Deaths of Despair, Part 3: Steps of Faith

Deaths of Despair: a 3-Part Series on Living a Life Not Barren and Unfruitful

In Part 1 I described the very real attacks of our enemy on everyone, but particularly on Christians. In Part 2 I outlined the foundation of a believer’s response as an individual under attack, or for someone struggling to know how to help a friend. I don’t intend, however, to stop at the equivalent of saying, “be warm, be fed.” I also don’t want, in my attempt to help, to inadvertently be heaping coals on those who are struggling.

Image result for steps of faithIn Part 3, then, let’s look at some actual  steps that can be taken to break the grip of depression. My list is not definitive, but these are things that I have found effective in my life and as I minister to others.

First, let’s understand the position of spiritual privilege we are in, especially if one feels condemned by the Law for the way they are feeling; as if it were “un-Christian” to be depressed. Bonhoeffer, in “The Cost of Discipleship”, states it relatively simply (for him):

“It is Jesus himself who comes between [the Law] and the disciples, not the [Law] which comes between Jesus and the disciples. [We] are faced not with a law which has never yet been fulfilled, but by one whose demands have already been satisfied.”

It is not some unfulfilled law, or some misunderstood doctrine, or some unrepented of violation, that explains or causes our feeling of separation from Christ. Everyone has failed in that attempt, but Christ. Christ, however, fulfilled every requirement of the law on our behalf; its demands have already been satisfied.

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Deaths of Despair, Part 2: Knowing God, the Meaning of Hope, and the Cold and Broken Hallelujah

Deaths of Despair: a 3-Part Series on Living a Life Not Barren and Unfruitful

Our enemy’s attempts to smother hope are insidious. If someone were to come up to you on the street or in your home and outright threaten or try to intimidate you, you would likely get angry. You might even seek help and call up some friends. That’s what we do with many spiritual attacks against our health or our relationships.

But what do we do when we get discouraged (when our courage is diminished)? Who do we call? Usually no one, because hopelessness makes us think there isn’t anything anyone can do, or we’re afraid our struggle might seem “Un-Christian”. And if someone calls you and asks how you are doing, what do you say? “Fine.”

Hope and Faith
Someone might try to encourage you (build your courage) by saying, “Have faith.” But what is faith? Hebrews 11:1 says “faith is the substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things not seen.” So what is hope? According to the Webster’s 1828 dictionary, hope is:

  1. A desire of some good, accompanied with at least a slight expectation of obtaining it, or a belief that it is obtainable. Hope differs from wish and desire in this, that it implies some expectation of obtaining the good desired, or the possibility of possessing it. Hope therefore always gives pleasure or joy; whereas wish and desire may produce or be accompanied with pain and anxiety.
  2. Confidence in a future event; the highest degree of well-founded expectation of good; as a hope founded on God’s gracious promises; a scriptural sense. A well founded scriptural hope is, in our religion, the source of ineffable happiness.
  3. That which gives hope; he or that which furnishes ground of expectation, or promises desired good. The hope of Israel is the Messiah. The Lord will be the hope of his people. Joel 3.
    4. An opinion or belief not amounting to certainty, but grounded on substantial evidence. The Christian indulges a hope, that his sins are pardoned.

But if you are struggling with hopelessness, and “the blahs”, that may all sound like so much, “Blah, blah, blah.” Just because you don’t “feel” the promise, though, doesn’t mean it’s not there. It is a promise made to you, and not just a wish or desire that you try to conjure.

Image result for cold and broken hallelujahYou’ve heard the word, “Hallelujah”. It means, “God Be praised.” We may think praise is for happy times, but it is for bad situations, too. Especially in bad situations! You’ve probably also heard the Leonard Cohen song, “Hallelujah”, it’s been covered by dozens of artists and appeared in movies and TV shows and is known even outside of “spiritual” circles. One of the most overlooked (because it’s hard to understand) verses of the song goes, “It’s not a cry that you hear at night, it’s not somebody who’s seen the light, but it’s a cold and it’s a broken, ‘Hallelujah’.”

