One way to talk about what this year has meant for me, is to talk about ashes.  This year Ash Wednesday fell on my birthday, so I celebrated a little differently than usual.   A dawning realization as I grow older, is that fires never stop coming in our lives.  Whether the challenges, the pruning, and the trials we face feel like God’s refining fire or more like out of control forest-fires, the seasons of life do not seem to ebb or slow down. 

I’ve seen this in new and visceral ways when I am working in the Lokey Center at Emmaus House and as a member of Emmaus House chapel. But I’ll go out on a limb and say each of us face fires everyday in ways that profoundly shape who and how we become.  But instead of thinking of the remaining ashes as dead memorials to what we’ve lost, my experiences this year are helping me to claim the mystery and the love of a creative God who makes magical chemistry in the debris of our lives, bringing new and beautiful life.  This year has shown me the hope of Christ present with us in the ashen places of our lives.  I want to share with you a story that illustrates how I have experienced this hope.

Earlier this spring we had the opportunity to volunteer with an organization called Forever Families.  In a couple of groups, we the Road fellows accompanied some children as they made a visit to their mothers in prison.  Forever Families is a well-established, holistic program that comes alongside families in which the mother is incarcerated, seeking to support any children and other family members so that as a unit the family might remain strong through a difficult time.  As you might imagine, I was somewhat anxiously anticipating this visit, reckoning with my questions, fears, and assumptions about prisons, criminals, and families.  I didn’t know how the children would be feeling as they approached this vulnerable and precarious visit with their incarcerated mothers, but I expected in some way for the youth to be guarded and reserved toward us—strange volunteers who were dropping into their lives in this fraught moment.

When we finally arrived at the prison, we had to wait outside a long time before we were allowed to enter the facility.  I was overwhelmed and surprised by the open welcome we received from many of the youth, especially the young children.  What a blessing it was to receive that small trust from them. 

After some time, though, a plainclothes officer began coming down the line of folks waiting to go in for visitation.  He was checking IDs and fingerprinting all the adults, to speed up the visitor processing.  As soon as I saw him, I clicked into my official business mode: “Okay, here we go.  This is prison; this is where it all comes down, the law, and the iron fist.  We just need to go in and do what we need to do, no false moves.”  My own fears and anxieties kicked into high-gear. 

And then suddenly, just up from me in line, a couple of kids broke ranks and started playing tag on the small island of manicured grass in front of this imposing prison with all its barbed wire, cameras, and patrols.

My instinctive response was intense.  “Somebody get those kids, tell them they need to stop! Don’t they know where they are? No horse-play around here, these guys don’t joke around! Be careful!”  It was like I expected someone to boom over a yet-to-be-materialized loud speaker and force them back in line.  The stakes felt high.

But as I stood frozen, seeking out the faces of the other adults and authority figures in sight, it slowly washed over me that there was going to be no great response.  The officer did not seem phased by these kids rough-housing out of line.  While that might seem obvious, it wasn’t to me, not in that moment.  The thing about the drive and about standing in front of the prison for an hour was that a host of assumptions that had seemed obvious to me about what family, redemption, or justice look like were being fundamentally challenged by being in this place.  Seeing these kids playing freely in the face of this structure, this system, was for me an illuminating affirmation.  There was something indomitable about these kids doing what kids do that even the prison couldn’t touch.  

I’m sure there are many ways to think about this encounter, but for me, witnessing the undaunted freedom of those children reminded me that as children of God, there is a spirit of light and freedom within each of us that no earthly power can snuff out.  As I work with individuals and families each day in the Lokey Center, I am encouraged that even the most tangled snares of our imposing and broken social systems do not have the last say.  Just like the children playing in the grass, may we be buoyed by the hope of Christ with us, even as we walk into valleys, fires, and prisons in our lives.  Somehow, I choose to believe that new life can yet spring forth, even in a place where life and love seem to have been hostaged behind impenetrable walls.

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