You might have noticed that these monthly letters have been exploring a pattern of situations which impact our lives. We previously spoke of rejection and identified that it is an external force which impacts our lives. We also discussed despair which is largely an internal force that limits our ability to express hope. Each of these factors have unique and lasting influences on the way we think and the way we live our lives. This month we will explore another of these influences and develop some understanding about how this particular encounter can become the turning point for those struggling with wasted lives.
Even to use the term wasted lives is really meaningless, since the only measure of our usefulness is rooted in our spirituality. We can look back upon a lifetime of devastation which we have wrecked in the lives of others and find no personal point of value. It may be like pulling all of that wreckage along behind you as you go through the days of your life: A long chain of losses perpetually linked to our lives and keeping us from rising up. That is the nature of devastation and its impact in our lives and the lives of others. I do not need to dwell on this point, at some time or another you have visited this grim sight inside of your own mind.
You can’t know something that you do not know. Nor can you give away something that you do not have to give. Those are simple but profound statements about the nature of life. On the cross next to Jesus Christ, hung a thief being executed for his crimes, in Catholic tradition he is called Dismas. That is why the name of this ministry was called Dismas Project. He had nothing to bring to Calvary but his lifetime of failures and the devastation we had produced in the lives of others. The history of that day does not record that he had any family members or people gathered about who cared about him. Just alone and nailed to a cross dying.
But even in the final moments of his life, he received the gift of grace and was inspired to call out to Jesus on the cross next to him. “Lord, remember me when you come into your Kingdom” was his sole request. In His dying moments he caught a glimpse of the King of King dying on a cross next to him and he was moved to ask for mercy. He understood deep within his soul who this man was dying beside him. Perhaps every other decision he had made throughout his life had been wrong, but in that moment of awareness his life was transformed. He was given the opportunity to recognize the awesome truth of the moment.
Please remember he was never baptized and to the best of our knowledge was not a man given to regular church attendance. Perhaps in his life he never attended a religious service at all. So clearly it was something else about this moment that resulted in his soul being saved. It was Dismas and something else, something that he had not brought to his own cross. That something else was a relationship with Jesus Christ. Even in his dying moments he recognized Jesus for who He is, The Son of God. In recognizing Jesus as his Savior he called out not knowing what that actually meant. He just knew deep inside of his spirit, Jesus was who He said that He was.
In that instant of awareness his simple prayer was answered when Jesus told him “This day you will be with me in paradise.” He did not have to clean himself up or present a nice image, all he needed to do was call out and ask for mercy and forgiveness from the One who can freely give it to all of us. He recognized Jesus Christ as the Lord of his life and that made all the difference in the world. He asked for a personal relationship with Jesus and was given eternal life by His side. Not just forgiveness and mercy, but eternal salvation as well. To me this is the most awesome story in the Bible: A personal encounter with Jesus Christ in the last moments of life.
How big is your God? Does your God have limits? Does he know what it means to be a human being who has lived a life with many failures and defeats? Does he even care? Jesus Christ was dying on the cross next to Dismas not for anything that he ever did that was wrong. He died for one reason only, to pay the complete cost for all of our sins. The sin debt has been totally pain in full. That’s yours and mine. In all of your life you will never find a more personal relationship than being loved by the One who died so that you do not have to spend eternity in hell paying for your sin debt.
That is an intensely powerful encounter and it was done for you and me out of His love for each of us. A love so powerful that He would die for each of us. His victory was complete when He rose from the grave three days later and demonstrated His conquering power over sin and death. In that act He freed all of us from the shameful chain of bondage to sin and eternity in hell. He taught us that we are pawns in the hands of the evil one who shapes and influences by his unrelenting attempts to get us to make sinful choices. It seems to give him pleasure when we make sinful choices because those choices are wounds against a loving God.
He knows that his time is coming to an end and he wants to take as many of us with him into an eternity in hell just out of hatred for God. It is equally true that he also hates us since we are made in the image and likeness of God. Anything that resembles God’s character is a target for his evil influences and temptations. Once we have stumbled back into sin the evil one loves to accuse us before the throne of God. He laughs at our weakness and even at our cowardly ways. But God’s grace and mercy is inconceivable and with a heartfelt prayer you and I can be restored to a full relationship with Jesus Christ. That is what Dismas encountered on the cross next to Jesus. That is salvation!
