Sunday, December 25, 2011

To Whom Do You Surrender?

Do you ever get overwhelmed with your own desire for change?  You want to be like Christ…but that desire seems almost like a ‘pipe-dream.’  Something that vaguely stirs you to change, but seems so far from an attainable reality that you lose hope?  If so, believe me, my friend, you are not alone.  The great Apostle Paul may have felt that way when he penned, “I don't really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don't do it. Instead, I do what I hate.” Romans 5: 15 NLT

Some people believe that Paul was struggling with some ‘great sin’ that threatened to overpower him.  I believe every sin is a ‘great sin’ when it has power over us.  If we don’t conquer it—it will conquer us.  How do we conquer the sin that wars against our better self? How do we realize the dream of becoming Christ-like?  The Apostle Paul verbalizes his own struggle to rise above his sinful (human) nature and take on the nature of his Lord in the following verses and gives us his conclusion in Chapter 8 Verse 5,

 “Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.” In verse 6 Paul informs us of his conclusion in the matter, “The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace.”  

That is the crux of the matter my friends.  In the secret chambers of our heart there is a battle raging. Our desire to be like our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is at war with our desire to control our own destiny.  William Ernest Henley penned it well in his famous work,  Invictus “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” Unfortunately, Henley died at the age of 53 and one would hope he surrendered control to a higher power, the Creator of the Universe, before his untimely death.

The question we must ask today is this: to whom do I surrender control?  If we surrender to addictions, this world’s system of thought which is contrary to the known will of God, our own desires to gratify our sinful nature (as Paul said), then those are the powers that will control us.  If we surrender to the Holy Spirit and yield control of our lives to him, we will experience life and peace.

Someone once said, “Jesus said it.  I believe it. And that settles it.”  A simple philosophy that may become a guiding light to us if we internalize it and purpose to live by it.

To whom to you surrender?  I pray that you surrender your mind, will, and emotions to the control of the Holy Spirit and begin living a life of peace in Him today!

Linda Settles

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A Divine Week

True stories straight from prison-

Merriam Webster’s College Dictionary defines “divine” two ways:  “of, or proceeding from God;” and “to discover by intuition or insight.”  This past week both those definitions came to mind as I watched and lived through another week of prison.
It all started typically enough.  I was at a visit last Saturday when a young guy from the college building asked to introduce me to his folks.  He goes by the name “Divine”.  He is an extremely lean, muscular black man, just 23, soft spoken and very polite.  He always calls me sir as in “sir, would you have time to read my essay?”  I like him (but, my friends in here will tell you I like most everyone).
Divine is a very bright kid and he writes beautifully.  He’s one of the young guys I really enjoy helping.  So, we completed count in the “VI” room and Divine said “sir, I’d like to introduce you to my folks.”  I’ve had that happen a couple of dozen times in my stay here.  That, or guys I work with in school will introduce themselves to my folks or friends at visit.  We walk over and there is this older, well-dressed black couple sitting at a small table (dad in a suit; mom in a dress; late 60’s).  Divine introduced me to them and said “this is the man who’s taught me to write.”  His mother and father hop up and shake my hand.  His mom tells me they’ve known their son was blessed when he got here.  A devoutly religious couple, she added “we prayed he’d meet someone who would befriend him and urge him to be his best.  He’s told us how you work with the young men.  Thank you.”

I was speechless.  All that afternoon I thought here I am a felon, an inmate and somehow I made a difference in this kid’s life.  All the prayers I’d uttered about giving me a chance and I realized I was, in fact, living my chance.  I made a difference in a kid’s life and his parents now have hope.  It was, a humbling insightful moment.
Two days later another A+ certification test was held.  Seven of nine students passed.  The two who didn’t were mere points from passing.  “Mouse”, one of the guys I spend hours with each week honing his English skills, came back from class Tuesday night with an “A” on his paper he’d written about Langston Hughes.  We spent two afternoons reading and re-reading poems and then, suddenly it clicked.  Like a light switch turning on Mouse’s face, he lit up as he got what Hughes was saying.

And then, Thursday the GED was given.  I had two guys sit for the test and those two guys passed.  I’ve been thinking a good deal about unanswered prayers.  We pray about something, it doesn’t occur immediately and we assume God’s not listening.  We forget all the times in our past when our kids were sick, or we’d lost a job, or we were on the brink of divorce.  Somehow God always answered, always saw us through the difficulties we faced.
I have said “but” a great number of times these past three years.  I realized there’s no “but” in “trust in the Lord with all your heart”.  The strange thing is I think I’ve known that all along.  Faith is all about the future.  You believe because your past proves prayers are answered.  A lot of good news came out for the college guys this week and for the GED students.  It reminded me that in any situation good can come.  Remembering that was divine.

