Is that why I stand in awe?

Last Friday, I had the opportunity to preach on John 20:19-31 at a communion service in a maximum security prison.

For so long, that reading had held the “Doubting Thomas” sort of appeal for me. Did he actually touch the wounds or not? That sort of thing.

Then I went through the stage of finding it incredible that Jesus’ first words to the gathered disciples … those guys who had abandoned him, had fled into hiding leaving him to be beaten and executed … were “Peace be with you.”

On Friday, my focus was to explore, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

But yesterday morning, while driving to the prison, there came to me out of nowhere, “Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.'”

With that invitation, Thomas replied, “My Lord and my God!” Thomas’ sudden awareness arose in the close proximity of Jesus’ suffering, the nail holes in his hands and feet, and the gaping wound in his side. Those perfect symbols of his Passion made present, to Thomas, our loving and gracious God.

In my prison work, in my ministering to men in isolation, have I too been invited to “touch” those wounds? Is that why I stand in awe at the divine presence made manifest in those despised, abandoned, forgotten, and suffering men? Do I hear, “Thomas, put your fingers here and see my hands.”? And in my inner-most being do I reply, “My Lord and my God.”?

Why did all this occur to me as I drove to the prison yesterday? Maybe it is because I have been struggling for eight years to understand how I can find joy and peace in such a horrible and demeaning environment. When I leave the prison, there is a lingering sadness yet a clear feeling of hope. For days, the faces and voices of those men move among and through my thoughts and reflections.  For me, Jesus’ statement in Matthew 25, “I was in prison, and you visited me,” is not a figure of speech.  It’s real. He’s there in the collective suffering and despair.

Yesterday was a tough day. Three of the men I visited face the prospect of execution in the next several months.  Another is in a legal limbo with the death penalty a very real possibility. But I have found that letting them talk through their anxieties and fears is a way to take those fears out of their imaginations, and out of their guts, and to put a voice, their voice, the spoken word to their grim reality.

I’m afraid that from now on I will see those wounds … waiting for me to touch … waiting for me to acknowledge that this work is of a most sacred nature. Through him, with him, and in him.

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