Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson
Blog, Life Issues, Pastoral Theology

Leaving Prison

There are some moments in life that level you. Force you to slow down, look in the proverbial mirror and ask some necessary questions. The first came this past week. Friday night, I and a colleague made our way to a prison, heading west, driving through the coast range. It was terribly dark, the rain coming down in sheets. The only hope of finding access to this out of the way, dimly lit facility, was to watch for a certain mile marker. 

Visiting someone who has been incarcerated is not pleasant. I used to visit a former parishioner turned prisoner when I pastored in Holland. On occasion, I would take the train from The Hague to Antwerp. The guards were gruff, and the old facility was dank and depressive. Worse, the man in prison was not repentant. And though everyone in his world had abandoned him, I knew I could not.  

Friday night was different. The guards were pleasant enough, the visiting room had some food machines, and this man was broken. He and I had worked together for sixteen years, but he made some terrible choices. Now he pays the price. Prison clothes, manual labor, loneliness, shame, and the sharing of one open toilet for every fifteen men.

He talked most of the time. I could sense he needed to do this, and I needed to listen. It was humbling—for both of us. 

I am always amazed at how easily we can compartmentalize life. I think back. How could my spiritual godfather lead me to Christ and mentor my life over four years, and yet, at the same time, be engaged in a world of sexual perversion? How could an author, who so shepherded my soul, turn out to have a double life? How is it a colleague of mine at seminary could lead such an impressive ministry, share teaching together, and carry on with multiple affairs? How could this man, here in prison, one who served with me–live one life in my office and another life outside?  

But then, all of us put up walls. Live a bit of a double life. They may be small—things we hide, park aside. Prideful ambition, emotional affairs, deep-seated resentments. Thoughts, feelings, attitudes we want no one to know about. And then, as they often do, they bleed out.  

Here’s what came out Friday night. My co-worker shared that he had not opened his Bible in eight years. Though he was part of our leadership, as well as an integral part of the ministry decisions we made, his soul was empty. And I, as his former pastor, could not but feel a certain amount of shame. How did I not discern? How did I get so caught up in fiduciary matters and business decisions that I had not taken the time to probe? To ask, “How are you doing?” “What is the state of your soul?” “What is God showing you?” “How is your marriage?” “What is the particular sin that crouches at your door?” 

I am reminded of another pastor, John Wesley, who insisted that his small groups hold one another’s feet to the fire. Each week, they asked these questions of one another—

-what is the state of your soul?

-where have you moved away from God’s will?

-what are the spiritual gains and losses you experienced this week?

-what known sins have you committed since our last gathering?

-what temptations are you experiencing?

Why do we not take the time to do this? As members of the body of Christ, do we not have a responsibility to penetrate deceptions, resist defiance, correct misplaced love, and admonish phoniness? Maybe we are afraid. 

One more moment rocked my world. It came this morning, I walked into my office here at seminary to find out one of our instructors had a massive heart attack and died last night. He was 49.

I had told myself from time to time–I need to sit down and get to know this man. By God’s grace, I reached out last week and said, “We’ve been meaning to do this. Let’s meet.” And we did—Monday morning. One day before his death.

Another look into the mirror moment. Another call to pray–“Lord, help me not to miss the moments, the lives you bring into my life. Help me to listen more deeply, ask the necessary, penetrating questions. The very ones I need someone to ask of me. And when you put someone on my heart to connect with, help me to arrange a time—now.”

  • John Kauffman
    4:47 PM, 15 January 2020

    Thank you for this blog message and thank you for last Sunday’a message at Gracepointe. Wish I could have heard that message 50 years ago!!

  • Candace
    9:15 PM, 16 January 2020

    I miss your wonderful sermons, Pastor John. This was a sad but wonderful reminder that we need to make the most of our time with those who walk into our lives.

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