Prison church is beyond interesting. It’s a kaleidoscope of craziness. There are inmates from every culture and background and only one Christian service. So imagine for a moment charismatics, Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists, members of the Church of Christ, and a host of other denominational affiliations all piling into a chapel about the size of a one-car garage. To call it strange would be an understatement. There’s an out-of-tune piano and worship is led by a volunteer senior citizen from a local church who insists on giving us a five-minute-long history of where each hymn we sing comes from. And yes, we’re forced to sing all five verses of every hymn. I grin and bear it, though, even laughing at the thought of everyone seeing Pastor Jim Staley singing hymns and going to a Sunday church service. Although it’s not my favorite thing to do, I come for the sake of the guys and the relationship I’m trying to maintain with them.
I went to church early in my time here just to get to know people and to see what was what. Then throughout the week I was sharing my beliefs one-on-one and in small groups. Great things were happening and key people were really starting to catch on to the value of the “front of the Book.” Then an inmate who’s been here for eight years decided to go to the chaplains and tell them I was trying to convert the whole compound to be Messianic and “under the law.” It set off a firestorm of events where each chaplain decided to take turns preaching messages directed at me and how we don’t have to keep the law of God anymore because we are under grace. Thanks be to God that I coincidentally didn’t attend those services. I can’t remember now why I didn’t, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have been able to sit still and not say anything had I been there. I definitely heard about the messages, though. It was buzzing around the religious circle of the whole compound and hit my ears quickly. I approached the chaplain and that started a series of conversations that didn’t really go anywhere. But at least we both knew where we stood. I decided that prison politics was no different than politics in the real world and it definitely was not for me.
As a matter of fact, if there’s one thing I’ve learned here it’s that there are more politics inside prison than there are outside, especially when it comes to religion. I never asked to lead a Bible study, or lead anything for that matter. I had no desire to. I was so emotionally traumatized for the first few months that it was all I could do to keep from crying all day. It was also quite obvious that those who were leading Bible studies were not going to give up their spots until either Jesus came back or they left prison. One of them was a Sacred Namer who was probably one of the most stubborn people I have ever met. All he preached was that you cannot be saved unless you are saved in the name of “Yeshua.” If you use the word “Jesus,” you’re not saved and He won’t respond. This heresy was destroying people’s faith and undermining what the Spirit was doing in these men’s lives. I sat down with him one day and spent hours explaining the original Hebrew to him, including the fact that, technically, even *he* wasn’t pronouncing it right. I tried to explain that according to his own theology, that meant he wasn’t saved. I went around and around with him. He agreed with everything and seemed to see his mistake. Then the following week I saw him grab a new guy and start his mantra all over again.
Over the months, I attended the Bible studies pretty regularly whenever I didn’t have a visitor. Blake and I had our own daily Bible study from 10 pm to midnight every day. Then two of the Bible study leaders ended up going home and that opened up two time slots. I chose not to take either because by then I had become addicted to writing and spent most of my day in front of my computer working on articles, books, and responding to emails. But recently, something happened that changed my entire paradigm.
Several new people came in and I somehow got connected to them. They were very interested in what the Spirit was saying. In the course of a couple of weeks, I had five people ask me when I was going to start a Bible study. I’ve learned to mostly keep to myself in here because no one is really interested in growing spiritually and everyone is VERY private about their spirituality. This environment is nothing like the county jail where I spent my first couple of days. Those people were hungry for the Gospel. This place is as dead as a doornail. Plus, the Father made it very clear to me early on that He wanted to talk to me personally, to train me and deal with some things in my life that needed to be upgraded if I was going to be able to accomplish what He’s called me to do. He must have known that if I would spent my entire time witnessing, I would walk out of here the same as I came in…and He had a plan and a timeline and knew He needed to get me to where I needed to be by a certain date. The season was changing. And I could feel it. I had learned most of the intense things I was supposed to learn and I sensed it was time to start reaching out again.
I approached the main bible study leader who was now leading four during the week and asked him if I could lead the Saturday study. He agreed and I thought that was the end of it. Two days later he came to me and told me that he discussed it with the guys in the study and they said they wanted to keep things the way they had been. I was a bit shocked by this as he had just given the time slot to me two days before. I would discover later that day that I had been set up. He had given it to me as easily as he had because he knew if he talked to the guys who attended that he could convince them to say they didn’t want me to take his slot. It would give him an “out” to make them look like the bad guys. This feeling was an all-too-familiar one for me because of some of the things I had gone through recently, and now it was happening again. Church politics and agendas seem to be everywhere, even in prison. I thought being given the chance to teach again was probably a bit too good to be true, but my trusting personality allowed me to, once again, get “burned.”
