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

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

The humbling nature of the fruit

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

“I honestly believe if we would do more praying and less criticizing we would have a better nation,” Southern Baptist Convention President Steve Gaines said Feb. 14.

Speaking to a group of writers, editors and communicators, Gaines shared how at 60 he can look back now and see he has grown in this area himself.

“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten kinder,” he said. “(I want to be) prudent, wise and merciful.

“I used to be a little bit more hard than I am now. … A lot of it is how you see the people you are preaching to. I no longer see them as rebels who need to repent. I see them as people who are hurting and need to be set free.”

Gaines added, “If we are filled with the Spirit, it is the fruit of the Spirit that is going to come out.”

As I listened to Gaines share that day, I recalled how the fruit of the Spirit outlined in Galatians 5:22–23 became a foundational Scripture for me as soon as I chose Jesus fully and completely at 19 years old.

I stray often but the simple, straightforward outline of qualities God desires for our lives to exhibit are always there to keep me grounded and bring me back when I slip — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Essential characteristics

The goal is for all of these characteristics to exist in our hearts.

I’ve heard some note how starting with love allows you to develop each of the traits, one building on the other.

I’ve also heard how they are not individual attributes in and of themselves, that they are all essential characteristics of the fruit and must all be present for there to be fruit.

It’s always humbling to me when I go back to Galatians and recenter on each of the nine and see where some are missing and the ripple effect that caused.

If we were to only consider the first one — love — because it is February, then we might think about the depth of what that means and how we are called to love our enemies as well as our friends.

Real kind of love

Some people are hard to love, it’s true. And even the ones who aren’t hard to love still come with complex natures and baggage that sometimes surface whether intentionally or unintentionally.

No matter the relationship, we aren’t called to a fake, syrupy kind of act but a true, sacrificial, real kind of love.

It’s certainly not possible in our own strength. We must see others through the eyes of Christ.

—Jennifer Davis Rash

Seeking a renewed prayerful heart

Prayer

During this past holiday season, my uncle shared a bit about his recent journey through an in-depth study of prayer.

He’s in his 70s and has been a believer for a long time but the experience of the past two years has renewed his joy and restored his heart in a way he said he has never felt.

I couldn’t help but be captivated by the emotion and authentic sense of closeness to our Lord he expressed.

The freshness of the Word as he reads Scripture, the new authors he has discovered and the books on the topic of prayer he has read have all given him a renewed excitement for communicating with God.

Assessing prayer life

As I processed what he shared, I was challenged to evaluate my own prayer life and asked myself questions such as:

•What does prayer look like in my life?

•Do I honestly and sincerely pray for every situation or person in which I say I will pray?

•Am I able to truly put concerns in the Lord’s hands first and then follow how He leads or do I try to help in my own way first and then pray as a last resort?

•Do I slow down to watch how God works in the situations going on around me?

•Am I in tune enough to notice what God is doing and how He uses us if we are available?

•Do I thank Him and praise Him even in the storms?

•What about the concept of praying without ceasing? Is that really possible? What does it look like?

Seriously, have you ever tried to pray without ceasing? It is hard work.

I experimented with the concept one day, praying for every face I saw, every name that popped in my email inbox, every voice I heard on the phone, everyone that came to mind.

And wow was I exhausted at the end of the day.

Granted, I didn’t pray long prayers but even spending the energy to pray for every single person and situation that passes through your day is an interesting exercise.

It definitely keeps you from fretting over unnecessary items, forces you to weed out frivolous thoughts and conversations and makes you aware of the many, many needs around you.

It also made me aware of just how many things I fail to pray for on any given day.

So as I’m making my goals for 2018 and hitting the ground running following the holidays, I’m working to keep focused, sincere prayer among my “must do” items each day — and remembering what Paul teaches us in 1 Corinthians 3, “only God gives the increase.”

—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