Monday, September 28, 2009

Isaiah 62:2

"...And you will be given a new name,
by the Lord's own mouth..."

Mark and I have done alot of praying and talking and dreaming and listening. I've talked to others in the community whom I've come to know well, other ministries and people that I believe could help me focus more clear on our path.

Sometimes walking in God's will means staying the course. Sometimes it means veering off the course you set and listening to a still small voice inside. This time it meant listening to others and watching Him begin the new work.

Mark and I have left FFSM and have created a new ministry; one that we hope glorifies God and works for the good of His chosen.

Spirit House Ministries was born last week and already we see His grace on what we want to do!

We've received our first contribution from community members; $500 to help create the legal entity and the IRS paperwork. This gesture alone makes us know we are headed in the right direction. These are not spendthrifts that throw their money around; they are savvy business men and women who give careful thought to whom they give and for what purposes.

We feel blessed and validated.

But even more important than this gesture of confidence was the gift we received from a group of male inmates at the Jester III unit this weekend.

Seven men, led by a man whom Mark and I have corresponded with and ministered to for over a year now sent us 60 US postage stamps out of their own personal commissary! They tithed to us! Several of the men involved wrote us notes and letters expressing their desire to support our efforts and to encourage us to continue helping their sisters in Christ. They reached into their own coffers, limited as they are and blessed us with their wealth. Each stamp represents a woman's name called at mail call, each stamp represents a sister in white who is seeking and loving the Lord.

This was no small gesture. Sure to the outside it is only $26.40 but it was all they had. So I wonder of all us out here who have $26.40, what are we willing to give up in order to reach out. Mark and I look at our pocketbooks and often decide against a dinner out to buy stamps or envelopes or printer ink. But tonight, while I'm mixing up some hamburger helper and wishing it was t-bone steak, I'll remember I could give the hamburger up too in order that a life be shared.

As I stare at those stamps on my desk, I am humbled. Living outside their walls, surely it is easier for me to do for these women, easier than what these men were willing to do and did!

So to Frank, Dale, Lee, Homero, Anselmo, Dave and Miguel - thank you for reminding me what it means to give and how giving should be with a joyful heart no matter its amount!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Panty hose and UPS

I'm not having a good day. Dishes are piled in the sink and the dishwasher is full and needing unloading. The health insurance company at Mark's work claims not have to received our marriage license to begin my coverage. The bed isn't made. The bathroom tub won't drain. I'm just not having a great day and I don't like this unsettled feeling that I haven't felt in many months.

It seems to be settling in on me like a slow moving fog; hanging around and changing how fast I can move or in what direction. It seems to slow me down in all areas of my life, I can't seem to just shake it off. I don't like it.

I've been staring at my bible study lessons that I need to finish for Thursday's class at church. I can't concentrate. I have five letters that need a response. I've nothing to say. I have to call UPS about a bill we should not have received and I need to put on my learner hat in order to attend ministry school tonight. Immobility is not an option and yet here I am feeling stuck in this chair, stuck in this place of no movement and I keep telling God how much I need that energy He was providing just a week ago....where are you!

I have a lot of work to do and I know much of it stems from the changes happening in the ministry and the call that Mark and I have been in prayer about. We know God is calling us to a level of service we've never experienced and though we feel ready and are excited, the details that have to happen to move forward are in a stalled mode waiting for decisions by others. This indecision mode leaves me feeling like the proverbial duck out of water. My little webbed feet take slow, awkward steps. I was built more for smooth swimming than trodding slowly along.

I just fought with the scanner/copier for over an hour to get our marriage license scanned and emailed off to Mark. That is the sum total of my accomplishments today and it's already 3PM. I have class at 6:30 and have yet to curl my hair or decide on appropriate clothes. As I type this I wonder if anyone cares if I'm struggling today.

Then I remember.

God cares.

He cares about my bad hair days and He cares about my losses. He cares if I am happy or sad or angry or serene. We heard Joyce Meyer speak about how she learned to even turn her panty hose over to the care of God and I realize she's right. The scanner can become cooperative with God's help. The insurance company can find documents and UPS can reverse an unjust bill with His direction.

God cares about the frustrations in my day and over and over He has proven that to me. I tried to start the day without Him. I need to go back to bed, pull my bible on my lap and have a chat. Then I'll start my day over, this time with God by my side.

I think it's going to be a pretty awesome day!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Purpose

I'm told that God often talks to us in our sleep. On nights like tonight I realize sometimes He keeps us awake for that chat. It's 5 AM and I have not been able to lay my head on my pillow. I am reminded of the women we serve who are not given pillows in prison, their hard steel bunks and thin hard mattresses with one sheet and one covering. My soft, warm bed is in the other room but God has me here, in front of my computer, talking to me.

He is reminding me of the blessing of my home, my health, my new friends, my work, my church. He has me looking around at the work piling up on my desk and the forms and letters that have needed attention for a while now. He nudges me. I pace my work and tackle today's problems today and tomorrow's problems tomorrow. I often tell Mark, "It'll all be here tomorrow to do, and new tasks besides. We can only do so much in a day."

