Thursday, October 28, 2010

Shawshank Revisited by Sharon Lurie

© 2010 David's Harp and Pen

Mood: Empowered

DISCLAIMERS: This blog is based, in part, upon actual events and people. Certain actions and characters have been dramatized and fictionalized, but are inspired by true events and real people. Certain other characters, events, and names used herein are entirely fictitious. Any similarity of those fictional characters or events to the name, attributes, or background of any real person, living or dead, or to any actual events is coincidental and unintentional. Therefore, I don’t want to hear any complaining from anyone from the New Jersey Department of Corrections. I promise to stay on my side of the Mason-Dixon line if you stay on yours.

*All Scripture quotations are and forevermore shall be from The Amplified Bible

I have a friend named Jerry from middle school currently serving a life sentence in the New Jersey State Prison. I won’t go into detail about his crime, but let’s just say no one gets a life sentence for jaywalking. Even though I had not seen or talked to Jerry since we were 16, I felt a nudge from God to get back in touch with him a few years ago. We’ve written back and forth pretty consistently, so when I had to go to New Jersey last month, I decided to pay Jerry a visit. It was going to be the first time I’d seen him in 20 years, and I honestly had no idea what to expect.

It’s difficult for me to describe what I felt when I laid eyes on the prison for the first time. Located in Trenton, New Jersey, smack dab in the middle of a residential district, the prison looked as scary as every penitentiary in every prison movie and television show I’d ever seen. The outside walls were towering and impenetrable, and I could feel the sharpness of the barbed wire coiled on top of each wall as if I’d cut myself on it. The building itself filled my entire line of sight, regardless of the angle from which I looked. When I walked into the building, I felt terror I’d not felt in a long time, not even when I had gun at my head a few years back (anyone who wants to hear that story, let me know).

The lobby and waiting area of the prison were just as intimidating as the exterior. Steel, cinder block, brick, and red paint darkened all of my thoughts. As I sat down to wait for my name to be called, I observed the prison employees and the other visitors waiting to see their incarcerated friends and loved ones. The two prevailing attitudes of those around me were sad and disgruntled. I wondered if any of the other visitors were as scared as I was. Amidst the nervousness I couldn’t shake, my eyes kept getting drawn to the mile-high red brick walls that led all the way up to the huge skylights on the ceiling. After looking around for a while, the first thought that popped into my head was, “There’s no beauty here! There’s nothing here that speaks of hope or testifies to anything warm, inspiring, or joyful.”

I ended up having to wait almost 90 minutes before my name was called. The unquantifiable anxiety I felt grew with each successive minute I waited. I was nervous about seeing Jerry in person after so long and afraid I would say the wrong thing to him. A voice I’m sure was Satan kept saying maintaining a relationship with someone who had done what Jerry was convicted of was only asking for trouble. Each time I heard that voice, the Holy Spirit would remind me of Matthew 25:34-40. “Then the King will say to those at His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father [you favored of God and appointed to eternal salvation], inherit (receive as your own) the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave Me food, I was thirsty and you gave Me something to drink, I was a stranger and you brought Me together with yourselves and welcomed and entertained and lodged Me, I was naked and you clothed Me, I was sick and you visited Me with help and ministering care, I was in prison and you came to see Me.’ Then the just and upright will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and gave You food, or thirsty and gave You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger and welcomed and entertained You, or naked and clothed You? And when did we see You sick or in prison and came to visit You?’ And the King will reply to them, ‘Truly I tell you, in so far as you did it for one of the least [in the estimation of men] of these My brethren, you did it for Me.’” [emphasis added] So, I kept pushing the intimidation down in my mind and prayed that God would orchestrate my conversation with Jerry.