That’s not a happy sounding verse, but it has great power. “Hallelujah” is easy to say when things are good, and you’re happy. Despite all the wonderful things in my life, it was a cold, and broken, “Hallelujah!” that may have been the sweetest sound that God ever heard from me.

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Deaths of Despair, and the War on Hope, Part 1

by the Night Writer

Deaths of Despair: a 3-Part Series on Living a Life Not Barren and Unfruitful

War is an over-used metaphor, but in fact, there is a war going on. It is not a symbolic one, either – the enemy is very focused, and all the more effective because we barely acknowledge what is happening. Some are starting to notice, however. Nationally, there has been a spike in deaths from suicide and overdose among the young and middle-aged – so much so that demographers and insurance company actuaries are noticing that something strange is happening.

These suicides and deaths are like people being picked off by snipers, and the numbers are starting to attract attention. Someone has even coined a name for these: “Deaths of Despair”, to describe people who are deliberately – or inadvertently – killing themselves because of a lack of hope.

Christians are hope-bringers; this is the essence of our mission to spreading the good news that Christ’s sacrifice has made a way for us not just to know God, but be reconciled to Him. A war against hope presents a double-barreled challenge to Christians: first, to our understanding of, and response to the problem; and second, in our own faith walk and in resisting depression in our lives and in the lives of other believers.

From being involved in Christian men’s ministry for some 30 years, including 10 years in prison ministry, I have tried to become a “Christian Thinker.” That is, someone who tries to renew my mind to be open to, and absorb, a Christ-like perspective on all issues. I’ve come to see this as different from being a “Thinking Christian” who disregards any spiritual information that doesn’t line up what seems “reasonable” to me. How, then, might I look at what is happening in the world, and how might I adjust myself as well to this assault, as well as help – rather than inadvertently harm – other believers who struggle? This three-part series is an attempt to do just that.

Over the past 15 years in the U.S. the number of opioid-related deaths for 25-34 year-olds has increased from 1 in 25 to a staggering 1 in 5. “Pain-killers” are killers. Opioids are from opium, the same source as heroin and laudanum, the “dirty” drugs of earlier ages and older addictions – now legitimized by our pharmaceutical industry. It’s not just for the buzz, but the pain relief. And as they always have, these opioids require heavier and heavier doses to achieve the same amount of pain relief. Overdose – intended or accidental – is one end, as is being cut off by your doctor and becoming despondent and in increasing pain so that there only seems one way out.

Similarly, deaths by overdose and suicide in general are also surging in middle-aged people, especially in the mid-west and west. These people are often socially isolated, underemployed, and perhaps discouraged by the direction their life has taken. The trend has become so distinct that it is noticed in demographic circles, and by the life insurance industry.

But it’s not just happening to the unknown and unnoticed. Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain are among the most prominent names in a list of about a dozen “celebrities” that killed themselves last year.

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Who’s Next

by the Night Writer

MaskWe were wrapping up the prison Bible study session and a guy asked me for my take on all the big names being exposed for sexual harassment. My immediate response was, “the Word says that that which is done in darkness will be brought to light.” Just because you think you’ve gotten away with something – and are therefore free to keep doing it – doesn’t mean that that you won’t ultimately be held accountable for it, and that the accounting might not come at a dear cost.

I also said that there is no point in taking any satisfaction out of the fact that the person spotlighted is Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, Catholic or Protestant, vanilla or pistachio. We all have things in our lives we’d prefer other people never find out about, and any judgment should begin with ourselves, first; not to condone or condemn, but to remind us – as I’d shared earlier in the evening – to “act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8).

Thinking more about it on the way home, I remembered something that I’d read very recently to the effect that, “Our shadows are like a sack of all the black stuff we’ve done in our lives that follows us around wherever we go.” (I’ve been trying to find the source for where I read that; if you know it, please tell me.) The picture that came to my mind, though, was that my shadow is different based on which direction I’m facing. If I’ve turned and put my focus on God, the light casts my shadow out well behind me. I know that I’ve been forgiven and covered by unmerited grace. If I’m facing the other direction, and turned my back on God, the light causes my shadow and all of the stuff that still has to be dealt with to lay out in front of me.

