August 9, 2015
Sunday, 8:00 p.m.
Letter #395: Philosophy of Stuff
What is your mental picture of prison? Does it include row after row of men in cages, pounding on the bars that restrain them? Maybe you envision sullen groups of inmates gathered in pockets around a large recreation area, clearly up to no good, plotting their next hit with a homemade weapon.
Sure, I’ve seen this type of prison life first-hand, but anyone who has read these weekly letters for any length of time knows that I’m not housed in a facility that even remotely resembles those images you may have. Some jails, some holding facilities, some prison yards are like that, and they make for good television shows or depictions on the big screen, which is where most people derive their mental picture of prison from. But that makes what I heard two days ago even more absurd.
I asked a friend of mine how he was doing, just to start up a conversation. He’d just gotten off the phone with his brother, who’d asked why he wasn’t smiling in recent pictures he’d sent home. Now, the vast majority of inmates do not smile while taking pictures, and most don’t even try to look pleasant. (Then again, I’m not sure how looking pleasant is possible when you keep adding gang slogans, guns, and fanged creatures to your assortment of face tattoos.) However, my friend, a Christian guy with a ready smile, I thought for sure would be smiling in his pictures. He gets out in two years, and even my friends who are serving life sentences smile in their pictures. His response to his brother was that he was “having a bad day.”
I know that not everyone has great days every day, and I am fully aware that sometimes the pressures of the day can weigh upon you. I know that different personalities handle life’s difficulties differently, and that not everyone sees life the same, and that’s okay. What surprised me about my friend, however, is that by prison standards—even by normal standards—his life is going pretty well. He is healthy, has a loving family who supports him, and he even has a woman who wants to marry him. He gets regular visits, and talks to his loved ones often.
Prisoners whose families can afford it send one package of cosmetics, food, and clothing every three months. This guy pays other inmates a small amount and uses their package privileges so that he ends up with at least one package every month. On top of that, he tells his family he needs money so that he can purchase ice cream and other “necessities” from the prison store every week. Any one of these facts would make other less-fortunate inmates jealous, but my friend can’t see beyond his self-made misery to see the many blessings of his life.
I thought I could encourage him to be content with what he has and begin to express gratefulness to God, but all I could think of to say was, “Well, we’re pretty similar, you and I. We’re both in prison, yet we have been blessed with families who love and accept us and a faithful, forgiving God.”
I thought I’d made a break-through with him when he said, “Yeah, I’m tired of lying to my family.” I was sure he meant that he’d been pretending that prison life is horrible, just so they’ll feel bad for him and send him money and packages. (He even tells those who can’t take time off work for a visit to just send him money instead.)
But, no, I was wrong, as he further explained, “I’m tired of pretending to my family that I’m doing okay. I tell them I’m okay when they ask, but I’m not. I mean, look at me! I’m in prison! I’m not okay!”
I couldn’t believe what I’d heard, this audacious disregard for God’s rich blessings. I was offended for God, offended for his family as he makes himself out to be the victim, a victim of his self-inflicted wound. The conversation, left unsettled, rattled me.
Being in prison doesn’t affect who God is. It doesn’t change who God made me to be. It doesn’t change my capacity for love and to feel loved. Prison, some say is just a state of mind. Eh? I get that extreme view, but I’m somewhere between the “Woe is me; I’m in prison” camp and the denial-of-reality camp who say “I’m as free as anyone else.” I get that I live with some limitations, but I don’t dwell on that aspect of my life.
One of my favorite passages of Scripture is found in the final chapter of Paul’s letter to the faithful believers in Philippi. These words form my “philosophy of stuff,” how I relate to what I have. From Philippians 4:6–19, we read his admonition to live without worrying, praying instead, thanking God for what He has done, which will bring peace.
Paul also shares exactly how he practices contentment: “Not that I was ever in need, for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I have learned to live on almost nothing or with everything … For I can do all things through Christ, who gives me strength.” And therein lies the crux of it: When I complain, feel sorry for myself, or can’t see how truly blessed I am, it is because I am not relying upon Jesus. I am not remembering all He has done for me.
So, go ahead. Ask me how I’m doing, and watch me truthfully answer with a smile, “I’m doing great!”