Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and news about him spread throughout the whole countryside. He taught in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.
Jesus went to Nazareth, where he had been raised. On the Sabbath he went to the synagogue as he normally did and stood up to read. The synagogue assistant gave him the scroll from the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the synagogue assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the synagogue was fixed on him. He began to explain to them, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.”
I volunteered at a prison ministry in Kentucky. This was different than the praise and worship services that visited the prison. Those services seemed to be focused upon the salvation and eternal well being of the incarcerated men and rarely did they engage the men outside of trying to save them.
Our church was like any other. We had pastoral care visits, communion, Bible study, a session, and various functioning committees. Every Friday night I would drive the 30 miles to the prison. Through suburban neighborhoods, past horse farms, and in to the barren parking lot outside of razor wire crowned fences, connecting menacing looking guard towers.
We would leave the free world and pass through a metal detector and in to a waiting area. Once the rest of the “free church” passed through the gates and in to the waiting area we would be escorted past giant electronic doors and in to the yard. We would walk on concrete paths nestled between tall fences donning razor thorns.
We were not allowed to wear anything khaki and the female members were encouraged to not wear dresses or anything form fitting. Marching onward towards the chapel we were meet by prison guards at every gate. We were counted and passed on to the next gate through a system of locks that prevented inmates from gaining access to undesired locations.
We arrived at the chapel and were let in to set up the worship space and communion elements. This stark multipurpose room quickly took shape and emerged as a house of the Lord. Liturgically colored banners hung from the pulpit and the house keyboard organ was set up. The Spirit was ready to entertain our hearts.
We set out the individually wrapped wafer and cup combos for communion and had a quick prayer. One by one the men entered the chapel and signed in. We had about 120 men every Friday night. The room was filled with men of all colors, creeds, backgrounds, and time. The unifying factor being addiction, conviction, and hope, and that all of these men were in prison.
There we were inside a prison. Most of the congregation was not free to leave after worship. A few of us had the privilege to enter and exit, to go inside and outside. To be in relationships with these incarcerated men. To stand shoulder to shoulder with rapists, murders, pedophiles, thieves, and addicts.
Some nights we celebrated the impending release of a member of the congregation. The singing and dancing on those nights were intolerable. They would beg, plead, and bargain with God or the Devil to discover satisfaction, protection, and a cure for their aching soul.
One particular Friday night of celebration, a member was going to be released the following Monday. The congregation loved to sing. The choir director was a pudgy late middle-aged man with neatly combed graying hair. His Sunday’s best was his khaki prison jumpsuit. I am not certain what he did but I know it involved drugs, sexual violence, and that it landed him in prison for life. I did not know anything of him outside of prison. I knew him as a sweet, quiet soul that volunteered to do anything for this church and he could sing like an angel.
The men were a mix of denominational, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds and it came through in worship. They all loved to sing spirituals and old time gospel songs in bluegrass arrangements. Only they had no fiddle, no guitar, and no bass. They had an old donated keyboard that the choir director could make dance.
This particular night we got in to “I’ll Fly Away.” That song will forever haunt me, those tears, that liberation demanded in their voice. It was the most beautiful thing that I have ever heard.
Imagine a bunch of tattooed, khaki clad men sitting in a prison chapel singing…Some glad morning when this life is o’er, I’ll fly away; To a home on God’s celestial shore, I’ll fly away…When singing about death and departure many of these men know that this is the only way they shall experience liberation that taste of freedom arrives with death. I’ll fly away, O glory, I’ll fly away; When I die, Hallelujah, by and by, I’ll fly away.
When the shadows of this life have grown, I’ll fly away; With the passion of a thousand loves the men’s collective heart screams Like a bird from prison bars has flown, I’ll fly away. I’ll fly away, O glory, I’ll fly away; When I die, Hallelujah, by and by, I’ll fly away.
Weary from the institution, hoping for better days, hopeful that Jesus is more than a fancy teacher, believing that God is more than a distant parent, and trusting that the Holy Spirit is a font of peace and comfort the men continue…Just a few more weary days and then, I’ll fly away; To a land where joys shall never end, I’ll fly away.
I stood there in the back of the room surrounded by men crying without tears. My own prison exposed. The thought of Jesus’ mandate to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor stung at my heart.
A light went on and I understood that we deliver the good news preached to the poor. By what we do, by what we have done and left undone we preach to the poor. This physical world matters. These bodies matter. They are not a prison to which the eternal soul is captive. We are liberated mind, body, and soul to be a new creation in Christ Jesus.
That as we proclaim this liberation and the freedoms found in bondage to Christ we must also work to extricate justice from the fallen and unjust systems in our world. We must work to release the prisoners of systems that predicate violence upon women and children. We must work to release the prisoners being persecuted in system of civil suppression based on whom they love. We must work to release the prisoners bound in the industrial prison complex languishing in geography that punishes humanity and fashions a violent way of life over true rehabilitation. We owe better to this Fearfully and Wonderfully made creation of God’s. We must work tirelessly to restore sight to the blind and help the blinded leaders of this world to see the light. We must liberate the oppressed. Like a bird from prison bars has flown, I’ll fly away. I’ll fly away, O glory, I’ll fly away; When I die, Hallelujah, by and by, I’ll fly away. And proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor to be at hand.