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

Friday, Fourth Week in Lent

by Matthew B. Harper

1 Corinthians 13:2 – And if I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have faith… but do not have love, I am nothing.

In prison I see what some people call “Christianity” in the way that they despise prisoners. They are quick to cut freedoms, programs, opportunities, and education. They scorn prison ministry as a waste of time. They believe that the Christian focus for prison has to be the ‘eye for an eye’ that appears in the Old Testament.

But in prison I have also found true Christianity. I have seen it in the work of the men and women who come into the prisons to teach the faith, to lift up the men to better lives, and to love them as God does. These people believe that the basis for ministry in prison is ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” These people are not on any crusade to free prisoners from prison, just to free them from despair and sin.

Which side are you on? We are commanded to test all things by the spirit, and we are warned that many will come to us preaching the name of Christ, and they will be false messengers. We are taught to judge what is proclaimed by the fruit that it bears. The true work of God in the prisons brings forth repentance and newness of life. It brings forth not only clean and godly living on the outside, but it brings forth peace and joy. That is the true work of God.

Whatever your knowledge, whatever your faith, whatever your politics, whatever you have, do, or are; if you do not act out of love, then all else is as nothing.

That it may please thee to visit the lonely: to strengthen all who suffer in mind, body, and spirit; and to comfort with thy presence those who are failing and infirm We beseech thee to hear us good Lord” BCP 151

Thursday, Fouth Week in Lent

by Matthew B. Harper

1 Corinthians 12:20 – As it is, there are many members, yet one body.

I always thought that prison was full of thugs, thieves, rapists, and murderers; and it is. But prison is also full of artists, poets, musicians, teachers, and ministers. God has given everybody a different gift.

But all of us are in prison. We came to prison because we didn’t use the gifts we were given, or we misused them. Ultimately it matters very little what gifts we were given, what matters is how we use them.

All men are here because of misuse, but now many use their gifts properly. Our church is filled with beautiful singing and playing, our G.E.D. classes are taught by inmates as much as staff members, our Bible studies are taught by inmates, our art classes make Christian comic books and flyers, one brother has published poems, I play, I write, I teach. All of us serve each other for the glory of God. As a leader of the community here I work with other brothers to discern the gifts some people have, and we work to help them grow into using them for the glory of God.

Do not allow yourself to covet the gifts of others; do not allow yourself pride or regret over what you have or have not been given. Instead spend your time focusing on using the gifts God has given you for their proper purpose, not for your glory but for His.

That it may please thee to preserve, and provide for, all women in childbirth, young children and orphans, the widowed, and all whose homes are broken or torn by strife, We beseech thee to hear us good Lord” BCP 151

Wednesday, Fourth Week in Lent

by Matthew B. Harper

Mark 8:24 – And the man looked up and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.”

One girlfriend I had used to love to call me her “blind-as-a-bat boyfriend,” and that was before my eyes got really bad. When I told some prison friends I was learning sign language, they laughed and told me I should learn Braille. I’m nearly blind without my glasses, and without them people to me look like little more than trees walking. And my vision is slowly but steadily deteriorating. Yet I am at peace.

One source of strength in this is from a young woman I knew ten years ago who was totally blind. A college friend, she had the courage and faith to spend a year studying abroad in Paris. When I visited there it was she who was my tour guide.

The eye doctor has joked with me and told me only one man at the prison has worse vision; it turns out that he is a friend of mine. He is the drummer of a band I am in, and diabetes has left him almost totally blind. You would assume that his handicap would leave him a perpetual victim in prison, and the reverse is true. The men in here look out for him, help him, and accommodate him in many little ways.

And it is fair to say that all of us know well many people who are spiritually blind. Their vision may be 20/20, but their eyes are blind to the ways of God. Jesus opened the worldly eyes of this man, but only after the man begged Jesus to touch him. His spiritual eyes were working just fine.

God has opened my eyes and ears to his ways and his being. My earthly eyes are in His hands, and I am at peace whatever happens, because I am in His hands.

That it may please thee to preserve all who are in danger by reason of their labor or their travel, We beseech thee to hear us good Lord.” BCP 151

Tuesday, Fourth Week in Lent

by Matthew B. Harper

Genesis 49:29,33 – Then he charged them… When Jacob ended his charge to his sons, he drew up his feet into the bed, breathed his last, and was gathered to his people.

My sentence is very long. A few days after I was sentenced I spoke with my father over the phone. He told me that he might not live long enough to see me again as a free man. That is, to me, a terrifying and sobering thought.

My dad and I have always had a difficult relationship. I am now incarcerated, I am his only surviving child, and strangely we have a better relationship than any I can ever remember. And it is important to me to be in as deep a relationship with him as I can be. I read his books and talk frequently to him and my stepmother when he is in the country. Both of us value our relationship more than we did.

Dad has quit smoking and lost weight, but still lives a high-stress life. I hope and pray that we have time to once again go fishing and hiking; but his father died very young and I fear the odds are not in our favor.

I live my life with a lot of regrets—we all do—but let us not be allowed to regret damaged or broken relationships that can still be mended in the hear and now. As long as there is life for us, there is hope. If there are broken relationship in your life, reach out to heal them. If others reach out to you, accept them. In the Old Testament everybody seems to die peacefully and in the proper time, but in our lives it is seldom that way. You are not promised tomorrow, so make peace today. That will be something you never regret.

That it may please thee to inspire us, in our callings, to do the work which thou givest us to do with singleness of heart as thy servants, and for the common good, We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord” BCP 151

Monday, Fourth Week in Lent

by Matthew B. Harper

Mark 7:28 – But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children‘s crumbs.”

