Thirty inmates walk into a chapel. Sounds like the beginning of a joke. The new prison chaplain had combined service lists and I now faced a room of twice as many strangers than normal. The curious eyes, the face tattoos, the arms across chests were all familiar. Violent offenders, some daring, others hoping God would find their hearts. They had my attention, I wasn’t sure what would suffice to keep theirs.
“Three little words,” I said as I held up three fingers and began pacing in front of the room. “Who can tell me the three little words that make the Bible personal in prison?”
Unused to being asked for their opinion I mostly got eyebrows and smirks, until a brave soul in a middle row put up his hand and said, “I love you.”
“Thank you,” I said nodding my head in acknowledgement, “I love you too, but those aren’t the words I was looking for.”
As the inmate blushed in his chair, and the room howled in nervous laughter, I stepped over to the chalkboard and wrote the word “NO” in six inch letters.
“Have you ever been told “NO” in your lives?” I asked.
A ground swell of group grumbling indicated everybody had heard the word before with quite a few commenting they wished they’d listened when Mama said it.
“Turn to Romans Chapter 8 verse 1, the most important NO in the Bible, and when you find it stand up so we can read it together.” I said hoping someone would. Soon, as a chorus we read, “There is now NO condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.”
We agreed that ‘now’ was also an important word in that sentence, a starting point for convicted men to finish their sentences unburdened of the guilt of their crime without denying the responsibility of being guilty. That brought us to word number two which I wrote on the chalkboard in the same sized letters; IF.
“Have you ever wondered, “If only I did this instead of that,” what might have happened?”
Again the crowd grunted along with the obvious with insights such as “You mean, like, every day, or every minute?”
The scripture we turned to was 2 Chronicles Chapter 7 verse 14, and again in unison we read, “If My people who are called by my name will humble themselves, and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and forgive their sin and heal their land.”
“Its a mighty big if, maybe the biggest,” I said extending the skinny parts of the letters on the chalk board another four inches. “But the part to take heart from is He calls us ‘His people,’ called by His name. When the other people on the yard watch you walk out of chapel they’ll be looking to see if anything real comes out with you, or is the time we spend together in worship just an excuse to sit in padded chairs for an hour?”
Our third word took up the rest of the chalkboard. AND. The specific AND we were looking for is found in Hebrews Chapter 11 verse 6 “But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, AND that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.”
“Part of our reward, gentlemen, is the fellowship we have with each other. We’re not in this life alone. They will know we are Jesus’s disciples by the love we have for each other. Nothing else is required, no if’s and’s or… … the but’s we’ll deal with another time. Go in peace.”
As the men filed out of the chapel I erased the message from the chalkboard, but as sometimes happens with old erasers a ghost of the letters remained. NO. IF. AND. It gave me hope that the message came across, for those of us that shared it, and for anyone else who followed us into the room.