I am sitting in the airport in New Orleans waiting for my outbound flight to New Mexico. I mailed the last of the monthly letters last night and was tired when this task was completed. Tired but very satisfied. You have been on my mind most of the month. I struggle with staying on top of what I share with you each month and trying to manage a growing service ministry. I would rather write to you late, then to fill my letters with worthless words. Because of my own prison odyssey many years ago I try to focus on those topics which may prove useful in piecing things together. Not everything that I share in these letters will apply to everyone who gets this letter. But by offering pieces which fit together, maybe I help you to complete some of the pictures you are trying to understand in the privacy of your own head. What I share with you is not something that I got from a textbook. In fact most professionals would argue with some of my points. But I believe in the worth and dignity of each individual life, yours included. Perhaps if I can share enough pieces of the puzzle with you, then you will arrive at a point of understanding and personal peace. Neither you nor I can undo the mistakes of the past, but we can live out what remains of our lives to the maximum. In other words, by refusing to let my environment or living conditions to define who I am. So going back to the July letter, it focused on woundedness. Last month’s letter was about family. This month’s letter is about identity.
Perhaps the initial questions should be…”Do I allow my circumstances to define who I am”? Am I more than the sum total of all of my past behaviors? What is identity all about and how does it apply to you? The way that we respond to the challenges and pain of life, is a very effective gauge to what we really believe about ourselves. So it is important to go back to basic and develop an accurate understanding of your individual worth and dignity. Many of the ways that we view things were initially formed in our thought processes during 0-5 years old. But that does not mean you are locked into an endless repeating cycle of events which happen in your life. If you have no concept of worth, then all of your interactions with others will automatically reflect the way you view yourself.
In that kind of situation we, you and I, find very little comfort in the process of living and our only positive feelings may come from what we can take and keep for ourselves. But that leaves us even more isolated than we were before we acted on impulse. Isolation in any form can be the starting point of soul sickness. When that isolation is linked to an impulsive choice, it may turn into self-hatred and effectively lead to shutting down communications with others. I write each month because I believe that there is value in your life, no matter what your previous choices in life have been. I choose to focus on the positive, as others did the same for me.
As life goes by we often acquire a reputation based upon the actions which others have observed in our behaviors. Many times the size and problems connected with those labels are increased beyond our own actions and soon we come to be viewed as “bad’’ by those who focus upon our worst qualities. Labeling is a form of dismissing others from our lives, often by considering them as hopeless or worthless. Just because labels are attached to my actions does not automatically mean that I am all of the things of which I have been accused. But most of us eventually give up the fight and resign ourselves to live out life fulfilling many of the labels we have received. Those labels (like stupid, mean, alcoholic, thief, murderer, rapist, liar, irresponsible, drug addict, violent and of course offender, inmate, prisoner) if we accept them as valid and true about ourselves, place us in a variety of undesirable categories. After years of struggles and failures we may even come to think of ourselves in the same way….nothing but a loser. Once we have arrived at that point, we are just a short distance from embracing the behaviors each of those labels suggest about our character.
What I have just described is a process, not an event. Over time we lose track of those things which have given our lives joy and happiness. We only see our skills in terms of what we can do and the badder the better! By the time we get to this point, we have joined those who have labeled us and by our behaviors we have agreed with their assessment of our character. For most of us, at this point it feels like we are trapped and can’t make any worthwhile changes. So we plod along the rough pathway of life, becoming indifferent to our own needs for validation and intolerant of anyone who seems to block our path. Slowly life closes over us and we start to lose all hope for a meaningful life. We become resigned to living out those labels in our actions and we come to view others as them versus us. In part that is what prison has been doing in your life. You have been labeled as a criminal, segregated from society and even your name has been replaced by a number. The problem with all of this exclusion lies in the fact that we are more than our behaviors. There is a special and unique quality about every human being and most of the time it only gets addressed in the context of religion. That part of us is our spirit, which will live on long after this life is over. I am not talking about ghosts….but rather the essence of who you are. No one can kill that part of you, it is God’s gift to you and it is unique to you. We each have special gifts and talents….those are the tools which have been given to you so that you make your way through life.
Have you ever looked into the eyes of an infant, or watched a horribly handicapped child struggle with things that we take for granted? Have you ever been with someone when they died and at the moment of their death you saw the light go out of their eyes? Have you spent any time with another person who is severely depressed and struggles to get out of bed and dress themselves? Then you have already seen the evidence of human spirit. It’s there; we all have it. It is part of our nature. No matter what your religious beliefs, that part of you will live on in eternity. It is you….the very essence of your personhood. No man can take away your spirit, or destroy it as a way of punishing you. God has no interest in furthering the work of man. His interest is only for YOUR SPIRIT. He loves that part of you and desperately wants you to reach out for His love and blessings on your life. But this has to be a very private transaction between you and Him. It does not matter what you have done up to this point in your life. He is willing to forgive you and be merciful to you. The key here is not based upon religion, but rather your relationship with the one who has already paid your sin debt. Jesus Christ.
