When I volunteered at the State Prison, I remember a time an inmate, Michael, was going to be released on parole the following day.
He was so exited to get back into "the real world." As I prayed with him, he gave one of the most honest prayers I have ever heard:
"Lord, it is hard in here. Bless those who leave this place to never come back." I sensed he was referring to himself. That was his greatest fear: to be freed but find he couldn't "make it" on the outside.
According to the US Department of Justice, recidivism rates are a big problem. Approximately two-thirds of those who are paroled will reoffend within 3 years of their release. For many, the criminal justice system is a revolving door.
Michael prayed in the most childlike manner; he said, "Lord, thank you for our Only Begotten Son." (Not your Only Begotten Son ― because for Michael, Christ had become his, too).
When I returned on my next visit, I asked Michael's friends what they thought he was doing "on the outside." They all said in unison, "Eating calamari!" (Apparently that was the first thing he wanted to eat.)
Kind of makes you wonder, doesn't it, when we're released from this earth-prison, what will be the first thing we want to do in "the real world?"
Visiting Hours for Angels
Something I learned in prison is that it's impolite to ask a person what they were "in for." Often an inmate would volunteer the information, but if not, you were left to speculate based on the length of their prison term.
I once asked a group, "Why are we here?" What I meant was, "Why are we here on earth? What are we here to learn?"
But one man, Greg, misunderstood and thought I was asking, "Why are we here [in prison]?"
Greg blurted out unabashedly, "Grand theft auto."
Another inmate, Harold, was over 80 years old; he had a full head of white hair and resembled a wild Old Testament prophet. He often quoted from the Book of Mormon and Book of Abraham, in a way you knew he loved those books.
He walked with a cane and shuffled over to me one day, grabbing my arm, and pulled me close. "You know the greatest problem in the world?" he asked.
I could think of several.
He answered, "Zoning laws."
I'll always remember the time, after we had become friends, that Harold shared with me an account of being visited by an angel behind bars.
Prison walls cannot shut out God's love.
Harold's eyes misted as he recounted the experience. "He was no-nonsense," he said, describing the heavenly messenger.
Harold has now passed on, and I smile when I imagine his shock, crossing over to the other side, and witnessing heaven's "zoning."
Catch Me if You Can
While society has laws to make criminals pay their debt to society, is the same true of breaking spiritual laws? What sort of debt do sinners owe?
Because, the way God engineered earth-life it seems like the wicked can avoid receiving immediate repercussions for their bad behavior.
I mean, where are all the angels with flaming swords ready to haul us downtown to the precinct? Instead, we witness people spiritually looting stores with abandon and setting the word of God ablaze like go-lucky arsonists, nary a siren in sight.
Indeed, the wicked seem to prosper!
O Lord, let me talk with thee of thy judgments: Wherefore doth the way of the wicked prosper? wherefore are all they happy that deal very treacherously?
How can God be called "just" when He allows the wicked to run amok? And this isn't just Jeremiah's complaint, either; it is a recurring refrain from many of the prophets. "Do something, God! Show the bad guys who's Boss!"
Wherefore do the wicked live, become old, yea, are mighty in power?
Job is saying the wicked live to a ripe old age; they enjoy might and power and riches, and go about their lives never having to look over their shoulder for an angelic sniper.
In fact, if we really want to "get ahead" in this Babylonian wonderland, then breaking God's laws is a good way to do it (just look at the world's economies).
Job lamented how God lets all these bad guys bully us in the sandbox; why doesn't God act more like the recess Duty Guard and DO SOMETHING?
[The wicked] take the timbrel and harp and rejoice at the sound of the organ and spend their days in wealth [before they] go down to the grave.
"But Tim," someone says in an effort to comfort me whilst I sit in my ash pile of puss as the wicked parade their heavy-laden camels past us without a second glance, laughing behind their silk veils. My friend says, "Tim, God will make it right in the next life; all those wicked chaps will be sorry, just you wait!"
Ah, yes; that is exactly where Job goes with it, too, but to the opposite effect:
The wicked is reserved to the day of destruction? [i.e., what good does that do us now?] they shall be brought forth to the day of wrath. [well jolly good, then ― as the wicked gleefully tattoo our flesh with the searing heat of oppression]
But Job says such comfort is cold, indeed; useless, in fact ― for how is the knowledge that our oppressors will suffer in a future life going to help their victims, here-and-how?
