This is something I wrote down after seeing a client in prison 2 weeks ago. It is more like a diary entry than anything but forms part of the recurring thread of grace and grappling with ‘religiousness’ so decided to post it now.
Today was the last time I would see Luke* as I finish work at the prison law firm this week. As a lifer who has been in prison for 13 years, he is understandably anxious about his upcoming parole. And this means that visits with him are often fraught with miscommunication and tension. To be honest, I was expecting today to be worse. I had to tell him I was leaving and that level of disruption was bound – I thought – to tip him over the edge.
But something felt good about today. I was happy to see him – something about him has captured my heart over these months that I’ve known him. Not least his story, the fact that he is so honest about what he has done. The way he describes his feeling after the murder: of a great weight lifting from him before coming crashing back down again.
The way he describes his Jesus encounter: on his knees in his cell – shaking from heroin withdrawal and begging forgiveness through the cold, chattering sweat. Since that night, he has changed his plea to guilty and has, in a familiarly broken-beautiful way, trodden a tentative path towards healing.
It was good today. We talked over speckled photos of his son, taken before jail. Photos of his sister, his beautiful mum, his friends – his niece lifted up in his arms during a visit day in the prison a few months ago. We talked about God. He knows I am a Christian and says that’s one of the reasons he trusts me.
He brought out his Bible, with his name printed in gold along the bottom, and with a cheeky glint in his eye asked me what God’s name is. Chastised me for not calling Him Jehovah – ‘these new fangled translations which use lots of different names!’ In Hebrew the word Jehovah is used ‘oh I can’t remember how many times’. A lot, anyway, he said.
As the guards began shouting for us to begin leaving – me ushered towards one door, Luke the other – he asked if he could give me a hug as we may not see each other again. I was in lawyer mode, stuck out my hand, shook my head. ‘Aw, my old lawyer used to!’ he said.
So I found myself giving in. We hugged and he stepped on my toe. It flashed through my mind as we were in that moment that he had killed someone. I hated myself for even thinking it – but was surprised by how kind his hug felt and how much Love was inhabiting that space. Something about it moved me nearly to tears.
I think at that moment of physical connection a lot happened. I thought afresh on what he had ‘done’. I felt vulnerable for being so physically close. I felt guilty for entertaining such a thought. I felt an ache at the thought that hugs must be somewhat rare here. There was sadness that despite all his progress, Luke is still in prison – and life is hard. He may never see his now grown up son again despite it being the aching desire of his heart.
There is a healing that stems from love and acceptance. I think that in that moment, we acknowledged our equality. We are each made in His image, and feel our way through this life in a wonderful and utterly fallible way.
These last few days of prison law work have opened my eyes to my terrifying humanity – of how often I sliced a loved one open with a glance, a word when stressed and under pressure. Of how judgement and pride so caustically colour my vision. Of how conditional my love is – hoarded close to my chest and given out when I feel the other has earned it.
I can’t apologise to Luke for the times when I had in my pride withheld my love and believed I was more entitled to grace. But my sense and my prayer is that in the minutes that unfolded today, the conversations over speckled photographs, the laughter, and the physical contact, there was forgiveness and grace.
Oh Lord, thank you for grace.
* Not his real name