Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Barabbas - in Angola and in the Church

Pilate called together the chief priests, the rulers and the people, and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was inciting the people to rebellion. I have examined him in your presence and have found no basis for your charges against him. Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us; as you can see, he has done nothing to deserve death. Therefore, I will punish him and then release him.” But the whole crowd shouted, “Away with this man! Release Barabbas to us!” (Barabbas had been thrown into prison for an insurrection in the city, and for murder.) Wanting to release Jesus, Pilate appealed to them again. But they kept shouting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” For the third time he spoke to them: “Why? What crime has this man committed? I have found in him no grounds for the death penalty. Therefore I will have him punished and then release him.” But with loud shouts they insistently demanded that he be crucified, and their shouts prevailed. So Pilate decided to grant their demand. He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, the one they asked for, and surrendered Jesus to their will. (Luke 23:13-25, NIV)

At Angola, we saw men who had committed terrible crimes, who had hurt and killed others, and who had in so doing rebelled against God—like Barabbas. The bars that closed behind us were daily reminders of this, as was the barbed wire along the prison fences. Victims surely still bear marks of their crimes. Tears still shed, lives fragmented, wounds that people would never fully recover from until the new heaven and new earth. No doubt many of these men had done horrible things. Men in prison for life. One man I met, with tattoos indicating a life that had been given to the service of the devil as a Satanist. Recollections of a life once lived.

Not too unlike Barabbas—one who had been imprisoned for “insurrection and murder.”

But these men have been given new lives. Their old lives have been exchanged for the life of Jesus—who took their place. And at Angola, we were overwhelmed with evidences that these men had been pardoned like Barabbas, and given a new life in Jesus Christ.

Lives permeated with humility. Sitting beside men who have tattoos up their arms or on their necks, some built like The Rock—yet not hardened our callous, but listening attentively, asking insightful questions about ministry, and how to minister to those around them. Gentleness of speech, one man beside me offering brownies to others around him. A rap by several of the inmates with a chorus that ran “Bow! Bow! Bow! Bow”—declaring the Lordship of Christ in Philippians 2. One older man saying that they prayed more for us as the next generation than they did for themselves. A man who had been a right-hand hit man for a Columbian drug lord, who had—while in 20 years solitary confinement—become a believer and begun to paint beautiful pictures. A classmate sharing how he had been able to reach out pastorally to a guard who regularly spoke roughly to the inmates. Hearing of men from Angola being witnesses to the mercy of God within other prisons. Goodbye hugs, genuine words that we will be missed. Gentleness worked by the gracious, Fatherly hand of God. There is life here.

But these men did more than show us something special happening at Angola. The truths we saw at this prison reach far beyond the prison bars and barbed wire. They showed us the story and calling of every Christian. Jesus and Barabbas as an image of the gospel. Jesus is innocent, but He suffered and died for us—for us who had rebelled against God and hated others (having been murderers and insurrectionists like Barabbas). And so we are also given new life, and called to live for our God in response. As we read in Peter’s Pentacost speech, “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”(Acts 2:36, NIV) And the right response? “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. (Acts 2:38, NIV)

At the same time, we are called to remember our brothers and sisters in prison—they are having struggles and temptations and difficulties that are unique to them. May they continually remember their freedom, pardon, and calling in Christ, even when behind bars for a time. Let’s remember them in prayer, even as we also remember the common pattern of their story and ours.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Angola State Penitentiary

From October 10th – 13th, I had the opportunity to visit Angola State Penitentiary, in Baton Rouge, LA. We were a group of 11 students from Calvin Theological Seminary, two professors, and one other guest, and we spent our time at Angola learning its history, sitting in with students (inmates) who are studying at the seminary program within the prison, learning about the life and ministry within the prison, and worshiping with the men there at their nightly chapel services. Angola used to be the bloodiest maximum security prison in the states, but has undergone miraculous transformation—only explainable as the work of God. Violence dropped drastically, and many of the men (the majority of whom are serving a life sentence) have become Christians. We had the privilege of getting to know some of these men, attending their chapel services and learning alongside them in their seminary classroom (an extension program of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary). God has paradoxically given great freedom to these men even within the confines of prison, and though they are surely experiencing the very real pain of separation from families and their freedom, it was amazing to see the powerful effects of the gospel permeating the prison and transforming these men’s lives. Our experience in Angola was one of many tensions, and it is a taste of this experience that I seek to share here...

A classroom, students finding their seats, hellos exchanged, handshakes, hugs, introductions. Lecturer adjusts his mic and talking subsides as he greets the class. Good morning! Today we will be focusing on theories of change—how does God use us as ministers to help others change? Attentive alertness—some more, some less—and questions for clarification and insight. “What about this passage, and how that affects our understanding?” “Isn’t all true change in a person miraculous?” Small groups for five to ten minutes. We gather in our corner—five together here. Back and forth on how change comes about. Some are more quiet, listening, attentive. Thinkers? A few laughs and a broadening perspective as we converse. Bring it back to the whole class—more insights. Professor clarifies and guides a continuing discussion, give-and-take. Some listening to every word, leaning back, pencil thoughtfully perched between fingertips. Some intently leaning forward, taking in every word of the lecture. Others work on assignments, half-listening as they write for another class...

Through the hall we hear “Count!” and the lecture stops. “We’ll pick up after.” Inmates, hearing their groups called, leave the class and line up for their count. All here. Perhaps a re-count if the number is off. We stay seated; Angola seminary students stand and line up to be confirmed present. All accounted for. Students, inmates return a few at a time, tattoos on arms and neck, white T-shirts and blue jeans with some variety, memories of convictions. Conversation resumes. The lecture picks up again. Preaching on dying and rising with Christ...

Worshiping alongside a hundred men, amidst the pain in their own lives, the remembrance of life sentences. But they have a greater hope and a new life. But we have new life. Worshiping alongside these hundred men, brothers, the victims of crimes seem a world away—but are there. Bodies in the ground, tears still shed, lives still fragmented. These bars seem out of place around the church, but stand to remind of pain that cuts deep. Forgiven. What does this mean? Transformed. New life. Blood was spilled, that brought these men here. Blood also spilled—one man’s blood—to bring them to life even within these bars (to bring us to life—each one who recognizes that we are not so different from any other after all). Tears were shed by the Lord of all. Sweat like drops of blood by the Son of God. Jesus Barabbas for Jesus the Christ. Justice served on our behalf—by the One against Whom we rebelled. Not a passing over, but a taking upon Himself of all the wrath for this violence. And so He purchases men for God. A scandal. But this is where justice and love and mercy meet.

And so in Angola, we saw the gospel. We saw men purchased for God. We saw our brothers, scandalously forgiven just as we have been. Justice was served, the Christ crucified. And here within these bars we saw evidence of the empty tomb. Christ is risen.

21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. (Matthew 5:21–22, NIV)

17 So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus who is called the Messiah?”... 26 Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified. (Matthew 27:17, 26, NIV)

23 But with loud shouts they insistently demanded that he be crucified, and their shouts prevailed. 24 So Pilate decided to grant their demand. 25 He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, the one they asked for, and surrendered Jesus to their will. (Luke 23:23-25, NIV)

9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ 13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ 14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted." (Luke 18:9-14, NIV)

Isn’t this the story of each and every person who claims Christ as Lord and Savior? Are we so different from our brothers in Angola? And it is the same gospel of grace—God’s forgiveness and bringing us to life in Christ, despite our unworthiness—that is our hope as well.