Double booking at Pelican Bay State Prison Chapel required me to take a back seat to a more prominent prison minister. Always eager to learn from the pros I settled in to a front row NaugaHyde chair and joined the chorus of warm up worship tunes. I was certain this would prove to be the real deal, ex-convict turned minister is often the stuff of Hollywood, and here it was right before my itching ears. Scripture encourages us to discern the spirit of a message, and I wish that was my focus, but I slipped into a more performance based evaluation; did speaker maintain eye contact, use emotion for emphasis, solicit response from audience, etc.
A question from the congregation suddenly changed the direction, and atmosphere, of the service. “Is it O.K. to go back and hang with my Homies? I don’t want to abandon anybody just because I’m a Christian now.”
The preacher had a suitable, and predictable response, about being called out from among them. The inmate tried to protest being called out, declaring he had no interest in going back to bangin’, but just missed the hang of the gang. The inclusion, the fellowship, to use a more churchy word. This led to a narrow gate versus the wide path to destruction discussion which I thought culminated rather poorly in the assurance the inmate would go to hell for smoking cigarettes and the wine Jesus made at the wedding feast was non-alcoholic because Jesus wouldn’t contaminate Himself with something so worldly as a buzz.
I was stunned speechless, and since I wasn’t asked to speak, and that may have been fortuitous, for my part of the service I played Amazing Grace on my saxophone as straight and narrow as I ever have. The truly amazing thing about grace is how invisible it is in some presentations of the Gospel. Take the command to “Be Holy, even as your Father in heaven is holy.” From a legalistic point of view this is an admonishment to live up to an ideal by a personal discipline of sanctification. I’m not sure of the term for taking this command as more of an act of God similar to creation, i.e. “You’re holy, from here on, because I said so !” sort of thing.
Let there be light in your eyes, in your heart, or as He would say it, “Judge not, that you be not judged.” When the preacher finished in a prayer to break off any spirits of returning to familiar sins he shook hands with a few inmates and left the room before I could invite him to coffee, or sweet tea. I had this sense I was in an outsider category because I have a “I Stand with Science” sticker on my saxophone case. It may be nothing, it may be the Pastor’s discernment of my liberal snowflake for Jesus spirit, it maybe a lesson for me to learn about presumption, or just a question of connecting to his flight back to the Bay area.
The inmate who raised the question thanked me for the music and I asked him if he knew how jumping fleas were trained. The flea is provoked to jump in a contained space, like a jar, and after repeatedly hitting his head on the jar lid, learns the safety limits of overhead projection. The lid can now be removed by the trainer and the flea expected to perform with in limits. I suggested his question about hanging with his Homies was sort of a jar lid situation.
We all desire connection, intimacy, the comfort of the familiar, a family of choice, of like minded individuals coming together for support, integrity, and fun. I suggested the church body the inmate was a relatively new member of, had yet to prove itself more inviting, more satisfying, or more inclusive than his gang life, but not give up hope for the saints that are in the land would be his delight. I confessed to him I don’t do much to ‘spend time with the Lord’ as much as I marvel that He promised to never leave, or forsake me.
We do have a part in working out our salvation with trembling, but I believe, and by now you can add to the list of things I can be confused about, the working out is not about our efforts to quit smoking, over eating, gossiping etc as much as it is a spiritually based reasoning that we are new creations, not because of any life style choices we make, as much as the inhabitation of our being by the Holy Spirit. We are the light of the world because The Light of The World flicked our on switch. So the Christ, in me, is the hope of glory, not the scorecard of my does and don’ts.
They will know we are Christians, followers of the Christ, because the love in us is supernatural. It is more than a ducks of a feather flocking together. It is a whole new bird of paradise taking wing in our day to day, person to difficult person, flight path. I told the inmate I hoped he would hear his homies say, “There’s Someone different about you!” when he went home. He told me the same thing as we walked out into the light of a new day on B yard.