Reflection and Prayers
In amongst the challenges of worshipping together these past 18 months, a lot of church members have told me how much they’ve appreciated the zoom services because it has helped them ground their faith at home. Rather than putting on our Sunday best and driving a few miles to meet with each other and – hopefully! – with God in a set-apart church building, the fact that some of us have connected with each other in our own familiar settings, maybe listening to scripture with our cornflakes…or even praying in our pants!…has helped some people’s faith feel more normal, everyday, real. I hope that might be true for you guys who are reading this at home, too. One member even told me that it was probably the first time she’d prayed out loud at home and now it feels more natural than ever – which is wonderful to hear.
It’s also allowed us to share something of ourselves and our homes – including those in the Caribbean – which has put many at ease. Well, for those of us online, we’re going to have a short time of sharing now as we talk about and, preferably, show our favourite mug! And for you lot reading this, perhaps you can put the kettle on and make a cuppa in your favourite mug to accompany your reading. And I’d like you to think of why is it your favourite? Does it remind you of someone special…the person who gave it to you or perhaps even whose photograph is on it? Or did you purchase it at a special place? Or is it just the perfect vessel for a big, comforting cuppa?
Favourite mugs are shared in groups.
So what was the point of all of that? Well, partly, I’m really nosey! But also, our creature comforts have been particularly important to us these last 18 months. Spending days inside our homes with little physical contact with others, I know that, for many, a good cup of tea, a gripping TV drama, a fully stocked fridge and working telephone…these simple things have helped us cope with the difficult days. Well today we’re going to spend a few minutes thinking of those who are deprived such comforts. Those who know the stark truth of confinement. Those who Jesus calls us to visit. Today, on Prisons Sunday, we think of those who live and work in prisons.
We begin by listening to a few words from the gospel according to Luke and read by George – who taught maths to prisoners for several years – and following that, those of us online will watch a spoken word reflection on this week’s Prisons Week theme.
Jesus said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! Luke 12:22-24
‘How much more does God value you, treasure you, cherish you, than then birds?’, Jesus asks us. Now, coming just after the season of creation, some might bristle at any doing down of God’s creatures so we’d do well to remember that birds feature more in the Genesis creation narrative than humans do, and that – from Noah’s Arc to the Mabinogion – ravens are particularly significant in our stories of old. And yet, though God created the birds, cares for them, ‘knows when any one sparrow falls to the ground’ (Matthew 10:29), Jesus tells the enraptured crowds that they are more precious in God’s eyes than are the birds.
I wonder if that’s what you need to hear today. I wonder if you’re overburdened in the present or anxious about the future. I wonder if you ever wake up in the middle of the night haunted by something you said or did days, weeks, even years earlier and find it hard to let go of that guilt. I wonder if you feel bombarded by the messages that say to be truly of worth you need to lose that fat, buy the latest gadget, achieve the next promotion, and gain those extra social media followers. I wonder if you ever feel like you’re just not attractive, holy, or good enough. If so, if that is you, hear the words of Jesus – the enfleshed God – tell you that you are enough. You are treasured. You are extravagantly and eternally loved by the God who came to us as one of us; who lived, died and rose again to show how wide, how long, how high, and deep is the love of Go; and that nothing you can do can make God love you any more…or any less. Hear that blessing. Embrace that truth and let it soak into your daily being.
For others of us, we might need to be reminded that it’s not just us church goers who are treasured by God but all of us; every single human being. There is no line beyond which God’s love runs out. Which sounds wonderful but can sometimes be a little frustrating because…well…as modest or self-doubting or even guilt-ridden as we can sometimes be, don’t we just love to point the finger at, and feel that bit better, more decent, and more valued than that lot over there. Y’know, those politicians; those pagans; those prisoners there those who deserve our judgment, disdain, punishment. We can’t be expected to love them, can we?