Then I think of Lorainne and Raena and Patches. They describe their days beginning at 4:30 AM and going until lights out. They are assigned jobs; some day jobs, some night jobs. They have classes and chow and laundry and meds and a regimented schedule not left to their discretion. They are lined up and marched out. They are lined up and marched back in. Some spend hot days in the Texas sun hoeing fields and pulling up rocks for no apparent reason. Some are given jobs in the laundry room or chow hall. Some are given jobs in the boiler room and others are given desk jobs. There is little rest, little time for reading or writing their family. They manage quick letters in and out. The purpose in their lives directed by prison guards.

And I recall my days in county jail, where we were awakened at 4:30 AM, fed and let go back to sleep til chow call at 11AM. One generally tried to sleep again after basically killing time until chow at 4:30 again. Med calls in between but otherwise you were either on your bunk or at a dayroom table trying to watch a tv you could not hear. You were lined up at the cell door for chow and meds; cattle rustled up and back into the corral. No tasks, no classes, no real reason to be awake. Many women chose to be seen by medical so they could be given Seroquil or other mood stabilizers which allowed them to sleep 16 hours in a day. I remember those days of purposelessness.

But God has a purpose for each of us. In the night or day He reveals to each of us our direction in order to walk in His will for our lives. "For we are God's masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things He planned for us long ago." (Eph. 2:16) Tonight, with no one prodding my schedule and no one directing my tasks I am alone to listen to Him. He chose to keep me awake in order to focus my attention and call me to task.

I'm listening God.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

God is good

Mark and I have been struggling this week with some major decisions. I've been in tears and he's been in quiet reflection and we've both been bent in prayer, separately and together to seek the Lord's guidance. Again today I am amazed (and I find myself using that word so much but my vocabulary fails me for another) how quickly He is to respond to us.

As I began this blog Mark has encouraged me to begin writing or rather finish writing the manuscript from which this blog was birthed; I being the consummate procrastinator and working best under deadline or pressure have been putting this off. I talked to others about it and even tried to run some basic ideas by a trusted clergy and was quickly shut down so I really questioned whether I was wasting my time or in the real presence of the Lord on this. Yet the Lord was tugging at us that He had new things in store for us and the ministry we dreamed of seeing come to fruition needed new life and new vision. We spent so much of our time marketing and building community awareness of the ministry that the business of the ministry took over the ministry itself so we were anxious to hear what God truly has in mind.

Today I received my answer, and Mark his validation. Out of a desperate plea for guidance I wrote another gentleman who has stepped out in faith with his wife to begin their life in ministry with literally no means of support and no certain vision but a call on their hearts. I emailed him late last night and thought little of it. To my surprise, God has His own special way of using our errant actions for His purpose and I received a call from Jim, much to my surprise!

We talked as though we had been lifelong friends and he shared with me his wisdom as a faithful believer and his experience in his ministry both here and abroad. He encouraged me as a new believer and as a child of God. A stranger, all the way down in Florida, reached through the phone and took hold of my hand and relayed a message from God that he could not have otherwise understood.

God uses us all to touch the hearts, encourage the spirit and calm the souls of each other wherever they are. He is an amazing God that takes a simple email and turns it into a new friendship. He releases us from bondages we had no way of seeing and delivering us from directions that are not our path.

I called my friend, Elizabeth tonight and just hearing her voice and her warmth and understanding reminded me that Mark and I have friends that are our family and we are never alone because God's family is so large and so close no matter the distance of their address.

I'm waiting for Mark to get home and for Elizabeth to call back once her business dinner meeting is over. I wait to share the Lord's grace in our lives again and I am ready to take on the tasks He and only He directs me to do. It is so trite sometimes to hear but I cannot help it, God is good, ALL the time.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Phillippians 4:13

Saturday morning was one of those days I could have stayed in bed all day with a good book and a large cold soda by my side. The rain pelted down, steady and cool leaving everything outside bathed in a crispy cleanness. It was delicious. But I had made a promise in my heart, therefore a promise to God that I would visit at least one of the women in Gatesville and so I pulled myself out of the warm blankets, off the pile of perfectly molded pillows to dress and head north.

My first priority was my dear friend Patches who served time with me in County jail so we had a long history. She saw me in my early days in Q pod and watched my torment first hand. She saw my heart bleed and soul cry out and tried to reach out to me even when I would have none of it.

I was worried about getting in to see her though because she had mistakenly listed me under my married name even though I cannot assume that name legally at this point in my probation so I knew there might be hitch to getting in for this visit. But I headed out armed with God and my marriage license and the names and TDC numbers of two other women just in case. And of course, if all else failed, I could go see our "favorite" as she refers to herself, Raena.

When I got there, prayed up on the trip, the Sargeant on duty carefully considered my documents and not only allowed the visit but had the desk guard change my information to that which was correct so I would have easy access in the future. The grace of God was all over the morning.

Patches, wiping the sleep from her eyes, looked tired and frail. She is thin, too thin. Her eyes are dull with pain and weariness. She is glad to see me but cannot muster the energy really to start talking and says, "Just tell me everything going on with you." We haven't see each other in over a year as she fled our housing and ultimately was led to a life on the streets and then back in jail where I find her now.

