Upheaval in prison is normal, a new normal for Andrew.
“The mail here gets messed up. Mrs. Marston was very nice to send the money order but they sent it back because it may not have been filled out right. No biggie. My property is not with me and they are moving me to another unit… things are hectic for me, not used to the whole prison life, got caught up in other peoples’ problems. I’m doing my best to stay focused.”
The constant pull from the outside, his family, his church and his dreams, make each day difficult. Every adjustment can be undone with a few angry words or actions and the outside seems further away.
In upheaval, one grabs onto those things that don’t change. Andrew’s Bible has become an anchor that keeps him centered and focused on things that are eternal and do not change. “I’ve learned a lot about parables… very interesting!”
In addition to his personal Bible study, he has come to value a community of Christians that gather on Sunday. “I made it to a chapel service this week. We had a guest speaker, Bobby McGee, a man who spent some time in prison and became a song writer. He is now spending more time in prisons all over the country, spreading God’s word.”
Months earlier I had written a Bible verse, 2 Corinthians 5.17, on a piece of paper and given it to Andrew to keep in his pocket as a reminder. It reads, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” He was excited that the speaker mentioned that verse. “Wow! The Lord really has his ways to remind me how important it is to stay in his Word and keep the faith.”
With the detainer resolved (see last week’s post), Andrew was now able to think forward. “I should be eligible to leave the inside in possibly December. There’s some classes I need to take but everything should work out in a decent time.” An argument with a guard would change that timetable, but at least for a short time, he would be thinking about the future rather than the past or present.
Upheaval can be a dead end. For Andrew it is always a detour, making his journey in prison longer but he always doubles back to the path he believes God has for him. And, as I’ve said, his interest in others keeps him from being too self-absorbed. This letter ended with four questions, not one of them a cry for help or sympathy.
“How’s the family? Anything new going on at church? How was New York? Did you eat the pizza you wanted?” (I had written him that we were taking a weekend in New York City and I hoped to eat at John’s Pizza).
In his next letter, Andrew makes plans for a fresh start on the outside and reflects on the learning experience of prison.
Andrew entered prison from the streets with very few possessions and even those were taken away. He was left with his name and an assigned inmate number. It’s a given that you exit the world and leave your freedom behind, but they can’t take away your name and your identity.
Or can they?
“Pastor Greg, I came across a problem that you may be able to help me with. There is another Andrew Ludwig in Barnstable, Massachusetts that has a detainer on him, and the people here are not helping me.” A “detainer” is a hold that is placed on a criminal defendant who is facing charges in another jurisdiction. In short, Andrew now faced two charges, those he had incurred and those of another Andrew.
Things had just gotten more complicated. When I followed up with the courthouse in Massachusetts, a nice woman told me that Andrew had to personally appear there to make his car (an impossibility). Otherwise he needed a good lawyer.
So the one thing Andrew possessed was now in someone else’s hands. Life had suddenly become even rougher but, true to character, he managed to cut through his emotions toconcern for others. “How was the 4th of July? I know you and your wife are having an anniversary soon, if I’m not mistaken…”
He wasn’t, of course, and this was quite in keeping with his Mother’s Day card, Easter card, Christmas card and a special card with doodles for the Sunday School kids. This habit of seeing beyond himself and his plight is one of the secrets to his future. It allows him frequent “escapes” from prison.
Somehow Andrew has managed a balance between escaping his circumstances and making the most of his time there. He yearns for freedom but sees himself as being there for a reason, a tool for God’s use, helping to shape someone else’s future.
Like a mountain climber, taking careful steps and always looking for the next ridge, Andrew found his way further in the faith. “For the first time in about twenty-two years I had the chance to inform (another inmate) about Jesus and his story and about entering the gates of heaven. He was very appreciative. I’ve gotten one person in my life to ask the Lord into his heart!”
