Could people of faith be the answer?

Prison reform, prison overcrowding, funding for new prison facilities, prison problems, prisons, prisons, prisons — we’ve heard it, read about it and watched the news clips on it until we can’t process it any more. 

I’m not sure many people even notice the media reports, legislative debates and pleas for help any longer. They have become white noise nagging at our consciences but easy enough to ignore if we aren’t personally affected. Plus when it comes down to it, the numbers, options for help and degree of hopelessness are all truly overwhelming.

But if we as Christians believe what we say we believe about the gospel, about grace, about forgiveness, about being a new creation in Christ, then why are we not walking alongside every single inmate striving to truly change? Why are we not knocking down the prison gates trying to make a difference?

Yes, discernment, appropriate boundaries and wisdom are needed in this area. Learning the dos and don’ts are a must. 

But with nearly 1 million names on the rolls of the more than 3,200 Alabama Baptist churches, what type of reforms would naturally take place in the correctional system if every church was intentional about making a difference? If every church decided to focus on even one specific item needed by one specific chaplain at one specific prison facility? If each church saw the closest prison facility to them as a missions field?

Grace and forgiveness

What if church members prayed for those in prison by name? What if volunteers from the churches consistently showed kindness to those behind bars, sharing the gospel with unbelievers and encouraging believers? What if they intentionally built relationships, sincere relationships, with those on the inside?

And what if churches became an immediate and automatic support system for those in their congregations who have a family member in prison or jail? What if the church culture was a safe place without fear of shame for those families as they shoulder the pain and daily difficulties of having an incarcerated family member? 

What if those same churches encouraged, mentored, loved on and discipled the incarcerated men and women who are seeking forgiveness and grace? And what if the church was present during court hearings, on visitation days and when those returning citizens walked outside the prison gates?

The re-entry period is critical, prison ministry advocates contend. Attempting to transition from behind bars alone most often is disastrous, they say, noting reports and statistics that prove the greater the support system, the greater the chance of becoming a positive, contributing member of society.

With more than half of those released from prison returning for parole violations or new crimes, it seems logical that an easy place to start on solving the overcrowding problem is at re-entry.

The federal government agrees, said a Prison Fellowship representative, noting billions of dollars a year go into re-entry programs. But the money, which is funded by taxpayers, is basically wasted when there’s no one to walk with and mentor the returning citizen. He described it like teaching someone to drive, giving them the tools to build a car and helping them build it, but then forgetting to provide a road on which to drive.

“We’ve got to provide the opportunity for people to know what they owe, pay it, be accountable … and live in a world where punishment has an end, where men and women with a criminal record are valued and can give back to their communities at their highest potential,” he said.

—Jennifer Davis Rash

Hooyah says it all

I struggle to remember the various team names of my nephews and nieces, but I’m convinced I will never forget the Wild Boars youth soccer team from Thailand’s Chiang Rai province — a group of kids I had never heard of before June 23. I’m guessing you know them now too.

The latest extraordinary survival story truly captured the heart of a global audience. And the ability and willingness of a community to share the story through the news media and various social media outlets as it unfolded allowed all of us to be up close and personal with the situation.

Thai cave boys 

Thai Cave boys screen grab

Thai cave boys when they were discovered alive by two British divers July 1, 2018. (Screen grab from video shared with news media outlets)

Twelve boys and their coach — the Thai cave boys as they are known — became our nephews, our sons, our grandsons, our neighbor’s kids and our students. It didn’t matter how or why they were in that cave; all that mattered was that they all came out alive.

Rescuers, medical personnel, governmental leaders and other experts focused and showcased crisis management at its best. The odds were stacked against the operation and the loss of 38-year-old former Navy Seal diver Lieutenant Commander Saman Gunan in the operation reminded a watching world just how impossible the mission seemed.

It’s no surprise the Thai Navy Seals posted on Facebook when it was all over: “We are not sure if this is a miracle, science, or what.”

World showed up

People from around the world showed up to give everything they had to pull the rescue mission off. A glimmer of hope remained despite the constant obstacles — more rain coming, oxygen levels dropping, boys can’t swim, navigating route out of cave treacherous even for experienced divers, etc., etc., etc.

But all involved were committed, invested and going to see the operation through until the end. They knew their individual assignments well and worked to deliver their best to the team and overall effort. Deep concern for the boys, fears of what could be, compassion for the families, sheer determination, a never-give-up attitude and a tightly clenched hold to pure hope unified the people and the effort. 

And while I am among the 1,727,707 people who have now visited the Thai Navy Seal Facebook page and add my own thumbs up to their Seals’ affirmative “#Hooyah” response to the mission, the effort also included an army of ordinary people who stepped up in the process.

