They say that when you do time, your loved ones do time with you. Thanks to a little road trip my family and I took a few weeks ago, I have a better appreciation for how true that statement really is.
You see, I recently discharged parole and recovered my freedom of travel. One of the first things I wanted to do was make the three-hour drive from my parents' home in central Texas to the small east-Texas prison facility that I had reluctantly called home for the majority of my season behind bars. For me, there was really only one significant reason for making this trip: to understand in concrete terms the kind of sacrifice my loved ones had made during the two years they faithfully traveled to visit me.
A verse in Hebrews that I have come to treasure was running through my mind as we drove through the tiny communities that dot the road between Austin and the middle of nowhere: “Don't forget about those in prison. Suffer with them as though you were there yourself.”
I had felt the emotional distance of prison, for sure. That is, after all, the most devastating part about enduring a sentence of confinement. But I now believe my wife and parents had it far worse than I did, because they had to contend with the physical distance, too. By my conservative estimate they logged over 18,000 miles on their vehicles and spent well over 600 hours of their lives in a car - during a hefty spike in gas prices, by the way - in order to keep a weekly ritual that demanded rising before dawn on their day off, facing unpredictable delays and a laundry list of inconvenient security policies, sometimes arriving home again only hours before nightfall. All this for the sake of preserving a meaningful face-to-face relationship with a common criminal.
Such a high cost. Such seemingly meager dividends. And the worst part, it seems to me, is that it was I - not them - who was guilty of a crime deserving punishment. Loving me in my state of reprobation, apparently, demanded an extortionate identification. It meant enduring a punishment my family did not deserve, for a crime they had not committed. It meant sacrificially caring for a destitute pariah with absolutely nothing to offer in return except his profound gratitude.
And yet the parting words, always the same, revealed the gladness with which my family bore this burden: “I love you, Johnathan,” they would say. “We'll see you next week.” Next week. You want to know what those words meant to me? They meant hope. They meant the possibility of a future beyond the confines of my little world in that awful place. They meant grace - the kind of grace God manifested in Jesus, taking the initiative to preserve a relationship with His own wayward children.
I hope that our churches, in heeding the call of Hebrews and remembering America's prisoners, have not thereby forgotten the very real suffering of prisoners' families. I hope that, even as we struggle to see past the sin of the convict and to love the sinner in spite of his crime, we have not lost our sense of compassion for those who suffer quietly for the convict's sake. Prisoners need our love, for sure; but so do those who are humbly paying the cost of redemptive solidarity with their loved ones behind bars.