READING BETWEEN THE LINES
READING BETWEEN THE LINES
J. Austin Bennett
The story you are about to read is true.
The names have been changed to protect the guilty.
When we hear the shout, “Mail Call!”, everyone looks forward to the event with the eager anticipation of a letter from home or the sigh of resignation knowing that no such missive is coming. I was blessed with a virtual avalanche of correspondence from well wishers when I first arrived at the Federal Prison Camp. Two of those beautiful cards are the catalyst for this story.
The first one was delivered a month after my incarceration. The photo of a loving and playful golden retriever puppy adorned the cover sending pangs of longing through my heart. It is still my favorite. The flip side contained a message of encouragement from a couple who attend a Spirit blessed church that I had visited several times. Contained within the hand scrawled epistle was the phrase, “Just maybe this is the way the Lord wants to use you. It’s for sure those guys need to know the Lord.”
About seven months later, I received another card from that same couple. The second note also quoted scripture and exhorted me to keep my chin up and keep the faith. It urged me to look forward to a bright future and promised, “the Lord surely has something special for you when you get out of that confinement.”
I thank and bless these truly wonderful people who took the time to write and who obviously care enough to hold me in their thoughts. But these two cards each present a fascinating glimpse into our human nature.
It is common to deny the attributes of humanity to those we personally do not know while recognizing the virtues inherent in our friends and associates. The fact is that the individuals whom we dehumanize in our minds are people who were, and will again be, our co-workers, neighbors and, hopefully, our friends. The paradox that strikes home is that each one of “those guys” have loved ones who unwittingly hold the same disparaging view of me.
The implication that the Lord suspends His blessings during a demeaning time of trial is a grossly misinformed perspective. It is precisely at that moment that His presence is most urgently sought and sorely needed, . . . . .and He is always “on time!”
I hope the reply (with the names changed) is as uplifting for you to read as it was for me to relive and write.
I thank you for the encouraging card you sent last January. I apologize for taking so long to reply. I am just now making an effort to answer my correspondence.
You are absolutely right in saying that the Lord has something special for me, but He didn’t wait for the conclusion of my confinement. I have had the beautiful experience of introducing several men to Christ since arriving here. I’d like to tell you about two of them.
After I had been in camp only three weeks, a man came up to me and asked if I was a preacher? I was carrying my Bible at the time. I explained to him that as a Christian, any man who has been born again in the Lord is considered a part of the priesthood of believers. I told him I would try to help him if I could, expecting either a “trick” or, perhaps a legitimate question. Anyone who stands for God in this setting is subjected to some strange occurrences. But this man, who was about forty years old, seemed troubled and appeared to be sincere.
He was indeed very troubled. Jim was a farmer who also owned a restaurant. One day while harvesting, his five-year-old son, one of two twin boys, was riding on the tractor with his dad. The young fellow fell under the blades of the combine and was killed. Although it was clearly a freak accident, Jim’s wife never forgave him. She couldn’t realize, because of her own pain, that Jim was suffering as horribly as she, if not more. He, quite naturally, blamed himself. Her accusatory attitude reinforced Jim’s already overpowering sense of guilt. He had been carrying this burden alone and felt that the Lord must also hold him responsible.
Jim’s question was, “What do I have to do to be saved?” I led Jim to the camp library where there was a vacant room and answered his question. We prayed the sinner’s prayer and the Lord lifted a load off of Jim that few of us can comprehend.
Jim became one of our most stalwart brothers in the camp during the time he had remaining. He has since gone home to a wife who was still unsaved, languishing in her own bitterness. Perhaps Jim can bring her to the only answer that works. While he was here, Jim who was illiterate learned to read, was in the word every day and also lost eighty pounds. His life may have been saved in more ways than one that day.
By the way Don, I don’t think it was my presence that caused Jim to make his peace with Jesus. Jim had been laboring under conviction for some time before I came on the scene. Rather, I believe the Lord, in His gracious love, held off with Jim for my benefit and allowed me the inexpressible joy that comes from being a party to another man’s salvation. I needed that at the time.
The other man I want to tell you about is named Antonio. I never learned his last name. He was a holdover in this camp. That is a man who is enroute to another destination and is merely parked here for a short time, usually a week or two.
I had been here for almost seven months and was witnessing to a different young man named Charlie. Suddenly, I heard from behind me a most unusual question.
“Do you think the Lord will forgive anyone, no matter what they have done?”
I turned to see a Hispanic-looking young man in his late twenties with long stringy hair and an open pleading look in his eyes. He apologized for interrupting and explained that he had been carrying the guilt for a sin he had committed almost ten years ago.
Antonio had married young and had been unfaithful to his wife who loved and trusted him. It was not an ongoing thing and had ended almost as soon as it started, but he had never confessed to either the Lord or his wife. This was the first time he had ever spoken of it to anyone. Because of the length of time involved, he felt that there was no way back. He also regarded this as the most serious act of sin in his life and it was literally eating him alive.
I opened my Bible to the books of Acts and 1 Timothy and showed Antonio why the Apostle Paul considered himself “the chief of all sinners.” When Antonio realized that Saul of Tarsus was not only forgiven for the crime of persecuting and murdering the followers of Jesus, but given the ministry of the Apostle to the Gentiles, his eyes radiated with new found hope. I led both Charlie and Antonio to the camp’s softball diamond, which was barren on that cold November afternoon. There, in the empty third base dugout, Antonio made his confession to the Lord.
The next evening, Antonio told me that he had just spoken to his wife of twelve years on the phone. He said he didn’t know how to broach the subject of his long past infidelity. “But when I told her that I had become a Christian, the words just came out.”
It turns out that Antonio’s wife, who herself was saved, had been praying for his conversion for several years. She also knew about his lapse of faith and had long ago forgiven him. That was on a Monday night. Antonio was shipped out the next morning. I never saw him again.
There is a misperception that the men in this setting are somehow different than the rest of us. I fell for that erroneous idea until I became one of “those men.” The thought that, because of our present circumstances, we are somehow more valuable as persons destroys our effectiveness as a witness for Christ. Not only are the important lessons learned in the valleys of life; that’s where the action is!
I’m afraid my own inbred impatience and the Lord’s plans will not wait until I leave here. The small band of Christian brothers at this camp enjoy a camaraderie and closeness that is so often sought and too often lacking in most churches on the outside. We have a saying that we serve a God who is 24 / 7. That means He works 24 hours, 7 days a week. It has been a true privilege to be a part of the harvest. We are racking up a lot of overtime, but the pay is great!
May the Lord bless you and Penny,
J. Austin Bennett Copyright © 2006 Use with credit.
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You know, Austin, this is one of the best articles of what being a Christian is really all about. This is grass roots Christianity, the kind Christ wants from us all. We are all sinners, and the only way to get to Heaven is to be saved by Grace. Keeping our nose clean and staying out of prison has its merits,and certainly is to be desired, but that does not get us a ticket to Heaven. Christ died for us all, and He said "Whosoever". I am glad He did not say "Thomas", because He might have meant another Thomas. "Whosoever" qualifies everyone who believes. Thank you for sharing this glimpse into the work of Christ, even in prisons.