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Its time for an increased degree of honesty, I think. When I read the words of Jesus’ commission as presented in Luke’s Gospel, echoing the words of the prophet Isaiah, I see them as His commission and not applying to me.
Perhaps I am wrong in that conclusion.
2000 years ago, an itinerate Rabbi in Palestine was attending the Shabbat service in his home town of Nazareth. As the time came for the reading of the Haftorah (Prophets) portion of the Scriptures the Rabbi was asked to come forward and read. The attendant handed him the Isaiah scroll which the Rabbi opened and read:
“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour, …” Isaiah 61:1, 2a.
Dr. Luke the author of the Gospel which bears his name, gives us this added insightful comment, “And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”” Luke 4:21.
This event at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry gives us a glimpse of what was to come and is re-iterated near the close of his ministry in Matthew 25:35-40:
“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’”
‘I was in prison and you came to me.’ If we pause to let this concept resonate in our spirit, do we see that God is present with those who are incarcerated? When we visit the imprisoned, we see Jesus present with them.
In this short quotation from Isaiah, we see that the mission of the Rabbi was fourfold:
To bring good news to the poor;
To bind up the brokenhearted;
To proclaim liberty to the captives; and,
To open the prisons for those who are bound.
It becomes apparent that the Rabbi Yeshua/Jesus had a particular focus on the disadvantaged in our society and sought to rectify the situations which the culture had promulgated on the citizenry.
Yes, that is an interesting event in the ministry of Jesus, but how does that concern me here in the 21st century?
That perspective was acceptable until my friend Robert became involved with the law.
Robert is a friend of decades and is one of the most passionate, zealous people I have ever known, whether in sales or sharing his faith, all receive equal fervour. Life for him has taken some abrupt changes over the years, from the day his infant son died in his arms, to facing legal issues through a wrongful accusation. I followed Robert and his wife through this latter catastrophe which saw justice denied within the court system. Appeals fell on deaf ears and soon sentence for both of them was pronounced, putting them at the mercy of a penal system more about demeaning and punishment than restoration.
Its understandable that people want to distance themselves from those who have been confined due to conflict with the law. Like a pariah, they have become an outcast.
Bounced from one institution to another, Robert’s friends soon dropped away, leaving his two young adult children to visit. Days were long in confinement and one had to be alert to situations which could result in injury or worse. However, Robert used this time to make friends, teach others, encourage others, and share his faith in God and in his fellow inmates.
I wanted to visit my friend, but its a lengthy process to visit someone in prison - applications, security checks, specific appointments arranged, body scans, any valuables placed in lockers - before being able to meet. During such visits, bells would ring requiring inmates to report to a superior that they were present and accounted for.
The vending machines in our meeting hall were a godsend for Robert as he could have access to things not normally available “inside”.
He never became bitter but always hoped to continue life again.
We parted - him to his cell - me to my home - until next time.
Eventually Robert and his wife were extradited from Canada.
The political Watergate scandal of the 1970’s under the presidency of Richard M. Nixon has gone down in history as one of the most influential turning points in US politics. One of the principals involved was Chuck Colson known as the “hatchet man” for Nixon. His pleading guilty to obstruction of justice caused him to be sentenced to 3 years in prison on felony charges.
“Before going to prison, Colson joined a small Bible study that included liberal Democratic Senator Harold Hughes of Iowa.
A burley man, Hughes resembled a truck driver. He opposed everything the Nixon people stood for, but he said if Colson claimed to be a Christian, that was “good enough for me” and embraced him, literally and figuratively.
Colson was released early from prison because of some problems with his son and because former Minnesota Governor Al Quie offered to serve out the rest of his term so he could address those problems.
Apparently Quie found a precedent in an old law that permitted, under certain circumstances, an innocent person to take the place of a guilty person and pay the rest of his penalty. Quie never had to go to prison, but his offer of personal sacrifice reminds one of that central Christian message: an innocent man lays down his life for a guilty man.”
Colson went on to initiate what we know as Prison Fellowship, a ministry to the very people he lived with during his imprisonment. Source: https://www.foxnews.com/opinion/remembering-charles-chuck-colson
Looking at the map of the State of Louisiana one can observe that it is boot shaped. Just where the boot would bend, there is an18,000 acre plot of land, surrounded on three sides by the Mississippi River known as the Louisiana State Penitentiary, formerly Angola Prison.
