Transformed by "Withness"

As our flesh hungers for it's fallen vision of justice to be executed on others, judgment occupies such vast space in our souls that there is no room left for compassion, empathy, mercy, or grace. Judgment requires distance to take up residency in a soul. When we coddle judgment, a callous forms on the heart. And our vision of the other becomes skewed. I'm finding it's only when I am “with” another that judgment melts into compassion.

Dennis, Madison, and I approached the razor-wired fencing surrounding buildings expectant to commune with our friend who took up residency there months ago. Six months ago he left our community to serve time. A three-year sentence. The surreal hit us like a brick wall over two years ago when we received the news of his arrest. Our broken hearts pouring forth wails of grief over a friend who had fallen hard. Fallen into places unacceptable to our society...rightly so. He had poured into our sons and a thousand other youth at our church throughout the years. But darkness lurked and prowled and sought to devour. And he bought into the we all do at some point in time.

The exposure was merciless. Had I not known him, I could have poured out my judgment with the rest. But now this fallen one was "our" friend. "Our" fallen youth leader. The one who'd dined with us on Sundays and played with our family until sundown. Ache and tears and pain filled the space where judgment would have resided had he been a stranger. We were tasting the miracle of the incarnate Jesus. He released in us a hunger to walk beside our friend in the mire, to embrace him in his brokenness. To be “with.”

The One who came down to absorb all that judgment we so deserve. The judgment we brutally throw onto others. His name is Immanuel...God "with" us.

The revolutionary who lived out the loving the unlovely so we'd have a vision for entering into another's darkness. His name is Immanuel...God "with" us.

The One who showed us how to be "with" because it's so unnatural when someone's more broken that we think is acceptable. His name is Immanuel...God "with" us.

And this Jesus moved us to remain "with" our friend throughout his two-year sentencing journey. Because not many were moved as we were, we monopolized his weekends and he became one of us. We were graced to hold him in the darkness, where shame devours the bent over soul.

He spent the first two weeks of his sentence in the massive county jail. As Dennis, Keegan, and I entered the visitation center, surreal hit hard. These visitors were "our" people. People pulling out the stops to go be "with" the one they love. The one they love in spite of the brokenness. We sat at a kiosk in a line of three, only one of us able to talk through the phone at a time. The other two of us sticking our ears around the receiver hoping to capture as much conversation as possible in our 45 minute visitation. And we were surrounded by a roomful of others aching to hold the receiver and commune with their loved one. Laughter, sorrow, smiles, tears. All of us wishing we could touch the one on the other side of the monitor held in another building. These were now "our" people.

Dennis, Madison, and I arrived at the state penitentiary by 7:40 am last Saturday, hoping to acquire a spot at the front of the line. We had to leave the rest of the family behind because they were denied visitation rights. Two long rows of park benches lined a prison entrance. I'd never been so close to one before. The benches were almost filled and we arrived an hour before visiting hours began. We were surrounded by grandparents, mommas, papas, girlfriends, sisters, brothers, children, and friends. We spanned multiple ethnicities. There was no imbalance in color. More stereotypes shattered.

Within 30 minutes of our arrival, the door thunderingly unlatched and a young man walked out with a small Dillard's bag in his hand. His momma and another young man ran to him and embraced him tightly. Everyone began to clap so I joined the throng. With tearful eyes his momma yelled to us, the 40 there to witness his release, "My baby's been in there for three years!" That was the first time I'd witnessed somebody released from prison. And I felt momma's joy. And I ached for redemption to flesh into that young man's soul as one of the visitor's yelled, "Don't you come back!" I pray he doesn't.

I sat next to an older woman who, with a thick Cuban accent, was the consummate welcome wagon. She'd been there the day before as well, visiting her fiance. She'd befriended a striking twenty-something young woman who'd also spent the previous day there visiting her husband. Her style was punk. She had orange, black and blond hair with matching rainbow-colored eye shadow, perfectly applied. She was dressed to the hilt in black. Her daughter of two was decked out in a black sequined mini-skirt and tank with sequined skull and crossbones. They live three and one-half hours from this man they both love and adore. Spending their weekends in Ocala, Florida going between the prison and a cheap hotel, squeezing out every minute they can get with their man. This is their normal. A woman in her 90's dying of diabetes and her daughter joined us. They were visiting their son/brother. The woman's discomfort was great but nothing would keep her from communing with her son that weekend. She has another child in a prison in South Florida as well. Beside us was an academic middle aged man who looked like us, talked like us. He was visiting his brother. Another young woman on my right was visiting her boyfriend. They'd grown up in church together. With expectancy in her voice, she shared, "He gets out in 2021." 2021. And there she was, faithful to drive the distance into the middle of Florida to be "with" the one she loves. Every weekend. This space was filled with a stunning collision of worlds. I longed to sit with these people, my people, and hear their stories. But there wasn't enough time because at 9:15 we were finally invited to enter.

After our processing, we were sent into a large cafeteria-like room to await his arrival. At 9:40 he walked through a door and never have we seen him beam so brightly. His entire being smiled. We embraced for the first time in months. Then we sat across from each other at rectangular tables, inmates on one side, visitors on the other. There we sat as we shared our lives for three and one-half hours, surrounded by our new acquaintances doing the same. Most visitors affectionately and excitedly embraced their inmates. However, there were some who couldn't hide the tension between them. The loss, the betrayal, the ache was too much. But the people still came, and sat across from the ones they love, willing to be “with" them in the pain.

A handsome, tall young man entered the room and the two-year old in sequins squealed and sprinted into his arms. Then his wife decked out in black kissed him like she meant it. Around 10:30, daddy's girl laid down on the table between her parents and drifted into dreamland. This is her normal.

The time came for us to return to our children not with us. As we walked out the door, we were filled because we'd been "with" our brother again. And our God was protecting him. And working in Him as He is in us. We tasted our Immanuel. God ‘with” us.

I was in awe of the commitment and love to these men who'd violated societal laws to such an extent that this place without rights or comfort had become their dwelling. Christ follower or not, these people are reflecting His heart for the world. Love compelled them to be “with” whatever the cost. Bringing tastes of Immanuel into dark places.

Judgment is our natural response to another in this fallen state. A friend of mine exhorted me years ago, “Hang in there until your judgment turns to compassion.” I've found the only way to enjoy that movement is to be “with” the one from whose eye I seek to remove the plank. Only in that closeness can my calloused flesh be crucified and the love of Immanuel pour forth offering life through me. In this pursuit, I think I taste true justice.

“This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. —Zechariah 11:9