“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” – Psalms 23:1 NASB
“God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform.” – William Cowper
God is my cellie.
No, I am not talking about that overweight, sixty-something man who snores in the bunk beneath me, silly. That’s Pete. Don’t get me wrong, I love Pete and he’s probably as good a person as can be found with whom to share a sleeping space that doubles as a bathroom as well. My personal habits are – hopefully – no more disgusting to him than his are to me. We don’t argue or irritate each other excessively. We both make an effort to be considerate of the other person’s need for space in an environment where there is precious little of it to let the other person have; and we both retire relatively early.
All of that said, let me turn once again to my other cellie. I am certain there will be some who will be offended at my little attempts at humor in an article concerning God; others will be offended that I am talking about Him at all; still others will blow off anything I say simply because they feel prison converts are a dime a dozen and our motives and sincerity are suspect.
That leaves the rest of you and I do hope there is someone left to continue to the end. No matter the words that I write, for the most part each one is chosen carefully.
Once again, I say, “God is my cellie.”
I am indescribably happy to be able to say that. I am humbly grateful that He did not allow me to enter this place alone. In spite of the relative safety of this particular institution, prison – even this one – is a lonely, scary place. It may not be for the most hardened among us, but for any with the least amount of civility and decency, it most certainly is. I do like to think I have retained a little of both. Were it not for God being close at hand, I cannot imagine what it would be like for me.
Contrary to what many may think, the majority of people who pass the wrong way through these gates of hell-on-earth are not converts to Christianity, or anything else for that matter. There are those living in freedoms who believe that many in prison lay claim to the discovery of God as a way of offering proof of their rehabilitation and their willingness to be involved in something uplifting and beneficial – even absolving to some extent. I would not argue that, for a few, this is the case. But I think the largest number of those seen with Bibles, making the walk to the chapel for services, partaking in Bible studies and participating in prayer groups within the individual housing units are sincere in their efforts to draw closer to the One who can truly help them change.
That said, let me just make the observation that, once a decision has been reached to move closer to God in prison, everything becomes more difficult. It is assumed by many that it is an easy thing to be a convert while incarcerated. The skeptics and the cynics would also throw in the word “convenient.” The simple truth is that, while many attempt to look to God for answers in here, actually making the change from a life of sin to a life for Him is complicated and frustrated by the prison environment, not enhanced by it. The one true benefit to pursuing a relationship with God while incarcerated should be obvious: the time available to spend in the quest for truth, peace and a renewed spirit for those who truly wish to do what is required.
Prison is an environment where the literacy rate hovers around 50% compared to the national average of 97%. The facilities, programs and opportunities to exercise one’s mind and one’s faith follow at a very distant second to those available for exercising one’s body or to entertain, rather than to educate or enlighten. The number of individuals taking advantage of recreational facilities far exceeds those seeking the mental or spiritual advancement of the library or the chapel. The number of individuals watching mind-numbing hours of mindless television; shows that only serve to point out the negative direction the values and morals of this country are taking, greatly outnumbers those trying to build a relationship with God or improve their minds. The number of people using their time to play card games, dominos, chess or role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons for hours on end dwarfs the number of those seeking answers that they obviously were not in possession of when they did whatever it was that earned them their passage here.
Those who do attempt to walk a different path than the one that led them here are faced with all of these “opportunities” to use their time differently. The urging of their friends to play ball, play cards, work out or watch TV is constant and vocal. For many, ‘going with the flow’ or ‘following the crowd’ is indicative of the behavior that lies at the root of their anti-social attitudes. Looking closely, one can see the efforts at change begin to falter. For some, being one of the guys is more attractive than being one with God.
Using my time differently than many others does not make me a better person than them. However, using my time to build a relationship with God does make me a better person than I was when I arrived. Unfortunately, even this has not lifted me as high above myself as I want to be. You see, in addition to those legitimate pursuits that can cause one to lose focus, prison life is rife with less-than legitimate pursuits which can cause one to lose sight of the prize of becoming renewed in principles, morals, attitude and character.
Even though we may be working conscientiously to move closer to God and a new way of living our lives, prison is full of “opportunities” to wander onto the wrong path. Some will continue down that path once they have rediscovered it. After all, it was once very familiar to all who reside here. Others will retreat rather quickly and get back onto the new path they were following, apologizing to God and anyone else who will listen in the process. Giving in to temptation is always regrettable but it seems as if human weakness presents no greater disadvantage anywhere than it does in a place like this.
Prison presents countless ways to continue the lives we may have led on the outside. Stories abound throughout the country about gambling, drugs, alcohol, pornography and other illicit activities that can be found within prison themselves, that can keep one at or below the level they were when they arrived here. All of these things and more make moving towards being a better Christian more difficult in prison rather than less. It is true that just as a doctor can be found amongst the sick, so can God be found amongst the sinners. Unfortunately, the devil is here as well, trying to retain those already in his ranks and to add to them if at all possible.
Recently, I succumbed to temptation in my job and was found to be doing something I had no business doing. My job was cold, wet, sometimes hard, but I liked it and it paid well by prison standards. But then stupid stepped in and I was caught removing something from the kitchen that was not mine to remove.
The exact specifics are unimportant. They are recorded as a blemish in a file I had hoped to maintain blemish-free. Suffice it to say that the result was costly. Of course, the highest cost was not the resulting loss in “grade’ that dropped my monthly pay to about $20.00 from its high closer to $100.00, although yes, that does sting. No, for me, the higher cost was the blemish. The higher cost was in the loss of the little bit of trust I had earned and the occasional sign of respect I was shown for the job I had done.
The higher cost was the disappointment I engendered in myself that I could travel so far down the right path and still find the wrong one so close by. The higher cost was in lowering myself to a level I had no desire or need to visit.
The ultimate cost was in needing to ask God for forgiveness after falling into temptation rather than asking Him for the strength to resist it in the first place. It is a comfort that His forgiveness is always available, yet it is an irritant that I always find myself in need of it.
I will offer no excuses, for I have none. There is no one to blame but myself. If I attempted to excuse my behavior by claiming that I simply joined a “game’ -that many others were playing, I would only be admitting to being a lemming headed for the cliff’s edge with all of the others.
I could make light of it and just shrug it off as most are prone to do. After all, did I not just say it was a game? I will resist that particular urge, though, and say instead that what I will do is use the opportunity to continue my efforts at transformation. I will continue to pray, to read God’s Word and to seek his wisdom. I will look for the doors that open when others close and ask Him to point me to the one that best serves His needs. I am certain only good things will come of it all.
That is one of the benefits of claiming God as my cellie.
He will help me get back those things I lost. He will also help me to stay in His “game” and no one else’s. As “I said before,
Pete is a pretty good guy and makes a decent cellie. But God is the best cellie I could ever ask for. And I doubt Pete would have a problem with that statement.
Now, to those who think that it is easy to get close to God in prison, I say, “Think again. It is not easy at all. But it is logical.”
To those who think humor is inappropriate, I say, “Nonsense! God created humor.”
To those who doubt His existence at all, I say, “For 40+ years, I was right there with you! Thank God He didn’t hold that against me when at last I needed Him and called out to Him!”
And to all the rest, I say, “Thank you for putting up with me.”
I would like to leave you with a poem written by Steve Marshall.
It is a prayer, actually, and I thank him for it:
A PRAYER FOR CAGED BIRDS
A prayer for lost souls
Who gaze through bars to
Greet the day.
And bless the coming
Of the night
When dreams of freedom
May take flight.
With walls as far as
They can see,
Their minds are filled with
All things free.
Watch over them please
Keep them well
And lead them safely
Back from hell.