As I waited to see Jerry, my thoughts drifted, as they often do, to film. One of my favorite movies of all time is The Shawshank Redemption. A huge departure from author Stephen King’s usual subject matter, the main character in the film, Andy DuFresne, is sent to Shawshank Prison for life. The beauty of Andy’s story is that, through all sorts of adversity, he never loses hope for a better tomorrow, and unlike his fellow inmates, he never takes on the mindset of a prisoner. He never sees himself as confined. Even though the viewer doesn’t find out until near the end of the film whether Andy really committed the crime for which he’s been incarcerated, it’s almost impossible to not like Andy or want to see him succeed. Part way through the film, Red, Andy’s best friend, says in reference to life prison sentences, “They send you here for life, and that's exactly what they take. The part that counts, anyway.”

At that moment, things started to click in my head, and I realized why I felt so afraid. Prisons like New Jersey State are like giant breeding grounds of despair and monumental graveyards for broken dreams. Our ability to recognize beauty in the world is directly tied to our need for hope. Beauty tells us that there is a Hand behind it and points us to something bigger than our present circumstances and more wonderful than anything our five physical senses can wrap themselves around. I couldn’t see beauty in that place because I couldn’t see hope, and hopeless was precisely the mood in which I’d arrived.

People in prison suffer from terrible feelings of isolation, guilt, and regret. They often feel they’ll never be able to escape their bad decisions, that there’s nothing to look forward to. I had felt that a lot over the last year, and even though I knew God was working in my life, it seemed like everything was getting worse and a myriad of difficulties were hitting me at once. The uneasiness and despondency I felt in that waiting room arose from the fact that the giant fortress of a penitentiary was a massive physical representation of everything I was feeling emotionally.

After the first hour passed in the waiting room, I looked to the woman next to me to ask if she’d been to the prison to visit before and if the long wait was normal. Her name was Janet. She had such a lovely smile and glow to her. We began a conversation and she told me a little of her story. Her son had been in the prison for quite some time and wouldn’t be eligible for parole for another decade. A few months ago, her grandson was murdered in a drive-by shooting. Three months ago, she found out she had stage four breast cancer. Talk about everything hitting all at once! Her faith was so strong, though. She still held on to the faith that God is good even in the midst of cataclysmic personal loss. We talked for a while about the Presence of God in the midst of suffering. When I told her I lived in Tennessee, she asked me what brought me to New Jersey. I was almost afraid to talk, because compared to her, my worries seemed so small, and so often over this past year, when I would try to open up about some of the things I faced, I would be cut off and told I didn’t have it that bad compared to others in the world. Something I discovered that day, though, is the people who really do have the right to say, “You don’t have it so bad” don’t. As I told her a little bit about the difficulties I was facing then, her response to me was pure compassion and unconditional understanding. She offered to pray for me in the days ahead, and I offered to do the same for her family and her.

When the guards finally called my name, I found myself disappointed that my conversation with Janet had to end. I then had to wait in line to go through the metal detector and get frisked before I was taken back to the visiting room. While I waited, I turned back to look at Janet. There they were! Beauty and hope sitting right in front of me, in the form of woman who believed beyond all evidence to the contrary that she would see the goodness of God in the land of the living.

I went to the prison with the intention of encouraging Jerry, and I know I did, but I left feeling that I was the one who got the shot in the arm. Things happen to us in life, whether we bring them on ourselves or not, that leave us feeling imprisoned, and ugly, and hopeless. It is precisely the reason that Jesus came, to proclaim liberty for the captives, exchange beauty for ashes, and give life, particularly in the places where it seems most unlikely for life to be sustained. Life is exactly what is taken from us, and it is exactly what Christ has given back to us.

The End


Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Devil with the Blue ‘Roos on By Sharon Lurie

© 2010 David's Harp and Pen

Mood: Sleepy

DISCLAIMERS: This blog is based, in part, upon actual events and people. Certain actions and characters have been dramatized and fictionalized, but are inspired by true events and real people. Certain other characters, events, and names used herein are entirely fictitious. Any similarity of those fictional characters or events to the name, attributes, or background of any real person, living or dead, or to any actual events is coincidental and unintentional. Therefore, I don’t want to hear any complaining from any child psychologists or people with adult-onset Peter Pan Syndrome who want to accuse me of emotionally scarring small children. Believe you me, the irreversible psychological trauma has been all mine.

*All Scripture quotations are and forevermore shall be from The Amplified Bible (I like my Scripture loud!)