RECENT EXPERIENCES WITH DEVASTATION
As part of the outreach which Dismas Project offers to Families of Offenders as well as current and former offenders we maintain an outreach to those who suffer using multiple forms of outreach. One of those methods recently yielded a contact from a mother who has a son in county jail facing first degree murder and armed robbery charges in a state with an active death penalty agenda. Needless to say she is totally devastated since her son is in his early twenties and lives about two thousand miles away from her home. So there is only contact by letter at this time. Like most family members she has made multiple calls to his public defender without any response. She is overwhelmed by fear and anxiety. She cannot afford to leave her job and travel to visit him, so she hangs in this dreadful cycle trying to make sense of things. Those who read this letter may have had similar experiences affecting family members. I am asking you to write and tell me about your ideas and suggestions. I will pass them onto her promptly. With this small gesture you can ease someone else’s pain and shame.
An offender who was released three and a half years ago contacted our ministry because he has become desperate about his failure to adjust to life outside in the community. Though he has some family invested in helping him, he finds himself at odds with them often and winds up becoming angry and isolating himself from them. It is an effort to get up and look for a job, so most people think of him as lazy. He is just struggling with the constant struggle of having to reveal himself over and over again to possible future employers. Before he starts out on his daily tasks he is already feeling defeated. Fear of going back to prison is not a consideration since that would ultimately mean that he could retreat into the silence and isolation of an institution. Do you know and understand his shame and pain? Have you shared this same struggle? Can you offer some insight and personal support that I can pass onto this man. Can you help to shoulder his burden for a short time?
WE, you and I and the other millions struggling through a criminal justice experience have been BLESSED by the kindness of the senior staff at Christian Satellite Radio (CSN). They are located in Twin Falls Idaho and have been broadcasting an outreach message to families of offenders as well as offenders themselves across their network of 380+ stations in the US and Canada. They have undertaken this task upon realizing this need across the nation. On a daily basis they play an ad for Dismas Project in the hopes of contacting men and women in need, like those discussed in the previous two paragraphs. They undertake this mission because they believe in the worth of each soul. If you feel led to send them a short thank you note, it would be a great blessing to this ministry and the CSN Christian network. Their address is: P.O. Box 391 Twin Falls ID 83303. Please keep them lifted up in prayer and try to find a local radio station that carries their 24 hour a day radio outreach. Take heart brothers and sisters, there are people out in the free world who share a burden for you and your salvation.
FLAWED TRUST – FRACTURED RELATIONS
One of the great axioms of life is the simple truth that one cannot give away something that they do not have. If I lack the basic ability to trust then I have no internal ability to grow in that quality or to recognize it in others. If my ability to trust has been diminished by a variety of life experiences then I am likely to develop a quick ability to detect inconsistencies in the thoughts and actions of others. Once detected the “natural” response may be to avoid others and hunker down till the perceived threat is past. Given enough circumstances and time, this reaction pattern may start to resemble an innate drive that colors all of my relationships with others, under the protective colors of threat assessment and the potential for harm avoidance. In other words, my interactions become shaped by my fears and assessed harm potential I assign to everyone I encounter. Trust slips away and is replaced by a persistent unvoiced pattern of uncertainties and concerns about the intentions of others. Taken to full growth this practice has the capacity to isolate us from others sharing our world, based upon the potential for ascribing differences which might become future threats. So without a word to others, I am able to internally dismiss individual worth and dignity. It has all happened invisibly in our heads, but it is reflected in our attitudes and behaviors.
This concept of flawed trust impacts everyone on the face of the earth. It is the soil in which we build all of our relationships. When I am offended by another person, or conversely I am offending others, our actions directly impact our ability to actively engage others with a trusting spirit. If my sense of equilibrium has become impaired by bruising encounters, then my ability to function in a trusting manner has been altered negatively. The solution is quite simple. The key to restoration is accepting the fact that we have all bruised others and in turn have been bruised by others. Harboring our pride, anger and resentments isolates us from functional relationships with others. Understanding this fact allows us to realize that everyone wrestles with the same problem. So rising from the swirl of thoughts and emotions which inform my actions is the realization that my only relief from this ugly crippling posture is to accept my own vulnerabilities and failures. Taking the volume of debris which has accumulated in my life, reflecting on the outcomes wrought and placing the burden in God’s Hands: Rather than breed indifference, antipathy and hatred, the simple act of spiritual recognition and acceptance brings me into fellowship with others and renews my relationship with God. In that uncomplicated act of surrender I acknowledge His Lordship in my life and my responsibility to bring all things to His care, especially those elements of my life which yielded great wreckage and pain for others.
