Letters to Death Row

Letter #14

We have spoken about many topics and how they relate to God’s Word in the bible. The purpose in taking time to look at these unique connections is to build a solid foundation for understanding our relationship with God. The key word is relationship and that word itself defines human life. We are made to have connections with others and our primary relationship is with God who is our Creator. All relationships with others flow from this primary connection. It is the essence of what we are and how we are made to relate to others in this world.  I choose to have a relationship with you because I see great value in your own life. My choice is not based upon your past behaviors, but rather it is based upon the fact that you are made in the image and likeness of God. Your past actions cannot become a barrier to the way that I view you as a human being. I am looking past your failures and my own failures and seeing you as a unique human being. What you do with that choice is up to you, but it will not alter my view as to your intrinsic value. That understanding comes from an awareness of God’s ultimate plan for all human life.

For many months I have written in my letters about us being children of God and recently I received a letter from a brother in Washington pointing out that while we are all created equally by God, that we do not inherent the status of being a child of God until we accept the gift of salvation which Jesus Christ won for each of us on the cross at Calvary. I stand corrected and I am indebted to my brother, because I do not wish to deceive you or mislead you with my words. The free gift of salvation is available to each of us if we accept it. It is that simple…..I blew it, forgive me for my sinful life and cover me with the shed blood of Jesus Christ. That simple step confers family status on you and me. Nothing more is required. It does not depend upon the nature of your past sins, or your current attitudes or behaviors. When you accept the salvation offered by Jesus Christ, the healing and restoration process is initiated in your heart through the work of the Holy Spirit. It is HIS job to reconcile you and transform you as a brand new creature. None of us can do that for ourselves. It is only through the mercy of God that we are given this gift. But we must accept the gift for it to become a true gift. Otherwise it is only an offer that God has made to you personally, but it must be accepted as the precious gift that it is.

I want to extend another gift to you. Most of the people that I knew in prisons had connections to some others in their lives, but largely they were a group of people without the close ties of family love. They all had families but few had meaningful encounters with those who consistently loved them and accepted them. Family is precious, but it can also be a painful reality. I do not know about the status of your relationship with members of your family, but I believe it is important for all of us to have family members who care for us unconditionally. In the coming months Dismas Project wants to become that one place where you can be accepted as family, without any questions or qualifications. Your experience with family may have been awkward in the past. You may have felt that you never fit in with the others in your own family. This is YOUR invitation to help create a brand new family in the days to come. Family members support and encourage each other along life’s journey. We all need that kind of loving acceptance in our lives.

A close friend of mine suggested that I speak to you about spiritual incarceration in this letter. He wanted me to explain to you the fact that most people on the outside has no clue about spirituality. They think it means going to church or doing some other obligation. They are unable to see with spiritual eyes, so it is easy to look at others and discard them like a pair of dirty socks. They seem themselves as far above their fellow man and therefore see themselves as saved, while others are lost. Their instead becomes deadened as they compare themselves in a world of sinfulness and wickedness. Therefore, since they have only told lies and stole just a little, they are better than the individual who has raped, murdered and robbed others. This strange blindness seems to impact most people who considered themselves to be religious. They can’t see that the blackness of their own sin, is just as wicked as the most heinous criminal’s activities. They are unable to see themselves in the light of truth, so God’s word has little impact upon their own personal lives.

I firmly believe that the men and women on death row have had an opportunity to examine their lives through the clearest light that can possibly exist. Many have come to terms with their failings and crimes, realizing that they have blown it. Most resist the temptation to make themselves feel better by comparing their own actions to those of another offender. That ability to be honest at the core of their existence is the cord that connects each of you to me and the others working at Dismas Project. I do not care about your past, we all have a past. I only care about your present and future. That is my point of connection with each of you. It is not important that I know about your crimes, what is important is that you know we are all equals in God’s sight. We have all blown it….there is no one among us who can stand before God sinless. Therefore we are all equally lost without the redemption earned for each of us by Jesus Christ on that cross 2000 years ago. That is the core of commonness between us. We are all sinners. And no one with sin can stand before a righteous God. Since Jesus Christ paid for those sins of ours, all we need do is accept His gift of personal salvation for each of us. In the final moments of life upon the cruel crosses of Calvary, three men were dying. Jesus Christ and two thieves.

