Prisons Without Bars

 

           We’ve all been there.  The Bible Study teacher has prayerfully prepared the lesson.  The worship leader sensitively draws the awareness of those assembled to the presence of the Holy Spirit.  While every head is bowed and every eye is closed, the door opens and Betty enters noisily.  The last Christian family she lived with finally couldn’t deal with her anymore and threw her out, and she’s been living in her car.  So before she settles herself in the chair next to the teacher, she takes care of some perfunctory grooming tasks.

            Roger hasn’t said anything yet.  He isn’t retarded, he isn’t mentally ill, he’s well…different.   During the course of the Bible Study, he says, “Praise the Lord” too loud and usually at the wrong time.  When Betty starts telling her tale of woe, Roger enters in with too-quick or inappropriate answers.  But he’s faithful, and he cares about folks.  When he asks you to pray it is always the same: a better job, a place to live, salvation for his estranged wife.  And nothing ever seems to change, because Roger is Roger, and you can’t ask him what makes him tick because you don’t know if he realizes he’s…different.

            Betty, too, seems to be all right.  But somehow all she knows is getting people to feel sorry for her and giving her money and taking her in.  You ask if you can pray with her and she recites a litany of all the churches and individual Christians who have wronged her.  By now the Bible Study is in chaos.  New members are completely confused, and it is impossible to get back on course.

            When the team comes back from a prison seminar, we tell exciting stories of salvation and deliverance, but it isn’t easy to visit prisoners as we are commanded by Jesus to do.  It takes time, money, effort and commitment.   It’s not easy, either, to minister to those in prisons without bars, shut out as often as they are locked in.   And so often there are no perceptible results.

            Does that mean our friendship with the different and our prayers for them are ineffective?  Would we be better off spending our time and effort with someone able or willing to “get well?”

            Commenting on the attrition rate among Christians involved in volunteer work with dysfunctional individuals, an experienced pastor commented that, while the idea of ministry appeals to people as important, even glamorous, the reality of commitment month after month, year after year, to people who can’t or won’t get better, wears them out.

            Culturally conditioned to instant solutions, and conditioned by a Pentecostal mind-set to expect miraculous, speedy recoveries, the long haul looks like no progress at all.

            Should progress be the goal of ministry?  How would we measure progress in another’s mind or emotions?  Why do we care for them?  Is it out of genuine love and compassion?  Or is it because it makes us feel benevolent and kind?

            Our faith in Christ and commitment to His people is tested by those we consider different.  They hold up a mirror, often revealing our own insecurities and prejudices.  The way we treat people who are lonely, depressed or different is a reliable measure of how much we’ve yielded our lives to the indwelling Christ.

            We were created for good works.  The doing of good works is the issue, not the results our efforts produce.  When someone is imprisoned by loneliness or isolated in his own private emotional pain, the good works he most needs are love and friendship.  He needs to be included in the fellowship of the Body of Christ.

            But being around someone we consider different can threaten our own already fragile sense of identity.  From time to time any one of us can feel that our emotions, even our sanity, is in precarious balance.   So because of our own fear, we avoid being around them.

            Our relationship with the Body of Christ encompasses relationships with the Rogers and Bettys.  All members of the Body are important, including parts we consider uncomely, those requiring extra attention.

            Realistically, there’s no one right way to effectively touch all the different ones.  Roger needs to be loved, protected, included.  Betty needs to be included, too, but first she needs to be confronted, for she’s made a career out of spoiling Bible studies, and wearing out new, trusting believers.  She remains comfortable in her prison of self-pity.

            Speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up in Him who is the Head, that is Christ.  From Him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.     Ephesians 4:15

            Speaking the truth in love hands Betty the key to her cell.  It is still her choice to go or stay.

            Walking close to Christ means walking in discernment and insight.  It means not permitting one person to usurp and disrupt, shifting the focus from Christ and His Word to themselves.

            Now we exhort you, brethren, warn them that are unruly, comfort the feeble-minded, support the weak, be patient towards all men.  I Thessalonians 5:14

            Have we as Christians grown up yet?  Can we reach out to those in prisons without bars?   We who call The Holy One “Father” are family.  We receive love, poured out, extravagantly.  Surely we can afford to enfold the solitary, embrace the broken-spirited, and warn the unruly. 

            Christian family includes us all.

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