I’ve taught a Bible study in the local church for over 25 years. Once a week I would arrive about 15 minutes early, get my materials out, and chat with any of the women who came early while we waited for the others to arrive. I always began the study right on time. “If we don’t start on time, we’ll train people to arrive late,” I reasoned. If I needed my computer to show a visual aid or play a song, I took it inside the church. Things were fairly straightforward—simple, timely, and predictable.
Ministry to the incarcerated is different. We are instructed to arrive 30 minutes early at the jail and 10 minutes early at the work-release center. We then wait for the chaplain, who is occasionally detained by other matters, to take us up to the chapel. There we plug in the computer we use for worship music and get everything ready for the women. (Except for the time when a corrections official told us we weren’t allowed to take the computer up to the chapel. That time we sang hymns acapella.)
Usually, though, we are ready to start by 9 a.m., when the women are supposed to arrive. Unfortunately, they rarely do arrive at 9 a.m. Things happen, and they’re often late.
Sometimes it’s 9:05, and other times it’s 9:10 or 9:15. This past week I had almost given up on them coming at all when they walked in at 9:17. When they arrive late, we may or may not still be given an hour for our time with them. Some days they still have to leave at 10; other days they can remain for an entire hour.
Here’s the thing—I entered this world with a strong type-A personality. I like timeliness and predictability. I like order and structure; I especially like to be in control.
There is good news, though! God is using ministry to the incarcerated to help me learn to let go of my desire for control. God is teaching me to wait on Him.
Just this past week, I taught the women the story from Luke 15 about “the waiting Father.” Many people call this story “the prodigal son,” but the main character is really the father who waits and watches and pursues both of his sons.
I always encourage people to try to put themselves in the story they are studying. I see myself in three of the characters in the story:
- The Pharisees: I can be impatient and demanding, and I like order and rules.
- The older son: I tend to get a little “judgy” of people who don’t do things the way I think they ought to be done.
- The younger son: I want the freedom to run my life my way.
I am not very much like the Father in the story. As I mentioned to the ladies, the fact that he sees his son from far away means that He has been waiting and watching for him. I asked them, and I must ask myself, “How well do you wait?”
Even though my answer has been, “Not well enough,” I see God changing me through this ministry to the incarcerated. As I face the challenge of unpredictability and loss of control, God is reminding me…
- He is the Father who has waited for me to return to Him. I can wait for 10, 20, or 30 minutes for the guards to bring the prisoners.
- He is the Father who has a plan. He has ordered my steps as well as the steps of the prisoners, the guards, and every single person in that facility.
- He is the Father who celebrates the lost and makes the dead come alive again.
The story ends with the words, “It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:32).
Indeed let us celebrate with our Father in heaven, who through his perfect Son is making hearts come alive in prison, starting with mine!
Elizabeth Turnage is a writer, story coach, and teacher. Visit her website at www.elizabethturnage.com. If you would like to listen to Elizabeth’s podcast recording about The Waiting Father, you can find it here or on iTunes at Living Story.