Recently, I was in a conversation with a parishioner about prison ministry, and how it was eating up so much of their time. I acknowledged it was rare to even see them in church for all their good work.
They attempted to justify themselves, “Why can’t people recognize I have a special work that takes all my extra time and energy?”
They talked of the hours spent on the roads traveling to various institutions, visiting, and then going home to write the inmates.
They organized religious services and activities, ran errands, and visited with inmate’s family, and even raised money to send to inmates. They made time to attend training sessions and various meetings. All of this was on a volunteer basis.
All of it laudable and worthy. For this person everything else in life, including God, had become secondary. Their life, and complete sense of self-worth, was wrapped up in this outreach. Likewise, those who did not offer the appropriate response of awe for the importance of this work, and the one doing it, were shunned. I tried to steer the conversation onto other topics like family and friends, or work, but it always came back to the prison ministry.
Soon, I realized that it was not that this person was merely obsessed with prison work to the exclusion of everything and everyone else, but that it was an escape from a life that they hated. Instead of bringing “release to the captives,” this ministry had become a self-imposed exile from life for themselves. The inmates, and those they worked with, were only pawns to this end.
When we see people imprisoned by hatred, resentment, prejudice, jealousy, self-imposed ignorance, and/or any number of irrational fears (phobias), we cannot help but wonder, “Why?” To us as we watch and judge, we oftentimes think the answers are easy to see, their lives easy to change. Yet, the answer to that question is almost never as simple as it seems.
A psychiatrist might say that their situation is “over determined,” or determined by multiple factors, many of which lie so far beneath the surface of consciousness and are so tangled that the mental prisoner may never untangle them without serious help. Have you ever wished you were someone else? It happens to people who have never learned to live at peace with themselves.
We may be able to get away from other people, but we cannot escape from ourselves. Living with someone you hate, especially when that someone is you, is a painful and hurtful prison in which to live.
Most of us have the key to our private jail house door. If you cannot find your key, there are people who can help you with a “get out of jail free” card.
Jesus said that he had come into the world to “heal the broken-hearted, preach deliverance to the captive, and set at liberty those who are bruised…” (Luke 4:18). He has helped lots of people. Next time you find yourself languishing in one of those prisons without walls ask him to pardon you, and to give you strength to pardon others, so that you can walk out free…
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The Rev. Walter Van Zandt Windsor is rector at Trinity Episcopal Church.
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