Earlier this week I watched a powerful documentary on people being released from prison. It was a story of two men who were sentenced under California’s outdated and recently reformed Three Strikes Law. Simply stated the law demanded that any criminal who was arrested and found guilty three times received a harsh prison sentence often 25 years to life. After almost 20 years of being in place, the penal system and the citizens of California realized it wasn’t effective, led to overpopulation in the jails, severely impacted people of color, and left a trail of broken families in its wake.
The documentary follows two of the thousands of men who have been released for petty, non-violent crimes, after serving decades in jail. The transition for both of them was difficult, however, one was able to get back on his feet stay clean and sober, get married and be promoted in his job. The other man, who had a strong family and church structure, struggled mightily. Old demons such as drugs and mental health issues kept him unbalanced and unable to find his groove the way the first man did. At the end of the documentary both men were still out and making their way the best they could.
As I watched the film I couldn’t help but feel for both of these men. I work with men who are incarcerated and addicted. Addiction is a powerful force for evil and destruction. Incarceration can also be a doorway to a life of crime and recidivism but I’ve also seen men who learn how to make different choices so as not to end up in the same predicament.
Men who do three things greatly reduce their chance of going back to jail or getting back into their addiction. The first is having a positive home environment that might not necessarily be with their biological family. The second is a full-time job, a chance to do something and receive. The third might be most important and that is living a life around positive people, folks who will pull you up not drag you down. These three things, which most of us take for granted, will help men stay balanced, sure-footed, and on the path to a new life.
1 I lift up my eyes to the mountains where does my help come from?
2 My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.
3 He will not let your foot slip he who watches over you will not slumber;
4 indeed, he who watches over you will neither slumber nor sleep.
5 The Lord watches over you the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
6 the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.
7 The Lord will keep you from all harm, he will watch over your life;
8 the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.
Into the Light –
Today was a special day for our incarcerated fathers class. The men, who attended and participated, received a certificate of completion, a letter from me along with pizza and soft drinks. Our certificate ceremony isn’t fancy but it is a way to let the guys know how much I appreciate letting me be a part of their lives for the semester.
Getting in and out of the jail is rarely easy which is, I suppose, the way it should be. There’s buzzers, intercoms, thick steel doors and tempered glass to keep people inside. Usually, I arrive at each door, buzz the “door keeper” and identify myself. I then wait until he or she is ready for me to go through the door. Today, however, the corrections officer was especially attentive as I was leaving. He buzzed me out as I was arriving at each door. It was almost as if the doors were unlocked.
In one of our classes during the semester, we talk about action and acceptance. I tell the men; “If the doors of this jail opened and you knew it was okay to walk through you would leave immediately, no hesitation. The problem is this isn’t going to happen. You have to accept you are here until they let you leave. At the same time, you can take action on keeping your family together and connected with the ones you love.” This is the balance of action and acceptance.
I thought about the men in my class today, the lesson of action and acceptance and their decision to come to class, listen, ask questions, share their stories and finally receive their certificates. They are trying to bring balance to their lives and hopefully to those who are travel life’s path with them.
Grace and Work –
Someone asked me today; “So, is it grace or works which get us into heaven?” My answer was; “Yes.” After a moment to let the words sink in I went on to explain that grace is God’s “unmerited favor” or “God’s love for us is absolute even if we never love God in return.”
“Grace is given to us and then we give it to others. This is the ‘work.'” We are blessed to receive God’s spirit of love, forgiveness, and kindness and in return, we give it to others. When grace touches the deepest part of us our worldview, the reason for living and being, come into focus. We are placed here, at this time and place, to give God’s love, forgiveness, and kindness to others.
Too often; “work” is made out to be dogma, discipline, dutiful acts of trying to be good and acceptable to the God who alone is good and has already accepted us. “Work,” should be a celebration. We freely give to others what we have freely accepted.
Not Ready –
At the end of my lecture today to a group of fathers and men suffering from the disease of addiction I asked those who have wives, girlfriends, partners who are pregnant or children of a certain age to stay for a few moments after everyone leaves so I can talk to them more about some of the services our organization offers. I do this after each talk given at this addiction treatment center. It doesn’t take long and usually the men oblige with no hesitation. Today, however, there was one father, I asked to remain, who flatly refused.
My first impulse was to say; “Why? Don’t you want to help your family? Don’t you need every resource possible so you and your family can break the cycle of addiction which is so prevalent in kids when they have parents who are abusers of drugs?” There was a rush of frustration and anger at the nonchalant way he refused help when I had just spent an hour talking about choosing to live a clean life and the impact this choice has on families. However, I bit my tongue, dismissed the group and spoke with those who decided to stay.
Wisdom teaches us to focus on the ones who are ready to receive not those who aren’t willing or able to grasp the hand extended to help. There is a temptation to keep chasing after those who run from us at the expense of those who are right in front of us, hands out, ready to receive. Part of our persistence in running after those who refuse is ego. We believe we’re the ones to “save” them and if the opportunity is missed they will be lost forever.
Wisdom, however, tells us; “When the person is ready the teacher, savior, will appear.”
Better Things –
A few weeks ago we bought a new riding lawn mower (https://thewannabesaint.com/2016/06/15/need-help/). At checkout we learned that we’d receive in the mail a $50 gift card. This past week a letter arrived in the mail stating that unfortunately we had not met the requirements for the receipt of the gift card. Beth knew we had more than spent and done what was necessary to receive the card and called to complain. After explaining what had happened to the Lowe’s customer assistant, she was assured that not only were we eligible for a gift card but that it was $200 instead of $50. Awesome! If a $50 gift card would have arrived in the mail we wouldn’t have thought twice about it, spent it and moved on with life. Only because we were denied what we thought we earned did we receive an even greater gift.
When I was in high school I dated a young woman my junior and senior year. I graduated a year before she did and went off to college. Not long after arriving at school I received a phone call from her stating she no longer wanted to be a couple. Her words broke my heart. I remember praying that somehow we’d get back together but it never happened. A few months later I met Beth and we’ve been married for over 26 years.
Often in life we don’t receive what we expect or think we deserve. Our first reaction might be to complain and demand satisfaction for the loss. Perhaps we should not be so hasty. As C.S. Lewis wrote; “there are far greater things ahead of us than what we leave behind.”
A few months ago I spoke with someone who was heartbroken over the life choices being made by someone they cared for deeply. It was an agonizing conversation and a stark reminder of how little control we have over another’s path. We fool ourselves rather easily when it comes to those we care for and the way their life ultimately unfolds. We like to think we can convince them to turn around, take a right or left, choose the way we believe is best for them. In truth, this power eludes us. We have no more real control over another being than waves that roll on the ocean, a moon staying in orbit, whether or not the sun shines. Good or bad, right or wrong, negative or positive another’s ability to set out on a course cannot be diverged from unless the other chooses to do so or gives their power over to someone or something else.
What we do have control over is our reaction to their actions, our responses to their choices. Will love or rejection be the way, grace or condemnation shown, presence or absence in one whose life choices we struggle with, don’t understand, would change if we were able. One of the hardest and most difficult battles in life is the acceptance that each of us choose our path and the ultimate destination.