February 12, 2007

A Door with Two Sides
by Pastor George Van Alstine

There was a song sung in Sunday School during the Dark Ages when I was a child:
“One door and only one,
And yet its sides are two.
I’m on the inside;
On which side are you?�
In singing this we were being reminded that we faced a spiritual choice, and how we decided about Jesus would determine on which side of the door of faith we would live our lives.

A number of experiences have made me more conscious recently of the fact that prison doors separate many Americans from those of us who have the opportunity to live our lives in relative freedom. John and Lydia Swanson bring to our TLC group nearly every week prayer requests for prisoners they have befriended and care about. My own nephew has been in State Prison for twenty-three years, which is more than half his life. Recent documentaries on CNN cable TV have graphically shown what life in prison is like.

Our friend Milo has just been transferred to a State Prison from the LA County Jail, which has been his “homeâ€? for over a year. I have been able to visit him a few times. Our discussions have been free and open, and I have enjoyed talking with him about life inside, what he’s been reading, the challenge of believing in God in such a harsh situation. But our conversations have always been over a telephone through inch-thick bullet-proof glass. Every second we were conscious that he was on one side and I was on the other, and I have always breathed deeply of the fresh air of freedom when I left the jail facility.

Tomorrow I will go to court to answer a subpoena. No, I’m not on trial. I’ve been called as a witness in the preliminary hearing of a young man who has been accused of committing the burglary at our church last May. I guess I’ll be asked to testify as to what was taken.

So I’ll look at this young man, and I’ll wonder what he’s feeling. He may be a hard-core drug-user, or he may be a gang member. Maybe he’s facing his “third strikeâ€? and is facing a possible life sentence. On the other hand, he may be someone who has never been in trouble before and just made some bad choices in friends, or had too much to drink that night.

Either way, he has a mother who cares about him. She’ll probably be in court tomorrow. I’ll look around and wonder. And he probably had some life dreams that seem in jeopardy right now. There’s a good chance he grew up going to Sunday School and learning Bible verses. He may have a lot of time to meditate on them if he is convicted and this leads to jail time.

But is he really on the other side of the door? This change and trial may be a wake-up call that turns him around. This might happen even if he’s convicted. I remember a young man who was convicted of participating in a purse-snatching. Even though it was his first offense, the judge thought he should do a short time in juvenile custody. When he came out, his first words were, “I’ll never spend another day in jail.â€? And he didn’t.

Which side? Which side? I’ll look at that young man and think all these thoughts about him. And I’ll also think about myself, about how easy it could be for me to be on the other side. One bad decision. One rebellious moment.

I trust that God will keep me from praying the Pharisee’s prayer,
“God, I thank you that I am not like other people.â€?
May I, instead, pray as the “tax-collectorâ€? did,
“God, be merciful to me a sinner.â€? (Luke 18:9-14)
Because if I’m on one side of the door, rather than the other, it’s by his grace.