Ordinary people, extraordinary effort

Media reports indicate individuals in the community found specific roles they could play to be productive and helpful. Some made sure access to food was easily available to the rescuers, strategists and media. Some used their own vehicles and gas to transport those leading the effort to where they needed to go in the area. Some even voluntarily cleaned the portable toilets — can you imagine the selfless nature of the sweet people who determined that is where they could best serve?

All of this certainly indicates a movie will be produced soon and the layers of story lines might prove difficult to narrow. I also sense a strong sermon series could be developed from what we all watched and felt for those nearly three weeks in late June and early July.

Two aspects I hope are included in whatever way this story becomes historically documented are:

—How the world came together and put aside differences to fight for, cheer on and pray for the boys, the rescuers, the families and the situation in general.

Media reports allowed all of us to remain front and center, be informed, know how to pray, understand the situation and determine what roles we could play. We focused on the situation and the overall goal — not worrying about which news media brought us the story or calling each other names, not pushing our own agendas in the midst of a crisis, not determining someone’s political alignment or faith background before stepping up to do the right thing, instead basically working together, showing compassion and understanding what really mattered in the moment.

—How the parents reached out to Coach Ake through the message they sent him in the cave. “Don’t blame yourself. … The mums and dads, none of them are angry at you,” the letter to the coach said. The parents said they were glad he was there, asked him to take care of their boys and made sure he knew they also were concerned about his safety.

What a showing of forgiveness and grace in the midst of what had to be many moments of fighting off their greatest fears.

—Jennifer Davis Rash

Walking the lonely path of regret

 

 

Regret — it can be a tortuous wave of despair that keeps on rolling over and over through our lives.

Whether it be one momentary lapse of good judgment or a season of unhealthy patterns that form the perfect storm, the actual event that leads to regret changes everything. And it is rarely ever a solo punch.

Most often the lives of everyone connected to the person suffering from regret are changed in some way — and some forever.

It is more than being disappointed about getting caught or offering false remorse for receiving negative pushback. It is a genuine feeling of repentance that grips us at the center of our soul.

Regret is a true feeling of remorse, deep repentance and extreme sadness over what has happened. You will know it when you see it. The humility, the despair, the brokenness seep from the person’s pores.

Surviving the initial blow, humiliation and blowback is the first step. And while that first step is hard the lonely journey that follows might be even harder for the truly repentant.

Space for grace

But brokenness leaves the regret-filled person with a choice just as it offers those around them an opportunity.

For the person walking through regret, it can provide a space for God to show us His grace in a way never experienced before. When we know more of the depth of our sin and brokenness, we can marvel even more at the unfathomable love and forgiveness offered to us through Christ.

Power in the pain

But we have to make that choice. We have to choose to let those painful memories drive us to worship and experience gratitude for our forgiveness. We have to choose to let our pain push us toward Christ and away from deeper sin.

And for people who are surrounding the person carrying regret, it’s a chance to remember God’s grace and remember our own sins too.

None of us is perfect. We all have the ability to dive headlong into sin. We have to call each other to right choices, but when someone is truly repentant, we can choose to walk alongside our broken brother or sister in love.

That’s who we are. We strive for holiness. We repent with sincere hearts. We bind up our wounded. The key is real repentance — and real love.

—Jennifer Davis Rash

How did middle school become the ‘wild, wild West’?

Middle School

The depth of her pain broke my heart. There wasn’t anything I could do but listen so that’s what I did — then I prayed.

I continue to pray because her wounds are deep. I’m talking affect-you-for-the-rest-of-your-life deep.

Her parents and grandparents are doing everything they know to do to help her. She is loved. She is talented. She is beautiful inside and out, and she has a sweet, compassionate heart but every day of her middle school life is a struggle.

And she isn’t alone.

Four other friends of mine are parents of middle schoolers who are fighting similar battles.

“Middle school is like the wild, wild west,” one friend said as she described the pressure kids experience from other kids as well as what they are being exposed to at such a young age. And suicide is discussed routinely and without reservation, she added.

Another friend was concerned about her daughter recently when she was being shunned by a particular group of girls. Winning the affection of this group was so important to my friend’s daughter that she started acting out trying to impress them.

My friend responded by taking her daughter’s phone away for a significant period of time. The daughter protested angrily at first but by the time the punishment was over she had calmed down and returned to her true nature. She even started hanging out with the family again — and actually enjoyed it.

Connected 24/7

Other friends have noted similar situations and how limiting their kids’ time on phones and social media has made a difference in various areas of concern.

After all, they are connected to their friends 24/7, one friend commented. Not only do they never get a break from each other — and thus a break from the drama — but they also form a dependent community in which they seek guidance, solace and approval, she said.

