The whole world seems to be falling apart and becoming more violent, more hateful. It would be easy to despair if we focused on all the negativity. But Easter is THE ultimate day of hope… and I want to share a story about Lenny – A TRUE story – although I changed some details to protect his real identity.
Lenny was what we would call a “hardened criminal” – and he looked the part: muscular, tatoos everywhere, a thick beard and a scowl told you to give him plenty of room. His mom had died when he was 6 – his Dad had done some bad things… unforgivable things. By the time he was 12, Lenny was fending for himself on the street, joined a gang, got messed up in doing and selling drugs, and at 18 was sentenced to life in prison for a brutal murder.
From all accounts, Lenny was a hopeless case… a sorry excuse for a human being. The system wrote him off. His family wrote him off. Counselors wrote him off. He was as good as dead.
Lenny survived all these years in prison by doing two things: He was purposely mean, thinking it would ‘earn’ the respect of everyone on the yard – and second: every day he fed his anger.
See – Lenny blamed his dad for how his life had turned out. If his dad hadn’t been such a loser, Lenny might have stayed on the path of a normal life. Not only that, for reasons I can’t explain, Lenny blamed his Dad for his Mom’s death.
To put it mildly, Lenny hated his Dad. That hate and anger fueled Lenny to pull further and further away from people – to scowl harder – cuss more violently – becoming ever meaner. Every day, Lenny would wake up with this anger, and lay there feeding it like you’d feed a pet dog - Lenny’s anger was his backbone.
But then a group of men showed up to put on a Kairos retreat. In case you’re not familiar with Kairos, it is a three-day retreat based on the Cursillo method, but it was developed specifically for prisons. Upon hearing that Kairos was coming, Lenny rolled his eyes… whatever – ain’t no blankety-blank, blankin’ Christians blankety blank gonna save me!
But when the retreat started, Lenny was sitting at the table. That’s not totally surprising – I mean – at least for those three days he’d get fed REAL FOOD – and he got to be out of his cell three times as long. He wasn’t there to find Jesus – not a chance - he was just there for a break in the monotony and the cookies.
On the third day of the retreat – at 10 am – Lenny spoke up for the first time all week without cussing. “I want to give my life to Christ”. And this big bear of a man put his head down and sobbed. Amazingly, all these other men who had been avoiding Lenny circled around him and prayed with him – yeah – it’s hard to even imagine the scene. 37 hardened criminals gathered around one bawling gangster talking to Jesus.
Somewhere through the three days, the witnesses that were shared by the team and the other offenders at the retreat led Lenny for the first time to realize that his anger wasn’t his strength – it was his weakness. His unforgiveness of his Dad wasn’t his backbone, it was a poison killing him from the inside. His unforgiveness was his own personal prison in which he had locked his heart. Jesus was able to reach down into that prison – into the hardened heart of a man who had spent his life avoiding letting anybody get close. For the first time since his Mom died, people showed Lenny what love looks like!
I share this true story because – it’s a great sign of hope. Regardless of how hopeless things can seem, the Grace of God can ignite hope from the smallest kindling.
Every one of us here has something in our life that seems hopeless… our marriage, our relationship with a brother or sister or parent, a dead-end job, a teenager on drugs, a spouse addicted to alcohol, an injury or illness that has us sidelined. Every one of us experiences these seemingly impossible situations and it would be so easy to fall into despair…. Yet we dare to keep hoping.
If God can reach into the stone tomb to raise his Son from the dead, God can change ANY hopeless situation. If God can reach into the stone tomb of the prison to touch the heart of a hardened criminal, He can reach the heart of OUR hopeless relationships. Really…
What do we have to do? Obviously pray – but then just BE the instrument for God to show love to that person. Just like the team that went into the prison to put on Kairos, you and I can be the arms outstretched to show love to even the un-lovable. By showing Lenny what love looks like, his heart melted. We may still have to give tough-love to avoid enabling our drug-addict teenager – but we can’t lose hope that somewhere – perhaps when they’re in the tomb of a prison for 3 days or for twenty years – God will resurrect their hearts…
And if you and I would drop whatever anger or pride or unforgiveness we’re holding onto, he can even reach into the prison we’ve made for ourselves and resurrect hope.