On Wednesday evenings in prison they have chaplain's hour. Last night Ellie and I went along with regulars, John and John, to take part.
We started off by looking at some psalms written by David and then I said, 'Right, now we're going to write a psalm.'
There were some mutterings but Ellie took her place at the flipchart ready to write down what was said and we began. First I asked the men - there were about 10 of them - how they were feeling.
There was a moment of silence and then one said, 'well, not happy of course.' And then gradually one by one they started saying what it was like being in prison. A page of flipchart was soon filled and another started. Then I asked about their dreams and hopes, what they'd want to ask God for. Another two pages were filled rapidly.
Time was getting on now so while the men sang a few more songs, Ellie and I took all the things that had been said and put them in some sort of order to create a psalm that is amazing in its honesty and openness. Ellie read it out and even the most doubtful were saying, 'hey, that's good.'
We're going to get it copied and give them all copies, as well as making it available for a wider audience of prisoners and others (who may be imprisoned in cells of their own or other's making).
It was a truly incredible evening. I am still on cloud nine and a half: it was just so amazing.
It could have been a disaster. If nobody had said anything (fortunately we had a few mouthy ones in with us!) or if they'd not put their hearts into it, we'd have looked pretty silly but they were as open as we could possibly have hoped. Even the quiet ones chipped in as we got going. I think there were probably only two out of the ten who didn't say anything but just listened and that was fine too.
John, who goes in every week, said he'd never heard the men so open and forthcoming; John, the pianist, was quite overwhelmed and, he said, honoured to have sat in for it; the chaplain was his usual non-committal self!
I know some Christians who judge a meeting's success by the numbers of souls saved for the Lord, sister. Needless to say, I'm not one of those. (And if Zac's Place was about getting a quota of souls saved every month it would have closed long ago.)
God saves souls. If we can demonstrate a little of his love to those who have experienced very little of any sort of love, by listening, hearing and valuing, then, I think, it's job done.
P.S. When the question was asked, 'What would you say to God if you were face to face with him now?' one of the men said, 'Where have you been all my life?' It was said in a sort of jokey, tough-man, I-don't-really-mean-this-I'm-just-saying-it-for-show way but it was said. I could imagine God standing up, lifting up his robes a little and doing a jig while whooping, 'I've been here, waiting for you to ask that!' (I seem to have turned God into an Irishman. Still if God has to have an accent then the Irish accent is a good one to have.)
'Ask and it shall be given to you - or your question will be answered.' Matthew 7:7
God, please make yourself known to him in such a way that he can't ignore you.