She needed to talk and I needed to see her. She is tormented by her marriage and a husband who has failed her as badly as she has failed herself. She is fearful of her future despite her deep belief that God is good. She still suffers from the ravages of a past that tells her she is not worthy. We shared two fast hours of fellowship and prayer and tears and praise reports. The Lord was clearly in us and with us though as we left with unfinished stories and things to talk about. I am reminded I must today sit down and write her but it was a blessing of a visit and as always I came home energized knowing that what we attempt to accomplish, we can in Christ, always in Him and He burdens our hearts so we continue

My next visit was hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. I had taken two other women's names with me but with time for only one more visit, how do I choose? I pondered who for only a minute and chose the woman I was pretty sure had few to visit her and headed toward the Hilltop Unit. The rain continued to come down but my spirits were not dampened even as I stood outside the trusty gate and awaited entrance. Both my hair and the little blue entrance sheet were tattered by the time the guard pat searched and wanded me but I never the less was to finally sit across from Lorainne.

I had never met her.

I had written Lorainne for over two years now, exchanging letters and hopes and dreams. Lamenting our pasts and hoping in our futures in the Lord. She is a joyously victorious woman in Christ and my sister. That's what she calls me, her sister in Christ and refers to Mark as her brother in law in Christ. I know her to be energetic and vibrant and spirit filled. Her letters always make me feel special, make me laugh and make me think. I've enjoyed talking with her even when I haven't been in touch enough!

But to my surprise as I sat in that room awaiting her arrival, down sat an African American girl with soft brown eyes who will turn 42 but looked about 20, a wide grin and giggle. In all this time I had never pictured Lorainne as black but what a delight to see her smile at me as she realized my surprise! What sisters we are, my pale red head complexion against her warm brown skin as we hold hands across the table and say our very first hellos. She is quick to spill forth a praise report. Her 91 year old father's visit from Oklahoma as he said the very words she'd waited her lifetime to hear, "I don't care what you have done, I'm behind you 100% and I love you." Her medical review telling her that her HIV was "undetectable" and she smiled as she said "They don't know why but I do!" She had received her GED just last month, finally I had written after several months of silence and then bam, here I was to delight her day as she said. We spent a quick hour and a half talking about her plans, her hopes for parole in 2010 and her many blessings, we shared our busy days and our obstacles and our frustrations as though we were co workers in some office somewhere and not surrounded by gnarly guards and guns. We shared conversations and sodas and chips as though we were sitting in my living room and the time passed far too fast. Before we parted she asked twice when she would see me next. Laughing she asked if it would take another year and I assured her no!

As I walked to my car I heard my name and turned to see her waving as she walked back to her dorm. The sun hadn't quite come out but the rain had stopped and I unlocked my car to wonder at the grace of God; the visits He orchestrated today and the freedom in which I entered my car to leave, knowing it could have been me behind these barbed wire fences.

Grace, God's beautiful and restful grace was present in my life and in my heart. And again, He found a way to minister to my spirit while I attempted to minister to others, I am reminded how little I can do without Him. Then I am reminded "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." (Phil. 4:13)

Friday, September 11, 2009

Be still

I received a letter today from a woman whom I've written for over two years now. It was a short one page letter and I've stared at the screen for quite a while trying to come up with words to respond to her. I'm speechless. My heart is aching but my mind is numb.

She is scheduled to be released in a few short days and she has no where to go. I cannot get a letter to her in time so I can at least pick her up and the Chaplain will not return our calls. Our housing is full to capacity and my heart is in my throat as I watch another woman being released with a bus ticket and a $50 check. She has no clothes, no place to lay down her first night and she is to make it in the world with no one beside her. I don't know if she has found a halfway house yet. Her letter says, "I should be released this month. It's my target month. I have completed everything they told me to. I haven't heard anything since I got my answer in November. I have no one to call and find out. It doesn't matter at this point. Things will be the same - bumming, pathetic and alone. Some things never change."

She is defeated. She is facing a life she doesn't want to return to and yet, her solutions look no different than her life four years before.

"Where are you God?" I ask as I rack my brain for a solution. I'm overwrought and without power. I am helpless. She is helpless. I have tried for two years to be light and salt in the world and I am reduced to feeling as though my hollow words were just that in her life. As I read her letter I am defeated. I feel sad and worry takes over.

Then I know there is little I can do but let God take over. Psalms 46:10 says "Be still and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations. I will be exalted in the earth." (NIV) The NAS version says "Cease striving and know that I am God..." and the GWT says it this way, "Let go [of your concerns]! Then you will know that I am God. I rule the nations. I rule the earth."

I am still.

Tonight I can lift this woman up in prayer and I can reflect back on my own dark days in county when I knew all that faced me was a Salvation Army shelter and hard days walking the streets. When God didn't walk with me and I didn't know Him my thoughts were dark. When life had little to offer and I was helpless alone I could not hear Him.

And yet I know this precious child of God, defeated now, can be delivered and in her deliverance God can be glorified.

