Tuesday, November 22, 2011

November 22, 1963

On November 22, 1963, my childhood vanished.  Although I was a freshman in high school, I would never see the world in quite the same way I had seen it prior to hearing the news that President Kennedy had been shot while riding in a parade in Dallas, Texas.

John F. Kennedy was in 1961 the youngest man ever elected to the Office of the President of the United States of America.  In a tumultuous time, so much hope rested on the shoulders of this young man--probably far too much hope.  Our elected leaders never can produce all they promised or all we hoped they would produce, but there were signs that good things were in store.  New voices were being heard.

Then across the nation a shot was heard, and a nation wept.

In many ways, President Kennedy's death united the country, at least for a few days, as nothing else could have done.  We grieved as a people--grieved for a young widow and her children and grieved for ourselves as we were forced to remember that being a free people did not mean we were free from violence and death.

On this 48th anniversary of President Kennedy's death, I grieve again--for us.  We have not learned.  We have not learned that freedom involves risk, including the risk of violence.  We have not learned that our hope rest in One greater than any or all elected leaders.  We have not learned to engage our elected leaders and DEMAND that they put the well-being of our nation and its people, including it's poorest people, ahead of their own--that they become the public servants they were elected to be.  I grieve . . .

. . . but I hope.  I hold to the hope that we shall rise to a higher way of life . . . that we will both demand better from those we elect to office and that we will live better that our calls to them might be heard.

Guess Who Is Looking for You

My cousin Rick didn’t mean to get lost.  He didn’t mean to end the day scared and hungry or with his parents and the community in a panic.  He just walked off one day, going out for an adventure, going out for an adventure for which he was not dressed properly.  He wore his diaper. 

Among family and community, there was a sense of panic.  The search was on.  Fields and roads were being walked.  The local crop duster took to the air, flying over the fields, looking for some sign of the missing boy.  It was near evening when word came that Rick had been found, found but not yet rescued.

Rick had not, as it was thought, walked off alone.  He had been accompanied by the family’s two dogs.  When the would-be rescuer found my cousin, he could not get near him.  The dogs didn’t know the rescuer, and Rick was too young to know or to tell them that the rescuer was a good man.  The dogs stood between Rick and anyone who tried to get to him.  They so stood until my Rick’s dad arrived. 

Lots of people just walk off, some in search of adventure and others because they are already lost.  There are others who are walked off, taken from where they are to where they would not go by others.  At the end of the day, how one becomes lost no longer matters.  It is being lost that matters, and there are very few experiences worse than being lost.

Perhaps you are among those who understand the terror of being lost because either you have been lost or you are lost.  If so, you know how utterly hopeless the lost become. 

I’m not using lost in the manner in which it is often used in Christian circles.  We’ve cheapened that word as we have cheapened so many other good words—grace, hope, mercy, love, etc.  When I speak of lost, I’m talking about the sense of being totally separated from all that is good and sound, of being alone and frightened even of ourselves, of being alive but without any sense of purpose or direction, and of being damned with no hope of rescue, much less redemption.

I’ve known some lost people, and I’ve known some good people who thought they knew the solution to the lost people’s predicament.  He/She just needs to find Jesus.  These folks mean well, but they do not understand the nature of being lost.  When one is lost, truly lost, he/she can’t find Jesus, or anything else.  Oh, they may stumble across something or someone or maybe even Jesus, but whatever is in their path was there before they found it and stumbled over it.  In the midst of being lost, that over which they stumble is sometimes just another frustration and pain in the dark.

The saved or the found, to use another misused word from our faith, are not those who find Jesus.  The saved/found are those who have been found by Jesus—Jesus as in God in all the Divine fullness.  Ezekiel, that prophet with the wild visions, got it.  He saw people who were lost everywhere he looked.  The people he saw were cut off from all that gave meaning, direction, purpose, and hope to their lives.  He knew that the difference between being lost and found was the willingness to be found, not dogged determination to find one’s own way out and home.

Of the lost—then and now, God said, “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God.  I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak. . .” (Ezekiel 34:15-16).

For too long, I thought I had to find God.  How refreshing to do know that God is the One looking for me.  Even I shall be found!

Friday, November 4, 2011

I Went to Prison

I went to prison Thursday, the Kentucky State Reformatory.  It wasn’t my first experience with prison.  Over the years, I’ve seen the inside of several prisons.  Yesterday’s experience was not my first with the Kentucky State Reformatory.