I remembered the words his father said Andrew used to repeat, “I’m either going to be a police officer or preacher. I’m going to either shoot ‘em or save ‘em.” Up to now his life has been a struggle to break free from his past so that he might make a difference. Reflecting on his encounter with the inmate he is encouraged. “I should say God used me. At the time he was on suicide watch so I told him all the sins of this world were already paid by Jesus and that it’s not our place to decide when we go (die).”
Like many of us, Andrew is still discovering who he is. He has learned that everything changes and everything is uncertain.
It’s human to live with purpose, to have meaning in every day and to make a difference in the lives of others. Prison strips away all of this. What we call “prison reform” is the job of government and do-good organizations. The job of prisoners is to do their time and accept the things they cannot change.
Losing his connection with friends and family is the most difficult thing for Andrew to accept. Learning the new “rules” of engagement and code of conduct is a necessary chore that only puts off the things that are important to him.
“I can send a post card but not get them in. All letters must have my name and D.O.C. #115256. My parents have not written me back. I gave my mother a Mother’s Day card and still no response. Oh well, I tried. Time’s going slow, visits are only on Tuesdays and I know you have your grandson. Once I get out of CCU (Central Correctional Unit) I’ll be able to have more visits.”
Constant change makes forming relationships difficult, even for Andrew, but maybe homelessness has prepared him for this. On the streets there is no routine, or at least none that can’t be changed by the weather.
“The officers took my old Bunky the other day for having an attitude with the nursing staff. I now have a new one who believes in the Lord. I’m sending a picture of a bird my old Bunny drew for Mrs. Emily (one of Andrew’s pen pals from church). She really likes wildlife.”
Andrew somehow avoids the danger of getting locked up in his mind, allowing the world of prison to shrink his hope and future. Every letter includes wishes for those he left behind, like Emily, and dreams of what lies ahead. “People here know that I am a Christian and they respect that.I once said my daily walk with God is easy as long as I put Him first. Well, the devil seems to push me off the path yet I still strive to do my best.
“My high school records came back and I only need five more credits. So I signed up for school this semester. They only accept twelve guys from our building. Hopefully I’ll get in.” To make a difference in the lives of others, you need those who are making a difference in yours. Every letter he receives lifts him above his circumstances. Emily, Joan, Cheri and others are lifelines that lead to hope and remind him that he is loved.
Despite the missing pieces of his life – freedom, family and possessions – Andrew continues to plan for the next chapter of his life which he believes will be better. He has accepted the things he cannot change and has decided to change the things he can – his mind, his attitude and his life beyond prison.
In his next letter he faces up to a problem that could change his future and shares an encounter that could change someone else’s.
Most holidays are an excuse to relax, get away from work and just take a breath. In addition to the wonderful history of Independence Day, it is also the official start of summer and, yes, an opportunity to relax. If you’ve been left out of a party (and even if you haven’t), consider just breathing.
Breathing is underrated.
I know that sounds silly. After all we don’t really have a choice, do we? We breathe or we die. The truth is we take breath for granted. We are a few short breaths away from extinction.
The average person takes over 23,000 breaths each day! But those breaths can come fast and furious, accompanied by heart palpitations and sweating. All too often we hold our breath, waiting for something to happen or fearing the worst.
It turns out that the respiratory system is there for a reason. When we breathe we inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. Out with the bad, in with the good. It’s that simple. But the benefits are great! Your metabolism decreases, your heart rate slows, your blood pressure decreases, your body ends a message to your brain to relax.
Dr. Herbert Benson named this the “relaxation response” but it has been practiced for centuries. Who would have thought that something as simple and fundamental as breathing could un-crazy your life? Thank you, God! I am fearfully and wonderfully made! So try this…
When an unexpected bill comes in the mail, breathe
When the kids have pushed you to your limits, breathe
When the boss fails to appreciate the wonderful work you’ve done, breathe
When the pie is in the oven and you realize you forgot the sugar, breathe
When your best friend becomes your worst enemy, breathe
When you see the ticket on your windshield, breathe
A good friend of mine teaches mindfulness meditation in New York City. We have spirited conversations about his Buddhism and my Christianity. But one thing we agree on is that breathing, locking into the natural rhythms of the body, can take us away from the edge of life. When life gets crazy our first response is anger or panic or fear. Those only make you crazier! Breathing allows your body time to react appropriately and buys you time to think about a more appropriate response.