I experience the renewal of my ability to trust as I start to see the events of my life in a spiritual context. Surprisingly the strange flow on harmful interactions with others starts to lose its ability to shape my awareness. The “me” logic is replaced by an awareness that all of my actions are expressions of my soul life to My Heavenly Father. I commit myself a little at a time to surrender the strongholds and resistant beliefs to the influence of God’s love for me and others. He reshapes my thoughts and emotions, so that at some deep level of my being, I am choosing to honor Him in all of my decisions and actions. That becomes an act of love on my part as I am drawn into the growing awareness of His love for me. Things done to me vanish in the dust of life and my spiritual vision is expanded to recognize new realities which were previously beyond my grasp. My soul is filled with the awareness of my sights and sounds and my thoughts and emotions yield to these spiritual influences. Suddenly I am embracing things which baffled me in earlier times. I am making choices which reflect a new way of thinking, but to others I seem to remain the same man. God is doing for me what I cannot do for myself. I am responding to His love and desire to save me. The spiritual concepts of justification and sanctification are internalized in my life and I follow the Master, drawn by His love.
Few of my fellows are likely to understand the significance of what has happened as they are puzzled by my willingness to bare all things for public scrutiny. I no longer seek to hide in the shadows of life, but instead have become empowered to speak out about what God has done for me. My joy grows as I learn how to recognize the pain and shame of others and to offer them the comfort that my Father gives to me on a daily basis. Those very things that previously drove me apart from others become the elements upon which I am now bound to their lives. No longer do I seek to flee from the examination of others, now I understand that such moments provide a silent opportunity to witness about God’s great faithfulness and purposes. No longer do I engage others from a position of self, but now I have begun to function in the role of purpose. That shift in perception brings with it the awareness that everything we do has meaning. If someone violates my trust, I no longer assess their actions through the prism of self-interest, but reflect upon my willingness to give God the glory in all events of my life. There has been an exchange which was fostered deep within my soul, a willingness to grasp new understandings of God’s will for my life. Spiritual surrender takes on practical applications in my daily activities.
There is no proclamation or public fanfare accompanying these changes. In my case they are articulated by a life changing process, rather than a life altering event (though I have experienced both types of learning). My path is strewn with attempts to reengage the dead decision making patterns of the past. Apparently my personal ugliness is dying a slow, painful death which can only be hastened by my willingness to surrender all things to God’s care. In that decision I attempt to remove the feeding tubes of pride, ego and entitlement which continue to nourish the corpse of self. It is a lonely journey, but I am never alone. I find that there are few in life with whom I can relate intimately about this process. But I am always aware of my relationship to God, my Provider. The flawed trust slowly gives way to an understanding that I am a child of God and serve out His purposes in the events of my life. It is no longer important for me to make things happen to gratify my own desires, but to humbly seek His will for my life and to delight in doing that will. What others think about my actions or underlying intentions loses the ability to influence my thoughts, emotions or behaviors. I am not ignorant of others. I understand that my orientation toward life has undergone a major revision. Life has taken on a new meaning with the realization that I can trust God in all the concerns of my life.
By now you probably realize that I close my monthly letter with a prayer. My dear wife Quinta repeatedly told me that many people do not know the first thing about how to pray to God. She has been urging me for years to include a prayer in each letter that I send out. It has taken a while for me to get her point and understand her concern. (which proves her uniqueness in our relationship. She prays for me and you and encourages with each letter that I write. She also shares with me those letters I receive from prisoners all over the country. She has a merciful and compassionate heart and she is a godly woman. Look up Proverbs 31 and you will understand what I am trying to say about her.)
You see in my life she is clearly a gift from God. Her personality meshes with my own and she compliments my abilities and offsets my limitations. I got on my knees and asked God to pick a wife for me. I was scared and uncertain, but He picked one that fits into my life perfectly. If you want to know more about how this happened, write to me and I will send you a letter describing how it happened. By the way, before I married her I told her about my criminal record and my prison experiences. It was very important to me that she knew the truth about who I had been. Because of experiences like this I KNOW that God listens to our prayers and that He answers our prayers. So this month’s prayer is on belief and trust. Please join me in praying this prayer.
LORD HELP ME
I am just one person, feeling terribly alone and isolated. I want to know You and come into a relationship with You but I am starting from a place of disbelief and lack of trust. It seems that most of my experiences in life have always yielded a consistent presence of failure, betrayal and lack of trust. Please God if You can truly hear me from this prison cell, If You can see me now You know that my heart is opened to You, but I just do not know what to do next. I can’t seem to trust others, really, I don’t even trust myself. I am in a hopeless place and I can’t help myself. If this relationship is ever going to happen it will be because You love me enough to reach out to me in my darkness and comfort this lost child. I am not asking that You save me from the consequences of my actions, just please show me that You are real and that You love me. I bring You my life and lay it before You. I have nothing else to offer You except my brokenness. Amen.