God is love.
-1 John 4:8
It was the first time I had ever been frisked. My husband was next. Neither of us said anything. Then about fifty of us were jammed into a small area where guards, holding semi-automatic weapons, stood above us on a balcony. I would call the area a room, but it didn’t have a ceiling, just the blue sky, which would have been nice just about anywhere else in the world. At first, there were three walls, battleship gray. Then the fourth wall, a steel door, came thundering down, “SHUMP!” I jumped, grabbed the right side of my neck, and scanned the crowd. The other visitors looked angry, but not afraid. It was definitely a part of their routine.
Glaring down at us, the guards bellowed, “Tighten up! Tighten up and be quiet!” We got as close as we could get to each other.
To my surprise, my husband yelled back at the armed guards, “You can’t talk to us like that! We’re visitors! We’re not prisoners!”
I was trying to blend in with the crowd. I thought that would be easy since most of us were minorities, but once my husband spoke, I knew he would give us away. Even though we were from the city, neither of us had a strong urban dialect. I squeezed his hand, signaling him to be quiet. I was shocked by what happened next.
The other visitors cheered my husband on. He had become their spokesperson. Tattoos, gaudy jewelry, gold teeth, and tight clothes stood in agreement with him, and even though the bible says, “Do not judge or you, too, will be judged” (Matthew 7:1), I judged them for what they had on and how they cussed. Notice I wrote, “how” they cussed because I cussed, too, but with less passion and bass. It is interesting how we can sometimes judge people who commit the same sins we commit, as if we are somehow sinning more elegantly, but there is nothing elegant about sin. Sin is always ugly, but I couldn’t see that at the time.
While I continued to be afraid of the other visitors who had much more in common with me than I realized, my husband was holding lengthy conversations with them.
“They don’t want you to come here,” my husband explained, “so they want to make it as unpleasant of a visit as possible. This is absolutely-“
My husband’s words became less audible as the guards bellowed more commands. I grew increasingly nervous. I turned my rings around and pulled nervously on my string of secondhand pearls. I should not have worn any jewelry, especially not pearls. No other piece of jewelry could say, “I have lost touch,” more clearly than a string of pearls on a brown neck, but ironically, I wanted to make a good impression on an incarcerated cousin I had not seen in twenty years.
In my memory, he was the cousin who took me to his clubhouse with his group of “cool” friends. It was an abandoned house that smelled like a combination of soot and urine. Yet, I felt special being there, climbing broken steps to the top floor and kicking through bits and pieces of someone else’s past. At seven-years old, I was a tomboy who just wanted to fit in. There were no adults around to draw the line between danger and fun. So when the cops came and my cousin helped me escape from the second floor window onto a dirty mattress, I thought that was fun, and when he whizzed me home on the handle bars of his bike, I thought that was fun, too. He was my cousin who introduced me to the streets of Atlantic City before mischief became murder.
We were from the same place and the same family, but when my mother and I moved out of the housing projects to the suburbs, my cousin and I didn’t see each other as often. He and I lived drastically different lives, but my affection for him never changed. I couldn’t love him any less or anymore. I knew him long before he had become tainted by his environment, and I witnessed the abuse of his household. I also knew him before he drank hard, smoked marijuana, and shot heroin. He was the quiet little boy with the cute smile, wide eyes and good grades, and he would forever be the cousin who reached for me when I leapt from the window. I really didn’t know the man I was visiting in a maximum security prison with a 30 year sentence. So when he walked into the sunlit prison yard, bright orange and strong, I hugged the little boy who once held out his arms for me.
The love I feel for my cousin is stronger than the disdain I feel for his crimes. Can I claim that I feel that way about everybody? Of course I can’t because I don’t feel that kind of love for everyone I pass on the street. We, as humans, are limited in who we love and how much we love. There are people we love unconditionally, yet fragmentally, because human love, as intense as it may seem, is just a fragment of God’s divine love. However, God, unlike us, loves everyone unconditionally and wholeheartedly. There is nothing fragmented about His love. His arms are always held out for you, no matter who you are, and He couldn’t love you any more or less than He does at this very moment.
If you and I can love someone pass their faults, than how deeply does God love?
He is love (1 John 4:8). He is not like love, just in favor of love, or just a supporter of love. God is love. Why wouldn’t we want to have a relationship with someone like that, knowing we can’t have a relationship that deep with anyone else in the world. When I think of how profound that is, I ask myself, “Why don’t I read my bible more? Why don’t I pray more?” While God consistently has His arms reaching towards me, why do I sometimes run in the other direction? Maybe you do that, too, but does it make sense? Even if you are skeptical, do you really want to walk away and take a chance on being separated from God’s divine love?
We have to learn to stay as close to God as we possibly can, relaxing in His embrace as the world twists and turns around us. Sometimes we may be a little uncomfortable, wiggling like a toddler in our Father’s arms, but it is crucial that we stay there with His word in our hearts. It is crucial that we stay, so we can love others who feel unloved and so we can face the challenges of our own lives without falling apart. It is crucial that we stay, so we can experience the totality of His love.
Dear Lord, I know that if my cousin has a strand of heartbreaking stories behind him, then the rest of the prison population and many of their visitors also have a strand of equally distressing stories. Please remind me that I am not more special or better than anyone else because I have had fewer tragedies in my life. Please teach me to love others unconditionally with this in the forefront of my mind. Amen.
By Shawn R. Jones
Author of the devotional book, Pictures in Glass Frames http://t.co/BxiNwWRG
and the poetry chapbook, Womb Rain,