That’s not to say that the world might not still bring something out of my bag and confront me with it. While I have dealt with those things, and gone back to try and repair and restore relationships over the years when I’ve realized where my actions have harmed others, these could conceivably cost me in terms of things that the world holds dear. What I realized is that if my focus is truly on God, then I really should have no concern about what I might “lose”. While I might regret losing some things, they pale in comparison to what I have in Christ. It may also be that God himself is working to remove that thing I adore from my life because it is getting in the way of my relationship with Him. When my job, my status, my salary, my other relationships, or what other people think of me is more important than what God thinks of me, then that sack of shadows becomes very, very heavy. And certainly the guilty who are afraid of what they may lose are almost invariably harmed more by their attempts to cover things up than by the initial sin.

When I go back to the Bible study this week I will pick up on this again and in greater detail than my off-the-cuff (but God-inspired) initial remarks. I’ll note that the bit about things in darkness coming to light is in three of the gospels (Luke 8:17, Matt 10:26, Mark 4:22) and in the Old Testament (Ecc 12:14). I’ll also talk about how some very good things happen in the dark (1 Cor 4:5, Matt 6:4, Matt 10:27).

As for shadows, those aren’t necessarily bad either when the world comes calling:

Psalm 91:
Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the LORD, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart. You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday. A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you. You will only observe with your eyes and see the punishment of the wicked. If you say, “The LORD is my refuge,” and you make the Most High your dwelling, no harm will overtake you, no disaster will come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone. You will tread on the lion and the cobra; you will trample the great lion and the serpent. “Because he loves me,” says the LORD, “I will rescue him; I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name. He will call on me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honor him. With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation.”

10 years ago, and 10 years on

by the Night Writer

Ten years ago I wasn’t blogging, but I was writing. On Sunday, September 16 I published the first essay below –  “When the Towers Fall” – in the monthly handout I prepared for our men’s ministry at church. It was based on my observations of the past few days and the role of faith and biblical understanding in those circumstances. A month later I followed up with a second essay, taking off from the words of a certain televangelist to examine the nature and purpose of judgment. I share these two essays below for a picture of that time. Later this week I’ll come back and share how I think things have – or haven’ t – changed for me and my nation in the intervening years.

When the Towers Fall

Ultimately, America’s secular façade crumbled even before its material symbols collapsed. I first turned on my radio – and heard the first words regarding Tuesday’s disaster – moments before the second tower was struck. The voices of the national news team were already urging Americans to pray for the safety of those involved. It sounded almost glib at first, but as the unreal became real and the horror increased by the minute, the references became more heartfelt, even desperate.

As our true helplessness and vulnerability became apparent, the call to pray was in every report and every story. And pray we did: alone, with our families, and in special services and vigils that themselves became news. All of this flying in the face of a culture and media that has said for years that faith and divine intervention are, at best, inappropriate if not impossible. It must have been like discovering that the kooky old aunt you’ve been keeping in the attic is the only one who knows where the family silver is buried.

But which is the true picture of America? Are we a secular society that merely pays lip service to faith when a crisis looms, or are we a nation of quiet faithful who allow ourselves to be cowed by society until circumstances give us a chance to break out? I know how our attackers would describe us.

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All our best

by the Night Writer

As with Job, that which I have feared came upon me.

Today was the day that had long been foretold and expected; my oldest daughter’s last day in our church. I had originally had a vision of this day coming about 11 years ago, and 18 months ago we had had a preview of this as the Mall Diva and Son@Night prepared to begin his pastoral internship (see the link for details) at a church in Savage, MN, but today was the real thing. S@N was officially ordained last weekend in a ceremony in his home church in Alexandria and they are leaving on Tuesday for their new ministry in Iowa. Today was the day our church finally laid our hands on them to impart our blessing in sending them on their way, hopefully lacking in nothing.