You may be asking yourself, why would He do that for me? The answer is quite simple. He loves you intensely. Just like a parent who looks upon a helpless baby has a tender love and compassion for that child, as Our Father, He has the same affections and desires to bless our lives. We are made in His image and likeness. He understands all of the complexity of your life and mine, and wants you to ask for forgiveness directly to Him. As a gracious Father He will never refuse the humble cry of one of His children. That’s right I said one of His children. You see all that has been written above in this letter has only been an introduction to the subject of IDENTITY. Your identity and mine are linked to Our Father, who loves both you and me. WE have our identity in Him, and as His child, He is willing to forgive all of our sins and transgressions through the completed work of Jesus Christ on the cross. Our sin debts are paid….yours and mine. We pay the consequences of our actions here on earth, but we do not have to carry that burden into eternity. When your life is over, where do you want your spirit to rest for eternity? All you need do is ask Him for forgiveness right in your cell.
Man will never be able to grasp that there is more to us than the labels we have acquired in a lifetime. But God knows better. He knows about every wound that you have sustained in your life and the wounds you inflicted upon others. None of those behaviors diminish your identity as one of God’s precious children. Life is a gift, but your identity as one of God’s children is your most precious legacy. Don’t let the trash talk deprive you of your birth right. Other human beings cannot see into your heart…..they really do not know you, though they may pretend to know you. God knows every fiber of your being and every action that has impacted your life. Knowing all of that, He still says I love you. Don’t take my word for any of the thoughts I have shared with you. Check them out for yourself. If your identity is centered upon being a child of God, then everything between now and the time we chat together in heaven is just waiting time. Please do not forget the story of the thief who died on the cross next to Christ. At the last moments, he called out and asked Jesus to remember him when Jesus came into His kingdom. He was rewarded for his faith by the calm assurance of a King.
If I am a child of God, then I participate in the very inheritance of His Kingdom. He is not partial, giving to one and denying others. Actually I truly believe in my heart that God never sends anyone to hell, we choose that path for ourselves. We condemn ourselves by refusing His gracious offer of mercy and forgiveness. The tragic part is that so many will choose hell, when the blessings of eternity are only a short prayer away. Can you imagine the pain of seeing your child choose a path of self-destruction when you were trying to do all you could to save the child? That is the pain which God feels about each person who neglects His gracious gift. Your place and the door to the prison swings open. All you have to do is reach out and humbly ask for His forgiveness. Would you miss His act of pardoning all of your sins and transgressions? Would you really choose the pathway to hell, when you could have chosen eternal life? You know that misery loves company. Hell was not made for humans, but for the fallen angels. Do not be deceived by satan’s deception that you are really in charge of your life. Eternity is a long, long time.
Today it is raining lightly in New Mexico and I am thinking about you as you live out this day. Most of all I want to reach across the space and time that separates us and offer a hand of friendship and concern. Our consequences for our behaviors will not evaporate with asking God for His forgiveness. That is the role that man has chosen to enact as part of the laws. But when that struggle is over, where is your destination? Even now, won’t you let your heart recognize the truth in these words? My dear wife is from Indonesia and in the time that we have been married through her acts of kindness and forgiveness, she has shown me a different way to live my life. I grew up in New York City and learned young how to take things I wanted, and how to keep them by fighting. Inevitability that way of life cost me big time. But at the time that I was engaged on this pathway, it seemed that life was all about what you could take and keep. If I got caught, it was just something to put up with and try harder the next time to avoid conflict with the police. So my life wound up being an endless cycle of confrontations with others. It was not until I was in prison, that the pieces started to fall into place.
I am not trying to convince you that my way is the right way. My words are only offered to give you a glimpse of things that have worked in my life. I tend to be a slow learner committing the same acts over and over again. Eventually I got sick and tired of being sick and tired and I became willing to look at other alternatives. My initial efforts were focused upon education, thinking that if I could acquire enough degrees, I could offset my past criminal history. The reality was that I had just become an educated offender, not much different than before I sought out knowledge as a form of compensation. It was not until I became totally powerless that I realized that there was nothing that I could do to change me or my situation. That was an incredibly painful realization since I had always thought in the back of my mind, that I can change when I want to change. That was the time when I finally had to come to the point of realizing that I could not blame others and that my present condition was an immediate reflection of my choices. I had spent such a long time being selfish and self-centered. I had no idea how to change myself or where to begin. This was a quiet moment that I would never have discussed with anyone else. I felt intensely alone with my history of failures.
