Monday in Holy Week

by Matthew B. Harper

Heb 12:1 – Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.

The Christian life is a fine balancing act. It is a balance of working to have meaning and purpose, while also taking care of the cares and concerns of our present life. This requires balance.

Paul often talks of ‘working’, of ‘running’ of ‘toiling’ in his ministry and life. We try to follow this example by being busy, but business is a far cry from purposeful action. Modern life seems to be about running very fast just to stay still, and this is pointless. Action must have purpose.

The life of a monk is a good example of a balanced life. They live a daily schedule of study, toil, prayer, and worship. When the monks can live a good schedule then great peace and balance are found. And yet a monk, by definition, does not have the blessed chaos of a spouse or young children.

In prison we have a lot of free time, but it is rigidly divided up into blocks of time, divided by counts, meals, searches, and other security procedures. So it becomes necessary to designate blocks of time for prayer, work, study, rest, and other vocations. I take a lot of guidance from the monks, and the prison becomes my monastery. It is amazing that when you get out of bed a few minutes earlier, to study and pray, that it does more for your soul than that little bit of sleep. When you turn your TV off for a while, that you really don’t miss anything. Prayer can be done in cars or on buses; you can read the Bible while in the bathroom.

Carve out some time this week for God, try to find some balance, think and pray. Make your actions purposeful.

Almighty God: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through thy son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen” BCP 168

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Palm Sunday

by Matthew B. Harper

Psalm 22:1 – My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Throughout all of Jesus’ travels, through all of his earthly ministry, Jesus often went away to be alone to pray; but not so on this night. On this night, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus kept his friends close. I believe it was in this garden, on this night, when our salvation was truly forged. Jesus pleads with God, he begs to avoid the horror of the crucifixion, and then he follows God’s will.

When I was preparing to come to prison I too surrounded myself with friends. We are together and talked. They helped me pack up some of my belongings for long-term storage, and I gave much away to them. The morning before I went away a group of friends came over to my house and our rector celebrated communion with us. Before leaving, my Love and I held each other close, and then I left. I went to prison with my head up, but it was only by the strength of my faith and my friends that I was able to do so. And when I broke down in fear, pain, and regret many times in the next few years, it was those friends that have given me strength, and taught me how to be a better man.

We are not meant to walk this journey through the world on our own. God has given us a great gift in the presence of each other, and we should draw strength from that. Even in the depth of his pain our Lord turned to us, lowly mortals, for companionship and comfort. Can we do any less?

So if it is listening when someone is in distress, holding someone when they cry, or simply standing beside someone when tragedy strikes, be there when you are needed.

Almighty God and everlasting God, who sent thy Son our Savior to take upon him our flesh, and to suffer death upon the cross: mercifully grant that we may both follow in the example of His patience, and also be partakers of His resurrection, Amen” BCP168

Saturday, Fifth Week in Lent

by Matthew B. Harper

Exodus 11:6 – Then there will be a loud cry throughout the whole land of Egypt, such as has never been or will be ever again.

The story of the Exodus is one of the foundational narratives of the Bible and the Jewish people everywhere. I have had the honor of being invited to share the Passover meal with a devout Jewish family, and it was a powerful ceremony of remembrance and deliverance.

But I have never been comfortable with the manner in which God delivered the Israelites. The Bible mentions repeatedly that it was God who hardened Pharaoh’s heart. God made his heart hard, and then punished him for having a hardened heart! And the final plague, the death of the firstborn of all Egypt, is a horror difficult to imagine.

But it is the punishment for their sinful state, and for the cruelty and oppression they inflicted upon God’s chosen people.

On this Day 2000 years ago Jesus prepared to celebrate the Passover meal. He remembered the sacrificial blood of the Lamb, even as he was about to become our sacrifice. The text of today’s reading reminds us that this great pain will never be again! The blood of their sacrifice saved the people of God in Egypt, and now all of us are kept safe by the blood of the eternal sacrifice – the Lord Jesus the Christ.

O Lamb of God that takest away the sins of the world,

Have mercy upon us

O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world,

Have mercy upon us

O lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world,

Grant us thy peace

Friday, Fifth Week in Lent

by Matthew B. Harper

2 Corinthians 4:8-9– We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed;

If there is a theme song for our community church it is the praise song ‘Trading My Sorrows.’ The bridge for the song is based on this passage “I am pressed but not crushed, persecuted but not abandoned, struck down but not destroyed, I am blessed beyond the curse for the promise that endures that His joy will be my strength.” That is such a beautiful assurance.