Well…yes, actually! They’re exactly who Jesus charges us to love! And on this Prisons Sunday, we must be confronted, encouraged, reminded once again that that includes the prisoner. From his opening manifesto in Luke 4 to his dying words of hope to a criminal on a cross, Jesus – for a time a prisoner himself – seemed to be especially keen to tell his followers that God’s kingdom, good news, and love are for those imprisoned by bars just as much as it is for those shackled by poverty, addiction, love of money or self. ‘A society should be judged not by how it treats its outstanding citizens but by how it treats its criminals,” claimed committed Christian Fyodor Dostoevsky. In the parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus puts it more starkly than that! (Matthew 25 – take a look).
So where does that leave us today? If we’re convicted to consider the ravens and believe that those in prison are more valued, treasured, cherished by God than the birds, how might we live that out in our daily living?
Well firstly, I encourage all of us to pause. Yep, just pause! It’s so easy for us to ‘other’ people – to talk about us and them; the worthy and unworthy; the valued and the villains. It’s so easy to judge and condemn but Jesus did this whole speck of sawdust plank of wood schtick about that and the bottom line is he’s really not a fan of judgy folk! So next time we find ourselves thinking, feeling, or saying something bad about someone else – be it those in prison, those in power, or even those in the pew in front – take a moment to pause and remember that they are treasured by God. Take a moment to acknowledge that we don’t know the path they’ve travelled, the things that have happened to them which might have taken them down a certain road. Take a moment to ask God to bless them and to enlarge our hearts that we might be able to love them too!
And, keeping with the whole turning to God vibe, let’s pray! Jesus was pretty hot on this too. So let’s take time to pray for those who are living and working in prison. To ask God to meet their needs, heal their wounds, to break their bonds of fear and isolation. Pray for the prison staff, that they might be strengthened in their work and able to treat all with compassion. Pray for the victims of crime and for ourselves, that we might be able to forgive each other and recognize God’s Spirit in all. Along with the newsletter and sermon this week, we have a prayer leaflet from the Prisons Week team. I encourage you to use it.
It can be accessed on line at www.prisonsweek.org/ select text only version under 2021 Poster/Leaflet
As well as praying and pausing, we might well want to learn more about those who are in prison, such as the fact that nowhere in Western Europe jails more of its population than England and Wales, or the statistic that 53% of women in prison reported having experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse as a child. Perhaps in learning more about prisons and those who dwell within, we might learn to have more empathy for them. Most of you will know that my brother-in-law came to faith whilst serving a lengthy prison sentence. Whilst he doesn’t blame anyone for this or excuse the behaviour that led him there, his experience of growing up with poverty, violence and alcoholism in the home is far from my own experience of growing up in a loving family and his experience is common to many who end up in prison. Similarly, my brother-in-law cites a loving, welcoming Christian community whom he found on his release as being key to his repenting – of his turning his life around.
Which brings me to the last point – pause, pray, learn, and welcome. A few weeks back, I was contacted by a woman called Serena who worked for the Welcome Directory, a charity whose goal is to help faith communities become places where people who leave prison can find acceptance. She found us on an inclusive church list and asked us whether our welcome might extend to those who had spent time in prison. I replied that I hoped it would and she invited me and the churches with whom I serve to consider training for, and registering as, communities who would welcome former prisoners. I’ll be discussing this with both sets of elders but for now, if anyone is interested in joining a three-session zoom course on this topic early next year, please do drop me a line.
For some of us, prisons week might be the spur to exploring further prisoner support and ministry. For others of us, it might remind us how blessed we are, even in being able to drink out of our favourite mug. And for all, it is a prompt for us to pause and pray; to learn and welcome; to give thanks to the God who looks upon us – all of us – with world-shaking, wonderful love. Amen.
Prisons Sunday Prayers of Intercession – John Henson
“God’s Spirit has inspired me
To bring the poor good news;
She tells me, ‘Get the blind to see,
Bust the jails and set folk free;
(Luke 4- Jesus at Nazareth)
‘On the command of the officer in charge, the soldiers and the police grabbed hold of Jesus and tied him up…..’ (John 18. Jesus in Gethsemane Garden)
Dear Loving God, you know that some of my ministry has had to do with befriending convicted criminals, inside and outside of prison. When I tried to share my burden with other Christians, they sometimes turned their backs and walked away. Or they gave me a talking to and told me I shouldn’t be having anything to do with people like that. Some more anxious told me to be careful.
