Joy to the World

A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together...” (Isaiah 40:3b-5a).

Three weeks ago the season of Advent began with the reading of these words of prophecy. Isaiah knew that there are so many obstacles between us and God, between the world we have and the world God is bringing into being.

As Advent proceeds, we are asked to be attentive to the ways that God is working in the world, perhaps even look to and minister in the “rough places” as precisely the places where God's glory is being revealed.

The Hudson County Correctional Center (pictured above) is tucked into one of those corners of the County that pass for “wilderness,” surrounded by tangles of concertina wire. If your loved one is inside, it's difficult to visit - and many of those incarcerated do not get visitors.

For each of the past 13 Christmas seasons, I have had the good fortune to be in jail - too briefly - to sing Christmas music, to read some of the great words from Isaiah, Matthew, and Luke, and to hear (and sometimes give) a sermon for the occasion.

Make no mistake about it - jails and prisons are oppressive. Yet each year I am moved by what happens inside. From a choral standpoint, the audiences are some of the most appreciative I have ever sung before. But even more, it is the joy and hope – sometimes mixed with sorrow and desperation – that the inmates show forth, and that I hear when God breaks into this place. The lessons seem to mean more when read in the wilderness, when shared among disreputable shepherds in the lonely fields.

Sometimes they cry. Sometimes they burst out in exuberant welcome. And all because some church folk managed to find their way into a place where “respectable” folk don’t go, not because we’re so special, but because the people we’re visiting are, and the good news we carried in – or discovered once we’re there! - is contagious. Sometimes it even happens to the guards!

Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns!
Let all their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy.

This year, because the jail changed its policy and no longer holds large services, we were escorted into three of the pods (dormitories) which house women inmates. We gave a shortened version of the usual program, and, like usual, we had brief conversation time. Please remember in your prayers Alicia, and Kimberly, and Mary, and the quiet smiling young woman whose name I didn‘t get who will be deported this week, and the woman who couldn’t stop crying because she was afraid and away from home with no prospect of returning soon. Remember them and all their brothers and sisters awaiting the day of release.

When I first started going, I found the sound of doors locking behind us unsettling. Now I’m more bothered by the fact that we have to leave so soon, leaving behind those with sentences still to serve. But this year, unaccountably, the gospel broke among us singers.

As we were leaving the second pod, waiting for transport to another floor, someone started singing the Christmas spiritual “Amen,” and the calls of “See the little baby,” and “lying in a manger” and the “A-A-Amen” responses rang off the hard tile walls and in the stairwell, and I like to think we caused a little consternation, or maybe it was just the walls themselves echoing the song “Hark the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn king, peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinner reconciled” as we, a little more reconciled than when we started, made our way home.

And may it be so for Alicia, and Kimberly, and Mary, and all who wait for the glory of the Lord to be revealed. Amen.


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