Monday will be a crazy day I'm sure as I begin calling again and working the solutions God rests on my heart to pursue but for now....I need be still, to hear His voice.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

When choices hurt

I sat next to Hannah*, sharing a moment of quiet as she read my bible and I looked at pictures from another table mate. I was inside the Halbert Unit in Burnet, TX with Mike Barber Ministries as a counselor; an opportunity to take in the Word of God to more women serving time in our Texas prisons. These women, all serving for a drug related offense were in a Substance Abuse Felony Prison for 6-9 months. They shared a common history with one another; it was amazing the common history we shared as well.

Hannah had asked if she could read my bible, so I slid it across to her as I was handed pictures from another inmate. As I sat sharing the pictures with another woman, smiling as she showed off her parrot, her cat, the trailer house her mother lived in where she would return once released and the flowers out front she had planted last Spring, I heard a gasp from Hannah. She quickly slide the Bible away from herself and said, "What is that doing in there?"

My bible, the one I was given during my tenure at County Jail, was a Students Life Application Bible and contained small boxes called "life application notes" and in bold orange letters were written the word "abortion". They seemed to float off the page and bounce between us, taunting Hannah and lingering there without excuse.

"Well," I said, "Let's take a look at what it says."

Hannah was unwilling to take the Bible back in her hands. I knew in a moment she felt convicted, the shame seemed to wash over her face like a tidal wave; salty and warm but not comforting at all. Overpowering. As though she would be washed out to sea and forgotten.

"Why is it in there? Why was that the first page that opened?" I suddenly realized she felt a mystical voice was trying to reach out from the pages and condemn her.

"My guess is it opened easily to that page because I spent so much time there myself."

She slumped back in her chair and just looked at me.

Together we read Psalms 139:13-16 and she stared at the words "beautifully and wonderfully made".

"This is what makes me know God doesn't love me. I killed my baby. I hurt something He made. I had an abortion and things have been bad ever since."

"Do you really think God condemned you of this, Hannah?" She nodded her head, her small braids bobbing on her head in agreement, her eyes wide with fear. If there were any time that I truly have felt the Holy Spirit take over my words I think it was in this moment and I knew there was a reason, God's orchestration, that I sat at this table.

"Hannah, have you asked God to forgive you?" Again she bobbed her head yes. "Then surely as we can stand on His word, it is done. He has forgiven you and forgotten that sin; it is said your sins are as far from you as the east is to the west."

She listened as the words continued to pour forth. "Just as I have asked God to forgive me for my abortion some 30 years ago, and just as surely as you have, He, in His glorious wonder has forgiven us. Believing in our own salvation and forgiveness in His eyes is the very foundation of our faith, isn't it?" She blinked and flashed a small half grin at me. "I know He forgives you and I know He forgives me. I am so grateful for that!"

She shook her head now not taking her eyes from the Bible laying between us.

"I know God forgives," she said.

"Then when will you forgive yourself Hannah?"

Sometimes quiet is a comfort and in this moment Hannah was taking in the quiet comfort of what God wanted her to know. He knew she struggled so with an old decision He had already handled and He let us just sit with His forgiving grace in fellowship with one another.

"That's it, isn't it? It's all me. I'm the one condemning me now. I'm the one hurting myself because I hurt my baby. He's...He's not mad at me anymore." We smiled at one another and the dinner sound was called. I rose from the table to walk out with my other counselors so the inmates could be lined in the hall. "You'll come back and talk to me, won't you?"

"Of course," I smiled and walked off, so amazed at how God can take over a conversation and handle what I am ill-equipped to do.

Hannah and I spent the rest of the weekend together, talking and enjoying one anothers company. We had women join us as we talked and talked. They would see our lively and constant conversation and want to be a part of it. All the while God was gently working with Hannah on past choices and she was learning to give even those hurtful choices to God to fix for her. She was letting go of guilt and shame and torment so God could weave His love in her heart and I knew, no matter how her life had gone God was letting her know He forgave her and she was worthy of His love.

I've thought about Hannah often since that day in the dayroom of the Halbert Unit. I've had many opportunities to reflect on my choices and the choices we watch the women make as they walk out the doors of their prison. Some repeat the old choices and find the same results at the end; others make new choices that seem so uncomfortable at first but somehow don't seem to land them back in bad circumstances. But God put a new lesson on my heart that day, even the most hurtful choices I've made, God had a solution for them. He would fix what I had muddled and do it in a way that could only scream His artistry at work. He would use my worst mistakes for His glory so everyone could see His powerful love.

I'm grateful I can rely on Him and the stronger I grow in faith, the more I can rely on His word to direct my new choices. He gives us ample direction in the Bible and in the life of Jesus. He helps us understand wise direction and destructive folly. He has provided us a blueprint for life if we will simly open our hearts to hear. Much of the pain we live through could have been avoided had we only sought His wisdom first but even when we don't, He is always there when we call His name. Ready to heal broken hearts, forgive sinners and raise us up to Him in Glory on the day He returns. Our futures are bright despite our best attemps otherwise because of His plans for us.

As for the past, I gave that to God.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Prayer matters

Everyone asks about prayer. Am I praying right? Why aren't my prayers answered? Am I supposed to say something special? Should I be on my knees? Should I close my eyes? Does prayer work? Does prayer even matter?

