Yesterday morning I had the privilege of preaching the chapel service at Mountain View Correctional Institution, a prison in our area. I use the word “privilege” because that’s exactly what it was. I enjoyed the service immensely. Don Stafford, the chaplain there and a friend of mine, invited me to speak. It was actually the second time I had preached at Mountain View, but this service was even better than that first one a couple of years ago.
Somewhere between 40 and 45 inmates crowded into the small room where the service was held. Attendance at chapel is voluntary. Before the service I asked Don how many of the attendees would be Christians. He answered, “Probably all of them.” I was glad to hear that because the sermon the Lord had given me was definitely geared toward Christians, not lost people. I don’t mind telling you that I questioned the Lord on that one, but as always He knew what He was doing.
When Don and I walked into the room the “band” was already warming up. There was a white inmate on electric guitar, a black inmate on keyboard, a black inmate on drums, and a few others that I can’t recall right now. Don said of the drummer, “Now, he is a real drummer. He gets so loud in here sometimes that I have to calm him down.” The fact was, all of the musicians were great. I’ve never had the privilege of having a praise-and-worship band like that.
Before the service formally began a couple of the inmates brought bags and handed them to Don. The bags were filled with food items the men had purchased at the prison’s store using the meager money they had earned working their prison jobs. Bringing those items to Don was a way of paying a “tithe.” Don’s job is to disperse the items to other inmates who need them worse. I assure you that I’ve never seen more humble and heartfelt offerings. Don didn’t ask for them either or have a time of taking up an offering in the service. Again, it was all completely voluntary.
The inmate who first took the podium to lead in worship was a white guy who had once served on the staff of a large church. You could tell he was very comfortable being in front of a crowd. He led us in a rousing version of “He Set Me Free.” He said, “Even though we’re in prison, we’ve been set free.” After several hearty “Amens” we were half way through the first verse before I caught up. Forget having a warm-up song with that bunch!
By the way, that song leader wasn’t the only inmate who had once served in the ministry. Don told me there were actually five such inmates in that service. I said to him, “That’s pretty scary. What does that say about me and you?” He just laughed. Seriously, though, it drove home the point that being in the ministry doesn’t make you immune from sin or scandal. One of those five ministers, a white guy who led in a beautiful version of a contemporary Christian song, had killed his wife. When you hear that, you’re reminded that you are preaching in a genuine prison.
All of the singing and playing was fantastic, but perhaps the highlight was when an elderly, short, black, former street-preacher led in a song called “He’s An On-Time God.” I had never heard that song, but I assure you that I’ll remember it from now on. It was all that drummer could do to restrain himself from cutting loose on that one. Before and after the song the street preacher did some preaching. In between his sentences the black guy on keyboard would accentuate the previous line by striking a few notes. Please don’t think I’m even hinting at racism when I say that the old saying is true: Black folks know how to have church! I looked at Don and asked, “Is that keyboardist going to do that while I’m preaching?” He laughed and said, “No.” I was relieved to hear it because I don’t have the preaching style to keep up that pace!
The sermon the Lord had laid on my heart was on the subject of forgiving others. I began by saying, “I realize that all of you have wronged others and sinned against them, but that’s another sermon for another time. What I want to talk about is you forgiving those who have wronged you and sinned against you.” My opening text was Matthew 6:12, where Jesus says, “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” I spent most of my time, however, in Matthew 18:21-35, where Jesus tells that incredible parable about the unforgiving servant. Toward the end of the sermon, I mentioned that Christ’s first words from the cross, right on the heels of Him having been betrayed, arrested, tried, mocked, beaten, whipped, and nailed to that cross, were, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34).
The main point of the sermon was this: One of the truest marks of an authentic salvation experience is your ability and willingness to forgive those who have wronged you. The fact is, you can pray, read your Bible, go to church, put money in an offering plate, pay your bills, live an honest life, etc., but if you patently refuse to forgive others, your supposed Christianity can rightfully be called into question.
As another part of the sermon, I said to those men, “I want you to do something for me right now. Sitting right where you are say to yourself, ‘If I would be honest, I have never completely forgiven _______.'” Then I told them, “If some name popped into your mind, there is some business that you need to do with the Lord today.” When I was finished preaching, I called Don to the podium to close out the service. As he followed up with just a few words about my sermon, he said one thing that I thought was especially helpful to those inmates. He told them, “It could be that you need to forgive a prison guard who has wronged you.” That was another one of those moments when you realize full well that you are preaching in a real live prison.
And so I’ll close out this post now by having you do the same thing I asked those prisoners to do. Say to yourself, “If I would be honest, I have never completely forgiven _______.” Believe it or not, Christian, if a name pops into your mind, you are living in a type of prison yourself. But the difference between you and those men I preached to yesterday is: You hold the key to your cell door in your hands.