Our culture tells us over and over again to simply ‘be happy’. But I have wasted many years trying to be happy, and it is a totally false preoccupation. It always requires something to be happy. Happiness comes from an external source. In prison our lives are almost totally devoid of the things that would make us happy. Yet we sing this song with great joy and abandon because we agree with every word. The feeling that allows us to be ‘struck down but not destroyed’ comes from the Holy Spirit that dwells within us, not from stuff.

As a child of God we should be in search for a reason for happiness. We have all of the stuff to live, but often nothing to live for. My reason is that deep from within I know the joy of the Lord, and that joy is my strength.

As the verse of that song goes “I’m trading my sorrows, I’m trading my pain, I’m laying it all down for the joy of the Lord.” I’m trading my search for happiness; I’m trading it all for the joy of the Lord.

That it may please thee to forgive our enemies, persecutors, and slanderers, and to turn their hearts to you, We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord” BCP 152

Thursday, Fifth Week in Lent

by Matthew B. Harper

2 Corinthians 3:12 – Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness.

Jesus didn’t pull any punches. He spoke with great boldness of a gospel message that defied all conventional social laws. He denounced the corrupt and the blind, and he offered them a way to God.

It is such an amazing thing that we may call God our dearest father, our “abba.” And this is no less than how Christ referred to God. It is from this relationship that our boldness should spring. We must, out of our hope and our great love, be willing at times to speak the truth regardless of the risk of offending someone.

We have great hope in Christ, and this blessed assurance should empower us to be bold, but often it doesn’t. We are shy in our love, be if for humans or God. We will proclaim our love for our favorite sports team on our clothing and we will espouse political doctrine on the bumpers of our cars, but we will be quiet about God.

I do not suggest that everybody should suddenly become a “Bible-thumpin’-Christian” but simply that we need to be bold about who we are when the chances present themselves. St. Francis of Assisi once said we should “proclaim the Gospel always, use words only when necessary.” If you are not bold in your speech, be bold in your lifestyle, and always be bold in your faith.

That it may please thee to strengthen such as do stand; to comfort and help the weak-hearted; to raise up those who fall; and finally to beat down Satan under our feet, We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord” BCP 152

Wednesday, Fifth Week in Lent

by Matthew B. Harper

2 Corinthians 3:3 – …you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.

In prison, we are often moved between institutions. Such movement comes without warning. The officers simply show up and tell a man to pack up, and within 24 hours he very may well be on the other side of the state.

In our Christian communities here these very words take on special new meanings. I have good friends at my institution, and we work to preach and minister to each other, but we may also leave at any given moment. We work hard to prepare each other as a letter of Christ. When a young man comes to the faith, we rejoice. But we know that what we are seeing is a turning point on a journey that started long before we entered into the young man’s life. And when this same man is sent away, we have to trust and pray that wherever he arrives, his new faith will be ‘watered’ by the Christian community there.

This is no different from what all of us experience in all of our lives, and no different from what parents go through when their children grow up and move out. I have felt terrible frustration in my life when I worked to teach and minister to a man, only to see him transfer, or be released, still on a path of destruction. I can only trust that I might have been able to sow seeds that will be watered by others, and harvested in God’s time.

So we must simply commit ourselves to working for God everywhere and with whomever God places before us, at all times, in all places.

That it may please thee to give us true repentance; to forgive us all our sins, negligence, and ignorance; and to endure us with the grace of thy Holy Spirit to amend our lives according to thy holy Word, We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord” BCP 152

Tuesday, Fifth Week in Lent

by Matthew B. Harper

Psalm 122 – I lift my eyes to the hills, from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

There are few more beautiful places on earth than the southern Appalachian Mountains. And down in those mountains is a small women’s university that has special significance for my family. Their motto is from the opening lines of this beautiful psalm.

As a child I used to ask my mother what the Latin motto meant, and she would refer me to this psalm. As I have aged, and especially during my incarceration, this psalm has taken a special place in my heart. When I look to the walls around me, I remember where my help comes from. When I feel like I will be pushed around, I remember who it is that keeps my feet firm. When I grow tired and feel defeated, I remember that the Lord who protects me never grows weary or sleeps. When I battle strong temptations, I remember who it is that will keep me from evil. And when my heart breaks over the length of years ahead of me in prison, I remember whom it is that keeps all my comings and goings.

