Is There a Lawyer in the House? Part 3 of 3

Subtitle: On Condemnation & Redemption: A Lenten reflection-series based on Romans 8

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Paul assures us that nothing and no one can condemn us, not even ourselves.

But how does this work? Where do we see it? Where can we see it and, therefore, know it?

At the heart of Paul’s testimony that Christ Jesus is our divine attorney, there is one and only one thing: I am convinced that…(nothing can) separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Romans 8.38, 39; my emphasis).

Here is where we can behold and believe. Love. How simple. How profound. And how true not only about the Divine nature, but, as importantly, how true, how real to our human experience.

When we give and receive love demonstrated in the kindness that, making no (refusing to make any) judgment about another’s deserving, offers a helping hand with no thought for itself and without desire or need for repayment…

When we give and receive love manifested in the patience that does more than merely tolerate, but genuinely accepts and celebrates the human dignity of another, no matter how different…

When we give and receive love revealed in the forgiveness that, conscious of one’s own suffering, seeks to soothe a contrite heart, counting no past wrong as an insurmountable barrier to God’s mercy…

Here is where we can behold and believe.

In all of this, I recall an encounter many years ago through which Paul’s words (perhaps for the first time and most memorable time in my experience) were more than inked on a page, but became incarnate, written in human flesh, thus, bearing living, breathing witness.[1]

I was a part in an ecumenical team of laity and clergy who were to spend a 4-day period in prison on spiritual retreat with an equal number of inmates. It almost didn’t happen. Six weeks before, there had been a riot, involving injuries to inmates and correctional officers and extensive property damage. The library, which was to serve as the main meeting space, had been set ablaze. Remaining, a burned-out shell of a room; the concrete floor and ceiling and cinderblock walls scarred with black soot.

The warden, after the investigation, discerning that none of the inmates who had been chosen to participate in the retreat had taken part in the uprising, graciously, amazingly allowed the planning to go forward.

On a late spring overcast afternoon, the team, each of us, our identification confirmed and our persons searched, was granted entrance. The library had been scrubbed, yet the tell-tale, nearly overwhelming stench of fire and smoke remained. And, bare of carpet, bookshelves and books, and any furniture, save for makeshift seats and benches of brick and plywood boards, there was an unexpected benefit, indeed, a blessing: The walls literally sang with the echoes of our voices.

For my role, I offered biblical meditations, the principal one based on Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son; the story, the reality of God’s unconditional love. As I spoke, I heard, first, a sniffle, then another and another, then muffled sobbing. The room dimly lit, I looked up into the faces of the inmates, our newfound brothers in Christ; some, their eyes awash with tears.

Later, I sat with several of my brothers for one-on-one tête-à-têtes, designed to offer confidential opportunity for them to say, to share whatever they desired…or not.

One, I vividly recall. Peter. Our conversation became his confession.

Peter, with a vigor that felt to me to burn with truth’s necessity, recounted the nature of his crime. The details – both of his offense and of his life before his offense – were gruesome. Although shaken to my soul’s depth, I sought to betray no outward evidence of shock, which Peter well may have perceived (and rightly!) as my judgment. For time on end, we sat silence. Finally, Peter, his head down, his elbows pressed hard into his knees, his hands tightly clasped, looked up.

“Can I call you Paul?” His voice was almost a whisper.

“Yes, of course.”

“Peter and Paul.” He sat up. “They were friends.”

“Yes,” I nodded, “they were.”

“Are we,” he stared squarely at me, “friends?”

“Yes,” in earnest, I leaned forward, “we are.”

“You mean that?” His tone was terse.

Yes, I do.”

Slightly, he turned his head, looking at me askance. “How can you mean that?”

“Because…” I paused, searching within, struggling to find a word, any word that might make some, any sense, “of Jesus’ parable.”

Smirking, he sat back. “I know that story, but I never thought it applied to me.”

“It does.”

“You really mean that?”

“Yes.”

“I’ve never known,” he shook his head, “either receiving or giving it. That kind of love. Any kind of love. And you’re telling me…you want me to believe that God gives it to me? To me?” With an open palm, he slapped his chest hard.

“Yes.”

Silence, again, for a time, and then for a time more, descended upon us. Then, slowly, Peter wiped away a single tear running down his cheek.

“You know, I’m sorry for what I did. I mean, really. I am sorry. And I know I won’t ever get out of here. This prison. Not one way or another. And anyway, not alive. But if God loves me like that prodigal son, and I’m taking your word for it, then I’ll take it. Because it means that no matter what happens to me, I’m finally free.”

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Who can bring a charge against us? Who can condemn us when Love intercedes for us?

Nothing.

No one.

Not even ourselves.

© 2021 PRA

Footnote: [1] This is a partial account of the events during a Kairos Prison Ministry retreat at the Lieber Correctional Institute, Ridgeville, South Carolina, in May 1986. The dialogue, though long ago, is true to my recollection.

