On Wednesday afternoon, I sat in the waiting room at our county jail.
My appointment was for 3 pm. I had pulled into the 1 hour visitor parking space out front, made my way up the elevator to the 2nd floor and alerted them to my presence by pushing the intercom button to tell them I was there. I sat down in one of the beat up chairs and waited. I had left my phone and anything else of substance or value in the car as they are not allowed inside. Lately, though, they have not been locking up my coat and my keys before I go back. They are no longer asking for my i.d.
I have been making this visit for a couple of months now. This was the first time I had to wait, wondering if I had been forgotten. For fifteen minutes I sat staring at the flyers posted on the window, which I have long memorized by now, wondering whether when I should go and push the intercom button again. I got a taste, a very tiny taste then of what it is for the person on the other side of those locked doors every moment of every day. And mine only lasted fifteen minutes or so.
Now this is how it is. The case against the woman I go to see seemed to me (and to many) an awfully hard one to prove, but the judge had found her guilty. She is adamant in her innocence as are her family and friends. The fact is, as I understand it, resources are limited and so an appeal is not likely — and so far as I have been told, not even possible for a while. Her sentencing date is bearing down at which point she will be transferred to another facility.
I had carried in a Bible to her a month or so ago. On Wednesday she showed me the inside back cover where she has written down the contact information for everyone dear to her. She knows she will not be able to take much with her when she goes, but she has been told she can take her Bible.
She also told me that when she is transferred, there will be no notice and that loved ones will not be told. It makes sense, of course, for security is always an issue. So she has given their phone number to a cell mate who she will entrust to call them on her behalf.
She is captive.
Her days and nights are dictated.
She is at the mercy of the moods and whims of those in charge of keeping her there.
She is at the mercy of a system which cannot afford to see differences between her and others who are with her there.
She is at the mercy of the histories and hopes lived out among her cell block mates. Indeed, as she told me the other day, ‘This place does not bring out the best in people.’
She is at the mercy of the opinion of a judge, yes, who will make a ruling a few weeks out which will literally shape the rest of her life.
And yes, she is at the mercy of the terrors and dreams of her own imagination and memory both.
Honestly, I am humbled when I sit with her — at her efforts to hold on to hope in the midst of a situation which gives far too little cause for such hope.
She is captive, yes, but is working so very hard to not let that captivity worm its way into her soul.
Indeed, in our conversation yesterday she pulled out a piece of lined paper and showed me the Bible verses she had written down. Mostly from Proverbs. Mostly words which help her think about how to live into the next moment. Words about kindness and generosity and honesty. It was something to see.
Now this also happened on Wednesday. I traveled from the county jail to a local nursing home. We had a 102 year old there who had quit eating several days before. Truth be told, her quality of life was not great in these last years.
Indeed, she has also been captive.
Her days and her nights have also been dictated.
She has been held captive in a body which could no longer see, could hardly hear, and was mostly unable to move.
She was captive to the moods and the whims of those who were charged with her care.
Captive in a place which she would never leave.
But unlike my friend in the county jail, this one’s ‘visiting hours’ have been such that family could come any time, day or night, to sit with her. And they did.
On Wednesday when I arrived, one of her daughters sat at her side. It was hard to tell if she was breathing or not. Nonetheless, we offered prayer and blessing and visited a while before I suggested perhaps someone should come and check her vitals. They did. She had in fact, died sometime in those last moments.
Our beloved 102 year old was finally delivered from her ‘captivity’ by a release which will one day come to all of us. I do know what gift this must be not only to her, but also to those who have watched her suffer so. Surely we all live in the hope and the promise that in ways we cannot understand or even really imagine, all that she once was and then some, is now hers again.
Only I don’t think that is the kind of ‘release to the captives’ that Jesus speaks of now. While ‘release’ was and is surely hers, I do not believe Jesus is only speaking of what comes when our bodies are released from this life. Rather, he tells us that the ‘release’ of which he spoke had been fulfilled in his coming then and there. And now. Today.
I had heard a while back that those in prison wall off the walls of their hearts. They have to do this to survive, otherwise it is all just too hard. I see this in the woman in the county jail especially as she tries to stay above the drama of her cell block mates playing out all around her. Even so, she does still hug me when I walk in and when I leave, no doubt the only kind human embrace she has received in months. She still sheds tears, but not as much as she did…
Indeed, I see the callouses starting to build in my young friend even she hangs on to the tenderness she feels for her family, for her children, one of whom is but five years old. Right now she is clinging to the hope that her time locally can be extended just a little longer so that she can continue to see family every week. I do not hear her hanging her hope on anything beyond that. And I cannot, I do not blame her.
But with all of this, how must Jesus’ proclamation of ‘release to the captives’ sound in her ears? It would seem that for now it is hers to hang on to whatever ‘freedom’ she has — freedom of heart, of spirit, of hope — because this other ‘release?’ It is not likely any time soon.
In the meantime, all I know to do is keep showing up when I can, to sit and listen and pray with her a while. Indeed, these days, honestly, I expect I am learning more from her than she is from me. I am certainly given cause to consider how the promises we receive today play in the eyes, the ears, the heart of someone for whom their substance is so very meaningful and for whom the promise seems so far away from being fulfilled. And yes, I am given cause these days to look deep inside and wonder at the gifts I have been given to draw upon which offer ‘release’ in the midst of whatever captivity has its hold on me even now.
Beyond that? I have no powerful conclusions this week. And maybe this is enough — to stand still for a while in the gift and wonder of what such a proclamation of ‘release to the captives’ would sound like in the ears of one like my young friend. Surely, in some small way, as I sit across from her in the visiting room, I am more deeply aware of the gift of this.
And there is also this truth. Far too much of the time, too many of us live with the illusions of our ‘freedom.’ We tend not to think, not to remember that in many ways we are ‘held captive’ as well. By fear. By grief. By regret. By resentment. By despair. And yes, by sin. Because of her openness to share her journey with me, I find myself looking for the parallels now in a way I never have had the opportunity to do before.
For in fact, on Wednesday she told me she was trying to ponder what the ‘gifts or blessings’ of this time might be. So far all she can say is she knows all the more deeply how much she loves her family. And she is glad for that. And I am glad for that for her, but oh don’t I wish there were more. Indeed, don’t we all?
- As I say above, I so far I have come to no powerful conclusions as I listen to the promises of Isaiah on Jesus’ lips today. Perhaps I am not yet ready. Maybe for now it is mine to simply stand still in the implications of these promises for those who need them most of all. How is this for you?
- How do you hear Jesus’ words today? When he says he is declaring ‘release to the captives,’ what does that mean? Is that a future reality? A present experience? Both?
- Would you agree that much of the time we live in the illusion of our complete freedom? What is holding you ‘captive?’ What would release look like for you?