For the first time in my life, I spent a weekend at Pelican Bay State Prison. It isn’t what you’re thinking…
One of my best friends, Aaron, and his father, Tim, have been hounding me for a couple years to come with them to prisons and preach the gospel to inmates. Tim has been regularly going to prisons all over California and preaching Christ through sound doctrine for 20 years. His son, Aaron, has been going for the past 6 years. So, this weekend, I went for the first time with Tim, Aaron, Arcadio and Andy. This post gives a basic summary of what we did and ends with two specific encounters with prisoners.
We spent the morning and early afternoon last Saturday and Sunday preaching the gospel and encouraging the brothers in prison to read their bibles, pray regularly, and to pursue fellowship with one another. We told them that we can’t grow them into spiritually mature men, the Spirit has to do that work through their consistency in the Word and through their fellowship with each other. You’d probably be surprised at the level of eagerness and hunger that these brothers have for sound doctrine. Apparently, much of the Christianity that is taught there is either prosperity teaching which tells them that God wants them to have money and a carefree life or it is a social gospel that tells them that Christianity is about human rights. Contrary to what you might expect, the majority of the inmates who attended were extremely attentive and many participated and asked good questions and even gave solid biblical answers to other inmates’ questions. This was remarkable! If an average Bible-study leader had mistakenly walked in on our meeting, he probably would have been envious of how dynamic and insightful and even how mature the inmates’ questions and discussions were.
I taught on James 2:14 and following on faith and works. Aaron taught on Matt 7 on the broad and narrow way. A couple of the inmates said that they never get teaching that is straight from the Scriptures, but usually the teaching is composed of the speakers’ fantastical stories and opinions. Therefore, the prisoners were really thankful to us. Some of the inmates had developed great habits of daily reading their bibles and fellowshipping with one another. Despite the lack of Christian resources, many of these inmates have developed a solid base of good doctrine, which they used to discern true teaching from false teaching and even to instruct the less mature inmates. Other inmates are really struggling with falling back into the flow and engaging in fights, drug distribution, and theft (even while still in prison). If there was one thing we stressed most, it was the need to daily read the Word and believe/follow it, and then trust that the Spirit will transform them from the inside.
One particular man, Angel (about 35 years old), told us that he had been a Christian for many years but had recently gotten discouraged and had fallen back into spiritual lethargy: rarely reading his Bible, never evangelizing, and never talking with the one Christian who lives in his cell block. On Saturday, he participated a lot but said something like: “I’ll be honest, I’m not going to go start evangelizing after this…but maybe I’ll start reading my Bible again and trying to put my faith into practice in other ways.” After Sunday, he said something like: “When I got back to my cell, I realized that what I said yesterday was a copout. So I turned off the TV and read my Bible, and I know that I need to follow Jesus even if it means I need to evangelize. You guys have really woke me up to my need to follow Jesus and not just say that I’m a believer.” One of the most mature men in the group (a well-spoken black man with a long grey-tipped beard who’s name escapes me) happened to be the 1 other Christian on Angel’s cell block. Angel is planning on trying to fellowship with this man regularly. Praise God!
My favorite encounter was with a man named Jovanni (or Jovani, about 25 years old). He was a quiet soft-spoken man who also seemed very mature. He was really excited when he perceived that Aaron and I were interested in philosophical issues. Jovanni gets discouraged when anti-intellectual Christians and Christian teachers who are afraid of philosophy and reason simply dismiss the use of these tools as working against the Holy Spirit. When we told Jovanni that we consider Christianity to be a philosophy, he questioned us about it, and we took him to Paul’s dichotomy between philosophy and human philosophy in Col 2, and we also explained Paul’s idea that the wisdom (Sophia) that the Greek philosophers seek is properly found in Christ (1 Cor 2:22-25). It was pretty exciting for Jovanni to see other strong believers who also believed that seeking truth and being open to philosophical issues was compatible with believing the Bible. This has been Jovanni’s approach, but I think he’s been rebuked for it too many times. One of the few programs that Jovanni has access to is a program called Closer to Truth. He had recently watched Richard Swinburne on the program and was encouraged by his academic approach to arguments for the Christian faith. When I told him that I had coffee at Dr. Swinburne’s apartment in Oxford last September, he asked me if I was some kind of genius. Unfortunately, I had to admit to him that I’m just a regular guy of less-than-average intelligence who just enjoys studying the Bible and its philosophical implications. As the guards were escorting him away after the service, he thanked us and then said: “just one more question!” He then asked if I thought that mathematical objects were concrete or abstract. Lighting up, I told him that I was a modified Platonic Realist about mathematics. We didn’t have time to get into it, but he was skeptical of the idea that mathematical objects were anything more than concretes. Some nominalist had gotten to him before I did. He and the guard went through an electric chain-link fence before I could tell him that the square root of minus 1 cannot correspond to a concrete reality.