So the first thing I would pray is that those of us who call ourselves Christians should realize that we are no better than others, including those others who have been to prison or are still there. We are just better at concealing our faults and failings, and manage to avoid brushes with the law. Jesus was not only the friend of offenders: he was arrested as one. And part of his brief as God’s Messiah was to get people out of prison.
To James and John who wanted to sit either side of him in the kingdom Jesus said, “I’ve no say as to who will get the best seats; they’ve already been reserved.” (Mark 10)
‘Two thugs were hung either side of Jesus’ (Mark 15 Skull Hill)
If you God arranged for Jesus at his life’s end to have for company two criminals, who are we to book seats among the privileged? What you taught me in the prison cells, or amongst the poorest people in society as I waited my turn sometimes to make contact with my prisoner friend was that behind the outward ‘thug’, ‘thief’, ‘rogue’ or ‘murderer’ there was a person like me, with a history, a background, a complex personality, and I had to consider what I would have been like if I had been born into their home. God chose two ‘ne’re do-wells’ to keep Jesus company in his agony. Jesus accepted the choice, and with his prayer ‘Father forgive them’, chose them to be his companions in God’s garden later on in the day. Teach us not to be too choosy, God, as to who we keep company with. Help us not to mind who others see us with.
‘..the magistrates ordered Paul and Silas to be stripped and flogged. They got a bad beating and then they were put in prison. The warder was given special instructions to keep an eye on them. So he put them in a maximum-security unit and chained them to the floor.’ (Acts 16 Philiptown)
Loving God, we pray for all those who are in prison today. For those who are there long term, for life even, and those who are there for shorter terms and counting the days. They may be more afraid of what they will have to cope with when they are released than they are of prison life. Some are there unjustly. A mistake has been made. Or because their country has unjust laws. They may be there for speaking out against their government, or for their sexuality. So may be treated brutally. Some are waiting this very day for the death penalty.
We pray for the warders who are paid to keep an eye on them, which is very difficult when they are understaffed. Some are sympathetic, others are cruel. All are just as much prisoners as those they look after. I know what it is like to go into prison and to hear one door slammed closed after another as I went deeper and deeper inside. I at least would come out again after an hour or so. I have been inside Cardiff prison, Swansea prison, Usk, Dartmoor and Pentonville usually in company with the chaplain. But in Pentonville I was let free to roam the prison on my own wherever I wished. Eventually I found the cell of the friend I was looking for. Prison is the only time I have ever worn a dog collar. It was a protection of sorts.
We pray for all groups, such as the Howard League, which in those days I was a member of, who campaign for better conditions for prisoners including safety. Our country is still tied to the idea of prisons as a punishment or deterrent, rather than as opportunities for reform and a better life. We pray for all chaplains with their slim chances usually of doing much good. But sometimes they do, and then it is worth it. We pray for teachers and instructors who help some to prepare for a new career. In Cardiff there is opportunity to learn catering. Their restaurant is well worth the visit, as Valerie and I can testify. You will get the privilege of being served by a criminal offender, who is a human being just like you. In Dartmoor I was served coffee and cake by a serial killer. He was very friendly towards me and we chatted.
Jesus will say one day, ‘When I was in prison, you visited me’ (Matthew 25)
God, help us not to come into judgement either by our own lack of empathy or attitude, even if we cannot like some know the privilege of visiting you in prison. There is also the prison of the mind and heart which some are in. We may be called to help them to freedom. Many are in the prison of loneliness. Maybe we can help someone there.
Loving God, bless all prisoners today. In the name of Jesus. Amen.
May the Christ who walks on wounded feet
walk with us on the road.
May the Christ who serves with wounded hands
stretch out our hands to serve.
May the Christ who spoke forgiveness from a cross
open our hearts to forgive.
May we see the face of Christ in everyone we meet,
And may everyone we meet see the face of Christ in us. Amen.