Further Than We Expect

Below is an essay I wrote for class, and I thought I would share.

I would be lying if I were to say the building was “unassuming”, but everyone knows the purpose of this building, and most people know, or at least have an idea of what goes on inside. We have all seen movies or read books that tell us in great detail what happens inside those walls. The layout might differ, but the assumptions of its inner workings are the same. There is no hope here, no glimpses of light to be seen. This is a place of strength, and it has no room for weakness. Anyone who goes in must be prepared for rejection, proving, and have skin so hard that bullets bounce off you like a pellet gun attacking an armored car.

The fence was about 15 feet high, but it might as well have been a mile. I had never seen or felt metal this way. It was cold in a way that temperature could never be. The fence seemed to go on forever, bending perfectly around every corner-showing the outside, but mocking the idea of access to it. I have seen fences before but this was different. The fence served not only as a separation to the outside, but as intimidation to those on the inside. It seemed to work like a diaphragm with the space between links being big enough to let the wind flow in, and hope flow out. I needed to focus on something else, anything else, because this was too much to take in.

My gaze finally broke from the eternal fence. I looked up, and if giving the fence too much attention was my first mistake then looking up was my second. From the distance you could see the razor wire, but it is something else entirely to stand that close to it. The mile-high fence suddenly shrank in front of my face and I could see the sun reflecting off each tip of the wire that seemed to taunt those inside. Each one sharper than the next as they fought for prominence like a pride of young lions vying for command to see which one would devour the slowest gazelle in this wilderness.

Finally, I moved towards the main door. Not that I had a choice, once in you cannot just turn around. I had to be here. The choice was not mine, after all this is where I belonged. The entrance was overshadowed by the large glass bay window that looked out to the courtyard, and parking lot. The first room had decorations if you could call them that. Certifications, pictures of honored guards, and an American flag hung on the walls, but it was nearly as frigid in here as the fence that surrounded the complex. I gave them my name, nearly every personal possession save some cough drops, and my Bible, and was told to have a seat and wait for the guard. I sat on that hard gray bench for hours with the clock never moving. What was I doing here, how did this happen? I am not ready for this. Could I ever be ready? It didn’t really matter. I was here, and that was that. I sat counting floor tiles, ceiling tiles, and the time in-between the flickering of fluorescent bulbs. Why do places like this always have those bulbs? Why can’t they just work right? Maybe that is how they are supposed to work. Maybe the purpose of the bulbs is to flicker like a horror film, so maybe that’s why horror films use them? A new voice interrupted my thoughts “Ready”. This was it: time to move.

He seemed to be annoyed either at me or at life itself. I couldn’t tell, and I was not about to ask. The fact that he had at least 80lbs on me, a wand, and a look that made me feel like I was 5 years old being scolded by father made it clear I was not to ask questions, but follow orders. I walked looking forward as best as I could. The hallway was just as uninviting as the control room if not worse. Here there were no pictures just offices and doors with fake wooden name plaques. Not that I was trying hard but one sign stood out it simply said “Warden.” The door was closed, and I was thankful for that. My annoyed escort continued to lead me through wandering halls, and then into another courtyard. It was “open” if that is a word that can be used in a place like this. No flowers, brown grass, and the first taste of something worse than the razor wire I had seen before. The cement was painted brown, maybe in attempt to make it not so institutional, but if that was the goal they failed miserably. The walls seemed to hold in the tears of those I imagine cried into it. Tears of loss, remembrance, and regret were the mortar that held these walls together.

Eventually we entered a small hallway that led to the first block. “Open 1” my disillusioned guard said with clarity and authority, and as if the gate was controlled by his voice it let out a loud buzz, and allowed us to enter. The sound that comes off an iron gate slamming back into its home is not a clash, or bang, or even a thud. These are all sounds you hear, but this is a sound that is felt. A sound that sends a signal straight through your nervous system, and in an instant you are aware of everything. In less time than it takes to blink I notice two guards on my right behind what I could only assume was bullet proof glass, and straight ahead of me another gate leading to yet another block. To the left a wide hallway with a door on the right leading outside, just beyond that a small area not more than six by six between two more gates. The cement walls all painted the gray version of the brown color (if it could be called that) outside.  The grumpy guard turned to talk to the guards behind the glass, and tells me to wait over on the right side of the wall. Why the right side? Was this just an arbitrary order? Before I could finish my thought the gate nearest the glass opened and they entered.

