Sunday, May 29, 2011

Encounters With God: My Own Story

Easter morning of 2007 began like so many others before it. I was awakened before sunrise and said a prayer that the activities of the day would somehow bring glory to the name of Jesus. I grabbed a quick bite to eat (technically I was served breakfast in bed), then pulled out my tattered, worn leather-bound NIV Bible that had been a gift from the youth of Springfield Friends Meeting when I left there in 1994. I read the stories of the resurrection of Christ before once again going to God in prayer, seeking guidance for the day and for my life. That was where the similarities to any other Easter Sunday of my life ended.  There would be no Sunrise Service. In fact, there would be no church at all. For you see, I spent Easter Sunday 2007 in jail.

The story of how and why I came to be in the Ware County (GA) Jail for 7 weeks in the Spring of' '07 will be told here over the next two days, but trust me- I was there. By April 8th (Easter) I had been incarcerated for 18 days, which was 17 days longer that anyone had expected. I was being kept on the high security wing of the county jail with the inmates who had mental issues or who had tried to commit suicide. I was there for my own safety (I seemed a bit out of place in jail) and because the guards thought I might be able to help them with some of the other patrons. Plus everyone thought I was going home- the next day. The next day had now arrived 17 times, and I was still there. It was Easter, my very favorite day of the year, the highest of Holy days for Christians and the day to CELEBRATE JESUS- and I was sad, depressed and feeling completely useless. I was certain no one could ever love me again. I was pretty sure God would give up on me too. It seemed my day would be spent wallowing in self-pity and beating myself up for the sin that had placed me there. That's when God stepped in...

Sometime after lunch I began to talk to my cellmate, who we'll call Ronnie. Ronnie had been in and out of jail and prison for 8 years, and during this particular stay had tried to kill himself twice. Before moving him in with me, one the guards (an incredible Christian woman named Betty) asked me if I would try to talk with him and pray with him. I had agreed, but had really done nothing of the sort. I was too busy worrying about me- which shows you just how little I was thinking about Jesus. But on Easter afternoon we began to talk. He had grown up in church, so he knew "the stories" of Jesus. Our talk turned to Holy Week, and I pulled my trusty Bible back out and began to read him some of the stories. The story of The Last Supper seemed to trouble him greatly, and when I pushed the subject he told me he had never belonged to a family or group that shared a meal like that, with real conversation and real love. It was a wonderful opening to talk about Jesus and the family of God, and it was at that moment that the Holy Spirit slapped me upside the head and reminded me of "whose I was." Yes I had been stupid. Yes I had sinned. Yes, God still loved me. And yes, my life still belonged to Jesus

I was suddenly filled with joy, with energy and with a bit of imagination. I flagged down a guard and asked if I could get some juice and bread so I could serve Holy Communion to any of the guys on the hall who were interested. He brought me some mostly frozen apple juice and a slice of bread so old that it had been rejected by the rats. I preached a short message on John 3:16 and what the resurrection could mean in their lives- from inside my cell. I talked about the joy and peace that come with being a part of God's family. I talked about grace. And then with the guard's help I served Communion. It was powerful. Big, tough men were crying- and repenting. One guy named John (who was a bit nuts, and who was there for threatening to blow up a government building) began singing Amazing Grace, and others joined in. I have never felt the presence of God  ANYWHERE  like I felt it that afternoon in jail. I prayed a "Sinner's Prayer" with Ronnie and one other inmate. And when it was over, I laid down on my bed and cried. All of my sin, all of my depression, all of my frustration and all of my love for Jesus came flowing out of me- and after 28 years of teaching about grace, I finally really understood what it was. God still loved me. My wife and son still loved me- ANYWAY! I had no idea how at that particular moment, but I knew God was still going to use me. My soul was about to explode as I realized that no matter how anyone on earth might respond to me and what I had done, it was Jesus who would define my life from that point on.  After all of those wonderful years of ministry, it took an encounter with God in a jail cell to truly open my eyes. I was reminded of Joseph in The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat when he sings, "Close every door to me, hide those I love from me...but children of Israel (and God) are never alone!"

Later that night I sat on my bed and wrote out from memory the words to the incredible song from the late Rich Mullins, Bound To Come Some Trouble. I keep that tattered piece of paper in my tattered old Bible. It's pictured here. I still cling to these words:

There's bound to come some trouble to your life,
just reach out to Jesus and hold on tight;
He's been there before and He knows what it's like
you'll find He's there...

I add this encounter with God to the two weeks of amazing and personal stories that have been shared here. My thanks to everyone who contributed and all who have been reading. If you haven't read these amazing posts, please go back and do it now. It is my prayer that these diverse and powerful examples of brushes with the living God will remind us all that God moves among us every single day. Encountering God often has very little to do with us going to the mountaintop; it is much more common for Jesus to find us in the valleys of life. Seek God in your life daily, and discover the "reckless, raging fury that we call the love of God."  Blessings to you all.

Because of Jesus,


  1. @mizweatherby5/29/2011

    So timely, Carl. You're a pretty brave fella and I love ya.

  2. Christie, thanks for your love and support. God knows I need both, because today was mildly brave. Tomorrow's tale is the one that really has me sweatin!

  3. Thank you, Carl. And yes, everybody loves Carl, me and Jesus, too.

  4. Jason, my bro- if I'm loved by you and Jesus then I'm in pretty good shape. Thanks so much.

  5. Paul and Carl both have four letters...coincidence? I think not. May your crown be too heavy to hold my friend.


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