One of the thieves cursed God in his dying agony. The other, a man just like you and I turned to Jesus and cried out…..”Master remember me when You come into your Kingdom.” He surrendered his life to Jesus in that brief moment and he received a promise. Jesus spoke to him the following words…”This day thou shalt be with me in Paradise.” He was given the gift of eternal salvation because of his simple request to Jesus. This man had never been baptized and most like did not regularly attend religious services. He was a condemned prisoner dying a felon’s death. But in that moment he was assured of eternal life by Our Savior. Jesus has a special spot in His heart for death row prisoners. According to Catholic tradition, the name of that dying thief was Dismas. That is why our outreach ministry is named Dismas Project. To honor the memory of that moment between a man who was condemned to death and His dying Savior. The same promise is available to each of us and that is why you receive these letters each month. I believe in the eternal value of your soul. If you cannot hold any other spiritual content in your life close to your heart, remember this story because it applies directly to you and me. I share this news with you, so that you and I can spend eternity glorifying God’s mercy and compassion on sinners like us.

We are all in a race called life. It does not matter what you have done previously, you can still finish this race well. Let’s resolve together to finish this race well. After all we are family. While the world spins its pathway to oblivion we can forge an eternal link that will carry us through the rest of this race together. You may be physically incarcerated, but you do not have to be spiritually incarcerated. Use your spiritual eyes and ears to search for the truth. I promise you that you will find it if you ask God for His help. And we will have eternity together to talk about this incredible salvation for people like you and me. Let me know how I can pray for you, or support you in your study of God’s word. I seek to be an encouragement as you walk through the days ahead, one who sticks closer than a brother.

I have traveled to many places around the world, from the world of Bangkok and the delights of Hong Kong to the modern world of Japan and South Korea. I have walked in small towns located in Eastern Europe that use to be Soviet bloc nations. I have played in Europe and seen the wonders of African countries. I have delighted in the islands of Micronesia and enjoyed the hospitality of Indonesia. I have looked upon the rocky lands of Jordon and prowled through North America including Canada and Mexico. But for the most part I have done so alone, looking at the gifts of God through the lens of solitary experience. I have been delighted with the culinary arts of many nations, but the truth is that I have enjoyed my best meals with my loving wife. Most often they have been very simple meals shared with love and mutual concern for each other. The difference in these experiences is that the moments shared with my wife had a special quality of love which made them remarkable. She is my family. She carries a special place of love for me that moves my inner spirit. That spirit motivates me to want to share all things with her openly and directly. That very same spirit emanates from her own spirituality. You see I know that she loves me, but I also know that she loves God more than me. God has first place in her life. It is from that love of God that a fountain of love pours into my own life and fills me with purpose and direction.    We can be thousands of miles apart but the refreshing pool of anointing waters is mine to access at any point in the day. That is the blessing that comes to me from having a relationship with Jesus Christ and my wife.

All relationships ultimately flow from our primary relationship to God. I cannot change places with you, but I can accept you like my wife accepts me with all of my faults and flaws. I speak about relationship with you because I have discovered that in my own life, joy comes from the ability to share all things with someone else. Someone who wants to spend time and know about you as a unique individual. I am well aware that trust, or the lack of it, becomes a barrier to sharing with others. I have wrestled with the same obstacle in my own life. Because I have been in the same place I can understand what a gift I have been given in my marriage to my wife. I can share all things without incurring judgment. She knows and accepts my limitations and weaknesses. That is a unique gift. Because I am a deeply flawed man who has a long history of failure and sinfulness, I can openly accept others who have traveled the same pathway. I could waste our time together by concentrating on the supposed successes of my life, but the truth is that I only started to realize any inner sense of peacefulness when I recognized my very nature. As I came to recognize that I am broken beyond repair I also became desperately aware that I needed a SAVIOR. I could not bring about meaningful changes in my life by myself. If I have the disposition of a rattlesnake, I cannot change that part of my being from within. It must come about as a result of something occurring from outside of me. It is a simple but profound lesson in my life that I needed to have a relationship which would fill me with a new purpose and focus in living. I could not make that happen on my own. It was impossible and when I realized that I was trapped by my own sinfulness, then I finally came to a place where I recognized that I was completely powerless.

