Beauty from Ashes
This is a ministry update from OSWM (Old School Watchman), a Watchman serving behind the walls at a west coast state prison.
It was a brisk Saturday morning. I woke early and was the first man out into the “Little Yard.” It was still, peaceful—the deep blue sky rolled out like cool, inviting waters, bidding me to embrace hope. I hesitated.
It was the day before Easter. “Resurrection Sunday” has always been an important and moving day for me, but religious holidays are not highlighted in prison. In fact, I would soon find out that a last-minute schedule change Easter morning would adversely impact men in my Unit. We would be served a Polish sausage hot dog on a cold bun for lunch, and equal thought and care would go into the dinner.
For many, holidays bring to mind sorrowful memories of better days long past. Spiritual holidays such as Christmas and Easter often amplify feelings of regret, fuel despair, and conjure feelings of being the prodigal who has run too far to find their way home. This weighs heavy on my heart as it does many behind these walls.
Covid hit my prison hard. More than 95% of the men in my Unit tested positive. Covid has, among other things, closed the chapel. It resulted in strict social distancing guidelines that kept the Chaplain away for all of 2020.
Sensing the need and opportunity to share hope, our small but growing Christian group decided to plan an Easter service, unofficially, of course. The prison does not allow group gatherings, but exercise groups often form in an enclosed courtyard area known as the “Little Yard.”
So, we planned to meet there and try to blend in unobtrusively. As one last precaution, we decided to meet early, at 8:00 AM. We did not want to invite trouble as groups of 8 or more often indicate gang movement and negative activity. If we drew attention, we didn’t want it to be for that reason.
There would be no chairs, podium, or carpet, but we would worship the risen Lord. I have been leading small teaching meetings at the prison for several months, but this would be the first time I “preached.” It is strange indeed to preach amidst stained cement, armed guards on a catwalk, tall, imposing brick walls, and razor wire.
I was both excited and grateful for the opportunity to preach again. I have been out of the pulpit for several years now. Sharing the Word is my passion, and preaching is my background.
Preparing messages has always come easy for me. I am older now and have prepared well over 1000 teachings over the years, but something was different this year. I was blocked. I could not write. As Easter approached, I had restless nights, no peace, and a sense of panic pounding at the door. Waves of sorrow washed over me. I did not know what was happening.
No doubt my spirit and confidence have been wounded since my incarceration, but that was not the problem. Then I considered how concerns surrounding the future (financial, vocational, medical, etc.) might be encroaching on my mind. Was that it?
Finally, I realized my sadness and anxiety were not emanating from present or future issues, but from the past—from a special Easter service a few years ago when my family and I had the privilege of serving as church planters, starting a new church.
That church enjoyed a phenomenal ministry. However, I can connect the dots from that first service to the stress that aggravated a near-fatal medical issue and ultimately to my imprisonment. A mix of pride, innocence, ignorance, well-intended but poor administrative decisions, and underestimating Satan’s designs for me, my family, and the Lord’s church led to an unbelievable loss.
A particular analogy came to mind: It occurred to me that what I felt may be similar to a man who enjoyed swimming in a particular lake. One day, while swimming, he became tangled in the underbrush and almost drowned. The event was traumatic, impacting his job, health, and family.
After a long recovery, on the anniversary of the tragic event, the man returned to the lake. He was a good swimmer and enjoyed swimming, but when he drew close to the water, deep feelings of dread, sadness, and loss threatened to engulf him.
Most of us can understand how he could have these feelings. Perhaps you have faced similar fears and wondered how you would overcome them. I believe Satan prompts and amplifies these feelings to compromise our spiritual walk. Indeed, we cannot “Go with God” and stay where we are. Despite the fear, as God leads, we must dare to live, dare to get up when we fall, dare to step back into the water, and dare to have hope.
And so, on the Saturday before Easter, I stared into the deep blue sky and sought courage and direction. I felt moved to call my wife. With inspired wisdom, she told me to set aside the message notes, be transparent, and tie my feelings of sadness and loss to how Mary and the disciples must have felt on Good Friday. And so I did.
I talked about hurt, hope, and new life. I shared how hope can be lost if it is tied to our expectations, health, comfort, job, titles, etc. It was for me as it was for the disciples on Good Friday.
I shared that the only way to resurrect hope is to anchor it to the resurrected Lord. The words resonated with the many men who had big burdens and little hope. We closed in prayer, and after a time of silence and tears, we exited the makeshift chapel the prison calls the “Little Yard.”
On an Easter Sunday, in a forlorn section of the State, at a prison with a notorious history, I saw God move. I will never look at the “Little Yard” the same way again, and I am not alone in that.
The terms ‘groups’ or ‘gangs’ are interchangeable and synonyms at my prison. Strangely, our Christian group has grown to be one of the largest groups in my 200-man Unit. Not too many years ago, I could not imagine being able to add Leader of the largest prison gang in Unit 8 to my resume. God sure works in mysterious ways.
I sense God working in wondrous ways—in the lives of the men I minister to and in me. I am learning to yield more, trust more, talk more, listen more, and remember the promises of God more. This is the proper response to the hope that comes from believing in Christ’s resurrection.
Hope did not die on the cross. Because Jesus lives, so can our hopes. 1 Tim. 1:11 notes that “Jesus is our hope.” He is the “blessed hope” (Heb. 7:19), a “living hope” (1 Pet. 1:3), and the “hope that will not disappoint” (Rom.5:5).
Watchmen, in these last days, we must expect that the world will change quickly, and not for the better. We must maintain a countenance of hope and share hope with others. We must move counter to the culture and counter to the world, even while the world moves toward despair. No, especially while the world moves toward despair!
Watchmen, when hurting people see hope in you; they will want what you have. Be vibrant in hope. Be prepared to share how Jesus is the source of hope and how to enter into a relationship with the one who offers hope. Be quick to share that “This hope we have [in Christ] is an anchor for the soul, both sure and steadfast” (Heb. 6:19).
Hope need not fade. It cannot fade if cemented in Christ!
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