7 thoughts on “Is There a Lawyer in the House? Part 3 of 3

  1. Paul,

    I’ve heard lots of PRA stories over the years, but this one about the retreat at the prison and the testimony of the inmate and his conversation with you knocked me over!!

    You didn’t even hesitate for a second with your answer to the question of whether the two of you were friends… and when he asked “really” I could actually feel your authenticity!!

    We all just want to be Free even if we are in some sort of prison! Just AMEN to the final piece of this series!!

    Love

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  2. Thanks, Loretta. This story, this true story is one I hadn’t thought about for quite the while. Whilst writing this Lenten reflection series, it came again to mind (the Holy Spirit brought it to my mind? Maybe!).

    And, now, having remembered, as I continue to reflect on it, it is a most striking example, a most salient realization for me of the truth of the Apostle Paul’s testimony. For Peter, in bondage in prison, to come to the belief that no matter his external circumstances and no matter how it was he was in prison, that he was free was witness to the meaning of the power of the spirit (the power of the Spirit) over and above all spatial and temporal realities.

    I wonder about Peter. I suppose that, now, 35 years later, that he is dead. I pray for his soul.

    Love

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  3. Paul,

    This is such a beautiful story. I am so glad it was laid upon your heart to tell it this Lenten season. It, I believe, has everything to say about what so many of us lack and thirst for all our days: the unequivocal assurance that we, despite whatever we have done, said, suffered, seen, or think we have been, are worthy. Worthy in the sight of at least one other human being on this earth and worthy in the sight of the One who created and placed us here. That we are worthy of notice, respect, and even love just by virtue of the fact that we exist, that we were “fearfully and wonderfully made” to stand upon this planet with every other being and thing that God created. Being able to receive that assurance is, without a doubt, the seed from which everything good that humankind has ever accomplished must spring.

    I am struck not only by your great patience and wisdom in your encounter with Peter (I’m so glad his name was Peter, as I am that yours is Paul), but also by the wisdom of Peter’s questions to you. He knew what to ask. He knew what he needed to hear. He somehow knew you could offer it. And he knew he could trust you to tell him the truth, just as you likewise could be trusted to hear his tragic truth.

    I love this recitation:

    “When we give and receive love demonstrated in the kindness that, making no (refusing to make any) judgment about another’s deserving, offers a helping hand with no thought for itself and without desire or need for repayment…

    When we give and receive love manifested in the patience that does more than merely tolerate, but genuinely accepts and celebrates the human dignity of another, no matter how different…

    When we give and receive love revealed in the forgiveness that, conscious of one’s own suffering, seeks to soothe a contrite heart, counting no past wrong as an insurmountable barrier to God’s mercy…”

    Unfortunately the WHENS in the foregoing seem in this world to be so rare, as if the action of giving and receiving such lavish love is itself in limited supply, that we rarely make it to the THEN statement that follows: that THEN such love can be recognized as the very ground upon which we each stand and the air we each breathe. THEN such love makes all the difference in how we can come to live – and eventually die – in grace and peace, regardless of how the world judges and regards us.

    Thank you, Paul, for sharing this amazing story. God bless Peter, wherever he is today. And God bless you for being Paul to Peter (and to countless others as well).

    Love,

    Karen

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  4. Thank you, my dearest Karen. Your words of approbation and affirmation bring a flood of tears to my eyes…

    I cannot recall when it first dawned on me, but, surely, it was at some point during my life as a pastor and, in that, listening to countless folk, that one of our deepest, truest human longings is the acceptance of our existence. That is, that we are welcomed to belong, that we are loved not, at the most or in the slightest because of what we do, but always and only for who we are; that is, as you write, “just by virtue of the fact that we exist.”

    This fundamental element of life’s recognition is something that I did not receive during my formative years (although I long ago forgave and continue to forgive my parents for this lack). Hence, once I grasped for myself its importance, I pledged, increasingly consciously, that it – acceptance because of existence – was something that I would labor to give away in love to others…

    And, in this realization, Peter was a gift to me as much as I may have been a gift to him. O’er the years, I have thought about him. I suspect that he died sometime ago. Hence, I have prayed his soul to and with and in eternal repose.

    It occurs to me that God who is Love cannot do one thing. God cannot not love. I believe with all my mind and heart, soul and spirit that we, created in the Divine image, are to be as God is: Creatures who cannot not love.

    Love

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    1. I agree so wholly with your characterization of the one thing that God cannot do, Paul. To think that God is capable of not loving would be like saying wind is capable of not blowing. I also wholly agree that our human destiny as children of God is to be unable not to love as God loves.

      Thank you again for this story. It means a great deal to me to know it and to know you.

      Much love,

      Karen

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  5. Karen, our dialogue here brings to mind a sage word of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: “Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.”

    May it be so.

    Love

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    1. Paul,

      I have read that wonderful quote in the past. Thank you for reminding me of it. Teilhard has so much to teach us, but it always seems the world isn’t ready for it. Please God, perhaps someday it will be. Indeed, may it be so.

      Love to you and great gratitude for your vision,

      Karen

      Like

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