by Sue Culver.
‘Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison’ – Hebrews 13:3
Advent is nearly over – a time of waiting and preparing for the coming of the Christ-child. I don’t know about anyone else, but as I cast my eye over the bookcases in my study, I see a whole shelf of books about Advent – a range of books, which if read, promise to prepare my mind by stretching my imagination encouraging me to be ‘messy’, my body by amazing recipes for feasting, and my soul through daily meditations taking me ever closer to God.
I have found it hard to engage with any of them this year, because my mind is full pondering on a different kind of waiting and preparation.
I work as a volunteer chaplain one day a week at HMP Oakwood. It is one of the biggest prisons in Britain, housing anything up to 2,400 prisoners at a time. It’s a purpose built prison, opened around 8 years ago and from a distance, you could be forgiven for thinking that it is a distribution centre or industrial warehousing because that is exactly what it looks like, and in a sense, exactly what it is – warehousing for human beings.
Within the walls, residents wait. They have no choice. They are all there for a reason of course, and the punishment for whatever crimes they have committed is to have their liberty denied. So they wait. They wait for their sentence to be served; they wait for their loved ones or their legal briefs to visit; they wait for their food to be served; they wait for health care to be given; they wait for a chaplain to respond. They wait for doors to be unlocked and locked again; they wait for toilet rolls to be distributed; they wait for the clock to tick….and tock…and tick. Tempus fugit is not a phrase you will hear in prison and waiting is exhausting and for some, the only way to cope with waiting is to submerge into a drug enhanced parallel world, at least for a time.
In this environment, how on earth does anyone offer Advent as a time of purposeful waiting and preparation for an incarnate God. How is Advent time any different from the chronological time these men are trying to kill?
How does one speak of the existence of God, the knowability of God, and the love of God in a place which primarily is a place of control and punishment and graceless?
I go back to the words written in Hebrews that encourage us to remember those in prison as if you were together with them and at the same time, recall the words of Sylvia Mary Alison, the founder of the Prison Fellowship. She wrote in her memoirs, ‘In our prayer imagination, we can enter any prison in the world, and visit Christ in prisoners there…It is Christ who beckons us into the darkest of the world’s jails. Will you cooperate with our Lord in building his house from the ground floor up, by marching into every prison of the world in prayer?”
In my experience, prison is one of the places where the currency of prayer is priceless. To spend time in prayer with a prisoner who is lonely, lost, grieving, or miserable is one of the most humbling experiences of my prison day, and also the most valuable. Of course you could argue that it fills in a little more time if a prisoner can buttonhole the Chaplain to talk to for an hour, but actually, more often than not, what is revealed is a brutal honesty about the darkest, hidden depths of despair that those having to wait endlessly face as they consider why they find themselves incarcerated in the first place. And so to be able speak of a God who waits alongside them within those darker than dark places, a God who calls ordinary people in this world to pray and be alongside too is one of the most powerful expressions of faith that I witness to.
This year, I began an Advent Prayer project and asked for 80 volunteers to pray for an individual prisoner by name, someone resident in the drug rehabilitation unit of the prison, as part of their daily Advent devotions. As well as praying, volunteers were also asked to sponsor the provision of a small Christmas gift of a mug, some socks and a few sweets to be given to them on Christmas morning. I was not at all astonished to find that exactly 80 volunteers came forward to do just that and so my Advent waiting is watchful and full of practical preparation. Practical in the sense that I have 80 extra gifts to be wrapped, once they have been screened by security at the prison and I’m watching and waiting to see what affect this will have on those being prayed for, and, those who are praying. Watching and waiting with an excitement that I have never experienced before, not least because not all of those volunteering would recognise my belief that it is Christ who beckons us into the darkest of the world’s jails to be alongside those who wait for their liberty to be restored. So, together we offer our prayers, our longings, our goodwill, whatever it is that each of us think we are doing as we hold the name of a particular person before us or before God each day into the heady mix of Advent preparations because if nothing else, the coming of the Christ child means its ok to be human. Not only that, but there is something of the divine in each of us and when we can prepare for Advent in our own way across differing positions or beliefs about something that is bigger than we are as individuals, we can truly say Christmas, blessed Christmas has come again.