In that dreadful moment of realization I remember the feelings of despair and depression that filled my thoughts and my very soul. It was a crystalized moment of aloneness. The starkness of being apart from anything of meaning in this world. All things that I had engaged in became worthless in that momentary view of eternity. I was reduced to nothingness and I fully realized that I was incapable of changing on my own. That moment caused me to fall on my knees and cry out for God’s infinite mercy and forgiveness. I saw the utter selfishness in all the things that I had attempted to do on my own. It was in that moment of sorrow and regret that I came to understand that I needed a relationship with God to make sense of my life. Without that ongoing contact with Him and the acceptance of the gift of salvation and redemption, I would continue on my lonely pathway by myself. The meaning and purpose that I had been seeking for so long became apparent to me as I explored the spiritual significance of life itself. All the other realms of life are transitory and will pass away, only the spiritual dimension of life passes onto eternity.

I had to question myself closely. Would I spend eternity without God, without meaning and purpose? Would I throw away this one opportunity to live a meaningful life here on earth by staying committed to my restless and elfish search for self-gratification, or would I man-up and see the glory of having an eternal relationship with Jesus Christ. Now just like I have found a new dimension of living in my relationship with my wife……something I could not have imagined before it came into my life……I have found a unique purpose and fulfillment in establishing a relationship with you. I am passing onto you what I have discovered in my own life. It is a free gift. Just like it was freely given to me. My hope is that in these letters you will find a point of connection with someone who does not want anything from you. There is nothing that you can do that will enhance my willingness to extend myself on your behalf. You cannot extinguish my interest in you as a human being or my desire to befriend you in the isolation which is imposed upon your life. You can choose to be alone and reject these words of comfort and concern. Just like I could have rejected the comfort of God’s love for me. I write these words because God has shown His great love for me and my whole being is impressed with sharing that love with you and others. I could not keep it to myself any more than a bird can keep their cheerful morning song to itself. It spills out of having the experience of being loved. Once we have truly experienced that love which flows out of a relationship with God, it is impossible to keep it to yourself. That is what I mean when I tell you that all relationships flow out of our basic relationship to God. It energizes our being and transforms our lives.

So now I do not know of your current family situation, but I do extend my hand to establish a different kind of family relationship. I do this for you, because it is exactly what was freely done for me. I am passing along to you the very thing that brought joy and delight into my own life. I am not asking anything of you…..or expecting something in return. We all deserve to be treated with kindness, mercy and compassion. For some who read my words they will be baffled by this expression. They will try to understand how I can do this by using their minds to try to figure it out. It is not a mind thing…..it is a heart thing. And that is why I write to you each month. I believe that we all hunger for the same basic things in life, though we choose many roads to try to get those basic things satisfied. Let these words resonate in your heart…..let them get past the barriers you create in your mind and filter down to the core of your being. That place inside of you that hungers for acceptance, meaning and purpose in your life. We all have that place in common, no matter how we try to hide it from others. It is the most essential human part of our beings. If we have traveled through a lifetime of pain and failure we are likely to do our best to keep this special place hidden. We do not want to experience any more pain or personal defeats.

The very fact that I can write to you about this personal and sensitive place will tell you that I know it well. It is familiar ground to me as I routinely deal with my own vulnerability in this area. My experiences have helped me to understand the significance of spiritual healing in this aspect of my life. I cannot undo my sins or crimes, but I can give new meaning to what lays ahead by coming to an understanding about God’s great love for me and you. Only He is able to take the failings of our past and turn them into victories for His kingdom. He truly has turned my trash into treasure and that has become the source of great comfort in my life. He has done the impossible. It does not matter what others think of me….that is insignificant. It only matters what I do with what I have from this point onward. So I share my meager words and spiritual excitement with you, knowing that God can do the same work in your life that He is doing in my own. That makes us family…….His family.

I find words to be helpful, but I also struggle with the limitations which words bring to expressing my innermost thoughts. But words are all I have to bridge the gap of time and space between us. So please pardon my poor attempts at trying to add color to a black and white picture. I am a poor workman when one considers all the gifts that I have been given in my life. But my heart desires to build a relationship of meaning…..not just words. So while words are my principle tools to reach you, they are also extremely limiting in sharing what I want to say. My words are like my travels, they only have value if I can share them with someone else. Otherwise they are just meaningless gestures incapable of producing awareness in the lives of others. So please pardon my obvious limitations as I seek to bring alive a new dimension in your own life. It is like starting a fire with a piece of flint. I hope that some of my words spark the dry tinder deep within your own heart, and that God will fan the flames into a consuming fire of relationship between you and Him. I am an unprofitable servant and a poorer messenger of His word. But my heart yearns for your salvation and redemption through the completed work of Jesus Christ.


