“Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested him.” Matthew 26:50.
“The White House is the finest prison in the world.” American President Harry Truman.
Today marks the beginning of Prisons Week, the theme of which this year is Look up! This comes from Psalm 19, verse 1: The heavens are telling the glory of God and the firmament declares his handiwork. David’s poem encourages its reader to look up and see God’s silent statement of hope and beauty, a message we are sometimes too busy to notice or unable to access if clouds obscure the heavens. It can take an act of will or circumstance to look up when we are downcast and I remember this happening to me when I first came here.
When I arrived, the house had been empty for some time and, as it was like a fridge when I moved in, I lit a big fire to get it warm. As I was unpacking, the fire alarm went off due to excessive smoke and I had to take outside the coals and open all the windows to get rid of the smoke and its smell. By 2am, I was not only wide awake but shivering so I decided to go for a walk to get warm and went out into the lane with some trepidation. It had been a long, difficult day – the removers couldn’t get the van down the narrow lane and everything had to be transferred in the village to a smaller van – and I was looking down to see that I didn’t trip over anything. But, when I glanced up, I was gobsmacked to see the skies above. There were no street lights and the inky blue of the heavens that cloudless night, the huge moon and stars like diamonds set in velvet and the glory that I simply hadn’t noticed was astounding. I remember quoting this psalm as a hymn of praise for the sheer beauty around and it raised my spirits as I stood there marvelling – without light pollution, it was a magnificent sight.
Glory and beauty were there all along but I simply hadn’t noticed it and, when I did, it made all the difference. That was so during my time as a prison chaplain, too. All too often bitterness, violence and misery would prevail for good reason but there was always hope that a positive difference could be made. Sometimes that happened – lives could be turned round with the will and circumstances for that to happen and the drugs, alcohol, reading and skills courses played a big role in rehabilitation. But I also remember the abused prisoner who said he’d never known parental love as a child so how could he show it to his own kids if he had them – did he find love eventually? There was the suicidal man over whose dead body I said prayers and the model prisoner who was said to have a hopeful future but died the night he came out when his mates brought him heroin which, having lost his tolerance, killed him. But there was also the prisoner who got married in jail because his partner was such a support to him, the lad who came to chapel services only because we had chocolate digestives but found faith as well and the pagan chaplain whose earrings were witches on broomsticks. In some cases, the cost was enormous – one prisoner had snatched a woman’s handbag to steal her pension with such force it had knocked her over and killed her when she hit her head on a lamppost. But, so appalled was he, his resolve was that her death would not be in vain – did that prove to be the case? Would that have been any comfort to her relatives? In all these lives, did hope prevail?
Does hope prevail in our lives too? In the chaplaincy, the fact that Jesus was taken prisoner, misjudged and forgave one of the criminals crucified with him spoke to the hearts of those men who wrestled with their consciences and wanted a fresh start in their lives. That can be so for all of us, especially where routine, bad memories, the actions of others or Covid restrictions can make our homes and situations places where we are not free. In those locked-up circumstances, Jesus can forgive and renew if we allow him to but, when we’re downcast, we need to look up and glimpse the beauty and wider horizons that are there when we look for them. That applies to governors and leaders whose hands may be bound by circumstances too – even in the White House!
With my prayers; pob bendith,