[The Author] I was an attorney suspended from law practice in Tennessee for misappropriation of client’s funds; I rebuilt my life by moving to Virginia. Disclosing my law license problems, I was hired as a claims adjuster and within 1 year promoted to in-house claims attorney by a large Virginia insurer. Four years after being hired, I began embezzling money to lavish gifts on family and friends. From 1996 through the middle of 2008, I traveled as a high roller (making first-class trips to both the Mirage in Las Vegas and the Borgata in Atlantic City); ate in the finest restaurants and had front row seats at shows with family & friends. However, this world came crashing down in August 2008, when I was confronted by the company president. Immediately confessing, I was arrested, convicted for embezzling over $2 million and indicted on six counts. I was diagnosed with manic impulse control disorder (a form of bi-polar disorder). I pled guilty and made significant attempts to cooperate with authorities and protect my family. However, the wife I loved divorced me; my two sons withdrew from me; friends abandoned me. I was sentenced to 30 years in prison (with only 15 suspended).

Monday, December 5, 2011


In prison, Christmas day is the second happiest day of the year. New year’s day is the happiest because New Year’s signals another year gone and one nearer release and the outside world. It doesn’t really matter which month you were "sent up", another calendar year has passed. It’s gone forever.

There is an air of expectancy throughout the prison as prisoners anticipate a Christmas visit from their families. Some lay silent on their bunk-beds, trying to recall memories of childhood Christmases. Past and distant images are awakened of family and friends gathered around the table laughing and eating, then later relaxing and exchanging gifts.

The prisoner tries hard to keep his mind off the length of his sentence and the crime he committed. This is a time to receive word from home...though some messages will prove painful. A solemn air hovers over the prison. Try as he may to keep them away, dark clouds of failures, mistakes, regret and remorse over crimes committed that have separated him from freedom, bring salty raindrops in the form of tears.

Actually, the Christmas season began weeks ago with the Angel Tree program. Prisoners were asked to submit the names and addresses of their children, and what they would like to give their children for Christmas. The Angel Trees were set up in shopping malls all across America. On the branches hung little angels with the name, age, and clothing size of the prisoner’s children.

Shoppers chose an angel, purchased the requested gifts or an alternative gift, and presented it to the volunteer sitting beside the tree. Although it is suggested that the gift not exceed $15, some shoppers spent twice as much in the spirit of Christmas. A few days before Christmas the gift is delivered to the prisoner’s child in the name of the parent.

Excitement abounds as prisoners ask each other what they are requesting for their children. Beautiful Christmas cards in multi-colored envelopes begin arriving, resulting in an atmosphere not felt during any other season of the year. Prisoners tape their Christmas cards on the walls of their cells for others to see, and each day re-read the hand written messages inside.

A few days earlier, the chaplain has gone throughout the institution making sure that everyone who wanted one was given a card to send home. The chaplain then dipped into his always limited "love fund" to make sure that the hardship cases had postage for their card. Chaplain’s assistants decorated the chapel with evergreen boughs, bright banners and a live Christmas tree.

Volunteer groups begin coming in, extending best wishes and bringing refreshments and gifts consisting of fresh fruit, homemade fudge, socks and toiletry items...sometimes with a Christmas tract strategically placed.

On Christmas Eve, the prison factory closes early and visiting hours are extended. Family and friends who come to visit are the highlight of the day, but the annual Christmas Eve play, whose actors are the prisoners themselves, runs a close second. Much preparation and excitement, and much to do about nothing goes into the play, from the screening of the cast to the full dress rehearsal.

Then the holiday arrives at last. Within reason, the guards will turn their heads on some rules and regulations normally enforced, such as dress codes, shakedowns and group gatherings. Prisoners try, with some difficulty, to be nice to the guards, and guards, with the same difficulty, try being nice to the prisoners. Both prisoners and guards will breathe a sigh of relief when Christmas is over, knowing both sides have come through without any trouble or injuries.

The prison buzzer will be delayed so the prisoners can sleep late, then all will gather in the mess hall for the highlight of the day...Christmas dinner. The kitchen crew go all out to prepare what the prisoners have requested, including a mouth-watering dessert.

