job.  I knew that God was behind it.

I sat in a parking lot overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway on my lunch break while I spoke to a recruiter.  I was watching a flock of pigeons (or are those flocks?  gaggles?  herds?), anyway, a bunch of pigeons eating some feed that someone threw out.  There was one bird that looked…unkempt.  Another way to say it is the bird looked downright sketchy.  He looked like someone gave him a bag of donuts and a bag of meth.  You know the way your hair (not mine since I don’t have any) looks when you wake up in the morning?  The bird look like that.  I’ve never seen a bird with messed up feathers before.  I even think the bird had a lazy eye.  I made sure my doors were locked.  The strung out bird-thing looked something like this:

Image_pigeon

While I was staring at this bird, I noticed that no other birds came near him.  I guessed he also hadn’t seen a birdbath in a while.  I chuckled at the sight of this bird for a moment, but then became saddened.  There was something wrong with this bird.  Maybe he was born that way.  Maybe he got struck by a car or flew into a window and was injured at some point.

Over time, I started feeling like that bird.  I started feeling alienated.  I started feeling neglected.  I didn’t get that job after all.  In fact, not a single company that I sent my resume to contacted me.  I had a fantastic resume.  I was 31-years-old and a corporate advertising executive for one of the fastest growing media companies.  I had a strong six-figure salary with a bonus potential more than some people make in a year.  I had been promoted often and had a vast knowledge of the industry.  I was applying to jobs that were below the level of my first job out of college.  Nothing.  No emails.  No calls.  Silence.

It was at that point that my prayers started becoming more silent, too.  I never doubted that God was calling me into ministry, but I was doubting the timing.  It was a daily struggle to try and understand that balance between what I was feeling and what was actually happening.  Discerning God’s will is not an easy task.  Getting out of my own way and letting God work is an even harder one.

At service one Sunday, God reminded of me of some important verses.

Therefore do not lose heart.  Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.  For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. – 2 Corinthians 4:16-17

In just a couple short lines, God steered me back on the path.  So what if things were not happening as I had planned?  So what if these companies didn’t call me back?  So what if things weren’t happening as quickly as I had hoped?

I started praying boldly.  I started praying very intentionally.  It was difficult for me to get to this point.  I really struggled to figure out if I was being obedient by praying specifically, or if I was being selfish by telling God what I wanted.

I started praying that God would guide me to a time where my former church home was ready to have a missions pastor.  I knew it was down the road and could be years, but I asked God to place me there.  I asked that the church would become financially able to add a staff position and have the workload to justify it.  I asked that he would prepare me through seminary to be the missions leader they would one day require.

Looking back, I noticed something about that freaky pigeon.  As lonely as he seemed at the time, someone was still feeding him.  He was still getting nourished by the food that was sprinkled out on the ground before he even arrived.  And you know what?  I started getting fed as well.

I finally got a the call I had been waiting for.

From the church.

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Take your tractor to work day

As I was preparing to leave for work this morning, Rylan insisted that I take his Matchbox tractor with me.  Since it’s perfectly acceptable for grown men to have toys in a corporate workplace, I obliged.

So, I headed to the car with my coffee, iPad and banana.  And tractor.

I’ve had to travel a lot recently and I’ll be gone for most of the rest of September.  I figured that any way I could connect with Rylan while I’m at work, it would help him feel like he was part of my day.  So, I decided that I would start taking photos of his tractor throughout my day and message them to my wife to show him.  Here are the shots.

I’ve been reading through Joshua recently and this exercise got me thinking about how God is with us and desires to connect with us throughout the day as well.  Joshua 1:5 says “No one will be able to stand up against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you.”

God is a promise keeper.  God guarantees us that he will be with us on our toughest days, in our lowest valleys and on our highest mountaintops.

Joshua 1:9 continues on to say, “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.”

God is a constant comforter.  He knows that we can become unsettled, stressed out and over-anxious.  He knows that we struggle to keep our priorities set on him.  He knows that we get cut off in traffic, spill coffee on our notes, burn our mouths with pizza cheese and struggle with jammed printers.  We need God to remind us throughout the day that he constantly loves us and is with us, just as Rylan knew from our tractor experience today that I was thinking of him and loved him.

Even though I was not physically with Rylan between 7:30a – 5:15p, his father was still thinking of him and loving him all day.  Here’s the awesome part.  God is with us all the time.  Physically.  If you’re a believer in Christ, then you have God’s holy spirit living inside you.  If you haven’t yet placed your faith in Christ and you feel like you have a void in your life, he will fill it.

In my upcoming travels to exotic places like Kinston, NC and Sarasota, Gainesville & Ocala, FL, I’ll have to find a way to sneak the tractor out the door and continue to remind Rylan how much I miss being around him, his sister and his mommy while I’m at work.

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Pop-Tarts and kid prayers.

If prayer is a priority, your priorities will be in your prayers.

I had to work late tonight (yay, Friday), but made it home to put our son to bed.  The routine includes reading 2-3 books, daddy saying prayers, Rylan saying prayers, tucking in and then coercing Rylan to stay in bed.

A few years ago on one of my East Asia trips, my roommate was praying with his family on Skype and I overheard his child thanking God for dirt and soccer.  There is nothing cuter than listening to the prayers of a little kid.

Tonight, Rylan thanked God for the following things:

  • Jesus (good start, little buddy)
  • Mommy
  • Daddy
  • Bailey (little sister)
  • Rylan (himself)
  • Daddy (twice!)
  • Pizza
  • Pop-Tarts (uh, I suppose I’m grateful for them?)
  • Church (OK, back on track)
  • Safe travels (family is coming to town next week)
  • Jennifer (his aunt)
  • The playground

For Rylan, these are the things he loves.  Sometimes his prayers include gratitude for the events of the day.  Sometimes they include his toys or Disney World.  They almost always include his family and his love for going to church.  These are the priorities of a three-year-old.

What do your prayers consist of?  Are you always asking, asking, asking?  Constantly sending God your dirty laundry, but withholding his much-deserved thanksgiving?  I know fall in to that routine regularly and need little reminders from an innocent kid prayer to break the cycle.

What can I pray about for you today?

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