I won't speak from a place of authority or all knowledge, heaven help me, I don't know what the right or perfect prayer might look or sound like but I do know prayer works. Even my stumble through the words, become speechless, big sigh prayers work so I know yours do too.

Oh I have as many stories as you do, about prayers that seemed to go unanswered. Prayers for healing and jobs and loneliness and relationships. I've prayed probably all the same prayers. I prayed as a Christian and as a non-believer (don't let anyone tell you that non-believers don't pray, I sure did just in case....) Some answers were crystal clear, other prayers seemed to fall on deaf ears. And I tried them all, on my knees, in a quiet room, with my eyes closed and with them open. I prayed while driving, cooking, watching a movie. I prayed for myself and I prayed for others.

And with all this praying I was constantly trying to figure out the right way.

As I knelt by my bed the night before I was arrested, I was down there praying that I not be arrested, that I get away with my crime and in that prayer I promised never to do what I had done ever again. Whew! I was safe, right?

Well on the other side of prayer is our Lord. He listens and He considers and in His perfect knowledge and justice and love He works in our life that which will do the most for us in His will for us. He cares for us in ways we generally don't understand or cannot see as was the case the night I prayed for His protection literally from myself! And then sometimes His care is all over a situation and cannot be denied as it was as I prayed for the care of my children and for a safe place to go after I was released.

Now as I look back on my life, and all the prayers I've said and all the promises I've made to God during my life I realize as a believer or non-believer He still cared for me and loved me so deeply. Even with my back turned from Him He still tried to reach me through His love and provision. The night on my knees He heard me. He knew what was best for me and He knew that He had the chance to work in my heart if I were to be stilled for just a short while. Looking back now I see all the ways He was constant and present in my life despite myself and I have to give the glory to Him!

Prayer is a complicated matter; it involves His will and plan for each of us, His timing which we seldom understand and so much more we cannot know. But prayer is also a simple matter involving a plea to our heavenly Father who listens and considers. It's a conversation of the heart. Its a time of Thanksgiving and gratitude. It's a time of worship and wonder. It can be a thought, an audible conversation, a song. Or it can be just a chat we have with the One who will and can do and is in constant control. It is most defintely a constant part of a life in Christ. And yes, prayer matters.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Dirty laundry

I have boxes and boxes of old clothes out in the garage. My clothes. My kids old clothes. Boxes of them. I've kept them and moved them more times than I should admit. Mark is patient about them, he knows they are part of the letting go of the past part of my life that God is still working on with me.

God and I both know that as I move closer to Him I have less need of the past but still He allows me to cling on to some of the dirty laundry until I just don't need to anymore.

Some of it I can clean, renew, refresh and use again. But much of it has to be just tossed. Putting my new heart and body in old clothes of the past with remnants of a different life would be much like the pouring of new wine in old wine skins. God has transformed my life, my heart, the very essence of who I am; cleansed me anew. I need to respect that. Pouring myself back into old clothes that reflect a lifestyle not in tune with my walk with God today is becoming easier and easier.

I was out in the garage last night sorting through many of the clothes I used to wear, clothes that screamed for attention and perhaps were purchased only to provoke a glance. I came across a pair of shorts that I held up to Mark.

"Do you think if I can fit into these again, I should wear them?" I asked.

"Well, not outside anyway," my husband replied.

I tossed them in the trash along with many of the old reasons I would have purchased much of what is stored in those boxes.

The dirty laundry out in the garage, crammed in broken, worn out boxes, all represent a life past. Now I'm just working with God on getting the courage to quit sorting and just toss. Old wineskins shouldn't be given a chance to ruin new wine.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Holding on

In writing this blog I find myself returning over and over to memories of my time behind bars. I was so lucky, I spent six short months in a county jail, not far from my home and familiar surroundings. I knew out there somewhere were my wordly possessions that my family had preserved for me in a storgae unit and someday, with God's help I would have a place to set up my bed, arrange my books and hang my clothes. It was a comfort to me. It gave me reason to hope and something of mine to look forward to someday.

Many of the women we work with have lost everything; and while I felt I had as well, the rock bottom losses many face are beyond what I think I might have been able to endure. When Mark and I married in the Spring of '08 I unloaded my entire two storage units to set up house. We had everything we needed; dishes, pots and pans, couches, chairs, desks, dressers. A complete house. I hung my unpacked wardrobe in my closet and stacked dishes in cabinets. Within a couple weeks we were moved in and settled.

But often I am asked to transfer a woman's "property" to her family or friends as she is moved to a prison facility away from county jail and the contrast in loss stops me short.

One woman asked that her "property" be mailed to her Mom. It consisted of a watch, a Wal-Mart gift card and a small silver ring. Her clothes weren't worth salvaging and I can only imagine the conditions she had been living in prior to her arrest if that was the best she had to wear. Another woman has her wordly goods packed in two large suitcases and one duffle bag; clothes mostly, a couple of books, a make up bag. Each time she is released from prison she sorts back through the bags and suitcases and starts over. It is what she owns and she is grateful to have "real clothes" to feel whole again.