Despite the ample warning I was having trouble this week preparing for the inevitable. It began at last week’s ordination service as I met a group from the Iowa congregation that had come to Alex for the ceremony. Given the way I feel about my daughters, I started to say to the leader of the group, “We are giving you our best” but my throat got too tight. Perhaps it’s better for them to come to this revelation for themselves. A couple of times at work this week I was nearly overcome as I thought about today, but fortunately no one came into my office at those times and my phone didn’t ring. My wife and I have always tried to have the perspective that our parenting is a stewardship of what God has given us, knowing that we’d have to pass them on at some point. It’s a worthy objective, but when you start to get close to that time the mix gets lean on theory and long on reality and sometimes your thoughts close in on yourself.

This morning I was thinking about all of this and asking for strength for the service when I felt God say to me, “Your problem is you are looking at this in terms of what you are losing, when you should be looking at it as what you are giving.”

Of course. Ah, of course.

I’ve experienced the spiritual phenomenon — so contrary to the “natural” way of the world — of giving time and money and seeing these multiplied back to me so often in so many ways that there’s almost never a second thought now when an opportunity to do one or the other arises. But Matthew 6:21 also tells us that “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Time and money are one thing, but perhaps now we were getting down to the treasure closest to the heart and hardest to part with. But truly, I could no more withhold this than any of the other, nor expect any less to come back to me in return. In truth, I had given this long ago when we had set our feet on this path, putting in motion the desire of our heart to see God glorified and his plan come to pass; a path that also included my daughter making her own choices and embracing her destiny. And all of this in the realization of how much we had already received even before we had given a thing.

The reason for grandchildren

by the Night Writer

Down among the reeds and rushes
A baby boy was found
His eyes as clear as centuries
His silky hair was brown

Never been lonely
Never been lied to
Never had to scuffle in fear
Nothing denied to
Born at the instant
The church bells chime
And the whole world whispering
Born at the right time

Our pastor likes to say, “God gives you children so that you can grow up.” The point is that your thinking changes when you realize the long-term responsibility you have, and your behavior (hopefully) changes when you start to recognize your less admirable traits showing up in your children. Unless, of course, you don’t mind your child turning into a despicable evil genius.

watching the game blog size

A second thought along this line occurred to me the other day: “and God gives you grandchildren so you can mature.” By that I mean the satisfaction that comes from seeing all the things you worked so hard to put into your child manifest itself in and around your grandchild. It’s the pay-off for the blood, sweat, tears and unpopular decisions you made to strengthen your own character as well as your son or daughter’s and it comes when you see how they love and teach their own children in turn, perhaps even with a greater patience and discipline than you yourself possessed at the same stage in your life. It’s at this point that you realize that your hopes for the future are bearing fruit and your work has passed from your hands.

I also realized that the same thing applies not just to the natural children you’ve borne or created, but to the “supernatural” or spiritual children you’ve discipled in the faith. How warm and glorious a feeling it is to see these children living on and sharing the things they’ve learned with others. Whether with natural or supernatural children, this is the point where you are truly overcome with the realization that something of you really is going to live on.

As an aside, this revelation may have germinated with me last week at the Bible study I lead at the Red Wing correctional facility. As it happens, each of the men in the study will be released at some point this year and I was moved to read the short chapter of Isaiah 61:1 to them. The first verse — “the LORD has anointed Me To preach good tidings to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives, And the opening of the prison to those who are bound…” — was what had first caught my attention, but it was the rest of the chapter that was the most powerful because it deals with what can happen for those that receive that word and that liberty. Among these is in verse 3 — “that they may be called trees of righteousness” — and especially verse 9: “Their descendants shall be known among the Gentiles, And their offspring among the people. All who see them shall acknowledge them, That they are the posterity whom the LORD has blessed.”

The mens’ faces were a bit gob-smacked as I challenged them to be those trees and I saw the realization soaking into them of the effect they could have into the next generation and the next in the families they had yet to create. “You have the chance,” I told them, “to have your grandchildren say of you either that ‘Grandpa did 10 to 20’ or that ‘Grandpa was a mighty man of righteousness who was an example to our family and set my feet on the path.'”

And T. added, “Or they could say both.”

