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Finding God in times of trouble

Jail time: 'Often, the most productive soil in a man or woman's existence has been developed while in prison,' writes Dr Philip Brownell in today's Crossroads column.

Occasionally I conduct assessments on individuals for the courts. These usually involve some kind of intellectual evaluation coupled with personality assessment so as to ascertain capacities, functional abilities, and psychological health. Often I never find out what happened to the person after I send my report to the court. On occasion I read something in the newspaper.About this time three years ago I was working with a man facing the possibility of considerable time in prison. He had indicated that through the struggle of dealing with what he had done and the legal consequences that might ensue he had begun to put his trust in God.One frequently wonders about such conversions. Is the person in question simply attempting to avoid the consequences? Do they think that if they tell others that they have been “born again” and are a new person in Christ that either they no longer bear any responsibility for what the “old” person did or that they can be trusted not to do something like that in the future? Is their rehabilitation complete, and there is no longer any need for prison? Is that what they think?Is that what I think?I don't think that. I think people can change, obviously (or why would I be in the business of trying to help people change?) However, I think the situation is more complex.When I look around and see terrible things happening, I attribute them to the presence of sin in this world, but not in some abstract way, as if sin were a fog that floats in the air and descends upon people here and there making them do crazy things they would not otherwise do. Rather, I think sin is embodied in the same way that virtue and godliness are visible through the actions, the behaviour of people. Whole people exhibit goodness and badness. It's what we do that speaks about what we are inside. As Jesus said, it's not what goes into the person that defiles him (by eating this or that), but what comes out of the person (in what is said or done).It may be true that the heart of a person can be changed through conversion, but it is not true that the consequences of his or her actions can be wiped out simply because the person regrets what he or she has done. If you run over a man on his bike by speeding down Middle Road, and you see what you've done and fall down on your knees weeping and calling out to God, “Oh, God, forgive me for my selfishness and carelessness and lack of consideration for others,” God can forgive. However, as soon as you open your eyes from that prayer, the bike is still crushed under your car, and the man is still broken from the impact.The consequences of our sin go on and on like echoes down a barren canyon. Sometimes they mostly concern our own selves, but many times they include what we have done to others.This is why I am usually not very impressed with jailhouse conversions. They are at best only the beginning of a story. That story includes many and progressive revelations to the perpetrator about what he or she has actually done and about the consequences of his or her actions for other people. That story often includes the fact that the judicial system convicts someone and sends him or her to prison based on what law has been broken. I think one of the best examples of how consequences still accrue when a person lives under such a system of laws is how then Governor George Bush, himself a born-again Christian, did not commute the death sentences of several people who were guilty of capital crime simply because they became born again. Both he and they were caught up in the web of consequences that was spun when they murdered someone.So, in the course of events, three years after evaluating my client, I found myself standing inside Westgate Prison, participating in a Christmas celebration for some inmates and their families. Prison Fellowship, the Department of Corrections, and the AME church sponsored it. Many children were bouncing around with anticipation while their fathers visited with their mothers. The Christmas tree had presents in numerous bags underneath it, and someone dressed up like Santa Claus was reading off the names of children so they could come up, receive their gift, and have their picture taken with Santa. Food was being put out. Livio Ferigo, of Bonefish, and Amici's in Dockyard had donated a hundred pizzas. Others had made spaghetti and vegetables, and there were cupcakes and cookies. Although somewhat chaotic, it was a time of excitement for the children and a sweet break for the inmates.That is when my former client walked up to me and the light of recognition went off in my head. Suddenly, we embraced one another. His face was bright with happiness. It reminded me of what C.S. Lewis called “joy”. He exuded a sense of peace. My former client had not lost ground. He had found himself all the more certainly through the grace of God precisely in the consequences of his sin.I remembered telling him when we had met, before he went to court, that God might just have in mind a purpose for him inside of prison rather than outside. The apostle Paul spent a considerable portion of his ministry in custody of one sort or another. It was for a different reason, but the experience of being in prison does not have to be a waste of a life. Often, the most productive soil in a man or woman's existence has been developed while in prison. Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn wrote about his experiences in the gulag, the Soviet Union's forced labour camps. Nelson Mandela developed his philosophy while in custody of the Apartheid government in South Africa. Both men had an effect on the people they encountered while in prison, and Paul spoke with the Praetorian Guard concerning his understanding of Jesus.I am happy to know that the conversion of my former client was a real one. God is working out a purpose for his life, and one entirely consistent with the way He works in all our lives. It makes my Christmas richer. I went inside Westgate to help pass out gifts to others, but I received an unexpected gift myself.