This morning Marion and I were privileged to be part of a seminar on caring for ex-offenders, sponsored by a coalition of ministries in the National Capital Region.
For several months now – ever since becoming part of the All Nations church family – we have been waiting for an assignment. We are loving the relationships in our life group and the bracing atmosphere of a church family that is hungry for the manifest presence of God. We are also being challenged and stretched by some excellent teaching from our elders and visiting apostolic ministers, complemented by another body of equally probing online teaching coming out of International House of Prayer. All this is good – we have been receiving much, for which we are grateful – but we are not satisfied just to receive, so we have been waiting for the Lord to show us where he wants us to use our gifts and the lessons we have learned and are still learning. Since this morning’s seminar, I have been wondering whether we may have found our fit. It’s too soon to say yet, but I am sensing that God may be preparing us for something.
Working with ex-offenders wouldn’t be an entirely new thing for either of us. During my years at Queen’s, I served as a volunteer in the chaplaincy program at Collins Bay Penitentiary. Marion and I were at Queen’s together for several years, and she sometimes came with me to the prison chapel. I also wrote a Master’s thesis on prison ministry at that time. That was over thirty years ago, but over the past few years I’ve had a couple of other involvements with men who have been on the wrong side of the law. In our house church in Russell, Marion and I worked for a time with a young man who had been in the Regional Detention Centre several times for drug-related offences, and was trying to decide whether he was serious about following Jesus and getting off drugs. More recently, we’ve done some prayer ministry and some informal mentoring with an older man who has spent most of his adult life in prison, gave his life to Jesus while in prison, and is now learning – with some ups and downs – to live as a free man on the outside.
I’m not afraid of, or repulsed by, ex-offenders because I really do believe that fundamentally, every one of these guys is just like me. Like them, I am an ex-offender. True, I have never committed any criminal offence according to the laws of Canada, and I have never spent any time in jail except as a chaplaincy volunteer. Even so, like them, I have rebelled against a holy and righteous God who desires only my good. Like them – and you – and every son of Adam and daughter of Eve – I deserved God’s wrath, not his mercy. I have been a recipient of His mercy, for which I am very grateful, but what I deserved was his wrath. This is not a popular truth, but it is true nonetheless. The Scriptures are very clear on this point. This is why the Son of God spent much of his time with people whom society rejected as ungodly, unclean sinners – because they, at least, recognized their need for mercy.
I am like the ex-offender in another way as well. I have a tendency to deceive myself and others, and to hide from the light. True, in my case this tendency has been largely eradicated by years of living as a disciple of Jesus, but I’m not naive enough to think that I no longer need help. I still need all the help I can get, and I am committed to continuing to walk in the light so that my heart can be fully restored and I can learn to live as a free son of God. This is exactly what my ex-offending brothers and sisters also need.
I’m convinced that if damaged human hearts are to be restored, voluntary, intentional accountability in a mentoring or discipleship relationship is essential. This conviction was reinforced by my past attempts at working with ex-offenders. Because I believe this so strongly, the aspect of this morning’s seminar that especially “clicked” for me was the presentation on mentoring an ex-offender. This approach is designed for ex-offenders who want to become part of a local church after being released from prison. Marion and I have worked with discipling relationships for years, and also done a lot of personal prayer ministry – a form of Biblically-based, Spirit-led therapy that assists people to move towards healthier patterns in their emotions, their thought life and their relationships. We know the power of intentional mentoring to change lives, including our own. Ex-offenders are no different. Their problems may be a little more deeply-rooted, but they are basically the same as anyone else’s problems. They are the problems of the human heart. They are not problems that are too big for Jesus to solve. He has been restoring damaged human hearts for years. What it takes is a willingness to walk in the light, which is impossible outside of committed covenant relationships, because none of us can see our own heart clearly without the help of others. The Apostle James teaches that we are to confess our sins to one another and pray for one another in order to be healed. I find this simple remedy to be powerfully effective.
Does this mean that I am soft on crime, or inclined to excuse ex-offenders because “they couldn’t help it”? Not at all. It is true enough that many offenders have been the victims of childhood sexual or physical abuse, or other wrongs perpetrated by others, but they have also been perpetrators of wrongs that are just as serious. This is simply the outworking of the truth expressed in God’s word. The sins of the fathers are visited on the children, generation after generation, until the cycle is broken by the redemptive power of the blood of Jesus and the word of God. No matter how badly our hearts have been wounded by the sins of others, we are always responsible for our own actions and their consequences. Until we accept responsibility we can never be set free. This is one of the key lessons that can only be learned as we walk in the light with others. However, since our God delights in showing mercy, as disciples of Jesus we should be looking for opportunities to restore the one who has fallen.
Did I say that I wasn’t sure yet about getting involved in this ex-offender ministry? Hmmm – it seems I may have talked myself into something. But before I get ahead of myself, I’d better talk to my wife – and Ben, who encouraged Marion and me to attend this seminar – and a couple of our elders. Lord, thank you for your amazing mercy and goodness. If this ministry with ex-offenders is something you want Marion and me to be involved in, would you make it clear? We only want to walk where You lead.