I worried alot over my possessions while sitting in county jail. I argued with my Father about how long the storage units should be kept and why bother if he was just going to let it all be sold in a few months anyway. Those possessions meant the world to me and I couldn't see that God provided all I had, He would surely provide again someday. I wanted to hold on. As time has passed I find myself sorting and resorting much of what is still left in the garage. Mark is out there today rearranging all my wordly treasures but more and more I am able to let go of such things.

In my life I've seen God replace everything of value to me; my home is replaced with a quiet little place that Mark and I lay our heads. My children, though no longer at home, are still my best friends and they stay in close contact with me, their love evident each time we are together. My job and career path I had planned is a memory but the work I do today means so much more to both myself and the ones we serve. Family now gone from my life have been replaced by new brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews. God has given me the resources for food, new clothes, new jewelry, sheets for my bed and all the things I thought were forever gone. God even sees to my comfort; new fluffy pillows, curtains for all the windows match and flutter in the breeze, a grapevine wreath hangs by my bedroom window just to look pretty.

Sometimes I dig through a box or look around to try to find something I knew I once owned and cannot find. Usually I find out it was thrown out during the packing of my life but always I see how God has replaced it with something new. He has not failed me and He does not fail any of His children. He also makes it easier and easier to see how little I need beyond Him.

I guess I should go help Mark continue cleaning out our garage, I just don't need so much stuff anymore.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

It's a choice.

Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior? How many times had I heard that in my life and wondered what the heck they were talking about? My son's Pastor asked me that and I remember all I could say was "I guess not." It seemed like such a magical question and all I could think was surely if I had, there was some amazing alarm bell in my heart that told me instantly that I was saved, I had faith, I knew God.

"Christians" walk around asking non-believers as they called us, this question over and over. They want us to make this proclamation but it doesn't make sense to me. I don't know what it means? How could I "accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior" when nothing religious or spiritual or magical had happened to me? I must be someone condemned because I didn't have this magical something inside that told me I had, or should, or could?

Sitting in Q pod, watching the "Christians" sit down and talk with the visiting clergy, I wondered as I often had in my life how they came to believe what they did and what must it feel like to have or be a part of that special group that I could not join. As a child, I was not part of a church or religion. More than once I can remember someone asking "well what are you?" and I didn't have an answer. This made me feel left out. "We don't go to church," was always my answer but I knew people thought less of me because of this. So watching this division play out, even here in jail was strange. Heck, we were all guilty of a crime or indiscretion which pretty much leveled the playing field. Yet again I was not part of the bible study groups or the clergy visit groups or the groups of women that gathered around to read their bibles and gossip. I was an outsider.

So what did it mean to "accept Jesus Christ" and "be a Christian"? Pastor Joy listened to my comments and questions, my objections to "church" and why I could never bring myself to this point of faith that others had. And she reduced it to a statement that finally made sense.

"It's a decision, it's simply a choice and it's your choice."

I walked around with this for a long time. I watched a girl named Chelsea open her bible, sitting on her top bunk and read it for a few minutes and put it down.

"Do you believe everything that's in there and do you understand it?" I asked.

"Yes and no, I think. When I read it, I see things that don't make sense start to make sense and I feel okay with the things in the world that don't make sense, not making sense. But it makes me feel good and okay with my life no matter what when I read it, so maybe whether I understand it or not doesn't matter. Somehow it just helps me."

I'm not sure that helped alot but at least I saw a "Christian" who wasn't sure what they had and confessed sometimes it didn't make sense to them even if they did feel it worked for them.

I learned when I was in 1st grade that 1 plus 1 equals 2 and I believed that. I've operated with that truth ever since. At the time, I didn't question it, I just believed what I was told. The obstacle to faith as an adult was I had never been told what the truth was. So it became harder and harder for me to accept something based on faith without proof. How was I to go from firm non-believer to seeking with all my heart and all my soul and all my mind? Jesus tells us that if we will bring the faith of a mustard seed we can move mountains. Moving me from non-believer to Christian was just such a mountain, so I decided to bring the faith of a mustard seed and see what would happen. Here's what I found:

One can decide to believe the world is flat or the world is round. If we decide the world is flat and ends at the horizon, then our world and our potential are limited by that reality. We stay operating with that belief system and our power to go beyond what we can see limits us. However, if we decide the world is round, that the horizon is never ending then our world and our potential in that world become never ending. We become powerful because our potential and our options and our choices become never ending. So it is with a faith in Jesus Christ.

I decided that I would simply accept that Jesus Christ was God, my God and let Him be ruler of my life. This took my world from a flat, limited space to a never ending potential ; broad and wide and full of wonder. Did something magical happen? Well yes, I guess it did. All the limits that the world would impose on me I could now turn over to Jesus Christ. He would define what my limits were and He would decide how small my word would be. Only He would define my horizon. Amazingly, and yes, He continues to amaze me every day, the God of the Bible, the one that parts the sea and raises the dead never fails to show me His limitless power and sovereignty. And that is magical indeed.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Jail Mail

Mark leaves for work around noon. The house becomes quiet; leaving me with the whir of the air conditioner and an occasional car passing by our house. I stare at stacks of letters from women in prison; ones asking for our "orange" bible and others whom correspond with me regularly. They are the women I refer to as my "jail mail". I love their letters. They inspire me, keep me focused on God and remind me of where I came. Mostly though they are my friends, long distance, that I get to know word by word and letter by letter. I get to unwrap their uniqueness with each new post to me. It's like a gift. When God sends a new gift my way, I rip open the package (the envelope) and devour it and anxiously sit down to respond. Then I wait by the mail box for their return!

