I’d never been to that church before, so it both surprised and amused me when someone in charge thrust a stack of paper bulletins into my hands.
“You can hand these out,” he said, motioning to the glass doors. “They’ll be here soon.”
Within minutes, a long line snaked out the door. Some of them looked as surprised as me, to find a strange, grinning woman greeting them at their own church, on a cold Tuesday night in January.
I made a point of looking every person in the eye. It seemed so small, but it’s all I had to offer.
I thought to myself: How happy some of these folks looked. And I guess you could say that surprised me, knowing what I knew about them, knowing a bit of the baggage they brought through the church doors. But I saw it in the way their eyes were all lit up, like they were anticipating God Himself had promised to show up at the service. And I felt a bit jealous, how they’d come so expectant like that, like they’d be looking forward to this all day.
And I couldn’t argue with them, knowing what the Bible says about such things. God tends to show up like that, for the Good Book says He’s enthroned on the praises of His people. God arrives, as if chauffeured inside the very hearts of those who believe.
But the weary were among them, too. The weary and the shame-filled and the heart-empty — these ragamuffins with baggy pants and drooping shoulders and sagging spirits, wanting just a droplet of grace tonight. These were the broken beggars of mercy.
The opening songs began, and I sat over on the right side, chin quivering, as we stood together — one body, sinners made saints — to sing, “O How He Loves Us.”
Last time I sang that song, I was in a room filled with women attending a retreat led by a friend in Nebraska. But tonight? I was in a room full of criminals, and they all wore this one word screenprinted, in fat bold letters, down the side of their knaki pants: INMATE.
No, the Iowa mama didn’t have that word streaking across her Miss Me jeans. No one there saw my sin, not the way God does. I have no scarlet letter. But God knows, I’ve been in my own kind of prison. I’ve got a criminal record. Guilty as they come.
But. Yeah. He loves us. O, how He loves us. Oh.
I was the thief on the cross, whispering through cracked lips to Jesus, begging for a droplet of grace: “Remember me when you enter your Kingdom.”
And God, our judge, delivers the sentence: Life in grace, without parole.
Joining Lisa-Jo Baker in her five-minute, free-write exercise. This week’s writing prompt: VISIT. I’m sharing about the prison church service that a few members of our church attended on Tuesday night.
(“Life in grace with parole” is a phrase borrowed from our friend Jason Wiersma, who leads the Living Stone Prison Ministry in South Dakota.)