Having spent two hours at San Quentin Prison, I walked into the Protestant Garden Chapel to say goodbye to the inmate clerk and return the briefcase I had used to carry the Bibles and tracts I had distributed.
A youngish inmate was there too, one I had seen around the chapel for at least a year or more. He approached me and said he wanted to talk.
As we stood by the chapel doors he told me about his years of drug use and the hundreds of times he had taken LSD. Inside his head it was as though a radio constantly broadcast strange music – and he couldn’t turn it off.
The loud, obscene and discordant sounds had hounded him for many long years and the only way he could turn it off was to use heroin. Now in prison, and newly converted to Christ, the devilish music still blared and he desperately wanted to shut it off for ever. He wanted me to lay hands on him and get rid of his pain.
Putting my hand on his shoulder I said, ‘Sure. But before we pray let me ask you if you have ever had hands laid on you before?’
His answer was as I expected. Many pastors and evangelists had laid hands on him. Sometimes he had been pronounced healed, other times he was told the demons had been cast out. But the music played on.
I had to ask him: ‘Do you think I can do something the others could not?’ He didn’t have an answer; it was simply that he liked my preaching and was desperate for some relief.
‘Desperation!’ There was that word again, a word that might describe why the prisons are so crowded. It might also explain why people are so attracted to magical ways of thinking. A quick fix! Magic! ‘Help me, I’m in pain. I’ll try anything’.
I did lay hands on him and pray over him. There is warrant enough in James 5:13-17, that passage about calling on the elders of the church (I suppose that included me) for prayer. But nothing happened, at least, as far as I could determine right then.
Not wanting to hear
He wanted a quick fix, and I would have liked to give him one. But, instead, I talked to him about faith and grace and enduring. I explained that faith might mean walking through a deep, awful valley. That it was perhaps magical, rather than biblical, thinking that he could be suddenly released from the pain brought on by years of sin.
It was not something he wanted to hear at first. He was impatient. After all, he regularly heard and read about God healing other people. ‘What am I doing wrong?’ he wondered.
He had a sense of personal failure. He guessed he was displeasing God and so God was withholding blessing from him. Though he didn’t say so, he probably felt the accuser of the brethren, Satan himself, accusing him: ‘You are no good. See, your thoughts are always filled with lust and hate. You will never be good enough for God’.
This very love
These are lies, of course, and are countered by the truth of God’s Word. We know that all believers are accepted in the beloved; our gracious and merciful Lord will not withhold from us his good and precious gifts, especially if we ask for them.
Our loving heavenly Father is kind, patient, and full of grace, even though we fail time and again. We are his own; sometimes with a dirt-smudged face, grubby clothes, crumpled socks, and one shoe off; yet loved beyond words.
And often, it seems abundantly clear to me, it is this very love that withholds the quick fix from us. How awful to be healed magically as if our sin did not matter. To think that we could get away with it, with no consequences, no victims, no pain.
But sin is not trivial; we who have fought and lost so many battles know this. We are given grace by a loving God to endure. God save me from the quick fix, the bolt of magic, the sudden silencing of the music that makes me lean on Christ for respite and support.
People look for the quick fix, the magical antidote, the short cut – yet it so often leads to further desperation. It is not usually God’s way. Yes, people are sometimes healed miraculously. There are special outpourings of God’s Spirit; the stories of the great awakenings are alive with such accounts.
Yet in the normal course of events, we have the Comforter who walks with us through our pain, our desperation, even our dying. This must be enough for us.
My parting words to this dear brother were: ‘As you follow Jesus, as you grow up into his likeness, the noise in your head will begin to subside. You will become less and less desperate. Simply knowing that God’s merciful and loving Holy Spirit will comfort you, will help you endure even while you are here in prison’.
And I could make such a statement with confidence because, over the course of 33 years of pastoral ministry, I have seen it to be true.
I saw the young man at a distance just last week. He smiled at me broadly and waved his hand. I do not know what he meant by it, but there was no mistaking the happiness on his smiling face.