“Maggie Rice: We fight for people's lives in here, right?
Jordan Ferris: Uh-huh.
Maggie Rice: Don't you ever wonder who it is we're fighting with?” City of Angels

Genesis 4:6-7 says, “And the Lord said to Cain, Why are you angry? And why do you look sad and depressed and dejected? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin crouches at your door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” [emphasis added]

I am coming to the end of a long and challenging year. God has brought a lot of revelation and change to my life, and so naturally, Satan has followed suit to thwart everything God has done. Satan stoked the furnace seven times hotter (metaphorically speaking) upon my return to Nashville from New Jersey the last week of August. I got attacked in every area of my life in one fell swoop. Desperate to hear from God and regroup, I decided to head out to visit some friends, Bill and Trudy, at their ranch. They live way out in the sticks; their nearest neighbors are a pack of coyotes. In fact, friends and family from New Jersey who have been to the ranch with me before described the landscape as “barren wilderness.” I fully expected to spend the week in peace and quiet, spending my days in thoughtful reflection, Bible-reading, and prayer, hearing from God about my situation. I failed to remember, though, that when Jesus was led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit, Satan was right there waiting for Him with temptations o’ plenty.

My friends have an eight-year-old son named Josiah. He is cute. He is loud. By his own proclamation, he is “redneck and proud.” Josiah likes to wander about in as little clothing as possible. In fact, his favorite duds are blue Underoos emblazoned with a veritable cornucopia of macho and virile superheroes. For those who’ve read my previous blogs, I don’t want to give the impression I don’t like children, because I do. I am a proud veteran of the day care, babysitter, Children’s Church, and Nursery circuit. Kids are wonderful, and should I ever marry, I want to have a whole litter of them. However, kids are better than probably anyone else at pushing buttons and unintentionally bringing out the worst in people.

Now before I go any further, I must explain. I have major sleep problems. I have had them ever since I was a kid. I have sleep apnea, for starters, and must sleep with a CPAP machine. Secondly, I have a terrible time with sleeping at night. All the sleeping pills and herbal supplements have been of no use. When I’m unable to sleep, and I force myself to stay up all day so that I can fall asleep at 9 or 10 PM, when 9 or 10 PM arrives, although I am exhausted, I still can’t fall asleep, and I end up being awake for 36 hours straight. I hope and pray some day this is not the case, but for now, my sleep situation is what it is, and so I must work around it. Josiah doesn’t see it that way.

My first night at the ranch, I couldn’t fall asleep until 5:30 AM. I woke up at 8 AM with the distinct impression the earth was shaking. Turns out I was wrong; it was ME who was shaking. Josiah, who was wearing nothing but his blue Underoos and a smile, had climbed into bed with me, shook me violently, and asked repeatedly, “When are you going to wake up, Sharon?”

I gently and lovingly explained to Josiah that I’d only gotten two and a half hours of sleep and that I would be happy to play with him when I woke up. He seemed agreeable to that and left the room. I laid back down and fell asleep around 8:30 AM. At approximately 8:35 AM, I awoke again to the sensation that I was at the epicenter of a monumental seismic disturbance. Once again, it was Josiah, this time jumping up and down on my sternum while using my cell phone to call Afghanistan. The tremors must’ve registered quite high on the Richter scale because Trudy, Josiah’s mom, came running into my room. She then pulled Josiah off of me, smacked his fanny, and told him sternly not to disturb me or come into my room uninvited if he knew what was good for him. I decided, as I usually do, that the problem was not with Josiah but with me, that if I was a normal person, I would be up during the daylight like the rest of the non-vampire population, and so I got dressed and attempted to enjoy my surroundings.

I went through the rest of the day in a zombie-like state. I found myself nodding off and blacking out. Trudy apologized again throughout the course of the day for Josiah’s behavior and gave me permission to yell, scream, smack, banish, and/or evaporate Josiah if he woke me up again. I assured her it wouldn’t be a problem. After all, since I’d been up all night and all day, I was sure I wouldn’t have any problem falling asleep that night.

