I have way too many prison connections in my life. At a cookout in the backyard I looked up and suddenly noticed that four people milling around the grill had done time.
There is a cliché about prison conversions, but I see it differently. It's not that they're conversions of convenience. They're mostly genuine, but when you get back out, "the world, the flesh, and the devil" are still leaning on a lamppost, filing their fingernails waiting for you: Welcome back Jack.
So when I got this letter from Jack (we shall call him that) I was cautiously optimistic. Which, it turns out, is a distinct biblical category of spiritual response: "And while they still disbelieved for joy and were marveling, he said to them, 'Have you anything here to eat?'" (Luke 24:41). When something is this good-like Jesus walking into the room after being dead, or Jack talking like a new creation after being dead and in jail-you tend to want to protect yourself against disappointment. An excerpt:
"So how have you been? I've been praying that He would comfort you as much as He has me. I'm doing great! All I do all day is read the Bible if I can get my hands on one, and I work out. Last time I was locked up I was craving cigarettes the whole way through up until the very last day, but this time I haven't even craved it since the first day, and I prayed on it. I'm kind of cautious to write to you about how my relationship with God has grown so much in just this short time, because I feel like no one will believe me."
Of course, there are precedents for that too (the lack of a drawn-out evolution, that is), like on the Damascus Road. And Paul himself didn't necessarily buy into a stereotypical conversion pattern. "Agrippa said to Paul, 'In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?' And Paul said, 'Whether short or long, I would to God that not only you but all who hear me this day might become such as I am-except for these chains" (Acts 26:28-29).
After release Jack went back to his old job, but called me a week later at the end of a long day at work and sounded bad: "I can't do this anymore." It was a high-paying gig, and perfectly legal, but (Jack decided) not honoring to God. "Do you want me to come pick you up?" I asked. He did and I went. In the car he didn't say much, except this: "When Peter and that other guy left their nets to follow Jesus, did they go back home first to earn money?" I told him I didn't think so. The next day, he went in and quit his job.
Normally I would call that irresponsible (and his siblings did just that), but I was thinking it over, and if you are a hit man for the Mafia and get saved, you don't say, "I'll do just a few more jobs till I have enough money for Bible school." So I applauded the move-and then started second-guessing because, after all, the work was not illegal and the jobless rate is high. I asked David, my friend from prison (natch), if Jack had been hasty in leaving gainful employment. David said: "Andrée, there are two kingdoms-the kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness. Anything that has to do with the darkness you should flee from."
The Lord provided a position within a week, laying floor tiles 12 hours a day at half the pay, with a boss who yells at him because Jack can't understand instructions given in Korean.
We were at the kitchen table and Jack talked about working when it was hot as blazes and the boss was screaming louder than usual and Jack was on his knees leveling a floor, conscious of his own misery. It was the oddest thing, Jack said: "All of a sudden, in the middle of all that, I realized God really loves me."
Which flipped a switch in me, somehow, and made me start believing for joy instead of disbelieving for joy.