Many of us have had the experience of giving and/or receiving Christmas gifts from those we love, or those to whom we have strong feelings of affection or attachment. It is a wonderful way to remember our loved ones and it serves as a reminder to them that we hold them close and dear to us. In relationship with those we love on a more intimate basis we may have received or written love letters expressing our deepest feelings and affections. These written expressions convey the thoughts and sentiments that we hold deeply in our hearts and they reflect our very nature in words of warmth and affection. What would a love letter from God written to your heart say? How would He speak of His love and affection for you? Can you even imagine receiving such a letter? In your heart, what would you want Him to say to you? What words would restore your hope and heal your wounds? What kinds of things would He say to you that touched your heart at the deepest level and gave you a new vision for life?
Remarkably He has already written that love letter to each of us. In that message of affection and restoration He has assured each of us of His great love no matter how badly we may have failed in the past. He has spoken with a deep abiding affection and concern for our individual beings and invited each of us to come and spend some time with Him. As Creator and Father, He longs for our company as you have seen in other human relationships. It is His very nature to want to bless each of us, to shower our lives with His goodness. That strong affection does not diminish or vanish when we have sinned and rejected Him. Like the loving Father that He is, He waits patiently until we have come to some desperate endpoint in our relentless search for meaning. Then, when we are completely spent and defeated in our frantic search, He orders life situations so that at that moment of profound hopelessness we can turn to Him. As our ever loving Father, He seeks only to restore us to relationship with Him, when we are willing to surrender our lives and wills to His care. He then takes the trash of our lives and turns it into treasure. It does not matter where you find yourself at this moment in time. He has a plan for your life that will fill you with a new meaning and purpose.
There is NO ONE exempted from His goodness, but He is gracious and loving and will not force any of us to accept His goodness. It must be a voluntary decision on each of our parts to ask for forgiveness and restoration of that precious relationship with Him. Once we have asked, He pours His grace and mercy into our lives and starts to transform our very nature. We do not suddenly become conformed to the substance of life, but instead His grace creates a new desire within each of us to be changed by the ever present Holy Spirit. It is not up to us to make these changes….in fact most of us have no idea where to start or how to accomplish this enormous shift in thinking. Thankfully, once we accept the Lordship of Jesus Christ in our lives, He takes responsibility for making these changes possible. Under His loving care for each of us, our lives take on new meaning and direction. He starts to use us right where we are now. He brings together circumstances that will make it possible for us to live out our lives in service to His plans. Suddenly, instead of self-seeking and selfishness, we find ourselves living with purpose and dignity. We come to know deep inside that He is working out His plans in our lives no matter where we may be at that time.
This is truly the essence of making Jesus the Lord of our lives, by accepting His redemptive work for us upon that cross. Each of us truly deserved to hang on that cross for the sins we have committed. Some of us can number our crimes among those sins, but do not be confused between sin and crime. All sins are crimes against a God who loves us. So there is no one on this earth, with sufficient righteousness to stand before God. We are all in desperate need of His love and care in our lives. Sometimes pride, arrogance or a fear that He would never really forgive us, stands in the way of coming into relationship with Jesus Christ. I have good news for you. He has already made the way available for each of us. Talk about Christmas gifts, what better gift could any of us receive than the love and fellowship with the God who made the universe? It is truly a free gift, the finest gift that could ever be given to anyone. And it all started with the life, death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ. In that single life, God created a pathway to individual salvation for each of us, by our accepting the gift of a new life in Jesus Christ.
God Himself has written us a love letter. The Scriptures contained in the Holy Bible speak His words of hope and life into each of our individual lives. The Old Testament contains the explanation of His great love for us and the method whereby EVIL came into our own lives by virtue of our own free will choices. The rest of the Old Testament reveals the story of man’s struggle to live with a fallen nature even at the same time that he sought to be reconciled in his relationship with God. The story focuses upon those struggles in the early history of a people who had been chosen to share a special relationship with God. But the Old Testament clearly teaches us how futile their own actions were to elevate themselves to a position of friendship with God in the midst of personal sinfulness. The problem was crystalized over the ensuing centuries as we read of the pleadings of His people only to turn away and embrace sinfulness again and again. The key message of the Old Testament was man’s inability to have a sustained relationship with God based upon OUR own evil nature. Our desire to gratify our own flesh, pride and lusts. So a comprehensive study of the Old Testament reveals that there is a war going on in our hearts and minds. By myself I am totally incapable of being good enough to have a continuing relationship with God. Like the Old Testament Hebrews, we try our best, but our sinful nature gets in the way and we fall into sin again and again. The Hebrews attempted to satisfy God’s righteousness by offering daily sacrifices to cover their continual violations of His laws of righteousness. All of these efforts were futile in abating the consequences of sin, as though we were trying to elevate ourselves to a place of worthiness where we could approach the glory of God. Bulls and lambs were insufficient to cover our sinfulness, but they were a religious system which recognized the sinfulness of man and his attempts to make peace with God. It was an insufficient sacrifice since man by himself cannot ever make things right with God. It is an impossible challenge since we are trying to make ourselves (the creation) right with the Almighty Creator of all. We have no power or ability to make these things right by ourselves no matter how humble or guilty we may feel about our past actions. The Old Testament ends with a period of 400 years of silence between God and man. A vast indication of our inability to appease the righteousness of God. The Old Testament clearly demonstrates our inability to make things right.
