I met Dan (not his real name) some years ago when I was visiting a local prison not far from where I live. I was with a small group of volunteers who went into the prison once a week to meet, chat, share coffee and biscuits and have a bible study with the men who were interested enough to come. Dan shared in the sessions and we talked a lot. He seemed genuinely interested in discovering Jesus and, I believe, came to faith in him over that time. As volunteers we would often ask after home, and family and work and how long they had before release, but we had one self-imposed rule, which we rigidly kept to – never to ask why they were there. It was simply not our business or our concern. Occasionally, however, some would tell us and Dan let me see his papers: the documents that had been put together to process his appeal for parole. As well as making an assessment on his character and his suitability for release, they described the actual crime in forensic detail. It involved arson and murder and made for chilling reading. It was hard to reconcile these awful facts with the man sitting beside me drinking coffee and the kind of person that your heart seems to go out to. But sharing in our study of the bible I knew and we knew that before God we were all in the same boat and neither of us had a leg to stand on.
When it came close to his release date or “liberation” as they called it, Dan became more anxious about how he would be able to continue in his Christian life outside, when he was back in his old environment and under the influence of his old friends. He feared that he would simply return to his old ways. “I don’t think my faith is strong enough” he would say, “I don’t think I have a good enough hold on God”. I did my best to reassure him by pointing out that it was God who had a hold of him and I tried to offer some practical advice. I suggested four things that were essential in the Christian life: things that you had to work at and make your habit, because they didn’t come naturally. At times it would be a struggle, often a battle as malign and subtle forces pitted against you, intent on damaging your new life and your new desire to follow Jesus Christ. You had to practice them and continue practising, so that they would become part of you. It had to be a discipline and a regular one – weekly, daily, hourly, and at all times.
If you know anything about the Christian Faith you will know that they are:
- Praying to God by his Spirit in Jesus’ name
- Reading the Bible, recognising it as God’s Holy Word, inspired by His Spirit proclaiming Jesus
- Meeting with other followers of Jesus, to worship God
- Doing Good, as an expression of your love for God, by serving others, with the help of his Spirit, in Jesus’ name
They are not, were not and never were rule things. Things you had to do to please God. Things if you do better and longer with more zeal and effort would somehow achieve for you a higher place in the scheme of things. It is not the legalism that Paul, in his letters, exposes with such ruthlessness, but aids, means, helps and the essential life blood, food, and fresh air to live a life in gratitude to God.
I lost contact with Dan soon after his release and often wonder where he is and how he is doing. I see him in my dreams sometimes. I keep praying for him, I have never forgotten him and I am slowly learning to listen to my own advice to him – to practice these disciplines.