So is this what you do when you aren’t sitting on campus?

The question surprised me a little bit, which is not a feeling I enjoy when surrounded with a group of inmates, buried in the library in the middle of a medium security county jail facility.  Even after four years of almost weekly times of teaching, there is still that slight flutter of uncertainty.  If something goes wrong in here, I’m in a bad spot.  Nothing has ever gone wrong during one of my visits, though.  I know a female chaplain who was caught in the middle of a riot and ushered to safety by a guardian prisoner.  I wonder at times if I would be so blessed or not.  It’s best not to dwell extensively on those lines of thought, though.

I eyed the young man with the odd hairstyle and shaggy goatee.  I couldn’t place his face at first.  We had a somewhat extended discussion on campus a couple of months ago.  I knew immediately who it was.  This is just one of several different things I do when I’m not on campus, I responded.  He smiled and I began our discussion time together.

Even after four years I can’t tell you why going to the jail works.  I can say that almost invariably there is an impulse suggesting that I should cancel.  There are weeks when there are just 2-3 guys that bother to roll out of bed.  There are other weeks when there are close to 20 guys there.    Some of the guys I’ve seen multiple times.  The affable man in his late 50’s with distinguished salt and pepper hair and a smile and way about him that tells me he’s good at schmoozing and getting what he wants in life.  Unfortunately what he wants is drugs or alcohol and so he keeps ending up back in jail.  There is an assortment of guys who look like they’re straight out of a local gang – and probably are.  There are clean-cut guys who don’t seem like they should be there but also seem far too familiar and comfortable with their environment for it to be their first visit.  There are baby-faced guys not out of their teens yet and guys in their 70’s.  Tattoos are the norm.  Some weeks it’s awkward and there’s no discussion and no feedback, just my voice echoing in the cement room.  Some weeks we end after just 30 minutes or so.

This was one of the weeks we went late.  What I often hear from the guys is that they really appreciate their time in jail as an opportunity to focus.  Stripped of all the obligations and distractions, they find time to be in the Word.  They discover or rediscover God and sometimes even Jesus.  Another thing I often hear is that they feel stronger now, wiser.  They understand better.  They can feel that this is going to be their last stay in the jail.  This time it’s going to be different.

I appreciate that talk.  I don’t agree with it of course but I appreciate it.  They’re trying to make sense of things.  They want a change.  But unfortunately, the odds are against them.  Really against them.  So when the young man I met on campus a few months ago started talking again about how we have to get our minds strengthened and ready and we have to be the ones to initiate and maintain change, I decided to take another tack.

I cut him off pretty quick.  He’s one of those guys that gets talking and can’t stop.  He goes from one line of thought to another without break and you can’t get a word in edgewise unless you literally cut him off and override him, so that’s what I did.

No, it’s not about your mind and it’s not about your resolution.  You can’t ‘be the change you want to see’, I responded, contradicting one of the maxims he had just tossed out.  He paused and faltered, confused.  What do you mean?  Of course I can.  I have to be the change I want to see.

No, you can’t.  You won’t.  You don’t.  You aren’t able to.  Neither am I.  Neither is anybody else in this room.  You don’t have it in you.

Isn’t that a defeatist attitude…?

No, it’s a realistic attitude.  You’re already defeated.

We want to think it’s us.  We like that idea when we’re feeling strong and ready and confident.  When we’re satisfied and not feeling tempted.  When things are going well.  But that isn’t a tune we can continue for very long.  Because when temptation comes and we fall again and again and again we realize that it isn’t in us.  Then we know despair.  Then we know that we’re defeated.  Sitting comfortably in a jail with food in your belly and relatively clean clothes on your body, with drugs and bottles more or less inaccessible to you, without any of the pressures or demands of life and relationships to deal with, isolated in a very literal sense, it’s easy to talk about what we have in us.  Easy to feel strong and ready and confident.  But it’s just a lie we tell ourselves and it lasts until the next time we have to face the world and temptation and weakness and we fall.  Hard.

It isn’t in you.  You can’t be the change you want to see.  Moreover, when you most need to be that change, you don’t even want to be it.  Not in any real, useful sense.  It’s a distant mantra in the back of the mind now fogged over by whatever you’re obsessed with – drugs, alcohol, sex, fear, anger, regret, depression.  You can’t do yourself any good.

This is the essence of the Gospel.  I can’t do it.  I don’t even want to do it when I most need to.  St. Paul says it so well in Romans 7.  This is my conundrum.  I’m shackled to myself and I don’t have the key.  I never did.  Unless somebody else has it, I die in the chains.  This is the Good News.  Somebody else does have the key.  Somebody else not only has the key but has promised me and assured me that my chains are unlocked.  I am free.  It may not look like it to others or even to me, but the truth is there all the same.  Forgiven.  Reconciled to God.  Healed.  The chains that would have kept me from him are removed and we are brought together again.

Chains will remain in my life.  Not chains that keep me from God, though.  Rather, chains that restrict my movement and damage my interactions with those around me, that even damage myself.  Sometimes the Gospel frees me from some of those chains as well.  Sometimes it doesn’t.  Not yet at least.  I need to take those chains seriously.  And there is the place to talk about doing what is necessary.  But what is necessary isn’t a new way of thinking.  Most of us know what to think.  We know right from wrong, good from evil, healthy from disastrous.  The problem is that we continue to make the wrong choice.  Sometimes  we can’t help ourselves.  Check Romans 7 again.

I am free in Christ, and that means I am free to do the things in this life that help those secondary chains, the chains that don’t just go away all on their own.  For the guys (and ladies) I see every week at the jail or at the various recovery programs in town, that freedom means surrendering their freedom to others who work to help them make changes, who give them the keys to those chains of addiction they wear and show them how to live as free men and women.  It hurts that so few of them are willing to give it a try.  It hurts more to see how many more of them can’t maintain it.

But the Gospel isn’t dependent on sobriety or not being high.  It’s dependent solely on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  So the Good News will continue to go out to those who are still in chains.  To those who continue to mistake themselves for the solution.  He is risen!

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