What I Learned in Prison

I don’t typically talk much about what happens the 2nd Friday of every month in my life. It’s an activity I try to keep between me and God; a way to keep my spiritual sanity. But this particular trip was worth remembering and writing down.

I went out to Joseph Harp prison, to speak to young men, ages 16-35. Their crimes range anywhere from parole violation to triple homicide. There are inmates there that will get out in a matter of weeks and others that will never get out alive. I’ve met so many unique people and heard so many stories. The power of Christ to transform a life cannot be denied. How does one go from murdering a friend over drugs, chopping him up into little pieces, and throwing his remains into a river, to boldly leading an inmate ran church, and converting the worst of all gang-bangers to Christ on a regular basis? The power of God to forgive, restore, and use ANYONE is simply amazing. The ability to lead a ministry has not been reserved only for people with a seminary background. If I was a betting man I would assume that this guy, let’s call him Pastor E, has more treasure in heaven than I could ever earn in two life times of paid ministry.

Needless to say, this particular night, I did not want to go out there. I felt extremely inadequate. I did not spend a whole lot of time writing a sermon. I had no real illustrations, stories, or jokes. I had been sick the past couple of days and had also been extremely busy. I was not prepared to say the least. I just wanted to go out there, do my piece, and hopefully leave in enough time to catch the Thunder game.

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I showed up an hour early, which is normally the opposite of what happens, so I had some extra time to hang out on the yard. I came across two of my friends who had checked out guitars from the rec center, and were practicing for an inmate ran worship service that night. They were practicing “Our God.” I politely nodded and sat down beside them with a bible. We didn’t say anything. I close my eyes and listen to their shaky voices sing the praise song. The sun was warm. Birds were chirping. I felt like I was a teenager back at church camp. I peaked at them and they weren’t practicing. They were worshiping. Eyes closed. Heads facing up to heaven.

At that moment I realized, they were not in prison. They were in the presence of God. No crowd. No lights or smoke. Not even a tuner to put their guitars at the perfect pitch. It was just two men and me, worshiping to a poorly tuned guitar and singing lyrics that may or may not have been right. I began to sing along. God was there. If I ever have felt the presence of God, it was there. Behind several rows of wire, in a prison, miles from any sort of civilization, we were worshiping at His throne.

What did I learn in prison? God can be found anywhere – in any situation.

“I can never escape from your Spirit! I can never get away from your presence! If I go up to heaven, you are there; if I go down to the grave, you are there. If I ride the wings of the morning, if I dwell by the farthest oceans,” (Psalm 139:7-9 NLT)

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After a while, it was show time. The evening service started with three inmates rapping to a few original songs. As always I am very impressed. I am for one, impressed that their fellow inmates are able to worship to rap music. I will always be too white to understand. But I am also impressed at the sheer talent. The entrepreneurial side of me is thinking, “How can I record this and make money off of it.” Talented rappers in the industry make a lot of money rapping about the time they went to prison. The guys are talented and are currently IN prison. There has got to be a way…

When they were done, it was time for me to speak. My lack of preparedness was haunting me. I wasn’t real sure where it was going to go, so I just went with pure Gospel. I told them what Christ had done for them and told the story of Isaiah being called, forgiven, and sent by God. There were no illustrations. There were no videos or emotional music playing during the call to Christ. It was just pure raw Gospel. It worked. I was thrilled to see four inmates raise their hand to accept Christ. It was all God. It certainly had nothing to do with a carefully crafted message. I dropped the ball big time in that area. But where my inadequacy starts, His perfection begins.

What did I learn in prison? The Gospel alone changes lives.

“For the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires.” (Hebrew 4:12 NLT)

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After the call to Christ, I took a seat and sipped some Kool-Aid one of my friends had mixed up for me back at “the house.” I felt privileged drinking out of a styrofoam cup while the inmate next to me drank out of a cleaned-out bottle of peanut butter. What is his story that led him to a position where he has no friends or family who care enough to put enough money on his books for him to afford a cup?

It was time for a few more worship songs. I was shocked when the inmate with the mic asked me to lead everyone in a worship song. “Nope! Move on please.” But they persisted.

“I don’t sing, thank you though!”

“Of course you sing! We saw you earlier!”

“I don’t sing in the mic. Plus I’ve been sick. I appreciate it, but no thanks.”

“C’mon pastor! Step outside of your box! We’re just a bunch of prisoners! Who cares?!”

“I can’t. I’m sorry.”

“Step outside your box!”

I immediately started sweating as I reached for the guitar. It has been forever since I played live, and worship was never my forte. I never have been a good singer and the most I’ve ever learned how to play were power chords. This was going to be an embarrassment of a lifetime. The mic was loud and surprisingly clear. I estimated the crowd to be around 75 inmates. After some inquiry I learned that they did not know any songs that I did. This was not good. That means I was not going to be drowned out by the crowd. In fact, the crowd would not be singing at all until they learned it. I was basically about to sing a “special” in front of the church… “Specials” went out with powdered wigs.

I decided to play “Came To My Rescue,” by Hillsong. I’m not sure I hit all the correct chords but, hey, who’s to know? I limped through the first verse and chorus. I kept my eyes tightly closed and desperately wanted to wipe the sweat of my forehead. About the time I hit the second verse, my confidence started to grow. I sang a little more boldly and strummed the (wrong) chords a little more confidently. I decided to open my eyes.

I was literally brought to tears when I saw a room full of inmates standing with their hands raised to heaven, some of them in tears too. This grew my confidence even more. We kept the worship going. It was beautiful. I have never been used by God in this way, and it was an honor, particularly because of the crowd I was in front of.

What did I learn in prison? “Step outside your box.”

For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:13 NLT)

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Finally, at the end of the night, which is always my favorite time, we have a few minutes to talk to one another. I love hearing their stories of transformation, and they typically love telling me. I looked at the new tattoos and showed them mine. I asked if they could hook me up with some free tats. I didn’t have any money, but I did have a pen they could burn and use for ink!

I was blown away by what happened next… Previously during my message I had briefly shared about some recent life changes that had not been ideal and that I was reliant on God for healing. It wasn’t key to the Gospel message, so I believed it went in one ear and out the other.

However, an inmate, who I have grown to admire, and who will not step outside the prison walls until he is in his late 80’s, pulled me aside to talk to me about my situation. He gave me a hug and said, “I love you brother. I want to pray for you before you leave.” He did. Then we embraced. He said, “I love you” one more time, and then went back to his cell.

I was blown away. I was blown away because he absolutely, generally cared. It was evident in his words, his tone, and his prayer. I am not used to that at all in the prison setting. I am the one who normally does the encouraging. I am the one who normally hugs, and prays with the broken and hurting behind bars. I almost felt guilty. Who was I going in there with my “free-world” problems, when he’s not going to see the outside world for another 50 years? Nevertheless, I was humbled and moved. This was a real brother in Christ. This was man who was not counting down the days until he got out. He was blooming where he was planted, following the Holy Spirit where He led. He was confident and content. I admire him so much, and God was there with us.

What did I learn in prison? Where two or three are gathered…

“For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” (Matthew 18:20)

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So that’s that. Every time I go out there I learn a little more about God and a little more about myself. But this time really stuck out. God’s Church is everywhere and he is equally moving behind prison walls as he is behind the church building walls on Sunday morning. Everyone has a story and God can move in any situation – in any place and time.

If we ever think we have figured out the combination to how God shows up and moves in people’s lives, I believe we are sorely mistaken, and would expect God to change the combination at that point.

I hope they learn a lot from me, but I can definitely say that I learn way more from them.

But now I’m home, which means one thing: Thunder Up!

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