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I was released from prison last Tuesday at 5:43 pm.  A prison guard walked me to the main gate, put his key in the lock,opened the huge metal door and let me out.  I was a free man.  It felt great to be free, to be liberated from the iron bars and concrete walls.  But I was also thinking of the friends that I had left behind.  Bernardo, Aries, Guillermo, Armando, and Marzalino to name a few. I was sad that they were still doing time.  Oh well, I thought, I will be able to encourage them next Tuesday.
Your see, I teach an English class at a prison that is across the highway from Cristo Por Su Mundo, (Christ for the world), home for needy children, where I live with my family, and participate with God in helping “the least of these” as Jesus referred to the oppressed and downtrodden of the world.  These include the children and prisoners that most of humanity forgets about and leaves behind.  Every Tuesday afternoon I walk across the highway and enter a whole new world.  I get to leave after a few hours.  My students, my friends, have to stay.

One day I was walking alone in the hills that surround this mission.  This was about five years ago.  I was talking to God about my life.  I was thanking Him that he allowed me to cooperate with Him at the home for needy children.  I was thinking how fortunate I am to be participating in the Divine Nature that Peter talks about in 2 Peter 1 (see my last blog).  Part of participating with God is to make beauty; to  make the world a more beautiful place everyday, and I am able to do that by planting and maintaining the gardens here at the mission.  But I was thinking, what else could I do?   God, what else do you want me to do?  What else can we cooperate on in helping this hurting world?   Then the verse from Matthew 25, “I was in prison and you did not visit me.”  The words of Jesus on the last day, judgement day, convicting me.

The mission already had a couple of preachers and teachers who would go to  the various prisons in the area to minister in word and song, and I felt like I could and should do something different, to reach out to other prisoners and help them in a way that they could get a sense of  the love of God, without a Bible preacher or teacher.  The idea came to me that I could teach an English class.  Before I came to Mexico, I had never taught English, but I realized that the most important thing about being a teacher of anything, is to simply know more than your students.  So I decided I was qualified and at the request of some people here at the home for needy children, I began teaching English.  That was going well, so now I would be going across the highway to the prison to see if anyone there wanted to learn English.  There was- and I was there to stay, at least for about three hours every Tuesday afternoon.

All my students are great.  I can’t believe any of them have done anything to deserve prison.  I have never asked any of them why they are, or were, there.  I don’t think  it is any of my business.  When I see them, I don’t want to see them as murderers, thieves, rapists, drug dealers or extortionists.  I want to see them as people who were created in the image of God, people who have made mistakes in life, as I have.  People who want to learn English, but more important people who want a friend, people who want to hear the Good News of God’s love, even if it is in the context of an English class.  The students come  and go, both to class and to and from prison.  Two of my students were released, and within months were back in prison, back in my class.  Most have been released and are leading productive lives.

I don’t understand a lot about the Mexican judicial system, but it seems that you are guilty until proven innocent, and you don’t get a trial before a judge.  What happens is you are accused, sent to prison, and then your lawyer writes to the judge, explaining your side of the situation, then the other lawyer answers with a letter, and it goes back and forth like that until the man is declared not guilty and gets out of prison, or is found guilty and continues to live behind bars.  This process can go on for years. There are two sections to this prison; one for people who have been conviction, the other for dozens of men and women who are “on trial” in their cells.   One of my favorite students, a very intelligent man, who speaks remarkably good English, has been in prison for the whole time I have been teaching, waiting for his case to be resolved.

I have had some students who have been in prison in the U.S. and in Mexico.  I ask them what is the major difference.  They tell me that if you are in prison in the U.S., you are probably guilty.  If you are in prison in Mexico, there is a good chance that you are innocent.

The situation for many in prison in Mexico is tragic.  Many prisoners feel helpless, and that their situations are hopeless.  I thank God that He  reaches out to those men and women behind bars and concrete walls, and reaches into their hearts with hope, mercy, love and grace.  While many suffer injustice from the system, they receive joy and peace from God.  While the government says “You are to live incarcerated in prison”  God says, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”

I thank God that I am free, on the outside and the inside.  I also thank God for setting the captives free; free in spirit; free in heart; free in soul.  Those whom the Son sets free, are free indeed.