As for my own grandson, now five and a half months old, his face often has gobs of different things on it, but it is almost invariably smiling. And why shouldn’t he? He is literally surrounded by people who love him and are happy to see him and quick to want to hold him. As Paul Simon said at the beginning of this post, he’s never been lonely, never been lied to, never had to scuffle for fear or had anything he needs denied to him.  If called upon I would gladly and readily pour everything I am and everything I have into him, but I can relax because I see that my daughter and her husband already know what it is they have to impart. My heart overflows with joy when I watch my grandson or hold him close and at the same time I feel an ache knowing that every day the news brings stories of babies that are resented, cursed and abused.

I look into his eyes, as clear as centuries, and stroke his silky brown hair and think of those born into suffering now and the deprivation they face that goes beyond mere food, clothing and shelter. I think of their lives and future paths leading into captivity and the need for someone, someday, to bring the words of liberty. And I hold my grandson even closer and whisper into his ear, “Born at the right time.”

The old man gets rubbed out

by the Night Writer

When I was younger my athletic endeavors gravitated toward the whacking and smacking games like football and hockey. Even when I played the more “finesse” games like soccer and basketball, my style tended to be more physical; in all games I was never going to be the one to make the pinpoint pass or long-range shot but I took a savage satisfaction from re-arranging someone’s internal organs or surviving a similar attempt on my own. That was fun for a few seasons but it took a toll on my body — though most of the payments were deferred well into the future. Consequently I have been seeing a chiropractor for the past couple of weeks.

I have also been continuing the Bible studies with the men in the Red Wing correctional facility, some of whom have spent significant time in heavy security prisons such as Oak Park and Stillwater before coming to Red Wing. In our last meeting we were talking about becoming new creations in Christ, and what that looks like in our lives. There was talk about putting off the “old man” and putting on the “new man”. I try to be as down to earth as possible in these discussions and my recent health experiences gave me a useful example.

I told the guys about the three surgeries I’ve had on my left knee since I was in college, and how lately I’ve been experiencing chronic pain above my right hip and periodic numbness and weakness in my legs. When I accompanied my daughter on her visit to a chiropractor to have her baby “spun” before delivery I ended up having an exam of my own. After I described my symptoms the doctor had me stand up straight while she took some notes and measurements, then she had me lie on a massage table for more of the same as she determined that I didn’t have a disc problem. Long story short, however, the combination of pain and numbness I’ve been experiencing wasn’t being caused by the hip, per se, but by all the years that I’ve been favoring my left leg and making the right side do most of the work. Standing “straight” my posture was three inches forward of it’s proper axis and also twisted a bit to one side. The doctor also described how pressure had stressed several of my joints and ligaments to where they were virtually locked at level 5 on a 5-point scale, or, in more descriptive terms, at “red alert” on the fight or flight scale. I was a little dubious about the diagnosis, but after she put me back on the table and pressed steadily on various parts of my body for thirty minutes I got up and couldn’t believe the sudden increase in range of motion, the absence of pain and how I suddenly felt two inches taller and ten years younger. I went home that afternoon like a new man, able to bend and stoop to pick up things without first thinking out a strategy.

That feeling, I told the men, was like first receiving salvation or the revelation of Christ and the Holy Spirit living within me. In getting up from that massage table I suddenly felt free of the things I’d done to myself and the mistakes of my youth, and even from the things I hadn’t realized were hurting me and distorting my life. The rest of that day and the next I felt great, but inevitably my “flesh” overcame me as my body started to revert back to what it had been accustomed to. Old habits – and old muscle memory – are hard to break. Now I go back to the chiropractor to receive further adjustments, and each time there’s less work for her to do and more response from my “new” man. For the guys, I compared these ongoing adjustments to going to church or Bible study regularly. I make progress each time, but the “old” body still wants to come back during the in-between. Conceivably, there could come a time when I’ve been totally “renewed” and don’t need the chiropractor to lay hands on me other than for maintenance. What I especially wanted the men to understand, however, is that if I truly want to make progress I need to do the exercises and stretches the doctor gave me to do in between times; it has to become something that I take on for myself. Otherwise I’ll simply be looking to the doctor to make things better without changing anything myself — just as we can sometimes do with our pastors or with going to church or Bible study. Sure, I might get temporary relief or encouragement, but without a personal change and commitment the results will be both fleeting and diminishing. To do that, I may have to change my stance or mentally catch myself when I start to fall into an old, familiar posture and deliberately shift my weight and re-align myself.