In a world fraught with an incredible number of choices available to guide our lives it is a tough sell to plead the case for spiritual simplicity. Yet the exquisite assortment of choices which shape our daily lives are laced with the hooks and barbs of painful experiences, trauma and meaningless existence.  To establish our sense of personal worth based upon ownership or relationship is to invite an ever growing negative awareness that our sense of emotional balance is constantly in a precarious state of instability.

Knowing this and being able to detach from the illusions of stability are two separate pathways. Believing in the safety of these illusions eventually leads to crisis, loss and despair. While negotiating the pathway of detachment provides an enriched life experience and tools to negotiate the toughest challenges in life.  One pathway leads to the existential anxiety of aloneness and uncertainty. The other pathway yields a sure knowledge and certainty that there is a divine plan for each life and meaning in every encounter we have with others.

The King of Kings chose a manger as His first earthly throne.  To those who could grasp the significance of this gesture, Jesus Christ invited them to seek out a relationship with His Father that was based upon simple truth. There is nothing complicated about the life of a Christian; which is not to say that we are not often faced with complicated situations.  The essence of His message is summed up in a life committed to the concepts of Faith, Hope and Charity; three elegant concepts for transforming lives.

How to personally operationalize these concepts is the subject of this article. It is strictly an inside job which depends on the individual’s ability to be honest with themselves. The ability to transform our lives does not depend upon our religious fervor, nor does it rely upon our beliefs. The change starts with the realization that our efforts have not yielded a consistent sense of peace and joy. Somehow what we seek and obtain never yields the satisfaction we have been seeking. Instead we just continue the search in a different relationship, acquisition or arena of life.

If our current efforts have not produced the desired results, what direction should we pursue to obtain such a treasure and why should we negotiate a new life strategy? In other words if what you are doing now does not work, stop doing it. It is that simple. In stopping the endless motions and attempts to create a new life, we come to a complete stop. We discard all that we have accumulated and go back to the beginning. It is never too late to begin again.

If the Lord of Life could begin His earthly ministry in a manger, then we can abandon the pretexts of our lives and focus on the simple truth that we are all spiritual beings. We were not created for wealth, lust, greed, pleasure or vindication. We have been created to know Him, serve Him and love Him in this life and share eternity with Him. So where I start this journey makes little difference, a mansion on the East Coast or a death row cell on the West Coast.

In seeking out a relationship with the King who lived like a servant, we acquire the privilege of son-ship with that King, even while we are living in the squalor of a prison. The mind is incapable of embracing the radical notion of this concept. We can only spiritually apprehend this reality by engaging in a relationship with Jesus Christ. If the Lord could come a dwell among us, do you really believe that He would reject a soul that humbly came and confessed his/her sin and asked for forgiveness. It is that simple, coming to Our Creator in faith like the blind man who called out for Jesus as he walked by. This blind man knew that if He could just get to Jesus his whole life would change. That is the kind of faith that moves mountains. Mountains of despair and regret. Mountains of sadness and sorrow. And mountains of humiliations and losses.

Trusting is the act of putting faith into operation. As I read the words of scripture my inner man is renewed and transformed. I start to catch the vision and the spiritual reality starts to manifest in my life no matter where that home may currently be. Knowing that the Holy Spirit is responsible for changing my heart, I stop fretting and worrying about things outside of my personal control. I start to embrace a day to day walk with Jesus Christ as He shows me the divine plan for my life. Nothing I have done previously will keep me from living in His presence. That is the free gift of the Lord, the same God who came and started His life in a lowly manger. Consider what you have now in life, what you have accumulated and accomplished, would it ever match the forgiveness of Our Risen Savior and the everlasting love of God? Doesn’t some small precious part of you hunger to be loved and accepted as a member of the family?


Lord I have blown it in every area of my life. No matter how I kind myself with bluster and lies, I know deep down inside that I am a sinner unworthy of Your mercy and forgiveness. I draw strength from the promise of Your word, that if I come to You and confess my sins, that You will be faithful to save me from my sin. I believe that Your Son, Jesus Christ suffered and died for my sinfulness. I come to You and confess my sinfulness and ask for Your forgiveness so that I may spend the rest of my life in relationship with You.


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