Over the next couple of months, I’m offering Tuesday reflections on pain, healing, and recovery. I hope you’ll join the community of folks walking this road together. (To keep up with this reflection series, signup for blog updates in the maroon box in the left sidebar.)
At first, my requests for relief only rattle and echo in my stomach. So I ask again and I hear. What? The coming of something quiet?
I am the Lord your God; I will never leave you nor forsake you.
I hear a smaller voice too, a younger one. I tune my ears with the faith of my five-year-old self in his mesquite sanctuary, the boy before the wrecked mechanics of a well meaning, systematized adulthood.” ~Coming Clean, October 16
We sit in a large circle, inmates and a sparse number of volunteers. Black, white, advantaged, disadvantaged, petty thieves, dope-slingers, repentant, unrepentant, guilty, not-guilty–all of us sitting in the round, no positions of prominence. No head of the table. No foot, either.
These are the men of the Elkhart County Jail book club, men who’ve been reading and discussing Coming Clean.
A broad-shouldered black man in jailhouse khaki with a thick beard and hands balled up like sledgehammer heads asks, “how do you know when God is speaking to you? I heard God’s voice as a child, clear as a bell. But as I get older, it’s so absent. Really, God seems to get my attention these days by throwing bricks at me, and the last one was hot.”
Mark (not his real name) rubs his head just below his hairline as if he’s just caught one of those hot bricks between the eyes. A slow chuckle rises in his gut–tragedy and comedy are kissing-cousins, see–then ripples across the rest of the room. He wheezes as he laughs, lungs hissing like wet firewood.
Mark finds himself on the wrong side of Elkhart County’s walls. He may or may not have committed the crimes for which he is now awaiting trial, or sentencing, or who knows what. In his moment of disadvantage, of pain (whether self-induced or not), see him pitched forward in his chair, straining to hear the voice of voices.
You remember that same voice, the one who spoke to you as a child; don’t you?
One of the volunteers—a man with paying work, a driver’s license, and great privilege—looks across the circle, says, “Last week, you said a something in the book club that hit me like my own hot brick; it was in line with the scripture I read that morning, something I’d been praying about, something convicting. So, you may not hear the voice of God, but you were God’s voice to me.”
He sits, this man in the uniform of a jailhouse monk, and says nothing. Light leaks into his eyes, into his cheeks, spreads across his teeth. He stops rubbing his forehead. He nods, says “thanks,” and looks at the floor between his feet.
Who’s mentoring whom? Does that question make you uncomfortable?
Last week, I visited the Jail Ministry of Elkhart County, Indiana. There, I saw this kind of exchange more than once—some inmates struggling to hear the voice of God, others sharing their wisdom with each other, with the volunteers. Yes, the Elkhart County Jail chaplain, Cory Martin, and his group of volunteers help train and mentor the inmates. But sometimes, the mentoring goes the other way. Sometimes, the volunteers hear the Spirit speaking through the inmates. Sometimes, the volunteers learn this truth: we’re not all so much different; our pain is not all so much different.
What if this is true: Jesus called us to set the captives free. What if this is also true: society’s freemen are often the captives, and the great emancipator speaks freedom through the most marginalized of voices, even the voice of the inmate.
Questions for Reflection:
1. Have you spent time with those in pain lately, those on the flip-side of advantage, those on the wrong side of society’s walls?
2. If not, will you carve out time to listen to their pain, to identify with their stories? How might you meet them? How might they mentor you?
3. Ask yourself this question: is your pain so much different than the prisoner’s? Imagine yourself in their shoes.
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