When I sat in WILCO all those six months I think I can count on two hands the number of letters I received from family and friends. I didn't sit up during mail call because my name was seldom called. After a while you just accept that your family is letting you fall as low as you must, you don't wait for their encouragement because it is not forthcoming. Women walk around the pod sharing letters and pictures and cards. They smile and laugh and cry as they read their gifts from the outside. I sit on my bunk, aware of the aloneness. I make excuses why my children aren't writing. I remind anyone who asks that my family have turned their backs on me. My lack of letters is a measure of my aloneness. It's part of my punishment.

As women are released they promise to write. They never do. As they pull chain* others promise to write them once they are released, they won't forget. They always do.

I got out and made those same promises but God put something on my heart that said I could not let these women down. After about a month outside, I got on the computer, looked up the status of the women I made promises to, found them at their TDC sites and wrote to them. Some wrote back. Others did not. Others wrote back months later thanking me for not forgetting them. Each one said they could not believe I remembered. I knew how much jail mail meant and I wanted to honor my promise.

God honors His promise to us each morning as we wake. He honors His promise each time we find a nugget of gratitude in our hearts for He puts that nugget there so we can feel His love. Through me, God shows His love letter by letter that no one is forgotten.

Jail mail is more than a letter to a friend, it is a letter from God. As I write each letter I ask God to write the words He would have that woman hear and I hope I follow His direction. And in each letter God reveals a new lesson or truth to me. It is a gift exchange of sorts; from woman to woman sent by God.

I love my jail mail. God talks to me and He talks to them as I write. Sometimes I think it's the most important part of my job.

*"Pull chain" is the jailhouse term used to describe the transfer from one facility to another within the jail or prison system.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Jeffrey

Jeffrey is the local jailhouse ghost. The legend says he was an inmate convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. That night, after court, he hung himself from his cell (having been in those cells, I've never quite figured out how but that's probably another story.) You can't spend time in Williamson County Jail and not hear about Jeffrey. Guards and inmates alike claim to have seen him walking the corridors of the jail; both old and new. It's said he turns on sinks and showers, flushes toilets and rummages through property boxes. They say he's a slow moving shadow of darkness that lurks late at night looking in at those sleeping in their bunks.

I never saw Jeffrey but I did see the darkness that lurks in the corners of the jail and courthouse. I saw men and women; on both sides of the bars ruled and manipulated by the spiritual warfare that is a very real part of this world. I saw injustice masked as justice and power wielded by those that had no discernment. I saw drugs and alcohol rip apart lives and families and careers and even walks in faith. I saw greed and anger drive decisions rather than love. I saw Satan hard at work; be he called the devil or Jeffrey I saw spirits and demons in human form take hold of good people and turn temptation into action and action into darkness.

With such iconic phrases as "the devil made me do it" and "could it be satan?" one might be quick to dismiss the very real presence of dark forces and spirits among us but the Bible isn't shy about talking about them and neither should we be as Christians walking in this very real world.

Spiritual warfare may be the temptations that cause us to stumble, the obstacles that stand in our way of victory, the people who hurt us or the actions we take. It is that contrary thought that takes us from focusing on Him to focusing on the world. It is anything that has us question our walk with our Lord.

Jesus knew all about temptation and it is recorded so we might know its reality today.

Jesus was tempted with wealth, power, even food. He was asked to test God and worship false idols but with the power of the Holy Spirit, having been baptized in the Spirit Jesus was triumphant and walked away to begin His ministry. And it is with the power of the Holy Spirit He ministered to the needs of many, cast out demons, claimed victory over storms, calmed the seas, healed the sick and raised the dead. And it is this Holy Spirit He sent to us as our Helper.

In our ministry we are often called to walk with a woman who is tormented by demons creating temptation and urgings in her life. She may walk fully in the flesh and put value only on what she can see; not relying on God or believing in the devil who works to pull her far from her Lord and Savior.

Darkness may walk the halls of the jails and prisons of our world but we need not give in to that darkness; whether it is called Satan or Jeffrey, we each have the power to overcome and live free and victorious lives in Christ. Mark and I have embarked on a study of the Holy Spirit, this third person of the trinity and in this study we are learning much about the power available to us today through Him.

But first we are dealing with dismissed charges and a parole revocation with a new client but an old friend. Should be a big day. I wonder if this client remembers the trick I played on her about Jeffrey while we were housed in C12? Perhaps I wasn't walking so victoriously back then.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Forgiveness

I was convicted of theft; credit card abuse. On a grand scale this meant I stole someone's credit card and used it. On a personal level it meant I was in jail and my family was devastated and my children were left to fend for themselves and my mother was alone in her apartment crying and I was alone in a holding tank waiting to become part of "general population".