In the fullness of time, God sent His Son, Jesus Christ to teach us by example about God’s great love for us as individuals. The New Testament starts with the Gospels which reveal the life and character of Jesus Christ as God’s chosen vessel of mercy, grace and forgiveness. That sole Life was given to each of us as a gift of God, to restore us to a righteous relationship with Our Creator. By His act of loving service and redemption, through His death and resurrection HE totally paid the price which we had incurred by our sinful choices. Those debts have been completely paid in full and all we need to do is to reach out and accept the free gift of personal salvation earned through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He did for us, what we could never do for ourselves. He lived, suffered and died, paying the price for our sinfulness. The New Testament is the love story about how God made a way for each of us to have a fully restored relationship with God through the obedience of His Beloved Son, Jesus Christ.
This special love letter from God to us, gives us the opportunity to live out the rest of our days in a loving relationship with Our Father, God Almighty. I would direct each of you to the Books of Roman’s and James to read for yourself how this became possible, when we still made sinful decisions. How the shed blood of Jesus Christ is sufficient to cover all of our sins, past, present and future. There is no sin which will not be forgiven if we pray and ask Him for His forgiveness and mercy. It is that simple. The salvation message of hope is just a short prayer away. The only thing that is required on our part is to call out and ask for His forgiveness – nothing more. That is the essence of having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. During my days I often fail to live up to my responsibility to live out my life according to His law of love. But He is always faithful to forgive my sins, trespasses, acts of commission and acts of omission. His single act, His life and more importantly His victory over sin and death is the all sufficient covering for all of my sinfulness and personal failings. The same rules of forgiveness, love and mercy are freely available to all of us. All YOU need to do is to quietly ask Him for His forgiveness and to come into our lives and change us from the inside out. Please see clearly, that just like the people of the Old Testament, I am (and you are too) personally unable to make things right with God, Our Father. But thanks to His loving gift of His Son, we are now able to live in right standing with God. He will make the changes in our hearts and minds, cleansing us from within. All it takes for this personal transformation is a willingness to invite Him into your life and to ask Jesus Christ for forgiveness. Since the Father sent His Son as a replacement for us paying the individual price for all of our sins (hell), Jesus has covered our sin debts, paying the full price to have a completely restored relationship with God, The Father, Our Creator and the Sustainer of our very beings. It is that simple to have a new life. He knows everything you have ever done and will restore you completely to a relationship with Him. Because all of us have sinned during the course of our lives, we need His forgiveness. Where one individual has raped, murdered and stolen another may have only told a lie. But in God’s eyes all sin is evil, it is not a matter of degree, if we have sinned then we all need the shed blood of Jesus Christ to cover our sinfulness. There are no exceptions to this rule of life. We have all sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God. Only by accepting the sacrificial act of Jesus Christ’s life, death and resurrection can we be made righteous and restored to relationship with God. Those who think that their sins are minor or insignificant are sadly mistaken. ALL SIN OFFENDS GOD. He is holy and righteous and cannot abide sin in His presence. The shed blood of Jesus Christ pays the price for all of our sinfulness. It is totally sufficient. That is the essence of God’s love letter to each of us in the Holy Bible. A message of faithfulness, love, mercy and forgiveness which we could never acquire for ourselves. That message is the basis for our hope. That message is the basis for eternal life, rather than eternity spent in hell for our sinful choices. His word can be reduced to a single sentence….I LOVE YOU WITH ALL MY HEART, WON’T YOU PLEASE COME HOME?
THOUGHTS ON JOY
It has taken several weeks to get around to putting these words to paper. I have attempted to reach out to everyone on death row in several states and initiate meaningful dialogue with those who live with this reality each day. Few have answered the previous letters and several who have answered have not responded to my return letters. One conclusion that I might draw from these encounters is the likelihood that it is very difficult to trust people in an environment where the system is looking for a legal opportunity to execute you as quickly as possible. I had one death row resident tell me that the guards on the row were as evil as the worst of the offenders. So where do you draw a moment of safety for yourself in that kind of environment? It would seem that the only solitude that can be grasped is inside of your head and in your spiritual awareness. If that is the case it is like living out each day in almost complete isolation. In that situation my letters are sent to you to open a small window outside of the heavy burden of living on death row.
