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Who’s in Front of You?

“When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, otherwise they may also invite you in return and that will be your repayment. But when you give a reception, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, since they do not have the means to repay you; for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14:12-14 NASB)

As a way to resolve all the angst about call and what kind of good works God has prepared for us, a friend advised: “Love Jesus and love the one in front of you.” This advice serves well on an everyday basis, like when a young man asks for grocery money at the store. Even the Good Samaritan was “loving the one in front of him.” But does it capture the deliberate action of a wedding host sending invitations to the streets and seeking out undesirables to fill a wedding banquet with guests?

On a clear, gorgeously blue evening this summer, at the Washington State Penitentiary at Monroe, I had a few moments to ponder this conundrum again. I was alone in a stretch of asphalt about twenty feet wide by a block long, bounded by fifteen-foot-high fencing topped with razor wire. A big sky was above me. A garden to my left and the Yard, a large field with a track, to my right. It was before “movement,” so no prisoners in sight. The only sign of another human was a dark shape in the guard tower.

Six of us volunteers, including my husband, had together passed through at least five locked doors, escorted by a CO (Corrections Officer), then said our goodbyes and blessings as we diverged. I was the only one coming to the Education building, and I was waiting for the CO there to let me through one more gate to the garden surrounding it.

I felt a surge of peace and joy in this place. God is here. God brought me here. I could feel God’s pleasure that I came here. Now, I had only to focus on loving Jesus and loving the one in front of me. It was my first day.

And yet… I had come through months of reading and training, and spiritual process, following a leader who took years to come here. My husband, Kent, had searched for the “most marginalized people in America” to serve, read avidly about prisons, tested various options and finally landed here in the Monroe prison, teaching and sponsoring classes with University Beyond Bars, and following the lead of others in the process. On this particular day, we had driven together 40 minutes and gone through another hour of security procedures to arrive at this moment.

Jesus loved in the moment when he walked the earth, healing, touching, feeding and blessing those crowding and needy in front of him, day and night. He followed his Father’s lead, doing and saying what He saw and heard, and His Father was pleased with him.

And yet… Jesus also went through a long, deliberate process to position Himself to serve as Savior. Three years of ministry before the cross, a hostile outcome to love given. Thirty years of growing up from a baby before ministry. Two thousand years of explicit preparation of a people to more or less receive Him until the fullness of time came. An infinity of heavenly time preceding the earthly events.

God’s work of love through us requires deliberate development so that we can position ourselves to love outside the common circle of family and friends. And far from being islands, our ministries of love are built on the legacy of countless others in a chain of leading and following that stretches back to the leadership of God the Father with Jesus the Son following Him, and we in His wake.

Jani can be reached via email here.

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