19 April, 2010

What a Difference Jesus Makes

This coming Sunday, April 25, my church will be honoring me by marking Pastor Appreciation Day. They surprised me with a gift of bringing in some of my best friends I've ever had. These men were all men I met while in prison more than 26 years ago. Back in the day, we sang together in a Christian group we formed in Vienna Correctional Center, called "Heaven Fire." I cannot tell you how excited I am to be reunited with these guys. Two of them I have not seen in more than 24 years, and this will be the first time that we've all been together since Easter Sunday, 1984. One of the guys cannot make it, but it is going to be such a blast to be with all the others. I cannot thank my church enough for making this happen.

A few days ago I was thinking about all this and about my friends and a thought crossed my mind. While statistics vary some, they all agree that well over half, somewhere in the neighborhood of 60% or more of all male inmates that were released from prison from 1984 - 2006 returned to prison within 3 years. That's an incredible statistic, but what I noticed is this.... NONE of my friends who sang in our band has ever gone back. That's a strong statement, but you have to understand that as men were released, others stepped into their position in the band, and NONE of these guys (more than 10) ever went back. In fact, of our close friends, those who were also born again followers of Christ, I only know of one man who was ever returned to prison, and to very frank, I always felt that that man was shallow in his walk with Christ, and I kept him at a distance from me. But even including him, you include a good sized circle of friends, of which only one returned to prison. That totally blows away the statistical recidivism rate of roughly two of every three returning to prison within three years. So, what's the difference? I'd say it has to be Jesus Christ.

The prison system calls itself a "Corrections" system. I have to flatly say, little if anything is being corrected, which is why there is such a high recidivism rate. Simply locking a man (or woman) up does not change him. Well, maybe it does, because when you take a person and lock him up in a place where violence and evil is the norm rather than the exception, he is apt to become a product of the environment in which you have place him. They become comfortable there. (See a blog I wrote a couple of years ago "A Man Named Nod." ) The only way to change a person has to be an inward change, not an environmental change. In other words, it is a spiritual issue. The one man I referred to who did return to prison was a "con artist." The reason he was in prison when I met him was because he had been running "con games" on people. He'd even impersonated a priest on several occasions in order to make his schemes more believable. While I liked this guy, I never trusted him, because I always felt he was running a game. On the other hand, the other men I am referring to, I'd trust any one of them with my very life. In fact, one of them was the Best Man in my wedding. You'd have to sit down and talk with these men to really see what I am talking about, but on the surface, we are all as different as night and day, from different backgrounds and walks of life. Ethnically, some are white, some black, one from Panama, one Puerto Rican..., some from the city, some from the country... my point is, the bond we had was not in "normal" life circumstances. The bond was found in Christ. The force that changed our lives was not religion or church... it is Christ. Within this group, there are former gang members, drug dealers and runners, murderers, armed robbers and thieves... you name it... but the key word is former. When Jesus came into our lives, we were born again; old things passed away and all things became new. That's the difference. It was not about learning a new way of life, it was about being born again with a new nature. I'm so thankful, first of all that Jesus has done in my life since that day I met him in June of 1981, but I am also thankful that my friends found Jesus as well. Guys, where would we be without Jesus? I don't even want to think about it.

Maybe you are reading this and you are looking for a life change. I want to tell you clearly that the difference is not found in religion, programs or just in church. It is only in a relationship with Jesus that you will find what you are looking for.

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