A final thought: I spent all those years consciously and unconsciously favoring my left leg, thinking I was doing something “good” by trying to make its life easier. The end result, however, was that that leg became weaker (approximately 85% the size of my right leg) AND the distortion ended up weakening my “good” side, causing pain and restricting the things I can do. Favoring the left leg did it and me no favors in the long run; we need to accept and understand that doing the things we need to do may be uncomfortable and even painful in the short term but will ultimately pay off. Similarly, we may need to look at others in the body of Christ the same way. Not that we should be deliberately callous or unsympathetic — it is “our” body after all — but expecting others who come to us in crisis to stretch and exercise is ultimately good for them. Certainly there are times when an arm or a leg needs to be in a sling or cast and supported, but those parts also need physical and spiritual therapy lest they become too dependent. When that happens our good intentions and their dependence can end up distorting the joining and knitting of our joints and keeping us from reaching out (in even greater strength because of our rehabilitated members) to others who need help.

The fight of your life

by the Night Writer

Pastor Earl showed this video last weekend at Inside Outfitters. You coud say it was a powerful message for the group since many who attend are dealing with substance abuse of one kind or another. But Inside Outfitters isn’t about overcoming substance abuse, or just for men bedeviled by drugs or alcohol. As Earl likes to say, “When purpose is not known, abuse (abnormal use) is inevitable.” Our biggest, toughest fight is usually with ourselves as we come to recognize and understand our purpose and contend with our “abusive” ignorance in every area of our lives.

Oh yeah, it’s a fight. And people are watching.

Grilling at the Graybar Hotel

by the Night Writer

A little over a year ago I started going down to the Red Wing Correctional Facility a couple of times a month to host a chapel service for the men. Red Wing is primarily a youth facility, referred to by Bob Dylan in his song “The Walls of Red Wing”, but they do have one “cottage” (more like a dorm) that holds 42 men. As prisons go, I suppose it’s not too bad a place. For some of the inmates it is their first prison, but most of the men have come from heavier security facilities such as Stillwater or Oak Park where they have already done significant time. Red Wing is often a last stop for these men as they near their release date, spending several months here under lighter security and with the possibility of supervised visits outside the facility to go to church or serve on work crews.

Last fall some of the guys asked if I’d consider doing a Thursday night Bible Study instead of the Sunday chapel so they wouldn’t have to choose between the chapel service or going outside when they had the chance. That wasn’t a problem, and after working things out with the prison administration we started Thursday meetings in November. One of my scheduled visits even fell on Christmas Eve and I was pretty excited about the opportunity to do that but unfortunately the snow and ice storm that hit that day kept me from making the trip. I made it down there the Sunday after Christmas, though, and brought a package of microwave popcorn for every man in the cottage. The reaction that day, and the reports I had from the guys on Thursday nights got me thinking about what other out-of-the-ordinary thing we might do for the cottage, especially as the Thursday night bunch were showing a strong interest in serving others. Eventually the idea came to me to have the Bible Study put on a cook-out for the cottage. I jumped through a couple of hoops with the prison administration and was a little surprised to receive permission. I was aided by the woman who coordinates volunteer activities who also suggested inviting all the other volunteers to the cook-out as a thank you.

With that settled, the Thursday group got together and hatched our plan and set a date. My church would provide the angus burgers, chicken breasts, cheese, BBQ sauce and jalapeno peppers and the prison kitchen would provide the buns, beans, potato salad, onions, lettuce, watermelon and root beer floats for dessert. My guys were very enthusiastic about the plan, especially “T.” who entered the prison system in his teens and has very nearly spent half of his life in prison. He was also nervous about grilling. “I’ve never cooked out in my life,” he told me.