As she talked, I wondered if the consistent late night texting and chatting could impair the kids’ ability to think clearly. Could it weaken their emotional state? Is it possible a little more sleep and a few hours away from the screens here and there could make those difficult middle school years a bit more bearable?

Whatever you do, don’t tell my nephews and nieces that I’m advocating limiting anyone’s phone time. I might lose my cool aunt status. 

But I am concerned about the emotional state of so many in this age group.

Will the intensity of the pain these middle schoolers are carrying lessen as they make their way to high school? Or will it finally become unbearable?

—Jennifer Davis Rash

How we define ourselves

 

Bennett 1

March 16, 2018; Charlotte, NC, USA; Virginia Cavaliers head coach Tony Bennett during the first half against the UMBC Retrievers in the first round of the 2018 NCAA Tournament at Spectrum Center. (Jeremy Brevard—USA TODAY Sports)

No excuses, no whining — Coach Tony Bennett of the University of Virginia Cavaliers calmly and respectfully gave props to the UMBC (University of Maryland, Baltimore County) team and coach for taking care of business.

“We got thoroughly out played,” Bennett said in the March 16 post-game interview about the Retrievers’ historic upset of the top-ranked Cavaliers. UMBC won 74–54 and became the first-ever No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1 seed in the NCAA men’s tournament.

Hats off to UMBC

Definitely the Cinderella story of this year’s March Madness, UMBC’s victory was the unlikely event that put the school on the map despite losing the next game in a nail biter to Kansas State on March 18.

Thousands of us became Retrievers’ fans, even if just for a weekend, and cheered for the obvious strength of character, pursuit of excellence and never-give-up attitude brilliantly showcased by this honors’ university team.

Our hats off to Coach Ryan Odom and the UMBC Retrievers.

Screen Shot 2018-03-18 at 9.59.50 PM

(Jennifer Davis Rash screen grab of UMBC’s Twitter page on March 18, 2018)

Making history

And on the other side of the court, kudos goes to Bennett in the way he handled the historic loss in the first round of the tournament.

“[This was] a historic season in terms of most wins in the ACC. A week ago we’re cutting down the nets and the confetti is falling,” he said March 16. “And then we make history by being the first one seed to lose.

“It stings,” he said. “I told the guys, ‘This is life. It can’t define you. You enjoyed the good times and you gotta be able to take the bad times. When you step into the arena, the consequences can be historic losses, tough losses, great wins, and you have to deal with it. That’s the job.’”

Bennett not only showed good sportsmanship, but also a well-rounded perspective on life — and he modeled this for the young men on his team as well as a nation of basketball fans watching it all play out.

That one moment

“It can’t define you,” he said.

How often do we allow one moment to define us — good or bad, win or lose — rather than the sum of all the moments, and how often do we do this to others?

In the movie “Sully,” Captain Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger, played by Tom Hanks, says, “I’ve delivered a million passengers over 40 years, but in the end I’m going to be judged by 208 seconds.”

He’s referring to the true story of his forced water landing on New York’s Hudson River on Jan. 15, 2009, when he saved the lives of all 155 aboard U.S. Airways Flight 1549.

In the end Sully’s legacy was untarnished and he was catapulted into American hero status but for about 48 hours he wasn’t sure how it would play out.

When life-changing moments occur

Every day we all move through our routines, doing what we are called and trained to do, making decisions to the best of our abilities (at least I hope we are all giving our best). And at any moment one of those decisions, or even a routine task, could put us in a win or lose situation.

Some moments are minimal and cause few waves but others are monumental and change life for everyone involved.

How the leader leads when those times come sets the tone for all who are following, and how the team responds influences the level of dignity, perseverance and value each individual maintains on the other side of those moments.

Summing up the slices

But they are still separate slices among an entire lifetime of countless slices. If we define ourselves by that one great achievement, then that is likely all we will ever be. And if we mark ourselves as a failure because of that one historic loss or bad decision, then we certainly won’t have the strength to move past it.

We must take the good with the bad, the wins with the losses, and learn from each experience. And in all situations we can hold on to the promise from 2 Corinthians 12 that in our weakness, the power of Christ is made perfect. We merely need to trust Him to work in and through us.

—Jennifer Davis Rash

Ever feel like you are letting everyone down?

Keeping count of the number of friends and family who feel they are letting everyone around them down can no longer be done with my fingers. I’m not sure what has so many stuck in this season right now but it is a feeling I fight from time to time myself.

I’ve determined it is never quite as extreme as it seems but when the feeling hits, it is hard not to believe it is every bit as bad as it feels.

When I experience the “letting everyone down” moment, I am typically overwhelmed.

Because high expectations and countless requests are part of my everyday life, I count it a success that most days I can bounce between them all — whether successfully or not — with energy and a smile.