This is the one day of the year when family members (not friends) are allowed to enter the cafeteria to eat with their loved one. It is a time of introducing their families to their friends. Those who do not have family visitors are usually invited to sit with those who do, and sort of "adopt a family" for the day.

This is a great time of healing and bonding between prisoners. Some will, of course, pretend to be too preoccupied for such frivolity, others, sadly, will fake a headache or stomach ache and need to return to their cells.

Recreational privileges will be extended, providing it’s a nice day for gathering in the yard. Most are on good behavior because no one wants to be placed in solitary over Christmas. Friends and family fill their loved one’s prison bank account which usually has a mandatory ceiling.

Prisoners who smoke exchange cigarettes for gifts. Those who don’t smoke exchange candy bars, stamps or toiletries. These items are normally used for bartering and illegal gambling inside prison.

Prisoners present craft shop leather goods to their families and used toys that have been donated by various civic groups. The prisoners have labored over these toys, repairing, sanding, polishing, and painting them until they look like new. Some of the "like new" toys are sent back to the civic groups to be distributed among the poor in the community.

Prisoners are more spiritually sensitive during Christmas than at any other time of the year. Some "make deals" with God, hoping to manipulate a miraculous pardon on Christmas Day, or an early release next year. Sneering at other inmates or at the festivities is frowned upon. Peer pressure controls this. Even non-Christian inmates are silent so as not to disturb the holiday for the others.

This is a day when the prisoner can feel contact with the outside world. Families around the world are celebrating...he will celebrate too. Even in this confined and confused setting, he feels at one with society. He does not feel like such an such a "loser".

But some have no Christmas memories except those spent in orphanages, foster homes, reformatories, and other prisons. For them depression sets in. They will purchase some of the drugs or liquor that an unscrupulous guard has smuggled in. Others will celebrate by getting a new tattoo, or by smoking the one cigar they have kept hidden away in order to have something special for themselves on Christmas day.

Some have been locked away so long they are unable to sense joy or happiness, except in a warped fashion, that usually results in pain for someone else. So they try to get all pumped up, to act happy without really knowing how or even why they should.

This results in a lot of shallow talking and forced laughter. Some will ask the chaplain to show them the proper way to cross themselves, some will ask for a cross to wear around their neck, while others will want the chaplain to tell them where to find the Christmas story in the Bible.

Christmas seems foreign in a prison an improper balance. No one wants to be where he is...especially today. Everyone is trying to feel significant. The Muslims and the American Indian Movement will busy themselves so as not to cause a fuss with the attempted celebration.

Another chapter has been written in the prisoner’s life. Let it read:

"Today I behaved and enjoyed as best I Christmas dictates. No guards got on my case. I was not sent for counseling or to lock-up. I did not fight or curse a guard. I was not written up...did not receive any tickets or told I need to attend an attitude adjustment class.

"For one day I did not plot the demise of my enemies or relive my trial. I conducted myself according to what I once was, and what I someday hope to be...not what I am.

"I cleaned my cell and shined my shoes. I sorted through my locker to find my best prison clothes, making sure there were no tears or patches on the shirt and that my trousers were ironed. While showering, I felt a strange expectation, and wished myself a happy Christmas. Shaving took on a new excitement and upon returning to my cell I said a prayer.

"I spoke to other prisoners I have never spoken to before. I wished both guards and prisoners ‘Season’s Greetings’. I could tell some of them were eagerly anticipating a greeting from me...a break in the routine...and they wished me the same.

"I don’t understand Christianity, but I went to chapel anyway. There I saw real women, genuine smiles, wholesome love, and heard great singing. I saw beautifully colored dresses, smelled perfumed candles and touched a member of the opposite sex...if only in a handshake. People even asked me my name...not my number.

"Blind it what you will, I made peace with my inner man...if only for a day. ‘Merry Christmas’...what a great, what a great Holy Day."

On the day after Christmas when the morning buzzer sounds, the prisoner may react exactly the opposite. He might spit on a guard or curse fellow prisoners.

But not today...because today is Christmas Day in prison.

Author’s note: Prisons, like churches, are all alike - yet different. In maximum security prisons, families would never be allowed access into the cafeteria, while in some minimum security units, prisoners are encouraged to earn "points" during the year which will allow them to spend Christmas Day at home.

Joe R. Garman, President
American Rehabilitation Ministries
P.O. Box 1490, Joplin, MO 64802