I was going to jail. I had never been in close proximity even to a city jail. Now I was on my way to the State Penitentiary in Soledad, California.
The Penitentiary Chaplain, who was a friend of mine, had invited me to come preach to his inmates. I said, “YES,” because I don’t know how to say, “NO.”
Soledad was a large prison with three cell blocks and hundreds, perhaps thousands of inmates.
Now driving down US Route 101 early on Sunday morning, my mind was full of questions. Oh, my sermon was prepared. My heart was ready, but my mind was in turmoil. Why in the world did I do this? How will I behave toward these men? Will I smile at them? Will I look them in the eye? Will I pretend we are not locked up? Will I be nervous or afraid? Of course I had prayed and was still praying.
If I really thought about it, I knew I would be preaching to murderers, rapists, thieves, and every other kind of law breaker imaginable. One lone woman!
I stopped at the Kiosk just outside the first chain link fence, proffered my ID, and walked through the gate that opened for me. I was greeted by the chaplain at the second gate. As though reading my mind, he smiled at me and said, “Just be yourself, they’ll love you.”
We entered a small chapel where prisoners were getting ready for service. They came in their blue prison garb laughing and joking with each other. They were friendly, shaking my hand and welcoming me.
These men were “short timers.” They would soon be on their way home.
The chaplain sat at the piano, and worship began. I discovered immediately that these men, who were locked behind bars most of the day, were free in spirit, for they sang exuberantly raising their hands and shouting the praises of God. They were not required to come to service. They came, because God had changed their lives, and set them free.
I found myself preaching to them honestly, as I would to any congregation, and, as the chaplain had advised, I was just myself. I didn’t know how to be anyone else.
The second service was in the main cell block, in a real sanctuary built for that purpose. When we arrived the three hundred or more seats were filled and men stood around the walls. The orchestra was tuning up and the choir was taking its place. An inmate stood at the pulpit ready to officiate. I was amazed. This church was fully organized with a board and ushers and musicians, all of them inmates.
When I stood to preach, I said, “I know why I am here. Do you know why you are here?” I don’t know where that came from. It wasn’t something I had prepared, but it set the tone for the morning. The men laughed heartily and everyone relaxed. I talked about “Walking with God” using the story of Enoch found in Genesis 5 and Hebrews 11.
At the close of the message, I asked those, who needed God’s help, to come forward for prayer. They came eagerly filling the front of the sanctuary. Without hesitation, I walked down the steps and moved through the crowd to encourage and pray with them. What a blessed time!
At lunch, Chaplain asked me, “Well, what do you think?”
“I would rather preach to those men any day of the week than to a bunch of bored church members,” I answered.
“You know,” he said, “One third of those men are lifers. They will never leave this place.”
Then he told me the story of the man who led the service that morning. “John” had been a pastor. He knew the joy of serving God. Then he fell into an adulterous relationship. When his wife found him out, he killed her. Now he is a lifer with no hope of freedom. Thank God, he has found his way home.
He had EVERYTHING going for him, and he gave it all up for a moment of selfish pleasure.
I wept when I heard that story. In fact, I squalled all the way home, 186 miles. Actually I cried the whole week. I didn’t cry because these men were being punished for their lawlessness. I cried because John had given up EVERYTHING for NOTHING. I cried, because I realized, “but for the grace of God,” I could be in the same situation. “That could be me! That could be you!” Don’t fool yourself. None of us is immune.
In 2 Corinthians 12:9 Jesus said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.”
Again, in James 4:6, “…God resists the proud, but He gives grace to the humble.”
The undeserved grace of God is a gift like no other. No pleasure, great or small, is worth the forfeiture of God’s grace.
“…‘tis grace that brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.”
Remember, the sun will come out tomorrow!