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Stone walls do  not a  prison  make, Nor iron bars a cage ;

Minds innocent and quiet take that for an heritage;

If I have freedom in my love, and in my soul am free,

Angels alone, that soar above, enjoy such liberty.

Richard Lovelace (1618-1658), from To Althea, from Prison

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Next blog – Life in One Mexican Prison

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Life with Mikey

Life with Mikey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My ten year old daughter Tifani had broken the rules and needed to be punished.  I don’t remember what offense she had committed.  I just remember looking at her, shaking my head, letting her know that she had disappointed me by breaking the rules and that she was going to be punished.  She looked up at me with big, sad eyes and said, “I’m bad.  I know it.  Daddy,  I need help.”

When I heard her utter those words I burst out laughing, all my anger gone, knowing that my budding little actress had obviously picked up this line from some movie she had watched.  All thoughts of punishment had disappeared and I asked her where she had heard those words, “I’m bad.  I know it.  I need help.”

She had recently watched a movie called LIFE WITH MIKEY, and in this movie, a young girl about Tifani’s age was a pickpocket on the streets of New York.  She gets caught and an angry man accuses her of stealing his wallet.  A small crowd gathers around her.  Michael Chapman (Michael J. Fox) shows up.  He had just had his wallet stolen by this same girl.  He is the head of a child talent agency, and is always looking for new talent.  He sees the way that this girls is playing the crowd, and realizes that she is a natural.  He intervenes, telling everyone that she is his daughter.   Crocodile tears pour down her pretty little face and she exclaims, “I’m bad.  I know it.  Daddy, I need help.”

She made the confession, “I’m bad.  I know it.  I need help”, not out of any realization of her true nature, but in the hope that people would feel sorry for her, give her a break and let her go.

Her words, though, have great significance for those who want to enjoy God.  The life of enjoying God begins with the startling revelation that we are all bad.  That we really and truly Know that we are bad and that without help, we are doomed.

This thought, for many, is the hardest part of enjoying God.  In fact, it seems ridiculous!  When confronted with the possibility that we might be bad, we immediately present our first list of all the good things we do.  We give to charitable organizations and donate time to worthy causes and don’t beat our wives or children and work hard at the office and never cheat or steal.

Our second list is made up of truly bad people like murderers, rapists, thieves and those who cheat on their spouses and take advantage of the poor.  We can always point to those who are really bad and thus exonerate ourselves.

Everyone has their own categories of who is bad and what is bad and we certainly don’t fall into any  of those categories.  But, the category that matters most, is God’s category.  Since He is the one we want to enjoy, and it is He that gives the joy, it is His standard of Good and Bad that we need to take a look at.

In the Bible God reveals His character and ours.  He shows us His standard of goodness and also how far removed we are from that standard.  The Bible tells us in no uncertain terms that because we do not live up to His standard of Goodness that we are His enemies (Rom. 5:10). Indeed, we are dead in our badness.  Dead in our sins as Paul puts it Ephesians 2.  Sin is just another word for bad, a type of bad that utterly offends  a perfect God, and totally blocks our any chance of enjoying God.  In Romans 3:12, Paul quotes Ecclesiastes 7:20 saying, “All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.”  Even the good deeds we do, the random acts of kindness we perform, the rewards we receive for helping others, are all a stench in the nostrils of God, if done apart from being in right relationship with him.

Help Is Available

This is where the Good News comes in.  We can’t enjoy the God the Good News if we don’t first understand the bad news.  The bad news is that we are bad.  The Good News is that help is available!

The last phrase the girl pickpocket declared when confronted by the angry victim was, “I need help.”  She was insincere in her claim of needing help.  If we truly believe from the bottom of our hearts, that we re bad and desperately need help, God is more than willing to come to our aid and rescue us.

