Holy Saturday

by Matthew B. Harper

Job 14:14 – If Mortals die, will they live again? All the days of my service I would wait until my release should come.

I live less than a hundred yards from Virginia’s Death Chamber. Death row is at another prison, but inmates are transferred here in a special van few days before their execution and we can see when it is parked outside the fence.

Tonight, over two thousand years ago, the Apostles locked themselves into an upper room and were in despair. Their leader and friend had just been brutally murdered and they had no anticipation of the resurrection. They probably sat and prayed, they may have hoped, they may have despaired.

Every time there is an execution here the chaplain is on call to minister to the condemned man in his last few hours. It is by far the most demanding job he has ever had in his decades of ministry. The night of an execution we are all on a modified lockdown status, and there is always a group of the believers who sit in their individual cells and pray. We pray for forgiveness for this man, for his faith, for the families of his victims, and for his family.

Ultimately, like Job, we do not know what happens after our death. But unlike those disciples of years ago we do know about the resurrection. We know what happened on Easter morning. I condemn the murder of murderers, I think it speaks to the depravity of our society, but I find strength in the word of the holocaust survivor Viktor Frankel: “We are the ones horrible enough to make a gas chamber, and also capable of walking into it with prayers and praise upon our lips.”

O God, creator of heaven and earth: Grant that, as the crucified body of thy dear Son was laid in the tomb and rested on this holy Sabbath, so we may await with Him the coming of the third day, and rise with him to newness of life; who now liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, on God, for ever and ever. Amen. BCP 170

Good Friday

by Matthew B. Harper

Luke 23:34 – Then Jesus said: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they are doing.”

Last night was a bad night. Sometimes I have a bad night, or bad hours here and there. Nightmares, bad thoughts, and generally spending my time mentally trapped in those horrible few hours when I did the horrible things that brought me to prison.

It was almost midnight, but on weekends we aren’t locked down till 1 AM. So I took a chance on my mom the night owl, and I got up and called home. Mom accepted the call, listened to me and told me she loved me. Then she turned to lighter things to talk about, and even made me laugh a little. I was able to sleep. The support and forgiveness from both of my parents is amazing and humbling.

Forgiveness? Those same parents are the parents of the person I killed. Anne Elizabeth wasn’t just my sister, she was their only daughter. They are the most direct living victims of the horrible things I have done. Their love for me is greater than their anger; and they have forgiven me.

I once asked my mother how she could possible forgive me and she replied: “I can’t. It is beyond me. It is of God.” The forgiveness from my parents is the greatest and most transforming gift I have ever received.

And as Jesus was being tortured and executed he begged his father to forgive his murderers. And God did.

Praise Be To God.

Almighty God, we beseech thee graciously to behold this thy family, for which our Lord Jesus Christ was contented to be betrayed, and given up into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross; who now liveth and reigneth with thee and thy Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen. BCP 169

Maundy Thursday

by Matthew B. Harper

Luke 22:26 – The greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.

It has been said that humility is the one virtue that once you think you have it, you don’t.

All of us suffer from a preoccupation with ourselves; we are prone to arrogance, to pride, to ego-centrism. And in our arrogance we lessen the very humanity of other people. What few of us stop to think about is that if we are first, it means we are forcing others to be last.

And you cannot conquer arrogance your pride by fighting it head on. The first reaction to such an endeavor is to always say “man, I’m beating this pride!” and there you go, taking pride in not being proud!

The path of Jesus was never to pretend to be less than he was, it was to show us that with the power of God we are more than we believe we are. The way to suppress pride is to elevate other people. When we approach other people as children of God, when we open our hearts to love them, when we see Christ in the eyes of every person we meet, then there will be no pride within us, no arrogance.

That is the Christ heart.

Almighty Father, whose dear Son, on the night before he suffered, did institute the Sacrament of His Body and Blood: Mercifully grant that we may thankfully receive the same in remembrance of Him who in these holy mysteries giveth us a pledge of life eternal, the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who now liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen, BCP 169

Wednesday in Holy Week

by Matthew B. Harper

Matthew 26:25 – Judas, who betrayed him, said “Surely not I, Rabbi?” He replied, “You have said so.”

According to Dante, Judas sits alongside Brutus in the 9th circle of hell. As people who betrayed those they were closest to, they are confined to the deepest circle of hell, chewed forever in the mouth of Lucifer. Creepy.

It is a subject I have thought of often over the years. During the legal process of my incarceration I had to endure people that I had loved and trusted, and those I hadn’t, speak up to denounce me and to betray my trusts. One in particular went from hateful before my crimes, to vindictive after them as she wrote letters to the judge as some self-appointed jury.

And yet I believe that there may be a place for Judas in heaven. I believe in a Christ who loved and forgave. On this night all those years ago Christ shared the Passover supper, in what would later be called the first communion, and he handed the cup of life itself to Judas. Christ knew of his betrayal, and he rejected him not. And this is the Christ of my faith, the one who knew intimately the worst that we are capable of, and loved us in spite of it.

I also know this Jesus because I have worked through his betrayal to make peace with mine. I am angry with no one, and I begrudge no one. I understand their pain and confusion, because I too have pain and confusion. If their betrayal came as a result of my own, then my sin is again at the root of my compassion for them.

I do not know if Judas is in hell, but if he is then I believe Jesus weeps for him, and reserves a seat for him in heaven.

O Lord God, whose blessed Son our Savior gave His back to the smiters and hid not His face from shame: Grant us grace to take joyfully the sufferings of the present time, in full assurance of the glory that shall be revealed. Amen. BCP 169

Tuesday in Holy Week

by Matthew B. Harper

Mark 11:15 – And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying…

I used to think that this verse was the root of all the arguments for a ‘righteous’ anger. And yet when I have reread this passage over and over again, there is no sign of the word ‘anger.’ Jesus made his point with action and judgment, but only out of necessity and not out of anger.

This action of Jesus is the end result of trying to teach people the right way, and having them disobey. I think Jesus actions were rooted in a great frustration with people who wouldn’t listen, or who listened and wouldn’t understand or obey. Jesus felt the need to do something dramatic, and also something very human.

We often react out of anger when we don’t know what else to do. When we are frustrated and fed up we lash out. But the problem is that when we lash out in anger we often defeat ourselves. Ultimately there is no way to gain the cooperation of an individual who is unwilling.

In the last twenty years society has increased sentences tenfold. There are more people incarcerated in the US than there are in communist China. And to me this seems like a white flag of defeat. We are admitting to a total failure to control society, and we are resorting to simple force and anger. This power may bring compliance, but it will never instill morality and beliefs.

Morality and beliefs come only through teaching and compassion. No ex-con has ever made it on the outside out of fear of prison, but almost no men who have become deeply involved in the love ministry of Kairos and the church have ever come back.

O God, who by the passion of thy blessed Son didst make an instrument of shameful death to be unto us the means of life: Grant us to glory in the cross of thy Son our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen” BCP 168

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

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