Two years ago I had the privilege of speaking to an extraordinary church. Like many churches who find themselves meeting in borrowed buildings, this little group met in a cafeteria. Folding chairs were arranged in rows in lieu of church pews. A long line of stainless steel counter-top stretched behind the congregants where a sound booth ought to have been. The words to Christmas hymns were not projected onto a flimsy silver screen, but onto stark white painted cinder blocks.
Congregants rolled a piano over the tile floor and arranged it beside the pulpit. The guitarist plugged in the amp and tuned to the piano. Singers gathered around a single microphone. My friend welcomed everyone and began the service with prayer.
It was much like any service you might attend in your town, except for one thing. This church met in the State Women’s Prison. The doors were not “swung wide open” for anyone to attend. There was no “Visitors Welcome” emblazoned on the marquee. Come to think of it, there was no marquee. Visitors were required to obtain a background check, fingerprinting, fill out forms, and give several weeks notice of their visit. I checked my cellphone and coat with the guard, and received an emergency call device to keep in my pocket. At the proper time, and not a moment before, two electronically controlled steel doors opened, and we were permitted to pass into the hall on the other side.
I sat sweating at the end of the front row as my friend prayed from the pulpit. Not because I was afraid of the surroundings, but because I have a love-hate relationship with public speaking. I am always grateful for the stressful privilege of sharing God’s grace, but I am always nervous. And sweaty.
I delivered my talk with shaking hands, a few tears, and an overwhelming sense of wonder at the Family of Christ. These were my sisters. They are women like you and me. A trained pianist. A bass player. Women who’d sung in children’s choir and swing choir. Readers who’d shopped at Barnes & Nobel. Worshipers who raised their hands while singing with Carrie Underwood, “Jesus take the wheel.” They are leaders gifted with initiative and ideas. They are mammas and sisters and daughters. Though they are temporarily in prison, they are permanently in Christ. And despite their circumstances, they serve their sisters at the Church of Hope.
The good news of the gospel recounts the punishment of The Innocent One while the guilty walk free. I wondered how those terms settled on the ears of those suffocating in the language of legal briefs, attorneys, and indictments, particularly around Christmastime. “Christmas is an indictment before it is a delight,” writes John Piper. “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners…” (1 Timothy 1:15).
It brings to mind my favorite quote from Sally Lloyd-Jones in her Jesus Storybook Bible when she tells of Jesus calling his disciples.
Who would make good helpers, do you think? Clever ones? Rich ones? Strong, important ones? Some people might think so, but I’m sure by now you don’t need me to tell you they’d be wrong. Because the people God uses don’t have to know a lot of things, or have a lot of things–they just have to need him a lot.
Perhaps this is where my sisters in prison have an advantage. Their circumstances make them more acutely aware of a need for a Savior. Please note, I did not say they need a Savior more, but I suspect they are are more aware of the universal, spiritual need for Christ. If we are not aware of the consequences of our sin we have no idea we need a Savior, and Christmas becomes a strange, over-the-top recounting of a wintertime fable. But if we know and acknowledge our need for Jesus to rescue us from that which seeks to destroy us, then Christ’s birth is exceedingly good news.
An angel once declared to terrified shepherds on a Bethlehem hillside, “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you.” (Luke 2:10-11).
The gospel is still good news for all the people. For prisoners and people “on the outside,” for felons and fakers, for those who pray, “Jesus take the wheel,” and for those who use the same lyric as a hashtag.
Our environments are different, but our need for Christ is identical. Our struggles manifest themselves differently, but at the root we are the same. We pray for strength to say “no” to sin, even when our bodies are screaming to say yes. We fight addictions to chemicals and food. We numb unwanted feelings with drinks or endless scrolling. We struggle to trust God to provide for our needs. We ache when it seems he has not heard. We grieve what we cannot do for our children. We worry, and then we return to His word to find the stabilizing truth that “Christ came into the world to save sinners.” (1 Timothy 1:15). When he saved them, he cried out, “It is finished.”
It’s the reason we call crucifixion day “Good” Friday, and the reason a baby in an obscure feed box is cause for a merry celebration. For the Family of Christ in every locale–fancy or foreign–what began as an indictment becomes the thrill of hope and the reason we delight.