The roots of the Angola Prison go back to 1880. It was created by a former Confederate major, Samuel Lawrence James, who purchased a plantation and started storing prisoners. He named the plantation “Angola” after the country from where the majority of the slaves originated.
This is a place of historical demonic activity, a place where unspeakable evil was exercised on a group of people who had done nothing wrong but be born on the wrong continent, in the wrong country, at the wrong time in history.
In the 1970s it was one of the most violent prisons in the US, and earned a reputation of being one of the bloodiest prisons in the world.
In Louisiana, a life sentence comes with no chance of parole. In this state, if you're sentenced to death row or a life sentence you have a 100% chance of ending up in Angola, with only two ways out: a pardon from the governor or president, or death.
Another thread of this narrative has its origins in British Columbia, Canada where a young man full of dreams, trained to enter the pastorate and did so in California. As marriage and a family became part of his life, along with the normalcy of routines well established, he picked up the phone one day and that changed everything.
Henry was on the road of personal achievement, of personal success, a growing congregation, powerful ministry and God was opening the door to other opportunities.
What probably comes to mind is a larger salary, a bigger congregation, media attention, climbing the ladder of our limited insights.
The words in that phone call could not have been more disparate, contrasting with what we consider advancement.
The call came from rural Saskatchewan, Canada. A congregation was facing extinction unless something changed. They had no funds to offer a salary, and the parsonage, well, let’s say it was ramshackle at best and past its best before date by many years!Down to ten members, with nothing really to offer or attract new members, hope was hanging on the barest of threads.
One has to ask, “Why would Henry consider moving from a comfortable, established, “successful” ministry or even entertain the idea?”
But God …
Think of how often that small phrase interrupts the Scriptural chronicle and it did so in Henry’s life.
You see, experience had taught Henry a valuable lesson. God is not always at work in the places we consider to be the grandest or the best, but often in the small insignificant, out of the way, forgotten places of life - no notoriety, no media advertising campaigns, no claims to fame - where hope lies in seeing God care and act.
Henry knew that he could only fulfill his ministry mandate if it was a shared partnership - God at work, building His church.
Henry accepted the invitation and moved his young family to an outpost of the Kingdom where he sensed God wanted to work.
They had no sooner arrived in Saskatchewan than they were met by a group of five who had driven 90 miles to ask if the new pastor would be there’s as well.
It seemed God was already placing his stamp of approval on the move.
For two years, twice per week, Henry drove to shepherd that congregation as well.
That shrinking congregation, where God breathed on the embers of death, and ignited a life-giving fire, empowered by His Spirit, spawning 32 new congregations, launching over 100 people into ministry, teaching in a college and university ministry and writing the chronicle of lessons learned, in the book - Experiencing God - by Henry Blackaby.
In 1995 Burl Cain became warden of the Angola prison, the infamous detention centre in Louisiana. He had studied Henry’s book, Experiencing God, been transformed by that encounter, and sensed that God could also be at work in the Prison. It was to become pivotal in his work among the most despised inmates in America.
As warden of a prison one of his responsibilities was to witness any executions, and after one of the first he watched, he sensed God say to him,
“Did you ever tell that man about me? You just sent a man into eternity.”
We can understand Cain’s defensiveness, but it became a turning point in his work as warden. Instead of seeing the inmates first of all as murderers, he saw them as people without hope.
He initiated a Bible study among the inmates based on Henry’s book - find what God is doing and join him in it! As he saw the changes among those under his care, he brokered a partnership with New Orleans Baptist Seminary in 1999, to open an extension centre in the prison. Men who had put people into their graves had found Jesus and were being trained for gospel ministry and leading in the prison as pastors.
Thousands of inmates made new professions of faith in Jesus Christ; a Bible college was started inside the prison, along with a re-entry jobs program. Not surprisingly, acts of violence went down 74%. Convicted rapists and murderers who would never see the outside of the prison walls were ordained as pastors and began starting congregations within the prison itself.
Some requested transfers and were sent to other maximum security facilities serving as missionaries, starting new congregations and bringing the hope of the Gospel to some of the darkest places in the US.
