When Rodney nearly killed his wife, Tara, just hours after being released from jail, we were devastated, but not surprised. Rodney is a big man with deep wounds. His mental illness has gone untreated for most of his life, and the crack he became addicted to didn’t help. Leah says Rodney is the only man she’s ever been afraid of. Maybe I scare easier than she does. I’d add a few more to my list, but Rodney would be at the top.
So, as much as I hate prison—as much as I feel like it exacerbates problems for so many of our friends and does little to make our neighborhood safer—I’ll admit that I felt a sense of relief when Rodney was sentenced to life. For years we’d gotten a call when he went off the handle. We’d gone to pick up the kids. We’d visited him in jail. We’d listened as Tara cried, unable to imagine a way out of the cycle of abuse that kept spiraling downward. No, prison wasn’t going to fix everything. But maybe it would give everyone a little space to heal.
Rodney didn’t see it that way, though. He was angry at Tara, angry at “the system,” angry at himself, no doubt. And he was angry at us. When he went to prison he wrote to tell us that he thought we’d been involved in his conviction and that we should be ashamed. Real Christians wouldn’t treat a friend like that. We must have given into Satan’s temptation. For Rodney, our only hope was repentance.
I tried to respond to his letters a time or two, but they just got worse. It was clear that Rodney’s mental health had taken a nose dive and no one was there to help. He was sent to solitary confinement at the state’s only Super Max facility. There, he was cut off from all direct human contact. No fellow prisoners. No guards. No one. Just a cell, ten by six, with a florescent light shining down on him 24 hours a day.
Every once in a while, I sent a note to Rodney to tell him we were praying for him. But his letters continued to pour out hate, month after month. I did pray, but I wasn’t sure what to ask God for. “Have mercy,” I would whisper. I couldn’t imagine what healing might look like.
Then, about a year ago, we got a letter from Rodney that was different. Jesus had met him in his jail cell, he said. Things had changed. He was overwhelmed by joy.
I have to admit, I was skeptical. Rodney has always used (in my judgment, misused) spiritual language. Besides, I’ve seen plenty of jail house conversions that didn’t stick. Who was to say this one was for real? We wrote to celebrate this awakening of hope. We kept praying for Rodney. But I also figured we’d just have to wait and see.Week after week, the letters kept coming. They were positive. They seemed honest. Sometimes, they were even self-critical. Maybe Jesus had found his way into the Super Max. Leah decided to go online and check Rodney’s infraction record with the Department of Corrections. It was a mile a long, filled with citations for non-cooperation, threats, assault against guards… up until the date when Rodney said Jesus met him in his cell. After that, nothing. Not a single infraction.
We started to write more consistently. Rodney asked if we could pray at the same time every day, so we sent him a copy of Common Prayer and invited him to pray with us at 8am every morning. He said we could write in with our prayer requests and he would lift them up. So we do. Rodney is still in Super Max, but he’s not alone. By the mysterious power of the Holy Spirit, he’s closer to us than he ever was when he lived in the neighborhood.
I tell you all this to say not only what God has been doing in Rodney’s life, but also what the Spirit has been up to in mine. It’s been a hard month for me—one of the hardest I’ve faced in a long time, maybe ever. Several things converged to test my spirit, but at the end of the day, it was a basic trial: I had to chose whether to trust God or to trust myself. Of course, in the midst of the confusion, it was hard to even name what was going on. I knew I was having trouble breathing on occasion and I couldn’t eat and my neck felt like I’d been in a car crash. I knew I couldn’t bring myself to really pray. I knew I needed help, but I wasn’t sure what kind or how to find it.
And then a letter from Rodney came. He’d been reading II Kings and he wanted to share what he thought was a Word from the Lord for me. And he was right. It was exactly what I needed to hear. Suddenly, the struggle was clear. And in that moment of clarity, I knew I could trust God.
I don’t think for one minute that it’s a good thing that Rodney’s in Super Max or that he nearly killed Tara or, for that matter, that I feel like I’ve been in a fist fight with the devil for most of this past month. I don’t know why any of these things happened, and I would never have asked for it to be this way. But I do know that right here in the midst of the mess that we’ve made of God’s good world, grace happens. And when it does, you’re saved. And when you are, you can only whisper, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” You say it while the tears flow down.
When you catch your breath, you tell the story as best you can.