“Some wandered in desert wastelands, finding no way to a city where they could settle. They were hungry and thirsty, and their lives ebbed away. Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress.” (Psalm 107:4-6)
Before January, I had never set foot inside a prison. My impressions were formed from films and newspapers – think Prison Break or The Shawshank Redemption. So, when I was offered the chance to serve on The Sycamore Tree course, whereby some volunteers help to lead small groups of prisoners through a restorative justice programme based on the story of Zacchaeus, it was with a mixture of excitement and nervousness that I accepted.
Never having properly known a prisoner (to my knowledge), my mind was free to wonder and to create frightening images of what going into a prison would be like. Would I be able to engage with the prisoners? Would they reject me? Would I be able to help? My insecurities bubbled forth. Upon reflection, my insecurity rested on a fear of being unable to be of special value to the prisoners. Perhaps it is easy to accept my inabilities in a wide range of areas, or even to steadfastly suffer deprivation, yet when I feel that I no longer have anything to offer anyone, it’s like my grip on life is shaken. Feelings of being worthless, punished and unloved overwhelmed my subconscious. In I walked, heart in mouth.
It was immediately apparent upon meeting the prisoners that the same questions assailed them. As the structure of the course was explained, we learned that on the final week each prisoner could invite in two people to witness their learning. Heartbreakingly, the first response to this information was: “If I have nobody that I can ask, will that count against me?” Later on in the session, another gentleman shared that his life had always been ‘a failure’ and that after trying and trying and trying again, eventually you just give up.
Deliverance is Jesus-shaped. At the baptism of Jesus, the words of love spoken over Him at the beginning of His journey to the cross are: “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased!” These words must have been ringing in Jesus’ ears as He faced temptation in the wilderness… as He picked up His cross… and in rough contradiction to lived experience as He screamed out His forsakenness moments before His death.
These words are also the words that get spoken over each one of us at our own baptism. The great spiritual task of life is to hear them afresh in every situation of forsakenness and worthlessness, through prayer, Scripture, and Holy Communion. To pay greater attention to the words of God spoken to us than our own self-denial, those words of Good News that we try so hard to deflect and not hear: “You are my beloved. With you I am well pleased.”
To find out more about The Sycamore Tree and the work of Prison Fellowship, visit https://prisonfellowship.org.uk/our-work/sycamore-tree/