Our Stories

Line in the Sand

By: editor

Michael was annoyed with a preacher. Not with me, at least not this time: his annoyance was with a pastor he’d heard at the prison worship services recently, and, at least from Michael’s viewpoint, was judgmental and divisive. What Michael heard the preacher proclaim was that the prison inmates were all in a different category from the preacher and from the rest of society. They were criminals, and because they were criminals, they were doomed to be rejected by society and by God, unless they repented and changed. That didn’t sit well with Michael. None of the other inmates who listened as Michael vented in my prison Bible study were as annoyed as he was, but none of them disagreed, either. Apparently, they all felt they’d been preached down to.


Not knowing what that preacher had actually said, or what his intentions were, I told them that personally, I try to avoid thinking or talking in terms of criminals vs. good citizens. “I look at it this way,” I told them, “You guys got caught, and us church people didn’t. So’s who’s better at sinning? We all did a much smarter job of picking our sins than you did! You all are just amateurs!”


I’ve been reading a book I found at NPH by Carl Madearis called Speaking of Jesus: The Art of Not-Evangelism (© 2011, David C. Cook Publishing). In it, he talks about his consistent failures to win people over to his theology and to get them to agree to the plan of salvation he presented. Then he got involved in ministry at a maximum-security prison: “These were tough guys, serving some of the hardest time a federal court could give them. Some had committed unspeakable crimes. There would be no intimidating sermonizing from me, that was for sure.” As Carl uneasily faced this group of men, he thought of what Paul the apostle wrote in 1 Corinthians — “When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling” (2:1-3).


So, Carl did just what Paul talked about, and “Miraculously, somehow the inmates and I connected. Honest — no bribery involved. After a month of visiting the prison, our numbers did something I’d never seen before. They grew. The inmates were interested in Jesus, and we didn’t even have to give away cigarettes” (p 30).


And that’s what all of us at Institutional Ministries are shooting for. Sometimes we hit closer to the bullseye than other times, but we keep working on it. Rather than trying to get people in the facilities we work in to step over a line in the sand and become Lutherans or become conservatives or become model citizens, we try to introduce them to “Jesus Christ and him crucified,” and let the rest sort itself out.


Chaplain Philip Merten

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