Wrong again! I went to bed at 10 PM, and tossed and turned aimlessly until almost 7 AM. At precisely 7:20 AM, I awoke, startled, to the feeling of something small brushing up and down my thigh. When I opened my eyes, I noticed a large lump under my covers, burrowing about, in search of, I don’t know, the Holy Grail. I threw the covers off and, of course, the lump was a scantily-clad Josiah, asking again when I was going to get out of bed. I told him as nicely as I could that I needed to sleep more because I’d not slept the night before. He argued back that I shouldn’t sleep any more because “the sun is up.” Once again, a horrified Trudy rushed in, dragged Josiah away, and apologized profusely to me. As I tried to lay down again and go back to sleep, I heard Josiah in the background crying, “Sharon doesn’t love me! She hates me! She never plays with me! All she does is yell at me!”

Of course, none of that is true. I love Josiah. I tell him so all the time. I play with him when I’m awake. In fact, I think I’ve played with him when I’m asleep. I even looked the other way the first three times he cheated at Monopoly. Naturally, when I told him I wouldn’t play Monopoly with him any more because he cheated, he told me I was a big meanie and regrouped his campaign to deprive me of sleep.

Thus commenced the battle. I could not sleep at night my entire stay at the ranch. Every morning, as soon as I’d fall asleep, Josiah would barge in and wake me up. Since the doors didn’t have locks on them, my first tactic was to barricade the door. Josiah pushed right through, followed by a stern warning to me that I “better NOT tell Mom!” As soon as I’d return to sleep, he’d do it again. I felt so guilty not being able to play with him. Part of the time, I would tell myself it was my fault, that I should be awake during the day, and other times, I would rationalize and say that Josiah couldn’t help himself, he was just a sweet little boy, and I should just let it slide. The end result every time, though, was me getting more and more sleep-deprived and irritable. My rustic retreat to be alone with God was turning into a descent into Hell. I couldn’t leave early. I didn’t want to hurt my friends’ feelings, but something had to give, and soon.

During one of my last failed attempts to sleep, I got deep in thought. I began to rationalize again that there was something truly wrong with me because I couldn’t sleep at night. In fact, depending on the Christian circle in which one travels, Christians should never have to endure prolonged illness, insomnia, negative cash flow, or waiting of any kind. After all, nothing grows a person up spiritually like instant gratification! However, as I said before, my sleep trouble is what it is, and I had to deal with the crisis at hand, from right where I was, and hurt feelings or no hurt feelings, Josiah had to get the message from me once and for all that barging into my room and waking me up constantly was NOT cool!

The next morning, Josiah barged in again. At first, I merely pointed my finger several times for him to get out of my room, which he did. Two hours later, he woke me up again. This time, I screamed for him to get out. He let out a hearty, diabolical laugh, told me I was funny, and informed me he’d come into my room any time he felt like it. His mother yelled at him in the background for him to leave me alone, so he walked away, but he continued to laugh and mock me, and so I knew he’d be back. He’d taken off the kid gloves, and so would I.

Two hours later, just as I’d returned to sleep, in he barged, straight through my barricade. “Sharon!” Josiah yelled at the top of his lungs. “It’s time to…”

“Get out!” I yelled right back, cutting him off.

“But I just wanna…”

“Get! Out! Now!”

“Where’s your phone? You promised I…”


“Sharon, you’re just a mean…”

I inhaled deeply, jumped out of bed, looked Josiah in the eyes, pushed him out the door, and as I slammed it shut, yelled with the fury of a hurricane-force wind, “GENUG!!!!!!!!” (Genug is Yiddish. It means ‘enough.’) In fact, I yelled it so loudly, not only did I scare Josiah, I gained the respect of the pack of coyotes next door.

I slept in peace the next day. And the next. As I pondered the strange turn of events that had unfolded on my intended sabbatical, I remembered the two things God had told me about temptation, and it suddenly all made sense.