But some days are different. What changes when the routine becomes discouraging?

For me, I am more vulnerable and emotional when I’m overly committed, tired, not exercising and spending too little time in God’s Word.

But even then I don’t tend to move into the “letting everyone down” mode until I begin sensing disappointment from those closest to me that I’m not focused on them enough. It might mean I’m not physically present; it might mean I’m not in tune emotionally; it might mean I’m not doing enough to help out.

Can be crippling

I can’t speak for others nor have I done any research to truly understand where they are and what they are facing, but I know how they are feeling and understand the crippling nature of where it leads.

As for my journey, I’ve determined what I’m sensing in those moments is my own guilt and disappointment in myself. I truly want to be present for everyone in my life and I want to be caring and helpful at all points but sometimes there are more needs than I can handle alone.

It is always hard for me to not step up, jump in or assist. It’s equally as hard for me to admit I’m not always the best or right choice to help and, in some cases, that I’m already overcommitted and can’t add another item to the list.

Working through it

But what about the unexpected serious needs that arise, those things we absolutely know need our attention?

Those are the times we do what we have to do and figure it out in the mix of it all. And we continuously work to build margin in our lives so there’s wiggle room in our schedules to handle the unexpected without taking us down in the process.

Remembering to share the load is another good choice to make. It may mean one person gets more credit than another. It may mean some roles are more popular than others. But if we can humble ourselves to do what needs to be done and not worry about who gets to do what or who gets credit, then we can be a powerful force of assistance in taking care of the need at hand.

I expect a lot of myself and others. Others expect a lot of me. I’m thankful for that because I do believe high expectations keep us sharp, growing and doing our best.

Prioritizing expectations

At the same time, I’m still learning how to prioritize the expectations so those who should be receiving the best of me aren’t getting the leftovers.

I’m also working to give a gift to those in my life I sense are overwhelmed by being super selective about what I ask of them. I’ve decided not to be a person who is only focused on clearing my own to-do list each day.

Instead I want to find something I can do every day to make someone else’s load a little bit lighter (preferably something unexpected) while also being realistic with the load I’m choosing to carry. And with helping someone else comes a bonus blessing that chips away at any discouragement that might be looming — for in that moment I’m lifting others up rather than letting them down.

—Jennifer Davis Rash

Why justify less than our best?

Sunset Ecclesiastes 9_10 says, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.”chaser

Justification is an interesting action. Have you ever noticed how much you justify to yourself or others why you did or didn’t do something?

My moments of justification tend to focus on why I failed to follow through with a commitment I made. It might be a commitment to myself to exercise routinely or get more rest. It might be a commitment to someone else that I would take care of a project or task by a certain time frame.

Because I’m extremely skilled at justifying my own actions, I always notice when others are justifying their actions as well.

Recently I heard a friend note that he knew he wasn’t giving a client his best work but because he had agreed to do the work at a reduced price he felt justified in delivering less than his best.

The more I thought about his reasoning, the more it bothered me.

The saying “you get what you pay for” is true in many cases, but I would hope that we as believers would always give our absolute best in all that we do, even when we aren’t getting paid what we think we might be worth.

‘With all your heart’

Scripture is clear about doing our best in all that we do.

Colossians 3:23–24 says, “Whatever you do work at it with all your heart. … It is the Lord Christ you are serving.”

First Corinthians 10:31 says, “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”

Romans 12:11 says, “Never be lazy in your work but serve the Lord enthusiastically.”

Galatians 6:9 says to never tire of doing good.

Second Timothy 2:15 reminds us to present ourselves to God “as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.”

And Ecclesiastes 9:10 says, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.”

Keeping our focus on Christ and seeking to be more like Him would demand a pursuit of excellence on our part, especially excellence of character and how we behave.

Soul searching

Representing Christ as a believer should mean we are aware if our lives are truly mirroring Him or not. We should always work to show grace and love while standing on truth.

If we are not able to give our best to all that we do as we journey through this life representing our Lord and Savior, then we really should do some soul searching and self-evaluation — eh hem, talking to myself here.

Certainly there are seasons and times when we have no choice but to give second best — and even to fail — but those moments should be because of situations out of our control not because we don’t care. And they shouldn’t happen because we are selfishly leaving the work for someone else to do.

We must find ways to reduce the demands on our lives so we can be in top form for those depending on us, and we must help each other in the process.

What does it say about our relationship with Christ and the condition of our heart if we purposefully agree to a job or task knowing we never intend to provide quality results or service? How do we justify such actions?

And how easy will it be to make a similar choice next time once we lower our standards and expectations of ourselves?

How far could we go down this path before we don’t even remember what our best looks like?

—Jennifer Davis Rash