"Locked In, But Not Locked Out"

<!–[if !mso]>st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) } <![endif]–>When I graduated from high school and moved to San Diego to go to college I was so excited to dive right in.  I attended Point Loma Nazarene University, which is a private Christian college of about 2500 students.  They have chapel three times a week: Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  And every student is required to go to chapel. 

The worship music is led by bands that are made up of college students, and I had my sights set on being in one of those bands.  I had been playing guitar for a few years at that point, and I had the opportunity to lead worship for my youth group through high school, so I put all my eggs in that one basket.  The problem is, when the auditions came around and I tried out, I didn’t make it, and I was crushed.  I even got kind of mad at God thinking, “God, you’ve given me this gift and I’m passionate about it.  This would have been a great opportunity to show it off in front of a couple thousand students!”

But God has this way of humbling us when we fail to listen to God’s voice, and we instead choose to listen to our own.

A couple weeks later someone asked if I would be interested in joining the prison ministry team.  I had never considered being a part of a prison ministry before, so the thought of it sounded intriguing.  Then he said, “You know, we could really use you to help us lead worship in there.”  And I thought, “I don’t know about that…that’s not what I pictured myself doing.”  But I decided to give it a try, anyway.

I still remember the first Sunday we visited.  There we were, this group of 10 or 12 college students, all dressed up for church.  We showed up, had our ID’s checked, we got these visitor badges to wear around our necks, and then one of the guards told us, “Remember, if any trouble breaks out in the yard and we sound the sirens, all the inmates will get down on the ground, but you all need to remain standing with your hands in the air and we will escort you to safety.”  I gave him one of those little “test chuckles” like, “You’re joking, right?” But when the guard didn’t crack a smile in return I knew he was totally serious. 

Then we were escorted to the yard where the chapel is located, walking through several outside corridors, going in and out of these huge gates with razor wire everywhere, with armed guards in towers watching our every move.  Talk about intimidating!  We definitely looked like fish out of water and it felt like every eye in that prison was staring directly at me.

But we finally made it to the chapel and began getting set up for the morning worship service.  Now, this was not a required church service, so the inmates who showed up were choosing to be there, and at the proper time they started filing in. 

I had no idea what to expect, so when I started being greeted warmly with handshakes and smiles, I began to relax a little.  After a short greeting and introduction from the prison chaplain, we began to sing our first song.  I don’t remember what the song was, but I will never forget the way they sang it.

I’m sure it was the first time they had heard the song we were introducing, but it did not stop every inmate in that small chapel from singing from the very bottom of their hearts and the very top of their lungs.  It was one of the most beautiful moments of worship I have ever experienced. 

Did it sound good?  No, not at all. 

Was it on pitch?  No, not even close.  In fact I think at one point they were singing in twelve different keys. 

But it was genuine, and passionate, and absolutely beautiful.

These inmates were in prison.  When we left, they couldn’t.  Some of them would be in there for the rest of their lives.  And yet, in the midst of their circumstances, they were praising God with every ounce of their souls.

They had a saying to describe themselves, talking about God’s Kingdom, they would say, “We’re locked in, but we’re not locked out.”  What a lesson for those of us who aren’t locked in and cheapen God’s grace by taking it for granted.

I was so grateful to God for giving me that moment, for leading me into that experience—an experience I would have missed had I tried to do things according to my own ideas.  God had my attention; and as I looked out over that worship gathering of inmates it was as if God were looking me straight in the eyes saying, “Trust me.  Trust me.  Why follow your own desires when I am the one who gives you life, and gives you life abundantly?  Trust ME.”

May we have ears to recognize the voice of the Good Shepherd and the courage to trust that voice enough to follow wherever it leads.

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