Saturday, February 9, 2019

City Notes '19 | Drop the Stones: What Kind of God Pursues Inmates in the Maximum-Security Prison of Arecibo, PR?

"Father, I don't think You should forgive people who sexually abuse their daughters." To be clear I still don't. But I'm not God. + Carlos A. Rodríguez

Sometimes you read a book that you need to read at just the right moment. Drop the Stones: When Love Reaches the Unlovable by Carlos A. Rodríguez was a book like that for me.

The first chapter captured my attention in profound ways. Perhaps it will do the same for you today. Below is an excerpt of a story that showcased God's prodigal grace again for me, and you, and anyone willing to receive it.

Chapter 1 | Benefits of Stoning

"You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do." + Anne Lamott

I hate sexual predators. But when I'm sharing about God's love I try my best to pretend that I love them too.

In 2008 I was invited to speak to the inmates in the maximum-security prison of Arecibo, Puerto Rico, so I was exposed to a few of these perverts. And prison is not the place to be when you're preaching something you don't believe in. However, my ability to spout spiritual hypocrisy was unmatched, and more than eighty convicts were exposed to the full repertoire. They were all dressed in bright orange jumpsuits while sitting uncomfortably in the hottest jail ward. I'm pretty sure this is the closest I've ever been to Hades. But thank God that there were strict rules to protect visiting preachers:

1. No touching the prisoners.
2. No stories that would instigate a reaction.
3. No crossing the imaginary line created by the two guards on opposite sides of the front row holding massive rifles. 

That day I thought I was fulfilling my Christian duty both as a local church pastor and as a wannabe evangelist. But the truth is, I was there so I could impress people by telling them that I had been there. The incarcerated were not my priority; I was interested in their salvation only because of how it would make me look and feel. If I could get at least ten of them to raise their hands while I made the invitation to say "yes" to Jesus, then I would be validated and worthy of my salary and my calling.

I was in that prison for selfish reasons on that humid-to-hell evening, and yet the most selfless One met me there. In the middle of my sermon, God interrupted me. I knew it was Him because He was wiser and nicer than me. He said to me, "Tell the men who have sexually abused their daughters that I forgive them."

Absolutely not. 

I had a sermon to preach. I had rules to obey. I had a reputation to protect; yet I knew He said it. I can't tell you how I knew for sure it was God; I just knew for sure that it was Him. 

Everything in me was battling this madness. My mouth kept moving in the rhythms of the preaching but my brain was firing arguments like a sniper to the heavens. 

There's no way I'm going to say that, God! And even if I say it, if any of these locos respond to it, they will die! 

And that, right there, was a legitimate protest, so I held on to it. There's a gang in Puerto Rico called Los Netas, and when they find a man who has sexually abused a child, they will cut him to pieces and flush him down the toilet. Literally.

What I though next was the ultimate counterargument for denying the Lord's request: Father, I don't think You should forgive people who have sexually abused their daughters anyway!

To be clear, I still don't. But I'm not God.

It's been ten years since that day and I'm still uncomfortable with the memory and the re-telling of this event. I am aware that many of the people who are reading these pages were sexually abused themselves. There are no words to describe the pain and turmoil produced by such robbery of innocence. I can't even imagine how unfair it must feel. And one of the reasons I was so against what God was telling me to say was because I pictured my nieces and felt such anger in the moment that I wanted to punch these men, not heal them.

Yet it was reckless mercy that arrested me; irrational love that took over; and in a great moment of weakness, I agree with God's version of the gospel.

Time seemed to stop as I paused the ramblings of my sermon and said decisively into the pungent microphone, "If you have sexually abused your daughters, I want you to know ...  God the Father forgives you."

Yes, I told the men in front of me that they were exonerated of the vilest act. So the room went quiet, the air got thicker and I fully experienced the words of Richard Rohr: "Before the truth 'sets you free,' it tends to make you miserable."

Yet for some reason, after I heard myself say the statement out loud, I began to believe it. I believed it with all of my heart. I believed it so much that the stares of the guards, the bewilderment in my team's faces, and the discomfort of the heat and humidity did not prevent me from saying it with spitfire compassion again: "If you have sexually abused your daughters, I want you to know that God the Father ... forgives ... you!"

In that moment, a man seated in the second row to my right stood up as if he were about to collapse, and shouted with all his might, "¡Maria! ¡Maria! ¡Perdóname!"

Maria was his daughter's name.

Perdóname is "forgive me" in Spanish.

And that was the moment I first met the Jesus of John 8.

I had good, ethical, biblical grounds to stone that man – maybe not in the flesh but at least in my heart. But as I saw the liquid repentance streaming down his face, I remembered my own sin, and I was glad that the God who saved me was not a monster like me, or him.

The room took in a deep breath of grace as the men who were sitting next to the abusive father stretched out their hands, squeezed his shoulders tight, and began to cry.

God was writing a message on the grey walls of this facility. I never had to say it out loud but we all heard it clearly: "If there's forgiveness for that sin, then surely there's forgiveness for mine."

I know they received that message because, one by one, almost every single one of these convicts became convicted. Some of them pounded the floor as they fell on their knees while others stretched out their arms as far up as humanly possible. The guards were so stunned that I looked back to the guys who were with me and, with a nod of my head, whispered, "Let's go in."

We crossed the invisible line of protection and began to hug our brothers. I don't know who was crying harder, but in the midst of the chaos, another man stood up in the last row and began to beg God for forgiveness. He was shouting his sins out loud because there were no masks worth keeping. In that kind of a moment, with that kind of a presence, we all experience that kind of repentance.

After not saying a word for a few minutes, I started to apologize for all the people who had sexually abused these men. They forgave me, and them. I then began to lead them in prayers that they had already been praying: "I repent. Take my heart. You're my Lord."

I had no clue what I was doing (I still don't), I just knew that Jesus was present, alive, and repetitive. It was almost as if we were all transported to a chapter inside Matthew or John; as if the prison had become the well in Samaria, the pool of Bethesda, or the wedding feast where ceremonial water was turned into celebratory wine.

That night, the gospel was not a teaching to be discussed or a scene to be remembered, it was good news to the poor, it was healing the brokenhearted, and it was setting the captives free.

And the biggest prisoner was me: I was an inmate to my version of the gospel, my interpretation of the gospel, and my rules for gospel engagement. But that evening I understood that the gospel was His. Jesus is King and Lord, and as much as He loves me, He's not serving my kingdom or bowing down to my religious ways. I wanted to draw lines of separation and I wanted to find laws that would deprive the depraved. But the Bible said it a long time ago: "(Jesus) is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world" (1 John 2:2).

The whole world includes all the men in the Institución Correccional Guerrero; it also includes you and me. When Jesus took the stones out of my hands, I discovered the most liberating life available  it was like I was born again, again. The difference was that this time, I was born aware of the good news for others, not just for myself.

If my life was the story of John 8, I was behaving like the religious leaders. If my life was the story of John 8, I never saw myself as the woman caught in the act of adultery. If my life was the story of John 8, I never acted as the Christ who stopped the execution.

In that penitentiary, I discovered the gospel story that truly set me free.

Next post: City Notes '19 | Drop the Stones: "If You Can't Do Great Things, Just Do Little Acts of Love." + Mother Theresa

Here are links to previous City Notes books:

2018 | The Eternal CurrentLearning to Speak God

2019 | Tattoos on the Heart

Christ is all,

Rev. Mike "Sully" Sullivan

Email Pastor Mike | Website Visit Us | Support Us | Facebook Us 

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