“Lock’m up and Weld the Doors Shut”

Lock them up

Years ago, I gave a retreat at a wonderful church. The retreat focused on God’s amazing love for people in prison and how He touched different lives in miraculous ways drawing them to HImself.  I talked about things I had personally witnessed over my many years as a prison chaplain and how those men had begun to live lives of repentance following their Baptisms and Chrismations into the Orthodox Faith.

As I finished one of the sessions, I opened it up for questions or comments. An older gentleman stood up and shocked all of us with his words:

“I don’t believe a word of it. There is no forgiveness for those people in prison. They should be locked up and their doors welded shut!”

I responded to the man by asking him if he had any loved ones in prison and discussed how everyone is made in the image and likeness of God. It doesn’t matter how tarnished or covered with the mud that image and likeness becomes, they are still loved by God and they still have the opportunity to repent and become a child of God. The gentleman simply shook his head in disapproval and sat back down.

Over the years, I have heard similar statements many, many times. It seems there are many people that believe there is no forgiveness or hope of repentance for those in prison. To hold this view truly brings God down to the level of being simply a “super” human being that refuses to forgive and it misses the great love that God has for all of us, no matter how far we have strayed.

In my daily devotions, I came across this wonderful story this morning:

“In the time of the Emperor Maurice, there was a well-known bandit in the region around Constantinople. Both in the countryside and in the capital itself, he inspired fear and trembling. Then the Emperor himself sent him a Cross, as a pledge that he would not punish him if he gave himself up. The bandit took the Cross, and did indeed give himself up.

Arriving in Constantinople, he fell at the Emperor’s feet and begged his forgiveness. The Emperor kept his word, had mercy on him and let him go free. Immediately after that, the bandit fell gravely ill and sensed that death was near. He began to repent bitterly of all his sins, and implored God with tears to forgive him as the Emperor had. He shed many tears in his prayer, so the handkerchief with which he wiped them became soaked, and he died after ten days of prayerful weeping.

 The night of his death, the doctor who had been attending him had a strange vision in a dream: When the bandit on the bed breathed his last, a number of demons gathered round him, flourishing bits of paper on which his sins were written, and two glorious angels also appeared. A pair of scales was placed in the middle, and the demons gleefully put all the bits of paper on it, and their side of the scales was loaded while the other was empty. ‘What can we put in?’ the angels asked each other. ‘Let’s look for something good in his life.’ Then there appeared in the hand of one of the angels the handkerchief soaked with tears of repentance. The angels quickly placed it on their side of the scales, and it at once outweighed the other side with all its papers. Then the demons fled, howling in anguish, the angels took the man’s soul and carried it to Paradise, glorifying God’s love for mankind.” (The Prologue from Ochrid, by Bishop Nikolai Velimirovc, Lazarica Press, Birmingham, 1986, Volume 4, page 81, October 18th)

May we never confuse God’s willingness to forgive sins with our own unwillingness to forgive others who have sinned. God’s invitation to repent of sins extends to everyone…including those precious souls in prisons. Indeed, some of our greatest saints were once murders, robbers, prostitutes, and more. Let us do our part in reaching out with the love of Christ to those in prison.

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Praying in the Difficult Times

 

3rd Sunday of Luke

Have you ever gone through (or presently going through) a really difficult time in your life? It could be injuries from an accident or the diagnosis of a horrible disease or a precious relationship suddenly gone from your life or… there are so many possible things that we would call “difficult!” In fact, is there anyone who has not experienced some difficult times in life?

This being true, then the question arises as to how do we spiritually handle such adversity in our lives? Obviously, on the physical side, we should seek medical assistance for injuries or diseases. This article concerns the spiritual side of things. One reaction is to shake an angry fist at God saying: “Why me God?” Another is to plead with God over and over again to take away the pain and bring healing.

The great Saint Paul had many such adversities in his life (check out 2 Corinthians 11:23-32 for a list). Yet, for Saint Paul there was one issue that stood out more than the others. He called it his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7). Here was a great man of God, whose prayers were continually answered, pleading with God to take this from him. After three times of begging God to remove it, he received this response: “My grace is sufficient for you; for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:8-9). Ouch…that would not be the response that I would be looking for from God!

Often my own prayers can be very self-centered when I am going through a bad injury or sickness until I am reminded that His Grace is sufficient for me. I am currently in the middle of a difficult time in my own life as I heal up from the fractures suffered in an accident. My doctors did a great job in getting me back home, but I am still in a battle with pain. In my down time, I am rereading the book; Elder Paisios of Mount Athos by Hieromonk Isaac (published by the Holy Monastery “Saint Arsenios the Cappadocian”, 2012). Elder Paisios is now recognized as Saint Paisios. His life and teachings leave no doubt about this man of God being recognized as a Saint of our Faith.

There were two quotes that leaped off the pages and caused me to change my whole approach to my own difficult time. Saint Paisios was suffering from a hernia. Here is the statement he made at that time:

“I have a hernia but I don’t want an operation. Let me have something wrong with me. It’s a great thing to be sick, to suffer; and not pray about it, but to pray for others. God really listens when someone who’s suffering prays for other people to get better.” (Page 274) Note that he is not saying it is a great thing to be sick or suffer, rather that it is a great thing to pray for others and not ourselves when these things happen. Later on the hernia worsened and he did get the needed surgery, but at first he wanted to focus on praying for others.

Wow, that got my attention and that very night my wife and I prayed the Akathist Hymn “Glory to God for All Things” and then offered prayers for everyone we knew who was suffering (most of them from much more than a few fractured bones). The joy that filled my heart as we finished our prayers was simply amazing. My focus was off me and on to the needs of others. Since then my joy is in praying for others without praying for myself.

The second quote I ran into was also so very impactful:

“Elder Paisios was able to ignore his pain. ‘You do your job, and I’ll do mine,’ he would say to his sicknesses, and continue praying, doing manual labor, or seeing people. Though he was suffering himself, he comforted others who were suffering.” (Page 310)

“Ignore my own pain and comfort others” is a huge step for most folks, yet the rewards are great!! It may be the only way that we can truly come to understand the Lord’s words: “My grace is sufficient for you; for my strength is made perfect in weakness.”

Here is the challenge for each of us in this week ahead; whether we are in good health or terrible health; whether we are suffering in some way or in a place of absolutely no suffering:

There is nothing wrong with praying for yourself, but what would happen if you focused your prayers on others and not yourself? If you would like to try it, then over the next 7 days do not pray for yourself. Pray only for others. If you forget and begin praying for yourself, just stop and immediately focus on praying for others. Also, find someone who is suffering to comfort either in person or by phone, email, or letter. May it be blessed for you and may you be a blessing for others!