Who shall repay him what he hath done? He shall remain in the tomb [where] the clods of the valley shall be sweet to him, and every man shall draw after him, as there are innumerable before him.
You see, Job is saying, "For every wicked person that bites the dust, there'll just be a hundred more springing up after him." The wicked keep salting the earth with their iniquity and it never ends.
Isn't that depressing?
Let it Rain
The miracle of God's forgiveness can free us from our individual prisons and private hells.
But when we do not forgive someone, we're holding them hostage to the person they were, denying them the chance to become the person God wants them to be.
How cheaply we treat God's grace when we seek to close the windows of heaven against those who are "unworthy."
The Psalmist asked:
Whither shall I flee from thy presence? [i.e. is there any place we can hide from God's love?]
If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there. [wait: God is in hell??]
If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.
Thus we see, God is with us always, no matter where (or what) we are: whether it be in the lion’s den or the whale’s belly.
Jesus beautifully described God's love in the parable of the prodigal son; even after the son had squandered his inheritance and had sinned grievously, the Father ran and fell upon the neck of his son (and how fast can God run, who can stop time and reverse the course of the sun in the sky?).
And we think we can stop God's love from reaching the wicked? How could the wicked ever turn from the error of their ways, if not for God reaching out to them and offering His hand to them?
The work of God is not accomplished in the destruction of the wicked, but in their redemption.
For he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.
For if ye [only] love them which love you, what reward have ye?
Does God really love his unworthy, wicked children? I am not ashamed to declare it when the scriptures attest to it.
Some of us may think, though, that God's loves his good children more than his bad ones (we really are that insecure and egotistical), imagining a God who parcels out favors and love like Santa does his gifts from a Naughty and Nice List.
Certainly we can risk His displeasure, but God's love is infinite: you cannot divide or subtract from infinity.
His holiness allows Him to love us in spite of our sins, and He craves the company of His children, desiring us all to receive eternal life and return to Him ― and not as second-class citizens, either, but as equals (D&C 76:95).
The fact we would want God to love some of us less than others merely shows how unlike Him we are.
Forgiving ourselves is one way we accept the gift of grace and show God we trust in His merciful atonement.
Choosing not to forgive ourselves is like stamping “Return To Sender” on the Cross.
Why would we want to suffer for our own sins when Christ has paid for them already?
Maybe we convinced ourselves that since we have sinned, God stopped loving us. But the Lord is not keeping score like an umpire, waiting for us to strike out and shouting, "You’re out!"
Life is a pasture in which we are bound to step in cow pies, and yes, it stinks. Paul taught "that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief" (1 Tim. 1:15).
But the good news of the gospel is this:
Thou hast in love to my soul delivered it from the pit of corruption: for thou hast cast all my sins [what percentage is "all"] behind thy back.
Since Christ has cast our sins behind His back, why would we gather them up for our scrapbook?
Which Gospel Do We Believe?
I want to end with a quote from Tim Keller:
"Jesus's teaching consistently attracted the irreligious while offending Bible-believing, religious people of his day.
"However, in the main, our churches today do not have this effect.
"The kind of outsiders Jesus attracted are not attracted to contemporary churches, even our most avant-garde ones. We tend to draw conservative, buttoned-down, moralistic people.
"The licentious and liberated or the broken and marginal avoid church. That can only mean one thing. If the preaching of our ministers and the practice of our parishioners do not have the same effect on the people that Jesus had, then we must not be declaring the same message that Jesus did."
Jerome was a large man from Chicago. He rarely spoke and sat with his arms folded in the back of the room. He was also a visionary man whom the Lord had led to Salt Lake in dreams.
He was married and looked forward to his release from prison so he could be reunited with his wife. He was lonely.
I am not alone, because the Father is with me.
As I sat with him, we read John 17, the Lord's Intercessory Prayer.
They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them through thy truth . . . that they all may be one . . . that the world may know . . . thou hast loved them . . . that they may all be one.
Jerome looked at me and asked, "Does this apply to us living in prison?"