Fifteen years ago, I stood at the entrance facing two guards, stout no-nonsense men who were all business.  They told me to empty my pockets.  “Of everything,” one guard said.  I did, placing all the items from my pocket in a plastic bowl.  They shoved a clipboard in front of me and told me to sign my name.  I was patted down and a third guard appeared and told me to follow him.  Another guard walked behind us.  I stood facing the first of several barred gates through which I would pass.  The lead guard spoke into his radio and the door opened, leading to another.  The process was repeated several times before I was led into a sparsely furnished room and told where to sit.
I can still recall the feeling of dread and fear.  I was inside the belly of the prison.  The world I had known was barred gates away and inaccessible.  How does a person survive this, this being locked up, away from all that matters?  Locked in my thoughts, I almost missed hearing the last of those barred gates opening.  A guard led in a prisoner, dressed in prison drab.  He was the inmate I had come to visit.

Yesterday’s experience was very similar to the first time. I was having the same thoughts as I had fifteen years before.  This time I wasn’t there to visit anyone.  I was there as a member of the Kentucky State Police Citizens’ Academy Alumni.  We were being given a tour of the facility by a Deputy Warden.  For the next two hours, we walked among the prison population, which included men guilty of minor felonies, drug related crimes, sex crimes, armed robbery, assault, and murder.  We saw the area that housed the general population—meaning those men who had recently entered and many who never managed enough good behavior days to earn the right to move to “better” accommodations.  We walked through the prison hospital and past the psychiatric ward.  We stood in the middle of the dining hall as prisoners made their way through the lunch line and sat to eat their meals.  They are allotted twenty minutes for a feast that put my memory of school lunches in a new perspective. 

We walked through heavy rain to make our way from one building to the next.  We walked as the prisoners walked, sans umbrella, umbrellas being too easily transformed into weapons. At last we made our way to the “honors dorm.”  The primary difference between the other dorms and the “honors dorm” is fresh paint and wider hallways, and the possibility of earning the right to a private cell—a cherished dream for many.  The cells are approximately nine feet by six feet.  The typical cell includes a double bunk bed (metal frame and a four inch mattress), a plastic chair, and a small shelf.  “We try to match up the cellmates,” the Deputy Warden told us.  Unless there is physical danger for a cellmate, matched cellmates must stick it out for six months no mattered how poorly they may have been matched.  Imagine spending six months in a nine-by-six cell with a guy you can’t stand.  It must seem like a lifetime.

The one bright spot in the prison was the GRRAND program (Golden Retriever Rescue & Adoption of Needy Dogs) involvement by some of the inmates in the “honor dorm.”  Prisoners who qualify are given rescued dogs for which they assume full responsibility.  They house the dogs in their cell.  They feed, groom, and train the dogs until they are ready for adoption.  One prisoner told us, “This program has changed my life.  It gave me something to care about and to invest myself in.  It’s given me a better outlook in here and hope for the future.”  He added, “The only downfall is that I cry my eyes out each time I have to give up a dog.”

Everyone ought to go to prison.  It would change your attitude about prisons and prisoners.  I’ve been to several prisons.  There may be “luxury” prisons, but I have not seen one.  Oh, but someone will say, they get bed and board, exercise rooms, basketball courts, and cable TV.  Well, as for bed and board, the bed is “boardy” and the bread is pretty common.  There are exercise rooms and basketball courts, but how much exercise and basketball can you stand day after day year after year?  Some of the inmates do have cable TV, but the taxpayer doesn’t foot that bill, and the TV is tiny.  The TV and the cable must be paid for by the inmate.  The inmate gets his money in one of two ways: (1) Someone outside pays into his prison account from which he can spend no more than $100.00 per month—the one exception being the purchase of the TV; or (2) he “earns” it at the pay rate of 80 cents per hour.  The “salary” paid to the inmates does not come from tax dollars.  It comes from the profit made from the prison industry and the prison store. 

Thanks to programs offered in the prison, many of which are highly dependent on volunteer assistance, some prisoners do better themselves and reenter society with an opportunity of bettering both their lives and ours. 
By the way, the prisoner I visited fifteen years ago was released a year later.  He went to a men’s shelter, found a job, made enough money to get his own apartment.  Today he still lives in that same apartment and continues to be a law-abiding citizen.  Sometimes the system works.