Inmates started to walk in, and line up on the opposite side of the wall. They lined up knowing exactly where to stand, after all this was not their first time. I was aware that this would not be their last line up, at least for a while. The clothing varied slightly long sleeve, or short sleeve, black shoes, or white shoes. Some as young as me or younger others in their late 60s, some white, some black, some tall, some short, some had visible tattoos some did not. Even with slight modifications in appearances they all looked the same except a small handful. A slightly plump older man with white horseshoe hair and an iron on name tag that read David smiled at me. Not that “Oh my, I am in this place and someone is smiling at me” kind of smile. No this was a smile that you would see from a nice old man at the mall. It was just a genuine “Hi, nice to see you” smile. For the most part he was the only one who actually looked at me, and it was reassuring only I could not figure out why.

“OK let’s go” my annoyed escort said, and the first gate of the small resting area opened. We stepped inside, and like magic the gate closed after us leaving the men behind. The loud electric buzz sounded again letting us through the second gate. We took only a few steps and he said “just up here.” We made our way up the stairs, turned a corner, and opened the door to a room. “They’ll be in shortly.”

My mouth was so dry, and my hands so wet with sweat that I thought for a moment that my hands had been stealing the moisture from my mouth. I only had 3 cough drops, and I weighed the option of using one now. Before I could finish my thought Joy, who had been there with me all along, asked if I wanted some water. I took some water from the table, and she said we needed to get the room set up. She pointed me to a stack of Bibles, and stack of hymn books. “We don’t have enough for everyone so just space them out” she said as she hurried around setting up her things. For an older lady she was quick. She had long solid gray hair, not more than 110 pounds, and a zeal not seen in someone half her age. As she zipped around the room praying, and singing it was apparent this is where Joy belonged.

Before I could even finish laying out the Bibles the men started to arrive. First one then another, three more and finally a steady stream of grown men filled the room. They went straight to their seats like it was sixth grade homeroom all over again. No one wanted to be caught standing when the bell rang. Yet I noticed a strange sight. Most of them had a smile on their face. The biggest smile came from my hallway friend David.

Joy stood in front of this group of men, and said “Guys, guys, this is preacher Mike and he’s got a message for you today!” Joy was always so happy, and full of life. She was the epitome of her name. I however nearly threw up at that moment. This was by far the most fear I had ever felt in my life. It was not the place I was in, and it was not the people that surrounded me, it was not even the content of my message. It was James 3:1 running through my head, and the question of had I prepared enough sprinting through my mind. I had one chance to share the love of God with these men. I had one shot at telling them that God loves them. Some of them knew, that was apparent, but even when we know that there is always more of His love we can encounter, and that was my goal. Stretch the ideal of what love is if possible in this place. I was so scared I would miss the opportunity to share His love that I almost missed what happened.

Before worship the men led a prayer time where they prayed for their families, each other, the guards, and me. I was amazed by their love towards the people who ran this place and the honesty in their prayers. The difference in temperature from the cold unrelenting iron bars, and razor wire fence outside compared to the warmth that permeated this room was noticeable. A man sat at the piano that even though out of tune made a beautiful sound. It was a simple melody 3 maybe 4 chords, but the sound was quite lovely. The sound of the poorly tuned piano was quickly drowned out by the voices of men that turned into voices of angels. The room was filled with off key, and over singing men that somehow when combined with the words produced something marvelous. For a moment in time God gave me His ears, and let me hear what it sounds like when His children sing praises to Him. The imperfections remained, but the sound was different. It was not about the way it sounded but what it was; no longer did I hear altos or baritones, but thankful redeemed sinners rejoicing in the God who loves them.

At this moment my anxiety cleared up like a rain soaked road after a storm when the sun hits it. I was free not only to share how God had done the same thing in my life that He had done in theirs, but how He desires to take us further than we expect. Sometimes the place we are going is not where we would ever expect to go. We might not ever choose to go there, but we open our eyes to find ourselves standing in a situation bigger than us. If we are willing to go to places that intimidate, scare, or even terrify us we can catch a glimpse a heaven.

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