Thursday, December 10, 2009

Do I need a Savior?

When I was first released from jail back in July of '07 the last thing I wanted to do was talk about what I had done or even the fact that I had been in jail. I wanted to forget the embarrassing circumstances that brought me there and remove myself as far as I could from the guilt and shame I felt over what would be a part of my history forever. I was no longer a struggling single Mother doing a wonderful job of juggling it all but was now a "former inmate" or "ex-offender" or my favorite, "a known felon".

The truth was, most folks think those in jail and prison are flippant about their crimes, all intentionally and with malice committed to hurt someone and cause pain on others without remorse or afterthought.

The truth is, most everyone I met in jail regretted what they had done, were ashamed so much so that even among a "den of thieves" they dare not speak the truth about it. Most felt guilt for what they were now putting their families through, guilt about children left behind somewhere, either with other family or in the system. They felt shame they had lived a life so opposed to what they even believed to be right or good that to attach the crime to their very personage was so difficult as to sometimes cause great emotional scarring and turmoil. They didn't sit around joking and laughing about what they didn't get caught doing or plotting their next crime once they were free again. Oh sure, from time to time an off handed joke would float about but that wasn't the norm and in the quiet hours of night when small groups would chat and women would journal or write letters to the outside, the real stuff came flooding out. The tears of shame would fall slowly down faces bearing no make-up; nothing to hide behind. Pages would wrinkle from the torturous hours of writing and crying, as tears dropped onto notebook paper and curl the thin sheets.

I remember those hot tears of shame and guilt; remorse and anger and disappointment in myself. I remember all the emotions that flooded over me during my jail time and after. I wanted to flee outside those walls and pretend that wasn't my life. I wanted to forget that I was that "ex-offender" or "former inmate".

But the world doesn't want us to forget.

So I ask you, who are you? What label does the world put on you? Are you a doctor? A lawyer? A secretary? A mother? An accountant? A babysitter?

Now think about the worst thing you can think you have ever done? Did you have an abortion as a teenager? Did you steal someone's boyfriend in high school? Did you fantasize about a famous actor or sports figure? Did you drink too much in college or yesterday perhaps? Did you take home a few office supplies for school supplies for the kids last fall? Did you forget to scan that soda under your cart at the grocery store? Did you make out with your boss at last year's Christmas party? Did you wish you were someone else for a minute, living someone else's life?

Whatever you have done, no matter how big or small, there is a label for it and God says you are a sinner. Perhaps you are the worst sinner, a murderer? That abortion at 15 wasn't near as harmless as you once thought, not "just a decision". That relationship you came between, did that make you an adulterer or were you coveting something someone else had rights to? Perhaps you are just a drunkard or glutton? Doesn't harm anyone but you? Or are you a thief in those little disguised ways we push out of our minds?

Thankfully though, no matter what label we or the world attaches to our worst behavior, despite all that we do that is not pleasing to God, He still loves us so much that long before we were born to make our worst mistakes, He came up with a way back to Him. He devised a perfect plan and set it into motion so that our separation from Him would not be forever. His plan of redemption and salvation undermines our biggest, most heinous acts against ourselves, others and against God Himself.

And because of this I no longer have to fear the labels of the world but can walk with my head held high as I realize that I am forgiven. To the one who holds my destiny, I am as far from my sin as the east is from the west. Even more, my story has a purpose now. Even my worst decision, my biggest crime, is a story of redemption and forgiveness and it has a purpose. No, I don't take pride in the things I've done and there are some I still would rather never know what I had done but none the less, the past is past and my future is secure because of the one choice I made that trumps all others. I made the choice to make Jesus Christ my personal Lord and Savior, and because of this choice, if He chooses to use my shame-filled past to show His glorious love for each of us, it isn't for me to say no. For the gift He has promised me, the gift I can rely upon is far greater than the discomfort of a label in this world.

But I ask you, before you label me, think again about the worst thing you've ever done. Wear that label for a day or two, really honestly wear that label, then ask yourself this:

"Do I need a Savior?"

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A God of Restoration

For most of us, the holidays are a time of gift buying, baking, family and friends. We gather together, give more to charities and find ourselves in overly good and merry moods. I know I do.

I work in my little elf shop, making cards and writing out letters to friends I seldom remember the rest of the year in the hustle and bustle with work. I put down other hobbies and save my time for holiday pursuits. But not everyone I know has the luxury of turning their lives in different directions for the season. Their lives are dictated from sun up to sun down as any other day. They are the many women (and men) we serve at Spirit House Ministries who are currently incarcerated in jail or prison. They live their lives day in and day out without some of the simple joys that I have every day.

While I know most of these women committed a crime that landed them in their circumstances, I never want to forget that they are more than the crime they committed. They made choices and mistakes, that is true. Yet they are also women with stories, pasts, families. They are educated or uneducated. They are single or married. They are mothers or sisters or aunts or daughters. They are women who you might be surprised are much like you.