Crazy lives, cluttered minds. The two go together. Mindfulness means that you occasionally empty the clutter and appreciate that natural reflex that keeps you alive.
And it works both ways too. When things are going well and life is good, breathe in and appreciate the moment, and give thanks.Take it a step further. Make a list of the people that have made your life better.
By example By their kindness By a piece of advice By accepting you for you
Now tell them how much they have meant to you. We waste so much breath stressing over life, why not spend a little encouraging someone else.
Thankfulness ignores the crazy and says… There are things in my life that are valuable and get overlooked There are people that matter to me and don’t know it There’s someone more important than me There is life outside of the crazy Be thankful for it.
Remember that how and when you breathe is a choice. Include breathing into the events of your day. Breathe “when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” (Deuteronomy 6.7) Intentional breathing is training the body the way you train the mind, through repetition and habit.
It’s not that you’re forgetting to breathe but that you’re not aware of it. When you are you realize how important it is to your health, to your very life and happiness.
A crazy life thrives on snap decisions made in the heat of a moment, without thought. A deep breath is like a buffer that protects you from a knee-jerk reaction and reminds you that you live and move and have your being in God. The un-crazy life aims at happiness over business, being over doing and quality over quantity. Each new breath is a new start.
For all of us there are times where the sun shines through the clouds. One glimpse of the sun reminds us that there is light behind the darkness, even the deepest darkness of life.
Andrew’s next letter begins, “The sun is bright in my life today like my Heavenly Father.” The long days in prison are a mental stream of daily duties, past regrets, future hopes and eternal truths. In the library, he finds the few books that feed his spirit, especially the Bible. “I’ve been reading up on the origins of the Bible and First Kings (an Old Testament historical book), enjoying the studies about Christianity.”
In addition to my letters and those of a few church friends, he turns to prayer as a connection to the outside world. He prays that God would heal his family relationships, for his friend, Aaron and others he met on the outside. He prays for his future, that God would change him and use him for the good of others.
“I was praying earlier today and half an hour later I got your letter! The Lord and me are becoming friends again. My confidence level is much better. I thought it was funny when I was praying earlier. It was for others, including Aaron, then you said, ‘Pray for stubborn human traits’ and it hit me, I’ve finally got what it takes and now I just have to stay persistent and not fall astray.”
I always try to draw on his experiences and ask his opinion, knowing that will spur a sense of purpose. I happened to mention our church was having our parking lot paved. This sparked a flurry of advice. “I’ve been in construction for over twelve years, and $33,000 (the price quoted) is a little too much. Make sure when they pour the asphalt it is at least flour inches or better. One popular thing with pavers is that they skimp on material…
“One more thing, after a year or so you’ve got to sealcoat and then stripe it. Just keep in mind that oil leaks eat holes in your pavement. You know I have a thing for this kind of stuff!”
“Incarceration” is a state of mind. I’ve said earlier that not all prisons have walls. Andrew’s does, but God has helped him to think outside of those walls, to the future that He wants for him. “I’m planning to stay in the Concord area a while since I’ll be paroling here, hopefully not doing the street life. I have my ID so it shouldn’t be hard to get a place (to live), plus my Heavenly Father wants better for me.”
One glimpse of the sun can lead to others and before long, the darkness lifts. In his next letter, Andrew takes more steps into the light and becomes a light himself as Jesus said, “You are the light of the world.” Prison becomes a little world in itself in which he seeks to be used by God as he waits to re-enter the outside world.