Going to jail

Originally published in the Van Buren County Democrat, March 15, 2016

It is with some joy which I report that about the time your read this I’ll be going to jail. Well, really, prison, I’ll be going to prison. I actually get some joy out of telling people that, watching the look on their face as they digest my going to prison.

Or (to delay this punchline a bit longer) I may be on my way back from prison. I’ve dedicated no small part of my life to prison ministry, and as a component of that I’m in the process of training with some prison chaplains in order to receive certification as a chaplain’s assistant — an ad hoc prayer warrior in the state prison system.

So there, there you have it: I’m going to prison, it’s voluntary, I’ll be back the same day.

The same day.

It’s interesting, this going into prison thing. In a lot of ways it reminds me of being back in the service, with its orderly bustle and rigid rule set (meals on trays and stay between the lines), and in other ways it’s not like that at all — criminals, after all. Any number of people are in there because they lost their way and fell down some sort of rabbit hole. Time and again you can see where if the police hadn’t caught up with them they’d probably be dead by now. And in some cases (chaplain talking here) they’re trying to work out some new direction, not wanting to continue the trip farther down that rabbit hole.

Those, as it were, are my target, the one’s looking to break the fall, the ones reaching for redemption.

One of the unwritten rules of the chaplain game is you don’t ask ’em about their past, how long they’re in for, what they did or any of that. It doesn’t matter really. It’s all about where you’re headed, where the ship’s pointed, not the wake of its passage. But of course if they wish to bring it up you listen. Often as not they will bring it up, as much with trying to come to terms with the “How did I get here?” question. And you hear the stories.

Oh, oh man, the stories. You’ll be in a Bible study and some cat looks up and just gets to talking about it. He has crude tattoos up and down his arm, neck, fingers (the kind your drunk buddy with a tattoo gun does, not the kind a tattoo parlor provides) of initials, spider webs and knives, and he starts talking about growing up in a home where his parents brewed meth in the kitchen — and they’re the who can recall having parents, or even a parent, or a kitchen. They’re the lucky ones.

The lucky ones.

Take a moment here. Maybe you’re sitting, sipping on a coffee, reading this thing in the paper, you’re, well, wherever, at the counter, in your own kitchen, the details here aren’t that important. And that coffee cup of whatever refreshment is close at hand, just take a second. Enjoy this moment. You’re doing okay. We’re doing okay.

And I wish I was better at remembering that, the general okayness. You know how it is, somebody pulls out in front of you, the kitchen’s taking too long getting your order out, and the descent into sputtering rage as the very affront of it all and how dare they and who would do such a thing and I am deserve more better I’ll show them …. !

Coming up 65 from Bee Branch into Choctaw and there’s that overlook on top of the hill there. You’re just coming into the Ozarks and the view there is always great and thrilling. It’s beautiful, that sweeping vista. It’s easy to miss in you’re in a hurry, stuck behind a hay wagon or something, too busy to turn your head to the right.

I talk to these guys, and it really comes down to helping them to see the beauty of it all. It gets tricky, in some cases beauty is a fairly new concept for them, in a world where the ‘rents are in the kitchen brewing narcotics.

Be nice to someone today, be kind to them. By all means, extend yourself as far as you care to go, but at least a smile, a cheerful greeting. You don’t know where they’re from, what kind of hole they’re climbing up out of. You might be the only beautiful thing they see that day.

I’ll be back later.

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