By Thursday, I was pretty much prepared for the sermon I was to preach the next evening at the prison worship service; but when I read over it Friday morning, it just didn’t feel right. I tried revising it, but no matter what I did, it still felt wrong. Finally, I decided to scrap it and rework a sermon I’d preached a few weeks before in a different setting. This one definitely felt like the better choice, but the quick turn-around gave me a bit of an emotional whiplash. I still felt off-kilter when I met up with the others on the worship team.
As the musicians warmed up, I tried to center my thoughts, praying for God’s blessing on my preaching and for Holy Spirit guidance for the delivery. By the time the men filed in for worship, I had begun to feel a little more at peace about the message.
We began with an old-fashioned hymn sing. I always loved those when I was a kid. Sure, I loved singing the hymns, but even more than that, I loved hearing the saints of the church shout out the page number of their favorite hymns with more gusto than I witnessed at any other time in our Southern Baptist church. Be assured: those Baptist leaders of old had nothing on the inmates worshipping in the little prison chapel that Friday night. We sang one hymn after the other in quick succession and by the time we sat down, I was fully present, caught up in the holiness one can only experience when God’s people come together in Christian community.
Next came the gratitude reports. Around 50 to 100 men had assembled, all of them doing time for crimes ranging from burglary to murder.
Gratitude reports? I thought. This ought to be interesting.
“That God is a God not just of second chances but of many chances!” Laughter bubbled up from around the room followed by a chorus of “Amens.”
“I want to thank God for grace, even though I don’t deserve it!”
“Oh, you got that right!”
“Me neither brother, me neither!”
“I’m thankful that the Lord keeps increasing my desire for God’s word.”
“Isn’t that the truth!”
“Well, I just tell you, I’m grateful that I have the heart to be grateful. That’s something I didn’t ever think I’d have — a heart to be grateful.”
I’m telling you, by the time I stood to preach, I had — as they say — been to church! What a beautiful, holy, genuine picture of the Body of Christ. I opened with the scripture reference, inviting them to join me in reading Isaiah 65:17-25.
“For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. …”
I preached about unity in spite of diversity and communion despite division. The men seemed to be right there with me, nodding in agreement and understanding throughout the message.
Twenty something minutes later, I had reclaimed my seat and the men were invited to offer words of response.
“This is exactly what we needed to hear,” one man said.
Another piped up and offered, “It’s hard to be locked up in here together. These are awfully close confines for the Body of Christ!” Nervous chuckles rippled across the congregation. “We have disagreements and there is nowhere to go. There is no break from each other. It gets hard.”
And then, from the back of the room, a man nodded towards me and said, “She must have the inside scoop of what’s going on this week with us. This message is exactly what we needed. Thank you!”
Nope. That wasn’t me who had the inside scoop. That was the Holy Spirit. Thanks be to God!