Prison ministry is unpopular. It isn’t often thought of, and the few people who decide to work in it often approach it with fear and apprehension. We are always hard pressed to raise donations and to find willing volunteers. We gladly settle for the ‘crumbs’ from the regular ministries. I am writing this on a used donated computer, work in a library full of used donated books, and play music on a used donated guitar. The music is at least a joyful noise to the Lord.

Jesus came to minister to the sick, the friendless, and the needy. Jesus did not come for the healthy; he came as a physician to heal the sick. Who were the children that this lady spoke of? The Gentiles. Us.

In prison ministry or any other, spend your time ministering to those people who most need it, not those who you think most deserve it.

Please remember prison ministry and other non-traditional ministries when you make your tithe of money and time. Even small gifts of yours, or a short period of your time, can make a profound impact on the life of another.

That it may please thee to give and preserve to our use the bountiful fruits of the earth, so that in due time all may enjoy them, We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord” BCP 151

Fourth Sunday in Lent

by Matthew B. Harper

Luke 1:32-33 – …the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever.

Jesus, the eternal Lord, sits upon the throne of David. Prisoners love the story of David. David the great king was also David the murderer and adulterer. In David’s story we see great sin, but also profound repentance and deep faith. On this the holy dynasty was founded.

Did David suffer for his sins? Of course. David lost his kingdom for a time, his family, and the son conceived in adultery died. But all of his suffering changed him, and it rooted his faith even deeper. David wasn’t strong enough to be used by God. He became weak enough.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said “the cross we bear always proceeds the cross we wear.”

We all bear our cross. We all sin. We all suffer. In well-to-do suburban churches this is not a common or easy truth, so learn it from those who know it intimately. We all sin and fall short of the glory of God. When we are able approach God with profound repentance, and are willing to remain steadfast in our faith, God will use us, and transform us. Everyone is capable of repentance, and from a position of profound repentance you can be weak enough to be used by God and raised to great heights.

Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which giveth life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen” BCP 167

Saturday, Third Week in Lent

by Matthew B. Harper

1 Corinthians 10:11 – These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us.

As people we learn by example, and we are instructed upon the authority of others. We learn from books, and by teaching, and by following the examples of those who have come before us.

When I first came to prison I knew that I knew nothing. I knew the tales and legends about prison, but nothing else. All I had to guide me was my faith and my integrity. It didn’t take me long to identify the leaders of the different communities and groups in the prison, and to begin to see their character.

We learn from others, so we must choose carefully and deliberately from whom we would learn and who our leaders will be. I owe a great debt of gratitude to many of the older cons who were men of great faith and integrity, and also well respected within the prison environment. Over the years these men have taught me how to live a life that I could respect, that would steer me clear of most of the troubles in prison, and how to stand rock solid when trouble comes to find me.

When we embark on any new task, in any new phase of our life, or need any guidance, then we must seek out good people to be our guides and examples. We must allow our selves to be guided by the spirit in this. And then we must learn from what they offer. And never underestimate the power of someone in authority to influence people, so be mindful of those who would learn from you. Choose your examples well. And be a good example to others.

That it may please thee to show pity upon all prisoners and captives, the homeless and the hungry, and all who are desolate and oppressed, We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.” BCP 151

Friday, Third Week in Lent

by Matthew B. Harper

Mark 6:51-52 – And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened

We like to look to the Apostles as men of faith. We remember how they taught, ministered, and remained faithful unto death. But when we look to the Gospels and the book of Acts, we see that they were much more human. They suffered from doubts and fears. They walked beside Jesus everyday, and they often missed the point. Often Christ is frustrated and angry with the disciples because of their inability to realize who he was, or what His true purpose was.

But they were willing to follow Christ, to trust Christ, and to become transformed. Christ did not choose them because they “got it” or because they were great men of faith or intellect when they started. He called them because of what they could become, and then he helped them become it.

“He [a Christian] does not think that God will love us because we are good, but rather that God will make us good because he loves us; just as the roof of a greenhouse does not attract the sun because it is bright, but rather becomes bright because the sun shines upon us.”

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

God chose you, not because of what you were, but because of whose you were and what you will become. This Lent don’t just put something aside, or take something on; this Lent – be transformed.

That it may please thee to make wars to cease in all the world; to give to all nations unity, peace, and concord; and to bestow freedom upon all peoples, We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.” BCP 151

Thursday, Third Week in Lent

by Matthew B. Harper

Mark 6:37 – But He answered and said to them, “You give them something to eat.”

On Easter Sunday in 2003 I decided I would cook food for anybody in my housing pod who would eat. Prison food here is much better than most, but it is possible to combine different foods from the canteen to cook up something special. With plenty of advance planning I saved some money and assembled quite a spread. I had some friends in the kitchen acquire vegetables and spices; from the canteen I got some of every good food offered. They served boiled eggs for breakfast that morning, and we brought dozens back to the building. My mom taught me how to cook, and my friends were looking forward to it this feast.

But things in prison are never that easy. Some of my friends don’t like some of my other friends. Everybody wanted some of the food, but some insisted on eating at separate tables, away from each other. I grieved over this, but agreed. I wanted to do this for them. When it came time to cook and prepare the food we had ten men show up to my cell to help cook. We had guys from all over showing up with cold sodas to drink and cookies for desert. One of my kitchen connections refused to let me pay them for the vegetables. We fed over twenty men, and most of the ones who didn’t help cook, helped clean. It was Easter, and it was good. Most of my cooking helpers were Christians and we prayed over the food as we fixed it. Our prayers were answered.

Some say Jesus feeding 5000 men is a miracle; others say that all he did was convince the crowd to share. To me that is a miracle either way.

That it may please thee so to rule the hearts of thy servants, this nation, and all in authority, that they may do justice, and love mercy, and walk in the ways of truth, We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord” BCP 150