August 7, 2016
Sunday 10:30 p.m.
Letter #447: AdVance-ing the Kingdom of God
Just a few bunks away from mine resides a young man named Vance. He paroles in one month from now, and I know God put him in my life for a reason.
I took part in a recent “band audition” night, where the best musicians here were supposed to be chosen for a special band. Vance showed up to play guitar, since he likes to play and sing his original songs. I wrote a song for the tryout, in fact, but neither of us ever sang our songs that night. Instead, the inmates who had organized the event had each person in turn try to follow along with an electric guitarist friend of mine, who played a few different musical styles. Vance didn’t get off the ground and left early, clearly dejected.
Back in our dorm, I consoled him, agreeing that the audition of sorts was poorly organized and not structured to show off anyone’s unique talents. I told Vance that if he’d like, I’d work with him on the side, getting one of his original songs ready to perform at a talent show. Also, I invited him to sit in and play along with the Apostolic music practices I lead on Monday nights so that he could accompany the Sunday morning church services for the last few months he’d be here. He seemed grateful for the opportunities, telling me he’d begin coming to practices with me, starting the next Monday night.
Monday night came, and Vance had just told another guy that day that he’d go to yard with him in the evening. I told Vance it was no problem, that he could join us the following week. I couldn’t have him just show up Sunday mornings without practicing, I told him, but he was welcome to attend the church services. I knew he couldn’t just play along with our worship songs without serious practice time, so I tried to extend the offer in a reasonable way for him.
Week after week, however, Vance had an excuse why he was unable to practice with us, and sometimes he was just asleep. I moved on from expecting him to attend practices with me and tried to encourage him in other ways.
The Pre-Release Class, because it lasts just three weeks, has frequent graduations, a beautiful ceremony that is well attended by prison staff and features special music. After becoming acquainted with the teacher, he invited my band to play for his graduation exercises. This is a huge opportunity at such a small facility, and knowing Vance would be leaving soon, I invited him to practice with us for the next graduation. Though I had to remind him several times, Vance actually attended one practice but quickly bowed out, lacking the skill to keep up or improvise.
Undeterred, I encouraged Vance to keep up with his guitar practice and to keep challenging himself in music. I even had a good friend of mine send Vance a guitar theory book to study, which he was extremely grateful for. When he checked out a book on writing music and borrowed a guitar from the library (since we aren’t allowed to own instruments in this dorm environment), I sat with him on his bunk, playing my shaker egg and singing harmonies to his songs. He was so grateful, regaining some of the confidence he’d lost when trying to play with my band and for the audition.
Again, I invited Vance to the church music practice, and he looked down. “Yeah,” he said slowly, “I’m not … you know … a big-time Christian guy.” I knew he meant he doesn’t go to church or read his Bible, the typical “evidence” in prison that someone is a Christian.
He was standing next to my bunk, in the main thoroughfare of our dorm, and I was sitting up, writing a letter. Almost eye to eye, I sensed Vance thought he couldn’t attend the church practice unless he had his life right with God. I didn’t know what he believed, so I just came right out and asked.
“Do you believe in God, Vance?”
“Oh, yes! Of course I do,” Vance immediately responded.
“Do you believe that Jesus Christ is God’s Son, and fully God?”
He again agreed, so I asked him if he believed that Jesus’ death on the cross paid for his sins. Vance blinked once and looked me square in the eye. “Yes.” No emotion, just matter-of-fact.
“Then, Vance,” I told him, “you ARE a ‘big-time Christian guy.’ God loves you the same as He loves me. We’re no different.”
“Yeah? Really?” Vance questioned the truthfulness, the possibility of my words.
“Absolutely, my friend,” I answered confidently. “And I don’t go to church and read my Bible and pray and all of those things just because I want to act like a supposed ‘big-time Christian,’ or whatever. No, I do all of those things because I want to spend time with God. Those are things that help me get to know God. For each of us, that is what matters most to God: that we get to know Him, that we learn what pleases Him.”
The uncomfortableness, the awkward gulf he’d created between us in his delusional assumption that I was somehow better in the sight of God than himself—all was gone. A little smile played on the corner of Vance’s mouth as he looked up at me again. “Huh. That’s it, then?” he questioned. It seemed all too easy.
“Yup,” I stated confidently. “Believe Who God is; Accept what God did; Love what God loves.”
I don’t know if Vance had ever made a public declaration of his faith in God, but I rejoiced for his boldness. It didn’t matter to me if his heart had made those determinations that day or years ago; I just know that he now understands the basic gospel message. I can only hope that he’ll “let the Word of God grow richly” in his heart, not seeking his own. Please pray that I’ll be sensitive to know others’ needs as I live here. Thank you!