I lived in Sonoma County, California, for a number of years.  There were a few years that we experienced terrible flooding.  I lived close to the RussianRiver and during a particularly bad flood many of the residents were surrounded by high water and had to be helicoptered to safety.  Those residents recognized they were in a bad way and were glad to be helped.

I remember one especially dramatic photograph that appeared in the local paper.  A man was being rescued from the raging river by a fireman who was in the river with him.  The fireman was roped to other firemen standing on the bank.  The drowning man was rescued and the photographer went on to win a Pulitzer prize for the photo.

When we come to a point where we realize that we are drowning spiritually, when we realize that joy, peace and contentment are not the hallmarks of our lives, and that the turbulent waters of depression, disappointment, frustration, anger and disillusion threaten to overwhelm us, and we call out to a merciful, compassionate and gracious God (Daddy), He will rescue us!

In a way, God is like the fireman who jumped into the river to save the drowning man.  God jumped into our hopeless, helpless situation, into our badness, in the person of Jesus Christ.  And all those who became aware of their badness, and followed this God/Man Jesus were rescued, and are still being rescued and given new lives.  Lives filled with joy in God and delight at being delivered from the turbulent flood called existence, and brought onto the safe shore called Life.  Life enjoying God.

Some, like many of the religious leaders of Jesus day, didn’t realize how dire their plight was, and chose to cling to the slippery and perilous branches called self-righteousness and good works. They perished without ever experiencing the joy of knowing God.

Bad Gunky

Unfortunately, that isn’t the end of doing bad things.  While we celebrate and rejoice that our Bad Existence was put to death by Jesus, we still struggle with doing bad things.  Martin Luther said we are at the same time righteous and sinners and that we continue to wrestle daily with the World, the Flesh, and the Devil.  I call these things Bad Gunky.  In Stephen King’s novel LISEYS STORY, one of the main characters explains to his wife, Lisey, all about bad gunky.  As a child he lived with his father and older brother.  At various times they were attacked by what his father called “bad gunky”.  This was an evil presence that would, without warning, fill either the father or one of his sons with a violent anger that would cause them to want to kill.  The only cure that normally worked to rid the family member of bad gunky, was the shedding of blood. One of the family members that was not being attacked by the bad gunky would have to inflict a large, deep cut on his own body, to set the other family member free of the evil known  as bad gunky.

This is a wonderful picture of what our Brother, Jesus, did for us, giving himself up freely to be crucified, to let his blood pour down the cross, so that we could be free from bad gunky, the power of sin, of badness, that caused our spiritual death.  Bad Gunky, with a capital B and a capital G is no longer a threat to our eternal relationship with God, to our eternal life.  However, bad gunky, small b, small g, still nips at our heels and barks in our ears on a daily basis.  This bad gunky tempts us to do bad things.  Tempts us to leave the Lord we love.  We fall victim daily to bad gunky.  Jesus tells us we are to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind, and with all our strength. He tells us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.  We fail at this everyday.  In fact it is an impossible task.  So what sets followers of Christ apart from the rest of humanity that fails everyday?  It is the fact that as followers of Christ we have as our life goal to love God with all our being, and to love our  neighbor as we love ourselves.  We know this is the surest way to a life full of joy with God and with each other.  We begin the day in prayer, asking God’s Spirit to come along side us to help us love as He wants us to love.  And, if we are to be honest, end the day in prayer, noticing the ways we have failed to love, and confess to God that we have not loved Him with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind and all our strength.  That we have not loved our neighbor as our self.  And we rest assured, knowing that God is faithful to forgive us our sins, our bad actions, our lack of love.  We sleep peacefully, knowing that our merciful, compassionate, patient God has washed away the bad gunky of the day.  We look forward to the morning when God’s mercies are new and we can experience afresh the joy of God.

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The great power of God appears in bringing a sinner from his low state, from the depths of sin and misery, to an exalted state of holiness and happiness.  Jonathan Edwards  (1703-1758) from his sermon God Glorified in Man’s Dependence

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Next blog – God Didn’t Have To, But He Did

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