We went through security and a guard escorted us to the gymnasium, where all the men of the Jericho Project (a community of inmates within the prison) were waiting for us. These men live by a covenant of love for Christ and respect for one another in units separate from the rest of the facility. They choose to be a part of the Jericho Project because they want to see their lives transformed, both while they are incarcerated and thereafter.
Matt and I were seated at a table with a Vanderbilt law professor and three inmates, twenty-year-old Spencer, 30-something Andrew, and middle-aged Kenneth. While we ate our Cracker Barrel catered dinner (a real treat for them, they confessed), we chatted about their daily Bible studies and about Men of Valor, the group of mentors that provides them with individual spiritual counsel. They told me about their professions before being incarcerated, and Spencer admitted that he's never had a full-time job. Upon his release, he hopes to get into real estate in Southern California, where his sister lives. Kenneth and Andrew talked about their kids. I have no idea how these men ended up in jail, but I know that in the few months they've been involved with the Jericho Project, walls have indeed come down. Jesus Christ has torn down the stony walls of their hearts (Ezekiel 11:19, 36:26), evidenced by their very real joy and kindness.
After we ate, a group of the men sang and several inmates and mentors shared briefly. Finally, Mr. Lee, a member of the Men of Valor board gave a Christmas message. He talked openly about his wife's death several years prior, and how his four young children had dealt with the trauma. One of his twin sons, both of whom were with him at the dinner last night, had expressed uncertainty about Heaven. The then nine-year-old was perplexed by how Heaven could be a happy place if his mother was, as everyone told him, watching him from above. (I won't go into how obviously wrong this is theologically speaking--in Heaven we will be worshiping the Almighty God, not concerning ourselves with the foolish things of this present realm!)
Mr. Lee gave his son a beautiful illustration that day, which he shared last night. He told his young boy to picture Christmas morning at their house. His brother and two sisters receive everything they wanted, the living room is overflowing with gifts. But at the boy's place, there is nothing. He searches the room for even one gift belonging to him, but to no avail. Then, through tears he peers into the doorway leading into the kitchen and sees his mother, a smile creasing her face as she tries not to laugh because she knows this will be the best Christmas he's ever had. In the hallway behind her is the go-cart he's been pining after for months!
Mr. Lee likened this illustration to our own desperate longings. Our focus on the here-and-now sometimes keeps us from seeing past the living room of our circumstances. But if we would only look to the kitchen door, to see what marvelous things our King is planning for us, we would be encouraged and delighted!
As I sat at that table surrounded by inmates who have been changed by the scandalous grace of a Savior who took their sin upon Himself, I felt such kinship with them (and not only because I am also in desperate need of grace). Surely their days are filled with longing for something other than the empty living room of prison life. This transitional season of my own life can feel a little empty in a different-than-I-expected sort of way. But hope is being sure that what God has promised us will be accomplished (Luke 1:45), that the kitchen will hold new surprises in our life here on earth and ultimately in the life that is to come.