My crew receives letters from prison.
Sometimes that’s very good, and sometimes that’s very, very hard.
We don’t receive them very often now–not as often as we did when my ex-husband, Jack, first went to prison. That first year was filled with letters nearly every other day. Now we receive something about once a month.
The kids have adjusted to the life of receiving letters from someone they “used to know” who is in prison. Time does that. At first, the letters resulted sometimes in tears from the kids, but more often they resulted in a pallor settling over the house. Later, as they adjusted, there was less sadness and more acceptance. Now, it is a normal part of our monthly routine.
Yesterday ended up being “Prison letter day”. Bethany and Mark received letters, which means Tim should receive a letter soon. I generally will receive one as well, around the same time that the kids receive theirs.
The letters are generally filled with the daily “goings on” of prison life—-the bartering and trading system, lock downs and fights that have occurred recently, and, honestly, some unrealistic expectations of and challenges to the children. But he means well. Trying to parent from prison can’t be easy. Really, in our situation, there is no way to do so. They do not view Jack as their father much any more. Maybe that is sad, to an extent, but it is where they are at in their limited understanding of what it means to be a child of an inmate who is in prison for a long-term. Later, as they get older, this may change. But that will be their decisions as adults.
But, as a whole, letters from prison are difficult things. They are hard to read. Hard to receive. When I see that prison stamp on the back of the envelope, my soul always has a stab of pain associated with it.
However; I want to contrast those letters with the letters that Paul wrote to the churches while he was in prison in Rome. As I’ve thought a lot about prisons and prisoners and children of inmates over the last several months, I’ve also done some studying of Paul’s imprisonments.
While in Rome, Paul wrote 4 epistles or letters: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon.
You see, Paul wanted to visit Rome, although I don’t know if he knew he would do so as a prisoner or not. The story of how all of this came about can be found in Acts Chapters 21-28. But regardless, he found himself in prison for preaching Christ the Savior. How incredibly defeating that must have been! Here Paul had been doing exactly what God had called him to do. Paul hadn’t committed a crime in the eyes of us as believers, but he had allegedly created a crime by preaching Jesus Christ, which-as part of the persecution of Christians at the time-was outlawed.
We would expect to find Paul depressed. Defeated. And I’m sure he was at times. Lonely. Frustrated. He was a human like you and I, who, if we found ourselves imprisoned, would probably experience all of these emotions. However, Paul used his time in prison to continue to minister to the follower’s of Christ.
I found this contrast list while doing some research, and I attached it to my study notes in my software. Unfortunately I forgot to annotate the author, so I can’t give due credit, although I wish I could. But it really does an excellent job at showing the contrast of what could have been with Paul in prison, and what was reality with Paul in prison. Take a look (you can click on the paragraphs below and they will take you to the website where I found this information):
WE WOULD EXPECT a prisoner to say something like this: “I am poor and miserable!” BUT PAUL SAID to the Ephesians, “I am rich and blessed with more blessings than I can even count” (Ephesians 1:3). This is the message of EPHESIANS.
WE WOULD EXPECT a prisoner to say something like this: “I am the most unhappy and discontented person in the whole world!” BUT PAUL SAID to the Philippians, “I can rejoice at all times and I can be content in whatsoever state I am in, even when I am in prison” (Philippians 4:4,11). This is the message of PHILIPPIANS.
WE WOULD EXPECT a prisoner to say something like this: “I am in desperate need. Life is terrible!” BUT PAUL SAID to the Colossians, “Christ is everything I need! Christ is my Life!” (Colossians 2:10; 3:3). This is the message of COLOSSIANS.
WE WOULD EXPECT that if a Christian were thrown into jail he might say, “Lord, I need to get out of here so that I can start serving the Lord again!” BUT PAUL SERVED THE LORD even during his time in prison. He even preached the gospel to a runaway slave named Onesimus and this man was saved. This is the message of PHILEMON.
Wow. This is what we find in these prison letters. We find hope. We find joy. We find contentment. We find a man who considered himself to be a prisoner of Christ, not the Roman government. We even find Paul, praying for the readers of his letters:
13 So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory. 14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, 16 that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. 20 Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
Some of the most encouraging scripture I have read, including the prayer above, have been from Paul’s letters that he wrote in prison. That’s not nothing.
But let me switch directions here a moment. Prison is often a lonely and hopeless place. Maybe you know someone who is in prison. Maybe they have done something horrific. Maybe it is hard for you to consider the idea of writing that person. But I will tell you that what I have learned about prisoners is that they crave those letters. They keep them. They share them with each other. They read them over and over again. Is there someone you know in prison that you could send a short note of encouragement to? I would not advocate you writing a prisoner you did not know in prison, at all. But if you do know someone, no matter how heinous the crime, could you find the time and selflessness even–maybe courage even–to pray for that person and then let them know you have prayed for them in the form of a short postcard or note? In the same way that Paul’s letters were tremendous encouragement to the churches while he was IN prison, your letters of encouragement to prisoners IN prison could have a significant impact on their hearts and souls. Knowing they are prayed for may make a difference that you never would have imagined a postcard could do.
For those of you who know Jack, I’m not advocating, in any way shape or form, that you write him specifically. Please do not read this that way. Instead, I’m sharing with you my experience and the things I’ve learned as I’ve gotten deeper into prison ministry. I’d also like to encourage you that if you know of a spouse or a child whose spouse, ex-spouse or parent is an inmate, a letter to them expressing how incredibly proud you are of them, and how you would like them to call you if they need anything is a tremendous gift. Just this week, my youngest got a card from someone in our church expressing how proud she was of an accomplishment she had recently achieved. My daughter treasures that card and is so proud of it. And it’s not unusual for me to pull out my shoebox of cards and letters and read them to bolster my courage on the hard days.
I’ll end this post with these words from Jesus, found in Matthew 25:35-26:
35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’
***Please visit the Facebook page “Children of Inmates” and like their page. That will help keep you informed of the difficulty that children of inmates face. You can also check out my page “Resources for Children of Inmates”. I’ll say again, my children are the fortunate ones. They have been loved and cared for by this community, amazingly so. There are many children out there in this world that are hurting terribly from the situation they are in. They need prayer. They need love. They need mentors.