The November letter focused upon the topic of happiness. My experience with happiness has led me to believe that in my life, happiness has always been related to some external event, thing or relationship. While I have experienced it inside of me, it was always the result of something external filling a need in my life. And when I became bored with the event, thing or person, I quickly lost my happiness and was again seeking some new event, thing or person to make me happy. For me, happiness was never an inside job, it always depended upon something else happening in my life.
Joy on the other hand has always been an internal experience. I have found myself in horrible situations and still have been able to experience times of joy. Joy flows through my life, while happiness melted away. Joy is like the blood that courses through my veins. It has a certain substance, while happiness is like a mist that disappears. Like a musical note that vanishes when one stops playing the musical instrument. In my youth and through my forties I was satisfied with seeking out happiness in all of its forms. Though from my early 30’s I identified myself as a Christian. Joy was something that I experienced only as my relationship with Jesus Christ grew deeper and deeper in my life.
You might think it impossible to experience joy in a prison setting. I do not personally believe that to be true. I do believe that in all of the circumstances of our lives we can experience joy and peace which is unexplainable to others. It is like experiencing vanilla ice cream for the first time in your life. No amount of words would ever give you the experience that one taste of vanilla ice cream would bring. With that single taste you would have an experience that could not be adequately defined with words. That is what joy and peace are like….they are indefinable. They must be experienced to understand what they do inside of our minds and hearts. Once you know the sweet taste of joy (coming from inside of you) then your life is changed forever. So how do you get this joy which eventually produces peace in your heart and mind?
As a trained clinical psychologist I can tell you that there is no therapy, drug or way of life which we can master to produce feelings of joy. I am convinced that joy and the peace that follows are gifts of God. Plain and simple…..gifts that are freely given. The world experienced joy at the birth of Jesus Christ. The greatest joy that a dying world could hope for in times of despair and defeat. Today many of us who are or have been offenders still experience those feelings of despair and defeat. The same joy which transformed the world two thousand years ago, is our today for the asking. Suffering is optional, personal transformation is promised. Like the shepherds on the hillside or the wise men from the east, our lives await the miracle of His birth in our spirits. As the Pharisee asked in the Bible, what must I do to be saved, our spirits cry out with the same question in our shame and pain. The situation is changed only in that we are now talking about 2013-2014. Man’s nature is sinful and has never changed, given the influence of evil in our lives. I cannot get right with God under my own power. So He sent His Son to live among us, to teach us, to show us and then to die for our sins as a replacement for our individual responsibility. My joy stems solely from the fact that Jesus Christ paid the price for my sin on the cross. He also paid the price for all of our sins on that cross. If you will humbly call out to him today, He will forgive every sin and crime that you have ever committed or will commit. His death on that cross gave each of us the opportunity to stand righteous before a loving Father. Without any stain or blemish on our eternal souls. All you need to do to have this gift, is to pray quietly that Jesus would come into your life, wash away your sins and change your heart and mind. He will make all of the changes necessary. That is why this experience is called a personal transformation. You follow that initial prayer with a daily morning and evening prayer asking for His help in all you do. And you continue to build a relationship with Him by reading His word. He promises to change your heart and mind and to completely forgive your sins and trespasses. He will do for you what you cannot do for yourself. In that quiet moment of seeking Him, your life is transformed and that JOY AND peace start to manifest in your life.
Jesus Christ has a special love for condemned prisoners, do you remember the story of the thief of the cross next to him? St. Dismas, I call him the patron saint of the close call. Jesus personally assured him that he would be in paradise that day with Jesus. A personal promise from Jesus for every death row prisoner. He loves you with an equal passion that He felt for this thief. Don’t take my word for it, ask Him yourself in the following short prayer and see how He responds to your humble request.
A PRISONER’S PRAYER
Dear Jesus, I know that You were a prisoner just like me, so I am offering this prayer to You because I believe that You truly understand my life and my current situation. I have been a failure at most of the things that I have sought to achieve. I have committed crimes and lived a life of sin. It is very difficult for me to trust in anyone. I ask the Grace and Courage to believe in You. Help me Lord to trust in You and Your word. I surrender my life and will into Your care and I believe that You will come into my life and make the changes which need to be made. I want to spend eternity with You and leave this life behind with a sense of purpose and meaning. I believe that even here on death row, You can use my life in that manner. Have mercy on me because I am a sinner and cannot help myself. Fill me with Your Love, Grace and Joy. Amen.
If you have prayed this prayer in your heart, you already have full forgiveness for your crimes and sins. You also have His promise to guide you through this life and the promise of spending eternity with Him. God has written each individual a beautiful love letter, it is all contained in the Holy Bible. His promises are real and they are forever. He will never disappoint you. Others will disappoint you, but Jesus Christ will stand by your side from this day until He welcomes you home in eternity. Have a Merry Christmas. Celebrate the true joy of finding relationship with Jesus Christ. Your life will never be the same again.
You will be in my thoughts and prayers…….Be Blessed.