Consider how what unfolded in Angola prison parallels the experience of the Apostle Paul, a murderer who encounters the living God, and you see the power of faith in Jesus Christ to transform even the most hardened in penal institutions! From living to imprison those of faith, Paul becomes a prisoner, because of that same faith!
The genius of Burt Cain is this: His personal faith instigated innovation which gave prisoners access to the only thing that can change the centuries of brokenness we see at work on the land of Angola Prison - Jesus is building His Kingdom - even in places we least envisage it!
Byron R. Johnson, distinguished professor of the social sciences at Baylor University, writing in the Gospel Coalition, February 28, 2018, comments on another Angola Prison connection, this time with the Billy Graham family:
“In addition to having an effect on presidents, and millions of everyday people across the world, the Graham family also had a big effect on those the Bible says should not be overlooked: prisoners. The Graham family has been connected to the Louisiana State Penitentiary, a.k.a. Angola, a maximum-security prison once known as the bloodiest prison in America. Most of the prisoners at Angola are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole—meaning they will eventually die and be buried in the Angola prison cemetery.
“Franklin Graham preached at Angola, and George Beverly Shea sang there. In fact, Shea sang to more than 800 prisoners at Angola in 2009. He was there to perform and to give the prison an organ he had received from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association earlier that year for his 100th birthday. The Graham family would donate funds to help build a couple of chapels at Angola.
“Graham died at 99 years of age, and despite his fame and profound global influence, this humble religious leader was buried in a simple plywood box built by an unlikely person. Richard Leggett, a convicted murderer, led a team of prisoners at the Louisiana State Penitentiary that built caskets for both Graham and his wife, Ruth, who died in June 2007 at age 87.
“Leggett meticulously built coffins for many fellow prisoners before dying of cancer in March 2007, nearly 31 years into his sentence. Leggett would tell then-Warden Burl Cain that of everything that ever happened in his life, the most profound thing was to build the coffins for Billy and Ruth Graham. Franklin Graham purchased the coffins after seeing them during a visit to the prison in 2005.
“The plain wood coffins are made of plywood and were lined with mattress pads made from Walmart comforters covered by fabric. They are adorned with brass handles and a cross on top and are said to cost $215. According to the former warden of Angola, the Graham family also asked that all of the inmates who worked on the coffins’ construction have their names burned into the wood.
“I [Byron R. Johnson] have a particular interest in Angola, because I led a Baylor University research team in completing a rigorous five-year study of the infamous prison and the Angola Bible College that has attracted so much attention from Christian and correctional leaders over the last the two decades. The Bible College, founded in 1995, and the 29 inmate-led congregations at Angola, have played a critical role in transforming one of the most violent and corrupt prisons in America into one that has become an unlikely model for other states. At least a dozen other states have launched Bible colleges as a result of the Angola experiment.”
Gary Fields, writes in The Wall Street Journal, May 18, 2005:
“At the Angola state penitentiary here, Richard Leggett, a yellow pencil tucked behind his right ear, put the molding on his latest creation: a 7-foot coffin. He worked with some urgency, sewing and stapling the white bedding inside. He always likes to keep three coffins in stock, so he doesn't run out.
“At Angola, funerals are elaborate affairs, with hand-made coffins pulled to graves by horse-drawn carriages, in rites conducted almost entirely by inmates. Warden Burl Cain believes such services are a stabilizing influence, keeping inmates busy and offering purpose to those who have no hope of leaving alive. "A man wants to be productive, even the ones here," he says.…
“At Angola, "life means life," says Mr. Cain, 62, the short, white-haired warden, who occasionally rides his Harley-Davidson down the 20-mile asphalt highway that dead-ends at the prison's gates. He has mixed feelings about his elderly inmates. "Prison shouldn't be a place for dying old men," he says. "It should be a place for predators.”…
One inmate, participating in a worship service in the prison made this observation:
“When I see the hands of men raised in worship, I know these are the same hands that held a rape victim, the same hands that held the stolen goods, the same hands that held the murderous gun.”
“At the grave site, the inmates sang a cappella: "I'm free. Praise the Lord, I'm free. No longer bound. No more chains holding me. My soul is resting. It's just a blessing. Praise the Lord, Hallelujah, I'm free.”
Jesus: “As you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me.”