“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you: I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will place My Spirit within you and cause you to follow My statutes and carefully observe My ordinances.” Ezekiel 36:26-27 HCSB
It was March 2017. I had been through the ringer and I had no idea what was up the pike for me in life…just weeks away. In January God had given me the year’s theme: Be Brave. I could feel Him kneading the truth of His Word into my soul. I was praying for His Be Brave assignments. Now I know that praying for life missions is akin to praying for patience…but we live and learn.
A mere few months later, I was sitting across the dinner table from a good friend and prison chaplain, hearing his plea for more help. I could feel my spirit stirring. I knew that feeling…the Lord prodding me in a certain direction. “I need more female volunteers for our October trip. We will be going to several women’s correctional facilities and I’m short-handed. Would that be something you’d be interested in?” I sat there soaking it all in. I’d grown up around prison ministry my whole life. My dad had been involved in helping with this particular ministry, but this was a new angle. This was ME.
We asked some questions…what would that look like? What would I be doing? What were the dates and expenses? But it was pointless. I already knew the answer. I could sense the Lord moving me for weeks to something and I saw clearly: this was it. This was my missing puzzle piece.
I don’t remember everything I said that day, but I know at one point I leaned back in my chair, took a deep breath and said, “Uncle Bob, this terrifies me. So I’m pretty sure this is what I’m supposed to do.” And that was that.
Courage is a funny thing. It never feels heroic. Or at least not to me.
Most times, courage feels down-right crazy. Scared-out-of-my-wits crazy. Roller-coaster crazy. Out-of-your-comfort-zone loco. Even foolish. Sometimes being brave looks like sticking my neck out and doing something I’ve never done before. Or being stretched way beyond human capabilities. It ALWAYS looks bigger than me. Braver than me. And generally speaking, there’s not a guarantee of the outcome.
That’s why it’s called courage. Faith. Brave Living. The “risk” factor is what makes us lean into the only One who really knows the outcome…Jesus. We feel like we’re jumping into the darkness blindfolded. But all we need is to trust our Guide…because He can see the whole path clearly.
Yes, prison ministry wasn’t on my radar for the year…but it was apparently in His blueprint.
Fast-forward six months and I was standing in the airport security line with MaryEllen. We were heading out for three weeks of prison ministry and adventure with Jesus. I was walking in obedience. Nothing more. I didn’t feel brave. Or ready. I just knew I was called to walk through the door and I prayed like a mad-woman that He would go with me. I remember whispering under my breath as the plane took off… “God, You know this is a one-time-deal, right?” I’m sure He smiled.
Words are inadequate to express what happened to me in the next few weeks. Radical changes occurred in my heart. I saw the world in a new light. I saw the previous months of pain I had went through as a stage to show-case His glory and connect with the broken people around me. I saw Jesus in a beautiful way…as the One Who came and rescued me from myself. My Sin-bearer and the Lover of my soul. Emmanuel. God with me. God with us.
Redemption is a beautiful thing…but sometimes when we grow up knowing “Christian-ese” and hearing all the lingo…we miss the awe of it all. Being able to get involved in prison ministry was like stepping into a place where Jesus was showcased in full-color. Prison is a broken place…and He thrives in our brokenness.
I remember one day when I had a conversation with a middle-aged woman who was feeling out of hope. She had made some pretty big mistakes that landed her in prison. She was feeling hopeless and unwanted…and I could see all the pain and uncertainty etched in her face. She was crying and telling me her story. My heart broke for her. The pain of feeling overwhelmed by sin and guilt. I knelt down by her chair and tried to speak words of encouragement and truth to her. I’m not sure what all I said, but I remember telling her, “I just want you to know that our Jesus is a God of REDEMPTION. He loves writing the last chapter. And maybe He’s brought you here so He can start something new. There is always hope with Jesus.” With tears running down her face, she responded, “Thank you for saying that. I needed to hear that.”
The next morning, the same lady came in for class and was clearly looking for me. She seemed timid, but I knew she wanted to say something so I walked over to her. Immediately she put her head down and nervously said… “I couldn’t sleep all night. And I even hesitate to ask you this because you’re so much younger than me…but yesterday you kept mentioning the word redemption…and…I don’t even know what that word means.”
If she could have seen into my heart in that moment it would have been full of amazement and excitement. I was getting to share Jesus and the Gospel with this woman! What a treasure to lead someone to the Throne and introduce them to Jesus.
We take it for granted, don’t we? The lingo many of us have grown up learning and speaking since we were toddlers…and yet some people never hear. Some never hear the truth of the Word until they’re adults. It’s humbling to stand in front of a group of women who have lived way more life than you…and yet are asking you simple questions about Jesus and the Word. It makes you grateful. It challenges you to dig deeper. To savor the beauty of the Bible. To stand in awe of the incredible gift: the knowledge of Jesus. Why would He give me such a privilege?
In case you’re wondering, this lovely lady became my sister-in-Christ that warm Florida day. She listened with rapt attention as I explained that Redemption means “bought back”…that Jesus chose to buy her back when she was in sin and He wanted her to be His forever. With tears streaming down her face, she surrendered that day. And I’ll never forget her radiant smile when she graduated from the program and shook my hand… “Thank you SO MUCH for coming here,” she said. I responded with “It was my pleasure,” amid the tears rolling down my cheeks and the lump in my throat.
I was the one blessed. I left changed.
There are a thousand things I learned in those three weeks of prison ministry…and I could blog about it for ages. There are parts about the trip I’m still processing. Questions that are currently unanswered. But suffice it to say, I am a different woman than the one who flew out of the airport in late September 2017.
It was the longest I’ve ever been away from home without any family. It was scary. Big stuff. Crazy, mind-boggling, what-was-I-thinking stuff. This was a wild roller-coaster that I was both terrified and excited about. I’ll always be thankful that God allowed MaryEllen and I to go together…it gave us one point of familiarity among a thousand unfamiliar. We were able to encourage one another and pray for each other. On our off days, we were able to enjoy the ocean and talk through the stories and experiences.
What brave living is God calling you to? It’s probably the scariest thing on the horizon. Friend, if I could say one thing to you…you there, standing on the edge of your future, it’s this. Trust Him and step out in Faith. He has an incredible plan for you and it will require getting outside of yourself. That’s where He is. He will make you brave. In the beginning, I had no idea what those three weeks of prison ministry would hold…but I knew one thing, and I was clinging to that promise with everything in me.
Jesus was going with me. Guaranteed. That’s the fool-proof plan, friends. Jesus leads and I follow Him. Would I do prison ministry again? Absolutely. Willingly. Enthusiastically! Bravery that’s bigger than me is the best kind…because that means Jesus is there. Sign me up, friend. I want to be wherever He is.
(This post was originally published on the Polished Cornerstones blog, November 17th, 2017.)