I ended up taking the Wednesday spot, which was fine with me. I was excited and felt like this was from the Lord. Blake was not happy about the way I was treated as he feels a sense of responsibility to protect me and make sure these things don’t happen to me. He has also seen this so many times over the years he’s spent in prison that he stays as far away from the church scene as possible. So he was fairly skeptical that I was really supposed to do this and that it was from the Lord. But I have learned to follow that still, small voice and to proceed with caution, keeping my ears open to what The Father wants to do. My prayer was that if I was not supposed to do this, then the Spirit would not anoint me and my message would fall on deaf ears.
I was a bit nervous on Wednesday, September 14th when I showed up to teach the first study. I had a single sheet of notes, a message prepared, but no idea if the Ruach was going to endorse me or not. Six people showed up and when the clock struck 5 pm, it was time to start. I shut off the worship music I had playing in the background and began.Blake said he could tell I was nervous in the beginning. But then something happened that has only happened a handful of times in my life. The Spirit of the Living God showed up in that room and HE took over my message so strongly that I thought the rapture was going to happen at any moment. I taught them about the heart of God and how it means “the instructions of the house” in the Paleo Hebrew. I connected it to the word “serve” which, in Hebrew, means to “till the ground” and is also connected to worship. I showed them how the only way to truly serve God is to know the instructions of His house so you can partner with Him and help Him bring forth a harvest. I didn’t go in the order that I had planned, which is a big deal for a firstborn perfectionist like me who likes to have every detail planned. The Ruach showed up, took the information, and put it in the order He wanted. There was lots of interaction and the anointing in the room was tangible. When it was finished, one man who had attended a very large church in Chicago said out loud, “Well, I can tell you this. You’re not going to get this in any mega church, that’s for sure!” Everyone laughed.
After everyone left and it was just Blake and me, tears filled my eyes. This was the first time I had felt the power of God working through me since I was on a stage at PFT. But this was different. I had never truly felt THIS way before. Something shifted. My teaching style was different. It wasn’t planned. There was no PowerPoint, no cohesive notes, and hardly even an outline. I prepared differently, prayed a whole lot more, and had no idea how it was going to turn out. In the end, what was different was I had finally let go and let Him minister through me. People used to tell me all the time that the most powerful messages I delivered at PFT were the ones I didn’t prepare for. They knew that when I pushed that pulpit aside, the Spirit was about to move. It was like that this time, too, but beyond. Blake said that his prayers had been answered and his skepticism destroyed. He said it was clear that the Ruach showed up and was endorsing this little Bible study. In his nice, fatherly way, he said, “Pastor Jim, I think you are finally ready.” It was like everything He had done to help me the last eleven months was designed to teach me how to teach. I didn’t know it, but he was killing my insecurity of having to be so prepared and teaching me that all I have to do is be willing to open my mouth and let Him use it as a tool. All He really wanted was for me to be more prepared in the Spirit than in the actual details of the message. I don’t need to know everything or exactly how I want the message to be presented. I just need to allow Him to do it through me in humility and love.
When all was said and done, I was left humbled, a bit confused, and fighting back tears like you cannot imagine. The Spirit was revealing to me through what just happened just how structured my life had become and how little control I actually gave the Spirit. It was like He showed me the template of what my entire life was to look like, not just that one message. I was to pray about what He wants to do, write down the things that come to me, plan out the road that I believe He is leading me down, slowly move forward while praying and listening to His still, small voice, and let Him lead and work through me. It never occurred to me before to live my life like this. To live a “life message.” I was so used to choosing whatever way seemed the right way at the time that I had no idea I was missing so much! But here I was being trained in real time by the Ruach how to put together everything I had learned up to this point into action.
Have you ever felt like you have to have everything under control? Have you struggled with making sure everything is just right? If so, I want to encourage you to give up. It will never be “just right.” As a matter of fact, the more we try, the more we seem to mess everything up. He is not strong when we are strong. He is strong when we are weak. He shows up when we NEED Him. When we slow down enough to recognize that we are really nothing without Him and that we desperately need Him, then and only then will we experience the supernatural power of God. When we truly care about doing things His way and accomplishing only His will, taking every step inside His perfect peace, then He will partner with us and work through us to accomplish extraordinary things. I’m convinced that if we would live our lives in such a way that everything we do is commissioned and endorsed by Him, the world would have no choice but to run to the Light and bow before the King of kings.
May the Father bless each of you as you share your own “message” through your own life.