Last Thursday, June 10 was the date we settled on and we worked out all the details. We even prayed for good weather! You might, however, remember that it rained just about every day last week, including Thursday. In fact, a doozy of a thunderstorm hit Red Wing earlier that afternoon. I was unconcerned; to my mind, this was something God had inspired and He would make a way (in fact, probably had already made a way) for this to happen. Sure enough, even though it rained throughout my drive to Red Wing, it had become a light drizzle by the time I pulled into the parking lot. By the time I’d passed through security and was inside the walls of Red Wing it had stopped completely. The guys and I got the charcoal fired up for the burgers and we put the chicken breasts (which had been pre-smoked in mesquite) in the kitchen ovens to heat. One of the guys in my group, T., told me how concerned he’d been about the weather, especially during the storm earlier in the day. “T,” I said, “you have to walk by faith, not sight. This was something God planned, so you just have to trust in the end result, even if a few storms show up along the way.” He grasped the idea.

“You’re right,” he said. “I’m going to have to remember that.”

I had been told by the Volunteer Coordinator that we wouldn’t be able to say grace in front of the entire group before eating. (For that matter, brats weren’t allowed on the menu because we couldn’t have any pork products; in fact, if we put any pork on the grill the prison would have to throw the grill away). That didn’t mean, however, that the cooks couldn’t say grace before we carried the food to the cottage. Part of the prayer was that the men would feel God’s love through the evening. We had people already set up to serve the guys as they came through the buffet line, but I positioned myself behind the servers so I could see the faces of the men as they came through, much as I do on the Saturday morning Inside Outfitters breakfasts. I wasn’t disappointed … and neither were the men! If anything, I was amazed at how they conscientiously loaded their 10-inch foam plates with a chicken sandwich, a burger, beans, potato salad on top of the beans, watermelon on top of the potato salad and all the cheese, onions and jalapenos they could fit under a bun. They all carried their plates into the dining area and filled the tables there and began eating, talking, laughing and generally having a good time, which I assumed was pretty much typical for the dinner hour. One of the men who I hadn’t met before told me, however, that one of the best parts of the night was that guys were socializing with each other. Normally, he said, everyone stays pretty much to himself or with one or two friends.

Before dessert the coordinator thanked the various volunteers who had come for the evening (there was an older lady there who told me she teaches a crocheting class – “We call ourselves ‘the Chain Gang!'”) for the time they put in, and then introduced me as the head of the Thursday Bible Study and sponsor of the feast. There was some very satisfying applause, whistles and “whoop-whoops”. I had been told, of course, that I couldn’t preach or mention God if I spoke to the group, so I merely said that one of the men I was eating with that evening had already thanked me and said that something like this really helped the men feel as if they weren’t forgotten while they were inside. I then indicated the volunteers who were present and told the men that they were an indication that people outside were constantly thinking of them and planning things to do them good. “As proof of that,” I said, “a good friend of yours even asked me to do this cook-out so that you’d know he hasn’t forgotten you, even though you might not have talked for awhile, and I just want to say, ‘you’re welcome.'” And with that — along with more applause, a lot of smiles and nods…and a very relieved look on the face of one of the coordinators — I was done!

I spent some time mingling with the guys, congratulating T. and the Thursday night bunch, and getting a few stories from some new guys. It may have been overcast outside, but it was glowing in that dining hall and it was still going strong when I finally gathered up my things and got ready to leave. Something that T. had said to me a couple of weeks ago came back to me. “Listening to you,” he had said, “I’m beginning to believe that there are no such things as accidents. That everything happens for a reason, especially the people that you meet.”

In a reflective mood, I thought of Dylan’s song again as I checked out through Security, ready to pass once again through the “walls of Red Wing”. Some have assumed that young Bob had spent some time in that facility, but that’s not been proven. In fact, his lyrics don’t describe the facility that I’ve seen, but there is a verse that does seem to fit as I consider the choices I’d made in order to be there and the things that I’ve learned from the men I’ve met over the past 16 months

Oh, some of us’ll end up
In St. Cloud Prison,
And some of us’ll wind up
To be lawyers and things,
And some of us’ll stand up
To meet you on your crossroads,
From inside the walls,
The walls of Red Wing.

I stowed my gear in the car and headed back for the Cities. A couple of mile north of Red Wing it started to rain again.