“What are you here for?”

untitledIf there were one question that was most commonly asked to someone in jail, it was this one, “What are you here for?”

Correction officers asked this directly to inmates.  Inmates frequently asked it to each other.  Guards, inmates, prison workers – everyone wanted to know what you did to get there.  They knew there was a background to the story and many wanted to hear it.  After all, no one ends up in jail accidently.

Every inmate is there for a reason.   Some, as you can imagine, committed pretty heinous crimes.   Others were in for less violent reasons.  The crimes varied across the board.  For example:

  • I slept thirty feet away from Mr. Johnson, a quiet, elderly man serving a life sentence for a double homicide.
  • One man, named Paul, I met while doing some work in the Maximum Security wing.  He was an enormous man with an award-winning smile and fantastic personality.  On the few occasions that we spoke, he was a very engaging conversationalist.  He was there for raping his three-year-old niece.
  • A twenty-year-old named Chris was there after kidnapping a ninety-year-old woman during a botched armed robbery.   Chris and I spoke every night.  That is, until he attempted to assault me when I refused to give him a piece of candy.
  • One of my cellmates was there after his sophisticated shoplifting ring at Walmart was finally busted.
  • Another cellmate (I had six overall) named Andrew, a truck driver, had failed to pay a speeding ticket seven years ago.
  • One guy was locked up for cursing at the Judge during his hearing.
  • Many men I met were there for manufacturing Meth, a rampant problem in Lexington County (SC), where I was detained.
  • As I mentioned in a previous blog post, hundreds were there for their failure to pay child support.
  • Public drunkenness, simple possession, resisting arrest, DUI, driving under suspension, driving without a license, trespassing – the list of charges was as long as it was varied.

Some, like myself, were taken into custody immediately after a court hearing.  Others were arrested at work.  Several were taken from their beds.  One was detained right from the shower.   It was fascinating to hear their stories and the background of events that led to them being in jail.

And while I listened to literally hundreds of stories, two thoughts constantly came to mind.

The first was the level of transparency each man possessed while sharing his particular story.   As they were telling their version of events, most did not sugarcoat the offense but instead provided details I would have no way of knowing – details that could not be shared if they weren’t telling the truth and details that would not help “spin” their story more positively in their favor.   I was impressed with their candor.

And their candor got me thinking.

Why are we not (usually) this transparent in free life?  Why do we not share at this level with our families?   Why do we not talk this openly around the water cooler at work?  What keeps us from providing such damning details about our previous lives to those in our current social circles?   What is it about the truth of our past that forces most of us to want to live a present lie or pretend it never happened?

I think the simple answer is… relationship.

If we actually shared (out-loud) the things we have done or thought about doing – we’d have no friends.  No one, we think, could hear about our past and still want to be in the same room with us.   What I have done (fill in the blank) is so bad/so wrong/so dirty/so deviant (etc.) that no decent human being could hear it, let alone relate to my actions.   If they knew I think about such things (or gasp – did such things), it would certainly affect my current relational status.

So, we keep quiet and force our painful past (or current thoughts) to endure years of solitary confinement.   We keep the demons locked up behind a freshly painted door and hope that their screams will not be heard by those on the other side.   They can kick, scratch or yell all they want but as long as we keep that door closed, we’ll be fine.   This is what we tell ourselves in the free world.   Keeping the door to our past closed, I have come to realize, puts us free people in even greater bondage than those I met in jail.

Jail is one place where the demons come out.   It is where the past torments the present.  And in the darkness of a place like that – it has a way of doing what the free world cannot – level the playing field.   In the free world, I can hide my past deeds or current thoughts and blend in rather nicely in the environment I’m in.   In jail, I cannot.   I might be in for jaywalking and you might be in for disturbing the peace but the point is – we are both still in.  Our very presence there points to an embarrassing reality.   And because incarceration is such a public event, your private deeds are no longer private.   This, I think, is why I saw such refreshing transparency in there.   It’s easier to talk about your wrongdoings in the midst of other wrongdoers.  Is someone there going to judge you because you committed a crime?   Can someone in jail look down on you for being incarcerated?   Your offense may be different but you’re both there for a reason and therefore you share a common bond that few on the outside can understand.

This leads me to the second thought that hit me as these men were sharing transparently with me.  Why isn’t this same question (“What are you here for?”) asked in more often… in Church?

Our normal answers to this question reveal more about our propensity to deceive than we care to admit:

  • “I’ve heard great things about this church and wanted to check it out.”
  • “I like the music.”
  • “The sermons are always challenging.”
  • “They have great programs for the kids.”
  • “It’s close to home.”

Is there some truth to all these answers?   Sure.  But does it really address the true reason why we go to church?   Is it really about the music?   Or the youth programs?   Or even the sermon?

When I walk into a hospital, there is no shame in telling everyone I meet that I have a broken bone.   In fact, I’ll even show it to you if it means you’ll fix it.  And I’ll tell you how it happened and how it feels in the moment and answer any question you ask without shame or embarrassment that I’m there.

When I walk into a doctor’s office, I don’t feel any temptation to hide my flu-like symptoms.   I’ll sneeze my head off and blow my nose like a trumpet without a second thought because I’m sick.  I know I’m sick.  You know I’m sick.  The doctor knows I’m sick and the sooner I’m honest about every last symptom – the sooner I’m walking out of there a healed man.

For some reason, though – we do not view our soul sickness the same way.   Our mind could be corrupted, our heart could be deceitful, our tongue could be forked and our hands covered in blood – and we would still have trouble admitting why we are really in church.   What if we heard the following answers to the same question, “What are you here for?”

  • I’m a functional alcoholic and desperately need help.
  • I fight with my spouse every night and I don’t know what to do.
  • I am addicted to pornography and I obviously cannot stop on my own.
  • I need help forgiving my parents for something that happened years ago.
  • I am the victim of domestic abuse and am looking for a safe place to heal.
  • I am divorced and very lonely most nights.   I need a supportive community.
  • I am struggling financially and want to know what the Bible says about money.

What would happen to our communities if church was THE place where these real life needs were talked about from the pulpit?  Even better, what if the members of the church were equipped to handle visitors walking in with real life issues like these?

Recently, I attended a local church that addressed some real life issues from the pulpit.  The series was called “The Bible’s Biggest Problems” and I was impressed that the Pastor was tackling some of these taboo subjects head on.   The Sunday I was there the topic was “Homosexuality.”  Could there be a more divisive topic than this one today?   Click here to see for yourself how this particular Pastor handled it.   In my opinion, it was refreshing.

The truth is, we ALL have a past and we are all called to use that past to help others.     A recovering alcoholic can empathize with and help those who struggle with that addiction.   Only someone who has buried a child can understand the devastating pain of a grieving parent.  Whether you are a survivor of rape, a person with a criminal domestic violence charge or the woman who experienced a miscarriage – your painful past can help someone else’s current painful present.

This is why the Apostle Paul reminds us that the “God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” (II Corinthians 1:3-4)

Church wasn’t meant to be a country club to go to on Sundays before lunch.   It’s not designed to be a place where you can drink some coffee, meet up with friends, enjoy a rock concert and hear a humorous motivational talk.  It is THE place where the spiritually sick can find, in the Person of Christ, their cure.   And God puts people with a past in positions of comfort and encouragement – for those walking into the building – looking for help and hope.

What’s in your past?   Have you received the comfort of God yet?   If so, pass it on.   There are those sitting next to you (in your family/at work/at the gym/in the pew) who need to know that their past deeds or present struggles can be redeemed.

After all, it’s what they’re really here for.

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