Because I work with these women and I have lived with them as well, I know another side to the stories you may think you know. I've laughed with them and cried with them. I've fought with them and shared with them. I've listened to their fear that the world is going on without them and heard them give thanks that someone has remembered them with a card or letter. I've shared pictures of my children as they shared pictures of theirs. I've whispered prayers with them and played cards with them all at the same time. I've been blessed to know them.

Tonight, while I was busy in my elf workshop, creating some greeting cards for Christmas gifts, my phone rang. It was a client and friend who was released from prison early this year. She struggled in her first weeks, trying to learn about God and her relationship with Christ while battling the lure of the world as it welcomed her back. In short order she found herself pregnant and wondering how this would all work out but determined, having lost custody of her other two children, that she would make life right for this one. I can hear you now, she has no business having a child! Some new life she is living, giving in to sin and creating a life she has no business raising. Smart one, she is, getting pregnant and thinking she can rebuild her life let alone take care of a new one. You know you're thinking it though you might not say it, I know this because I too wondered what she was thinking and what she was doing. And I am her friend and sister in Christ. I've discipled her for over two years and tried to be there for her during her walk in the world again.

Well, here she was on the phone talking about how she was finally getting all she ever wanted in life; a husband, child and home. She was "fat and broke and happier" than she'd ever been and she was rejoicing in the birth of her new son. She had plans in February to petition the court for custody of her oldest son, which was being supported by the case worker in Utah handling her son's case. She is soon to be reunited with him. She is experiencing the joys of communion with our Lord and is learning about the God of restoration we serve. Her new baby is a gift and she knows this. She believes God is giving her the life she's dreamed of because finally she is understanding who He is and what He wants to do in her life. She is finding a quiet, content life and she knows it is God at work in her life. She is finding faith and a joy that comes from a life of faith.

Hers is just one story of restoration and grace we are blessed to see each day. And while the holidays are a convenient time to give thanks to God for all He does for us, it is so fitting that during this time we can remind one another no matter our circumstances, thanks be to God who though while we were still sinners, died for us, ALL of us.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Amazing Grace

Mark and I have been through our share of "stuff". We've had our challenges and I would hazard a guess we would both admit that most of them we have brought on ourselves. It wasn't so long ago, both of us would have tried to change things, manipulate those around us and find a way, albeit an imperfect way around the fixes we'd found ourselves in. I'm not too proud to admit that as I stood outside my office that brisk January day, looking down at the arrest warrants the Sheriff's officers held in their hands, the one thought going through my head was "I can get out of this, think, Leslie, think. What do I do?"

Sadly enough in that moment, the thought wasn't a plea to God or a repentant confession. Rather it was another round of mental manipulation that would assure I could get out of this rocky situation. I sat in the police station, a small gold bricked room with a table and three uncomfortable chairs crammed in still thinking about how I could best deny any guilt and get back to work. Logic was escaping me, work already knew what I was accused of doing, they were instrumental in my arrest and I wasn't welcome back there. Machines had been put into motion that all the talking in the world would not get me out of, not my best con or fastest thinking. The two officers asked me questions and I pretended not to know a thing about what they were talking about, all the while amazed how they could almost trace my steps. They asked questions, I denied knowledge.

When days of denial turned into weeks of incarceration, I didn't have anywhere to turn. It's hard to turn to anyone when we are in denial of our part in any circumstance. It would take months for me to understand that turning to God means little if we aren't straight with Him. Repentance is a big part of our relationship with God. He already knows what we've done but He awaits an honest and repentant heart. Yet grateful am I that in the very instant we come clean, lean on Him in all things and accept His ways as best our hearts know how, He is there for us; working miracles in our lives and answering prayers.

I've often said I don't understand God and that holds true today. I served a 1 year state jail felony 2 for 1 in county jail (grace grace grace) after I got on my knees and gave myself to the Lord. Mark's drastic reduction on a second offense (there are folks in state jail serving time for a second DWI offense) is nothing short of a miracle. Grace is all over our lives and if nothing convinces someone, pure grace should! Mark and I were both guilty. We deserved much more than we got. God dealt with us gently. Mark may be smiling and confident (as he says) in God, for me, God still amazes me. When He takes what we do and turns into a gentle lesson taught by a loving Father, we can do nothing more than be in awe of His grace and love.

But it all starts with a repentant heart.

Mark often says, "God knows your heart," and he's right. He knows when we have come to that place we cannot handle, when we need love and when we need correction. He works things out perfectly and provides a means out of our own messes when we see no way out. He waits for moments in our lives when our will has cost us the most and He comes in to show us amazing grace and love.

For Mark and I, God is more than the lyrics in a song, His handiwork is alive in our lives. His ways are perfect and because of that, I can do nothing but give thanks and continuously worship Him. For there is only one truth in my life, a truth told in lyrics but evidence none the less of our loving God:

My chains are gone
I've been set free
My God, my Savior has ransomed me
And like a flood His mercy reigns
Unending love, Amazing grace.

(Amazing Grace - my chains are gone: Chris Tomlin)

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