The courts needn't do anything. I was doing a fine job of banishing myself to the dark recesses of hell. I would never, ever forgive myself for what I had done to a stranger, my family, my children, and myself. Never!

Flash forward. One of our client's is released from prison and finds her bank account and food stamp account cleaned out. She calls us. Both Joy and I. How did this happen? Her billfold was missing from her purse. Every dime from her account was gone. We had possession of her clothes and purse for months.

The Sheriff called me. Did I use her card? (Of course they thought I did.) Am I sure I never used her card? Where did I live? How tall was I? Date of birth? Height? Eye color? Standard questions ma'am. Now I'm dealing with a client who has accused me of a crime I had nothing to do with, business partners angry because I am being accused and me, hearing a small voice that says "you still have to minister to this woman," and knowing I was hearing God.

Flash back to jail; a visit from my son, tears streaming down his face as he says "Next time Mom, just buy us a card, we'll understand. You didn't have to do this." He understood and forgave me even while his heart was breaking. A letter from my daughter, "It's just like you have always told me Mom, I may not like what you did but I will always love you." She listened to all I had tried to teach her and came out loving me as I taught her to do even as she was pulled from her home and transplanted far away.

I was slowly learning that God forgives. Even if I didn't. Even if the world didn't. His word says so. My heart tells me it's true.

This week I head into Austin with Joy to visit this client. She is angry and sure I was the one to blame. Now she tells Joy she never meant to implicate either of us. She needs us again. She accused me of stealing from her and despite all she had done, she "didn't steal from nobody ever," so how could this happen to her? What did I have to say about this? Now again I'm called by God to show her comfort and love despite the precarious position with local authorities her call and accusation put me in for a few moments anyway.

Mark is angry. He's my champion and not ready to let bygones be bygones. He reminds me that she played with my freedom and my life and the ministry when she accused me. He reminds me that a transformed person might give someone the benefit of the doubt and he's right. He reminds me the fear and tears I lived in those first few hours of her accusations.

I had been advocating for her from the moment she was re-arrested. I had advocated that we continue to write to her even though she had used drugs in the ministry home and had tried to outsmart our drug test. I advocated that we send her money on her commissary books in prison. I advocated for her even though all evidence was she had used our services and tried to con us. But I remembered she was a scared woman, just like I had been and I remembered I just needed someone to tell me I wasn't a bad person; that I was forgiven. She is scared and penniless and needing someone to fix things for her. Being out of prison is often more scary than being in. Nothing is certain out here; not food, shelter, clothes. Nothing.

The very night the Sheriff called to question me God whispered in my ear and it had something to do with forgiveness and love. If my children can show me that sweet grace when I turned their lives upside down, surely I can show the same for someone who walks the world as afraid as I once was. And if God can forgive me for all I've ever done in my life and all I will ever do, surely I can extend that grace beyond myself.

Someone stole from our client. She lashed out at those that have helped her the most. I think that's the business we're in.

I think God is teaching me a few things too.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Where do I really begin?

So as I start this blog it occurs to me that the retelling of my entire story; well that is, after all "the book" already begun long before I gave birth to this blog idea. How much do I tell? What do I share? There are a million things that have gone on since the day I walked out of county jail and in my heart, it is those things on which I want to focus; the transition, the paralysis, the ministry, the bumps in the road, the engagement and marriage, the walk we take every day with new women.

And then again, there's God at the center.

The learning, ever new, ever deeper. The friendship and love that grows first from Him then from me.

Many have heard the story; I sat at a stainless steel four stool table in the day room at county jail; Q pod it was called, to talk to someone about the devastating news that my daughter was moving to Houston to live with her father and be rescued from the clutches of a "criminal". I was tired, hungry and worn out from gallons of tears shed and all I could say to the quiet clergy who sat there was "First of all I just want you to know, I don't even think there is a God. But I really need someone to talk to." What a segue into any conversation, but with a woman of God? She had to think to herself "Just another inmate, doesn't really know the refinements of proper society!" She's honestly never told me what she did think in that moment, remind me to ask her!

Back to my thoughts, where to begin. Tackling this giant stuffed panda in the room, I have no idea where to start. Do I bring you up to date or jump in with the daily challenges and choices in the ministry, the struggles and the victories? Or do I retell the story and then jump in? One doesn't want to make a hash of things but what to do? So as I've done here I'll retell the story as it appears to relate to today and see how it goes.

Today I sit at my desk with a pile of jail mail in front of me; all begging responses and another stack of more administrative things to be dealt with, a UPS bill from our shipment from Tyndale House for 160 bibles they assured us would be free shipping. Mark (dear hubby you will meet as time goes on) tells me to put on my "CPS voice" (a former life) and get 'em! There is the current call from Pastor Joy updating me on our resident client struggling with car issues. I need to clean my house, after all, all weekend was a blur of a garage sale fundraiser activities to raise badly needed funds for the ministry....oh yes, and there's the ministry you haven't been introduced to yet....Foundation for Success Ministries, Inc.

So that's my day. I start it feeling tired, but uplifted. It's now Tuesday and yes, much to do. First I think I'll spend a few moments in prayer.

I need God.

Books worth a look

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