A prisoner who loses his faith is doomed. He is doomed to fear, anger, and self-destruction. Whenever I feel overcome, I remember what and who my faith is rooted in. And I often recite to myself this psalm.

That it may please thee to have mercy upon all mankind, We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord” BCP152

Monday, Fifth Week in Lent

by Matthew B. Harper

Exodus 4:10-11 – But Moses said to the Lord “O my Lord, I have never spoken eloquently”… Then the Lord said to him “Who gives speech to mortals… Is it not I, the Lord?”

Moses had the same reservations that many of us have when we are called out of our comfort zone to serve the Lord. We are fearful and nervous. Our fear and our calling seem to be at war with each other. But, as one of our chaplains in here constantly reminds us “The Lord does not call the equipped, he equips the called.”

All to often we underestimate the gifts that we have been given, and we are afraid to step out in faith when we feel called. One of the greatest joys I have been a part of is when the leaders of the church can gather and discuss how to raise up new leaders, new teachers, and new readers. Many men feel called by God, but until we have a chance to call them forward, they remain silent. We underestimate the comfort and strength of the Lord that can speak through us.

And we underestimate how bad things can get. As a people we underestimate our ability to suffer, and we underestimate our ability to endure suffering. We do not realize what great strength we have to rely upon in the Lord.

God’s power isn’t coercive in our lives. God will call us, we must answer. In the Book of Revelation, Jesus tells us he is at the door knocking, but it is still we who must open the door and invite him in.

So when God calls you out of your comfort zone, trust and rely upon the Lord. When God calls you, God equips you.

That it may please thee to have mercy upon all mankind, We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord” BCP 152

Fifth Sunday in Lent

by Matthew B. Harper

John 12:36 – While you have the light, believe in the light so that you may become children of the light.

I remember well the day I sat in the jail and watched the horror of Columbine unfold on the news. That event defined for the world the anger and fear in my generation. And only a few short years later I was on a transportation bus listening to the horror of the September 11th attacks unfold. Both events were crimes and horrors of such great magnitude. It seemed and felt as if the darkness of the world was overcoming all the good.

But as time went past we began to see the full picture. In the face of fear and death we heard about teachers and students who helped others and saved lives. We heard not just about the bravery of the firefighters, police, and E.M.T.s, but also the courage and heroism of secretaries and stockbrokers. We heard about the airplane passengers like Mark Beemer who died to save others, and the martyrdom of a young woman named Cassie Bernal who died because she refused to deny God when someone put a gun to her head. And for me the greatest act was when the students of Columbine erected crosses for their fallen friends, and also put up two crosses for the murderers. They had done such horrible things, but were also victims of fear, hate, rejection, and hopelessness.

The world is, at times, a very dark place and there are times when God seems silent. But God is never silent. God is with us, and we are the lights shining in the world. It is only when the night is the darkest, that the light shines the brightest.

O Almighty God, who alone canst order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men: Grant unto thy people that they may love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise; that so, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, one God, now and for ever. Amen” BCP 167

Saturday, Fourth Week in Lent

by Matthew B. Harper

Psalm 108 – My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast

1 Corinthians 13:8 – Love never ends.

The Bible seems clear that, more than anything else from us, God wants our steadfast love. God values our faith, and what is faith if not a steadfast heart focused on God.

It is possible, maybe even guaranteed, that you will love people who will hurt you, and you will love people who you don’t always like very much. We disappoint and hurt each other all too often, but steadfast love will endure all things and it never ends.

Some of my friends from before prison are still my friends during prison. They aren’t my friends because I never made them mad; because I never hurt them; or because they have always liked me. They are my friends because their steadfast love for me was greater than their anger.

In a world where divorce is rampant and destructively out of control, I have seen some prisoners’ marriages survive for years in spite of their hardships. The couples’ love is steadfast. There are some people who were in my life, and we loved each other dearly, but prison was too hard to stay in touch. The love has changed, but the love has never died.

God’s love for us encompasses all that we have done, and all that we might do. God’s love for us is steadfast. The Israelites constantly disobeyed God, and God remained steadfast in Love. I have disobeyed God in horrible ways, and God has never stopped showing me the mercy and grace of God’s love. The enduring power of God’s Love is the greatest force in all of creation.

Love is steadfast, anything less is less then love.

That it may please thee to support, help, and comfort all who are in danger, necessity, and tribulation, We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord” BCP 151