Prisons Week: Grace to help in time of need


It is not often that one is asked to give a lecture based on a Bible verse so I will try not to preach, although I will use some biblical examples.

I cannot resist, though, being a little preachy to start with and drawing an expository distinction between the grace and mercy mentioned in Hebrews 4:16, the verse that lies behind this year’s Prisons Week theme:

Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we
may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

At the risk of sounding technical, some of the distinction I wish to draw has to do with the covenantal shift between the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament we see God seating Himself on the mercy seat that rested on the Ark, an earthly representation of His heavenly throne. In the New Testament that heavenly throne is described as a ‘throne of grace’ and it is from this throne of grace that we can obtain mercy AND grace to help in time of need. Mercy sets us free from the past through forgiveness; grace gives us strength to go forward into a better hope.

Those in prison could be said to require both mercy and grace in their time of need, and victims, families and those working in the criminal justice system and rehabilitation services certainly require grace in the midst of their very different kind of need, for some a need that arises because cutbacks and complications seem to be the order of the day.

In this lecture, having now shared my tiny nugget of expository preaching, I want to focus mainly on restoration, beginning with inward restoration and moving through to issues of rehabilitation. I do so as someone whose adopted son has provided me with many opportunities to be a visiting family member, and who, as the Free Churches Moderator and the head of a chaplaincy-providing church grouping, has had many opportunities to observe chaplaincy provision close at hand as well as many opportunities to serve as a patron, not least to a number of prison-related charities.

To give you a route map for this lecture: I want to touch on confidence, competence and completion, but as to order having begun with confidence I will actually say a few words on completion before focussing on competence.

I have chosen confidence as my starting point as I think it is fundamental in so many areas of the prison and probation service. We have all noticed how quickly our performance can go downhill when we have lost confidence, and hopefully we have all observed the reverse. Many things can make us lose confidence as service providers: low morale, inadequate staffing, finance restrictions, deteriorating premises, to name but a few.

the emphasis is shifting from breaking to building

For prisoners the list can be longer, although on presentation we will all have witnessed occasions when a certain cockiness has masked a lack of confidence. So many prisoners have said to me that the system is designed to break them. And in some ways it is, or at least was, but hopefully the emphasis is shifting from breaking to building.

I have spoken at a few chapel services recently on the theme of building and I have begun by talking about Nehemiah’s reconstruction of the walls of Jerusalem after the devastation wrought on the city by the Babylonians. The interesting thing about Nehemiah is that he had to build with burnt bricks rescued from the rubble. Nonetheless, despite the mocking of his critics he ended up with a really strong wall. The mockers said that even if a fox ran up it, it would fall, but Nehemiah knew otherwise. As soon as his wall was completed he arranged a celebration that seemed to involve getting as many people as possible up on the wall at the same time so that they could parade around every part of it.

I want to commend the chaplains and the charities that send in volunteers and provide courses. Do be assured that your labour is not in vain.

It is wonderful when we can prove our critics wrong and this for many is the reality of chaplaincy. There are so many stories of broken men and women finding a sense of self-worth through chaplaincy. I want to commend the chaplains and the charities that send in volunteers and provide courses. Do be assured that your labour is not in vain.

Speaking of burnt bricks rescued from rubble can sound rather patronising and poetic. And I hate anything that is sentimental or patronising but burnt bricks really can make strong walls. Realising this can be transformative, and some of us have not had to go to prison to discover that we too are burnt bricks. To return to the Bible verse for this year’s Prisons Week asa way of summing up confidence, those who go boldly to the throne of grace do find grace to help in time of need.

Now we all know that the time of need is not just limited to the duration of the sentence, although the sentence is a time of need not only for those sentenced but for the families that get sentenced alongside. We need to remember the pressure on families: managing as a depleted team, waiting for visitors’ passes and often facing long journeys as sentences are frequently served in areas away from home. I have had plenty of experience in the past of family visits and they are not easy.

But returning to the thought that the time of need is not limited to the sentence brings me to some encouragement that Nehemiah the wall builder received as he persevered. He was told prophetically that he, as the foundation layer, would also be responsible for putting in place the capstone. And this brings me to the theme of completion.

It is possible to start well but to not survive the course. People can lay a good foundation for their lives while in prison but quickly discover that life’s ‘times of need’ extend beyond the prison walls. Support through transition is essential and some of the charities we focus on throughout Prisons Week do just that. We still have the probation service, despite the cuts, and there are some great charities that work on creating places of safety and encouragement. I want to commend them all.

The journey from inside to outside is enormous for anyone, but particularly for those who have been held as prisoners abroad and Prisoners Abroad is certainly another charity whose work I would wish to commend,

All who lay a good foundation in their lives also want to put the capstone in place and to have the joy of seeing their task fully and finally done. They need help through the tough times if their work of rebuilding is going to reach completion. And that brings me to my third word, competence, which highlights the standard of the help required to see them through.

Some of us do not only have responsibility for building lives, whether our own or others, but for building lives together into communities. I have used a biblical illustration for confidence and completion so I will be consistent and offer one for competence. The Apostle Paul was not exaggerating when he described himself as a wise master builder. He had a great record as a foundation layer with many a New Testament community grateful for his groundbreaking endeavours and foundational teaching. Competent foundation-layers are invaluable but so are those who ensure the building continues to rise course upon course.

Those who raise the walls have to be wise master builders too, possessing a skill that those building physical walls do not require. A physical brick is a brick. It is what it is and what it is is what it stays. The human building blocks that make up society are not so limited. They have development potential and that has to be taken into account in positioning them. It is a case of building with living, constantly- enlarging stones, with no two living stones growing at the same rate or reaching the same point of expansion. Sadly we do not have enough wise master builders competent for the task. We urgently need more.

Society seems to have lost its capacity to forgive

Prisoners once released need to be placed well so as to maximise their potential, but society lacks receptivity. It often treats people as if they were physical bricks – what you are is what you stay. Society seems to have lost its capacity to forgive – it either condones or vilifies. We often see more forgiveness in victims of crime who really are in the midst of times of need than in society at large. In first century Corinth the church for which Paul laid the foundation was constructed with living stones that were no longer limited by their labels. This one was once a thief and that one was once a deceiver, but they have been transformed and are still being transformed.

Projects such as the Welcome Directory are seeking to identify receptive communities – competent faith communities into which living stones, constantly enlarging stones, transformed and still transforming stones, can be built. This is a task that requires grace. The need is great and those of us seeking to meet the need must boldly go to get the grace, and having found it to keep boldly going all the more.

So to summarise:

  • Serving time is a time of need - a time to boldly go and rediscover confidence.

  • Beyond the walls is a time of need – a time to boldly go and commit to completion.

  • Reintegration is a time of need – a time for community leaders to boldly go and find the competence for a task that is as complicated in the midst of a sceptical society as it is rewarding.

So, let’s boldly go and having boldly gone, let’s keep on boldly going.