by the Night Writer
Miles from home. Your foundation shaken. Your family at risk. Your past a curse, your future uncertain. Enemies await.
And yet, hope grows.
For the last six months or so I’ve been making the hour-long drive down to the Red Wing Correctional Center a couple of times a month. While it is primarily a juvenile facility they have one building for adult males, and I go to visit with the guys and conduct informal chapel services (actually more of a discussion). I never know what to expect: sometimes 10 guys will sign up in advance to attend chapel and then only three will actually show; other times three will sign up and 10 guys will turn up. There are a few “regulars” who I have gotten to know and a couple of these guys will be released in the next month or so. I was thinking about these guys as I prepared for last Sunday’s visit and my mind turned to the book of Nehemiah.
Nehemiah is a first-person account of a man returning from captivity in Persia to a ruined Jerusalem and how he was led by God to restore the city and the hope of the people there. He was welcomed by some, and there were some who were not so happy to see him return, and the men rebuilt the walls and their homes with a sword in one hand and a trowel in the other. There are a lot of parallels in the book of Nehemiah for men preparing to return to their home after a period of captivity. These range from Nehemiah’s reaction in Chapter 1 to the news from home (not just that he prayed, but what he prayed), to the plots of his enemies and resistance from his own people, to the way he went about his business, to the ultimate success of his mission and restoration of “his people.”
During our discussion I shared the part in the scripture where prominent people and officials in the area — who were presumably finding the present situation much to their advantage — were not pleased to see that “a man had come to seek the well-being of the children of Israel.” (Chapter 2:10). As I read that I was moved to look around the table to each man, and one by one say, “they were not pleased to see that a man had come to seek the well-being of the children of Jerry…of Tim…of George…” and so on. At first I only meant to say it to one or two guys, but as I saw each reaction I simply had to go around the table. Physically, each man twitched or rocked back or shivered when I spoke to him and each face shifted…not in anger, but in something else that shifted the hard planes and tight jaws, loosening them as their eyes unavoidably focused on some spot ten feet behind me. Even the ones I came to last in the circle, who knew it was coming, had the same reaction. One young man, B., looked as if he might even be ill.
B. and I have talked a couple of times about his situation and the mistakes he’s made; not the ones that landed him in Red Wing (I don’t know, and don’t want to know why any of the men are there) but in relationships. He has a young infant son who he’s barely seen. After the meeting we spoke one-on-one for a few minutes. B.’s going home soon and knows he’s going to have trouble with the family of the mother of his child. Previously we’d talked about love being wanting the best for someone else’s life even if it cost you something and how his actions didn’t always put “best for her” in first place. I asked him about his son: “Do you love him?”
“Yes, with everthing that I have.”
“Why? How can you love someone you hardly know when he can’t do a thing to benefit you right now?”
“I don’t know. I just know that I want to protect him, be there for him.”
“That’s because love is a choice you make, it isn’t a feeling,” I said. “If you go by your feelings you’ll change your mind every day. If you remember your decision and hold on to that, you can change the way you act, even the way you make decisions.” He nodded, reset his jaw.
We spoke a little longer about things we’d talked about before, about actions, not words, showing that there’s been true change and about outliving your mistakes one day at a time. I told him a true story of how I’ve seen that happen very close to me, and it appeared to give him confidence. B. may be gone before I return. He extended his hand, thanked me for coming and then said, “…and thanks for, you know, taking an interest in my life.”
During the group discussion the men and I had also talked about how Nehemiah had organized the reconstruction and defense of the city, about how he had instructed the men to “rally to the sound of the horn” when there was trouble at some spot, and how each man worked with a sword in one hand and a trowel in the other. Today, however, for these men going home, fighting with a weapon is a sure ticket back to Red Wing or someplace worse. We shifted then, to the scriptures that say, “the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh” (2 Cor 10:4) and that we “wrestle not against flesh and blood” and what our true weapons and defenses are (Eph 6:11-18). I suggested that if our weapons are not carnal then likely our tools are not, either, and that they can trust the word of God (the sword of the spirit) and as they do so, God will be using his trowel to patch and restore the walls and replaster the gaps in their lives.
Finally we talked about each of them finding a place to fellowship with believers, where you can stand with other people; people you can trust to “rally to the sound of the horn” when you are in trouble and people who could expect you to rally, in turn, when needed. Driving home I thought about that a lot, and about how I didn’t have to “go to prison” to learn that lesson, but how doing so really helped me to appreciate it.