About this time I began to be exposed to spiritual concepts. Just the reality that we are more than body, mind, emotions and desires. I had a religious background growing up as a child and I wanted nothing to do with religion. It was after much discussion, and some of them were very heated discussions, that I started to consider the possibility of actually having a spiritual relationship with “God.” I still was highly uncomfortable with any concepts that I could not see, hear, touch, taste or smell. Finally I came to a point of just asking….if You are really out there, like others tell me, then please make Yourself real to me. God did not show up in my cell for a one to one discussion, rather things started happening in my life that seemed to be unexplainable. Things that I could never have made happen since I was locked away in a prison. At the same time there were also trials that came my way that were painful and hard to endure. But somehow no matter what was thrown my way I began to find the strength to cope with my situation. I would like to tell you that this was a quick process, but remember I told you before that I am a slow learner.
Somewhere along this new pathway I started to ask for help. I would have these little discussions with God and just call out Help Me Please. I was not convinced by any means, but had decided that I was willing to check out the facts for myself. Two things happened in my life. The first came rather slowly, I started to realize that I was loved…..not so much by God, as by some family members and friends. That led me to the second major discovery. If I was loved and had screwed up every opportunity in life up to this point, than why were people still loving me? I had already given up on myself, so why didn’t they give up on me as well? That struggle to understand others and myself eventually led me to consider the subject of identity. I knew what my identity was up until this point, liar, thief, cheat, etc…Maybe, just maybe there was something about me that I had not recognized before that others could see. But I had no clue what that might be. In this world, when you are labeled and discarded by society, there is little hope of changing that pattern. The change started to happen as I pondered the subject of identity. I became willing to explore my own identity and find out who I really was.
More and more little things inside like my attitudes started to change as I opened myself up to the possibility that something more was present inside of me than what I could see. Over time I started to see another picture of myself, I was still aware of all of my crimes and failures but I also became aware that I could start to make different choices each day. Not all at once, sometimes it was just biting my tongue and no lashing back at someone else. Other times it had to do with the possibilities that my life was not finished, that perhaps God really did have a plan for my life. Just allowing this option into my thinking started to open up a new window on life. I had no idea or where He would take me, or what He would require of me, but anything was better than what I had made of my life. I followed very very reluctantly, because I did not want to give up my ability to choose what I wanted. Over the course of a long period of time I came to understand what was happening inside of me. If this whole God thing was real, what was the nature of my relationship to God? Why would God want anything to do with me? While I was not happy with who I was, I did not want to be God’s robot.
As a slow learner it took me years to finally come to an understanding that my identity is based upon my relationship to God. I have worth, because He created me. I have dignity because He forgave me. I have value because He encouraged me to be more than what I had been. This in turn led to the discovery, that as His precious child (just like you are His precious child) that my future only depended upon my willingness to take one small step forward at a time. He would do the rest. That journey from prison 1979-1983 has directly led to the establishing of this ministry outreach to death row prisoners across the U.S. That is why I can tell you that it is unimportant to me what your past crimes have been. All that matters to me is to share with you monthly and challenge you to consider your own identity. You are not what someone calls you behind your back, or some prison number waiting to die. You are your Father’s child. Everything that He has done for me, He is willing to do for you. All it takes is that quiet moment, if you are really out there please make yourself real to me. He will do the rest. Living on death row does not routinely provide many opportunities to watch a miracle of transformation start to happen. It is never too late to begin again and you do not have to take this path by yourself.
I do not know where this choice will lead you ultimately regarding your current situation. I do know that reaching out your hand in relationship is the first step to being restored to son-ship. I write to you because YOUR SOUL has equal value with my own soul. You are precious to God and He will happily accept a soft, but humble request to know Him…..if you are willing to ask Him yourself. Your identity to me is as a brother, not as a fellow offender. I desire only to support and encourage you with my monthly letters. To offer you an opportunity to be treated as someone of great worth. Not as trash to be discarded. In my life God has been changing trash into reassures for many years now. He has no favorites. He loves us all equally, no matter what our sins and transgressions. I am enclosing an essay written by my wife’s cousin who lives in Jakarta Indonesia. He has lived a life much like you and I. But he has also discovered who he is in relationship to God. It is never too late to start again. I believe that God has given you an opportunity to explore just how precious you are in His sight. I am only someone who comes to visit you monthly by mail, to help you live through the pain of your current experience.
Somehow, together we can accomplish things that we could never do alone. My only request is that you consider my words and ask yourself, Who Am I? I see great value in your life. Read the enclosed essay and consider what it suggests to your heart. May it be a small new window in your life, letting in the love of God.
Stay strong and be blessed.