Seems like a stretch to relate the story of Jonah and the Whale to Prison Ministry, but that’s the bizarre thought which occurred to me when my eyes popped open at 3:30 this morning. And NO, I never fell back asleep. Story of my life, as some of you can relate.
Anyway, if you haven’t heard the story, the short version is as follows: God told Jonah to take a message to the people of Nineveh, but Jonah refused, running in the opposite direction. God sent a terrible storm, and the men on the boat, convinced this may be the end for them, eventually chucked Jonah overboard.
Then God sent a big fish to swallow Jonah. He spent three repentant (and, no doubt, nauseous) days in the belly of the fish, was barfed up on the beach, finally made his way to Nineveh, informed the people God was going to destroy them (due to their wickedness) and the whole city was saved.
WOOHOO! Happy ending, right?!
Not for Jonah. I don’t think it’s too strong of a word to say he HATED the people of Nineveh. They were evil, and he was probably happy when God said He’d “had enough” of their wicked ways and planned to destroy them.
Like the first time I spoke to a prisoner, I think Jonah thought the people of Nineveh would ignore him (at best), or mock him. Maybe even kill him, who knows? But they didn’t. They repented immediately, and the King declared a mandatory, city-wide fast in an effort to stay God’s hand. Thus, the Lord changed His mind and didn’t destroy them.
You’d think Jonah would be happy. But…
“Jonah was furious. He lost his temper. He yelled at God, ‘God! I knew it—when I was back home, I knew this was going to happen! That’s why I ran off to Tarshish! I knew you were sheer grace and mercy, not easily angered, rich in love, and ready at the drop of a hat to turn your plans of punishment into a program of forgiveness! So, God, if you won’t kill them, kill me! I’m better off dead!’ (Jonah 4:1-2)”
That’s crazy, man. His loathing for these people was so strong, he’d rather die than see them saved. The verses do show us, though, to what lengths the Lord will go to save those who many of us have deemed “hopelessly lost.”
But what hit me this morning was how similar Jonah’s feelings about the people of Nineveh are to the sentiments toward prisoners held by many in today’s society, even among those who consider themselves Christians.
Some hear “Prison Ministry” and think we busy ourselves lobbying for better living conditions or early release, but that’s not the case. We’re not saying most don’t deserve to be there, and we’re not picketing for more privileges.
No, we help to facilitate their education as they work toward a degree in Bible & Theology, Christian Education or Intercultural Studies. My job is to assist them in any way needed. Period.
My job is NOT to judge them.
This doesn’t mean every now and again I don’t make the mistake of doing a Google search for a student, in an effort to find out what landed them in prison, just out of curiosity. I say “mistake” because many times I regret finding out. “Ignorance is bliss,” when it comes to ministering to prisoners. At least for me.
As much as I’d love to say I wear blinders, I’m human, and appalled at the depths to which humans can sink.
For example, one lady I’ve written to a few times killed her three young children, ages 12 and under. One guy, who sends me a Christmas card every year, raped and murdered a deaf, teenage hitchhiker. Yet another woman I’ve been in contact with spent her days locating children for her perverted boyfriend to molest and photograph for his kiddie-porn business, the kids ranging in age from three months to 17 years old.
Yeah, that stuff makes me sick. Part of me would love to tell them to burn in Hell.
The fact is all three of these people are now children of God. Whether we like it or not.
Hell is what they deserve, for sure, but isn’t that true for all of us? My job is to treat them as human beings, and beyond that, as “students” and not “prisoners.” I am tasked with helping them, not judging them.
I understand the anger toward prisoners, I really do. Even as I write this, I have a cousin who has been missing for nearly a week. We’re hoping for the best, but, try as we might, are bracing ourselves for the worst.
So, will I have my same opinion if, God forbid, something ghastly has happened to my family member?
Not at first, no. But it’s my job as a Christian to work toward forgiveness, no matter how difficult it is.
Thankfully I don’t have to worry about that yet, and hopefully never will. Time shall tell.
For now, I’m gearing myself up for a visit to Montana State Prison, where I have the honor of being the keynote speaker at a Commencement Ceremony for a couple of students who have earned college diplomas.
They’re both repentant, convicted murderers, and are so very thankful for all the help we’ve given them.
This absolutely does NOT make up for the evil they committed, but at least they’re trying to make the most out of the terrible hole they dug for themselves. Both have friends and family who have turned their backs on them, and won’t drive across town to see them. Thus, a visit from someone halfway across the country is a thrill.
For me, that’s as good is it gets. There’s a grand amount of gross malevolence in this world, but it helps me to even things out in my spirit to help those who seek to help themselves. I’m content with handing each of these two men a well-deserved diploma, giving them a hug and telling them how proud I am of them.
“Then the King will turn to those on his right and say, ‘You have a special place in my Father’s heart. Come and experience the full inheritance of the kingdom realm that has been destined for you from before the foundation of the world! When I was sick, you tenderly cared for me, and when I was in prison you visited me.’
Then the godly will answer him, ‘Lord, when…did we see you sick and tenderly care for you, or in prison and visit you?’
And the King will answer them, ‘Don’t you know? When you cared for one of the least important of these my little ones, my true brothers and sisters, you demonstrated love for me.’ (from Matthew 25)”