As Jesus hung on the Cross and breathed His last, he cried out, “Genug!” (Well, no, He didn’t say “genug,” because Yiddish wasn’t invented yet, although it would’ve been cool had He said it.) He said something similar; namely, “It is finished.” His death broke the power and penalty of sin, and His Resurrection broke the power of the grave. Everything necessary to defeat the stronghold of sin in our lives, Jesus accomplished with the shedding of His blood. Satan, however, is a sore loser, and wants to keep his digs in, like a deadbeat tenant who won’t leave even though he’s received an eviction order.

So why do we so often lose the battle against temptation?

1. We don’t want to acknowledge to God, other people, or to ourselves that we are susceptible to certain temptations in any regard.

1 Corinthians 10:13 says, “For no temptation (no trial regarded as enticing to sin), [no matter how it comes or where it leads] has overtaken you and laid hold on you that is not common to man [that is, no temptation or trial has come to you that is beyond human resistance and that is not adjusted and adapted and belonging to human experience, and such as man can bear].” Satan tells us we’re a special case, though. He tells us no one struggles with that particular temptation except us, so we are somehow worse than everyone else and, therefore, beyond God’s help. He loves to play the shame game, and keep us quiet and isolated about our struggles, and so keep healing out of reach (James 5:16). I don’t like to admit my vulnerabilities any more than I like to admit that I have trouble sleeping at night, but I have to be honest about my sleep issues and propensity to sin so that I can be open to God’s solution.

2. Since temptation often presents itself through another person, we don’t resist as we should because we’re afraid to hurt that person’s feelings.

We’re told in 2 Corinthians 11:14, “Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light.” It’s safe for me to say Satan also masquerades himself as my best friend. My pastor. My boss. My boyfriend. My parents. Yes, Satan even masquerades himself as adorable eight-year-olds. If temptation, or discouragement and condemnation, for that matter, came through ugly, demonic-looking, Lord-of-the-Rings-y-type creatures or total strangers, they wouldn’t have the power they do. However, it was Judas, one of the Twelve Disciples, not a Pharisee, who betrayed Jesus, and it was Saul, not Goliath, who hunted David like a wild animal, and so the sting of the act was that much more intense. Because Satan often delivers his temptations and taunts through those we love and trust, we are that much more susceptible to him, and the consequences when we yield to those temptations and believe those lies are all the more horrifying.

If these are the reasons, then, that we fall prey to the Enemy, how do we stand firm in the future? In his book Waking the Dead, John Eldredge addresses three very important truths for all believers to inscribe on their brains.

1. Things are not what they seem. Sin and temptation, though they almost always appear fun and enticing, are, like insomnia, insanity-producing and death-dealing.
2. This is a world at war. Combat is the norm for every believer, and any Christian who says the Christian life should be absent of strife, trials, and temptation has never read 2 Corinthians 10 or Ephesians 6
3. Each of us has a crucial role to play. It’s because of that crucial role we all play that Satan plays dirty to keep us out of the game

James 4:7 says, “So be subject to God. Resist the devil [stand firm against him], and he will flee from you.” In other words, we fight the good fight by clinging closely to God and standing firm against Satan, no matter what form he may take, because we know his tricks, and he’ll take whatever form necessary to destroy us.

Not too long ago, I had coffee with a friend who really struggled with sexual purity. She complained a male co-worker kept coming on to her, and even though he frequently crossed the line, she didn’t have the heart to tell him to stop because she didn’t want to be mean to him and she liked the attention. I looked at her and asked, “Is your vanity worth your purity?”

Nothing is worth my purity, or my sanity, or my identity in Christ. I will no longer be afraid to tell friends or family no if I think they’re asking me to do or believe something that I know is displeasing to God. We can’t be afraid to say no. We can’t be afraid to admit we’re weak. We can’t be afraid to hurt peoples’ feelings, even if they’re cute and cuddly and eight and don’t know any better. Josiah was crouching at my door. Sin crouched at Cain’s door. Satan crouches at all our doors, seeking whom he may devour (1 Peter 5:8). When he knocks on our door, in clever disguise, and tries to barge his way in, let’s stand firm, resist, and say in the authority Jesus’ shed blood has given us, “GENUG!!!!!!!!”

The End