What if prisoners are more free?

Cobbling some constructive events from my past led me to recall some instances that made me terribly uncomfortable as a young teenager. One of those came when our Youth Minister and Music Minister would schedule us to sing or share with men who came to the Grace Rescue Mission in the Stockyards area of Oklahoma City. I promise a game of laser tag would have been more fun. (Yes, laser tag is not a new invention.)

Nothing like taking an audience captive to the wailing voices of adolescent teens, especially from those male voices learning new octaves with the onset of puberty. But, if you needed a bed and a meal, where the cold wind comes sweeping down the plains, you would endure whatever necessary for a bed or cot and something warm to eat. A shower would be nice too. 

Later in college a group of us would drive to a residence facility for children and youth. Our aim was to hang out and play basketball with these young people to possibly cultivate relationships. They too were a captive audience. We encountered no trouble. The idea that people who did not carry a family connection would spend time with them giv

ing them different faces than the ones they saw day in and day out motivated many to join the fun.

Moving to the DFW Metroplex to work on my Master’s came with a “Ministry Outpost” assignment. Mine was at the Inner City Mission. If those who came to hear us sing when we were young people in Oklahoma City were captive to our tunes, these folks were subject to young preacher boys trying out their skills. Before they would receive a sandwich, and maybe a new pair of pants and an opportunity to speak with a counselor, they listened. Or, they pretended to.

Don’t think me some version of Mother Theresa.

The common feature of these three groups? They were captive audiences.

I recall the first time I visited someone in jail. A young man who lived in the small community where I pastored had gotten into trouble. He was on the football team. The coach and his wife were part of our church. Together the coach and I went to visit. I had not spoken to a person on the other side of a plexiglass window before. And, though I, like you, had seen prison uniforms on television, this was my first time to see them worn in person. We had a good conversation. Later the young man got out of jail. He was appreciative of our visit even if it seemed to have little impact on his future decisions. But, what did I expect?

Since that time I have been to other facilities to see those captive for one reason or another. And every time, I think back to those instances where as a youth, or college, or seminar

y student had the occasion to sing or preach the Good News to those who did not do so by direct choice but by obligation of their surroundings. 

I am about to conclude my second year of reading or listening to a sermon a day.

Two years in and I can tell you I have been largely successful with my intended 

habit. My most recent collection of sermons to read contain sermons and prayers offered to prisoners in Basel. Not homeless men, institutionalized children or homeless men and women. 

The late Karl Barth spent a good bit of time preaching to prisoners in Basel. A collection of some of these sermons have been made into a book titled Deliverance to the Captives.

Now just a few sermons in and I was struck by what I read today. Here is  a particular section that caught my attention given the audience and their situation,

We should get the simple truth straight, dear friends. We are in the world not to comfort ourselves, but to comfort others.

Barth went on,

Yet the one and only genuine comfort we may offer to our fellowmen is this reflection of heaven, of Jesus Christ, of God himself as it appears on a radiant face. Why don’t we do it? Why do we withhold from them the one comfort of mutual benefit? Why are the faces we show each other at best superior, serious, questioning, sorrowful and reproachful faces at worst even grimaces or lifeless masks, real Carnival masks? Why don’t our faces shine?

Exactly where will those prisoners practice the comfort Barth describes? Isn’t it odd that he would encourage the incarcerated to look beyond themselves and their own need of comfort? Shouldn’t we have expected that Barth would reserve his admonition for church-going types who might visit those in prison realizing that they may be ministering to Jesus unaware?

He didn’t.

Instead he offered the Word to those whose lives were bound to one another whether they liked it or not. When will the church realize this is what we may expect one day? What would keep us from practicing the very reality that we will one day see clearly? Could it be the question is how? 

Barth offers this,

Let me say only one thing here. It could easily be otherwise. [This paragraph follows the quoted passage above in the sermon.] We could greet each other with bright faces! We could comfort each other. We, here, today! Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom for man to comfort their neighbour. ‘He who believes in me,’ says Jesus Christ himself in another Scripture passage, ‘out of the heart shall flow rivers of living water.’ This happens when we look up to him. No one has ever looked up to him without this miracle happening. No one who gets slowly used to looking up to him has failed to glimpse light around him. The dark on earth on which we live has always become bright whenever man looked up to him, and believed in him. 

Seems like now is a good time for us, Christians, to comfort others. Maybe even each other. 

About the Author
Husband to Patty. Daddy to Kimberly and Tommie. Grandpa Doc to Cohen, Max, Fox, and Marlee. Pastor to Snow Hill Baptist Church. Graduate of Oklahoma Baptist University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Reading. Photography. Golf. Colorado. Jeeping. Friend. The views and opinions expressed here are my own and should not be construed as representing the corporate views of the church I pastor.