Crossing the Waters into Prison
I am just back from prison, a maximum security prison in California. I spoke about forgiveness with two groups of women. One took place in a room no bigger than a closet. I cried with them. I prayed with them. We wiped our faces with a roll of toilet paper. We listened to each other. I broke the rules and hugged them as they left. I will go back as often as I can get here, though it is thousands of miles from my Alaskan island.
I am not brave. I am not exceptional. I fight with my husband. I lose patience with my kids. I struggle with forgiveness. I am mean and small sometimes. I care too much about words sometimes and not enough about people. I am a doubter. I struggle to believe it’s possible that the God of infinity, above all galaxies and kingdoms, Holy beyond our understanding, sent his son to an early execution on my guilty pathetic behalf.
But I go. Into prisons, churches, workshops, closets, studios, universities, speaking before a handful or to thousands. I am ordinary, with a thousand excuses NOT to testify to the gospel of God’s grace. I have run away and betrayed Jesus as surely as Peter did that terrifying night—but more than once. But I go because of that day on the lake, by the fire. Would you cross the waters and remember with me? You must, because these words are to you as well.
Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?
Peter startles. He looks around to see what Yeshua means. He looks at the sea, the boats, his best friends, the fish on the sand waiting to be sold. He blinks, dazed. He knows the truth now. None of this is his. None of this can feed him. Then he looks back. Yes, Lord, you know that I love you, Peter stammers. This is the first time he’s spoken to the Master since that night before his death. He pants with relief.
Yeshua blinks, smiles at him, tilts his head, and asks again, Do you love me?
Peter freezes. Why isn’t he asking, “Are you sorry for abandoning me that night? Can I trust you? Will you turn from me again?” Instead, he asks this: Do you love me?
Lord, you know that I love you! He bursts. In saying it, Peter knows he does love this now-risen Messiah enough even to die for him. Now, one last time, the only question that matters:
Simon, son of John, do you love me? Jesus asks quietly, in a low voice, with unwavering eyes.
Peter flinches. Why doesn’t Yeshua believe him? Yes, Lord, you know that I love you! He nearly shouts this time. And just as he speaks he hears it. I hear it. Three questions. Three answers. Is it possible? Is it possible that his every denial is now forgiven, covered by love? By Yeshua’s love for him, and incredibly, his own love for Jesus—his own small, limited human love?
This is the gospel right here, in these words around this fire. Peter is forgiven of his faithlessness, his selfishness, his fear. And I am as well, and every one of us who has ever run away from the one who is our very life. Because this is the truth of forgiveness. When he said, “Come, follow after me,” it also meant that he would come after us. We have nothing to offer him. We stumble, we faint, we run the other way, and still he comes after us. He wants us. He loves us. He forgives us. He does not let us go.
But Yeshua is not done. Every declaration of Peter’s love, every moment of forgiveness offered by Jesus is met with a charge:
Feed my sheep.
Feed my lambs.
Take care of my sheep.
Isn’t it enough to be forgiven, to be freed from our debts, our betrayals, from our frail miniscule love? What fortune, this forgiveness! Can’t we just celebrate our own joy and freedom? What more do we need? That’s a party in our own living rooms to last a lifetime!
Feed my sheep.
Go into all the world baptizing and making disciples ….
I want to protest, say back to Jesus, Do you know how weak we are, how wavering our faith, how limited our love? Are you really trusting us?
And I know the answer has already been given. Through the fish. Through the wine at the wedding. Through the bread on that hillside, and in so many other ways. He is the God who forgives us, then takes whatever we bring to him—our destitution, our tiny faith, our two small fish, our very human love—and multiplies it beyond measure—-for the good of the world.
Forgiveness is so powerful a force it sent those Galilean fishermen to the corners of the pagan world to set captives free. It sent an east coast woman into fishing boats on stormy Alaskan seas; into podiums, shaking before churches; weeping with felons in iron-barred cells.
And there, in that prison, these women pleaded with me, “We have no one to come to our cell to bring us Church,” they said, these women with broken faces and lives, these women who share a group cell, women with children, with violent husbands, with molesting fathers, with addicted mothers. These women who devour their Bibles every morning. “Please ask someone to come and teach us and lead us in worship. We need it so bad!”
This prison holds thousands. A thousand more are coming. They’re overcrowded. There are not enough chaplains or volunteers who care enough to come.
(“Please, ask someone to come!”)
Are you forgiven? Then you’re stronger than you know. Open your door; cross the waters, go to the starving. If I can, you can.
Feed my lambs.