I should admit right now that I’m lousy at joy.
There are other spiritual habits that come far easier to me. I repent with the best of them, and I never have a shortage of prayer requests. Sometimes, I’m even moved to tears when I think about Jesus’ Passion. But joy is a scarce commodity in my life.
So as you read this narrative, keep in mind that I’m a lot more like Andrew, the guy who’s bored with life, than Pablo, who’s got the joy market cornered. I’m better at writing about joy than I am at living it.
Nonetheless, I think Pablo has some good advice on the subject, because many of his thoughts come straight from Philippians. That letter is the Apostle Paul’s graduate-level course in “the joy of the Lord.”
So if you’re like me and feel sometimes that good things have passed you by, class is now in session. Join Pablo and his student Andrew for “Imprisoned Joy.” —GH
* * *
Andrew Baxter sat in his car in the parking lot, wondering if he should bother getting out.
I’m just a little burned out, he repeated to himself. I’ll be fine. Don’t even know why I’m here. Not for the first time, he considered putting his key back in the ignition and driving away.
But on the other hand, he’d just driven 118 miles without stopping. Tyler had really thought he should see this guy waiting inside … and on a more practical note, his bladder was about to burst.
That decided it. Andrew opened his car door to the biting wintry air and jogged towards a squat cinder-block building, praying they had a visitor’s restroom.
The whole ridiculous journey had really begun several Thursdays ago, when Andrew (somewhat reluctantly) had revealed a prayer request to his small group. “I’ve been feeling kind of ‘down’ lately,” he said hesitantly. “I’m not depressed or anything; I guess I’m just … bored. I mean, my boss is still a jerk, but I have a job. Me and Autumn broke up almost four months ago. I’m over her, mostly. Sometimes I worry about the recession and stuff … but there’s nothing wrong. I just feel … blah.”
Actually, Andrew could think of several adjectives besides “blah.” He was dutifully going through the motions of life, and couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt honestly happy. He needed a vacation, or a girlfriend, or a new job, or … something.
Actually, that was the problem. What did he need? Somehow, he suspected none of those remedies would help.
Andrew intended his prayer request to be just one more item on a list; something one of the guys would mumble to God at the end of small group. Praying about this weird dullness might not help, but it couldn’t hurt.
Unfortunately, Tyler, one of the guys, had seized on his request like a dog on steak. He battered Andrew with questions: Was he serving anywhere? Was he thankful for what he had? How were his friendships?
Andrew hadn’t known how to respond — mostly he tried to dissuade Tyler from this sudden interest in his spiritual life. They hardly even knew each other: This small group was just six random guys from the singles ministry, and they’d only been meeting a few months. But somehow, when everyone was grabbing their coats and headed for the door, Tyler cornered him.
“Hey man, I’m sorry about all those questions,” Tyler said.
“No biggie,” said Andrew. He put his hand on the doorknob. “Seeya next week?”
“Listen, I know somebody who might help you out,” said Tyler. “I went to see him one time, when I was — bored. Like you.”
“I appreciate you thinkin’ of me and everything.” Andrew tried to smile. “But I don’t need counseling —”
“He’s no counselor,” laughed Tyler. “He’s down at Fairview Correctional.”
Andrew eyed him warily. “So he’s, like, a prison guard?”
“Nope. Dope dealer from Cleveland doing life without parole,” said Tyler casually. “My pastor set me up to see him.”
Andrew forgot about leaving for a minute and just stared at Tyler. Was this guy serious? Was he actually trying to send Andrew to visit a felon in Fairview — as a cure for boredom?
Yes, that’s exactly what Tyler was trying to do. Yet the more Andrew heard about Pablo Gozo, this convicted crack salesman, the more he was intrigued. Pablo had been behind bars 15 years, ever since he shot two buyers and an undercover cop during a drug deal. Pablo met Jesus in jail, and now — at least the way Tyler told it — he maintained such a cheerful outlook that even the guards sought his advice.
“He knows he’s never getting out,” said Tyler. “He’s stuck in a seven-by-twelve box for life. And he’s one of the most joyful guys you’ll ever meet.” Tyler told stories of Pablo’s positive attitude until Andrew — quite against his will — found himself intrigued.
His better judgment told him this was a fool’s errand, but he still called the prison. Seeing somebody worse off than me should cheer me up, he thought wryly. And didn’t Jesus say to visit prisoners?
So a month later, as Andrew jogged towards the prison “welcome center” in hopes of a bathroom and his scheduled meeting with a felon, he couldn’t help shaking his head at the whole unlikely chain of events. This was either going to be a remarkable day in his life … or an utter waste of time.
* * *
Andrew felt something like a prisoner himself — or a character on Law and Order — as he passed through a metal detector and into the bare institutional building. A grim-looking guard examined his ID while Andrew nervously glanced around, eyes resting on a sign warning him against bringing weapons into prison.
After a short wait, a guard ushered Andrew into a large bare room full of small tables, already occupied with other guests and inmates. Another grim-looking guard directed him to the table where Pablo Gozo sat waiting.
Pablo fit the movie image of a jailbird, with a blue prison uniform covering bulging arms and copious tattoos. His salt-and-pepper goatee and heavy brows over downcast eyes gave a vaguely ominous impression. Andrew wished this joyful character would crack a smile. But as he approached the table and sat down nervously, he noticed something even more remarkable than a smile: Hard-boiled Pablo seemed to be silently crying.
“Uh … are you OK?” asked Andrew, not knowing what else to say.
“I’m sorry, brother,” said Pablo. He unabashedly reached up a hand to brush away the tears. “Today’s my anniversary, you know.”
“No — thank God! No, 15 years ago was my crime.”
“But you’re — I mean….” Andrew wasn’t sure if he should call it crying. “Y’know, your eyes are watering.”
“Tears of joy, brother,” said Pablo. “Why should God choose me? Why should I find grace?”
Why should God choose him? To be honest, that thought had been bugging Andrew on his long drive. It was all well and good for Pablo to be joyful, he thought. But what about the three people he shot? What about the addicts who bought drugs from him to mess up their lives; were they joyful? Andrew didn’t want to be judgmental, but the fact is this guy was doing life without parole for a reason. Maybe Pablo should have a little less joy and a little more … sorrow, or something. Maybe these tears were a good thing.
“Me, a kid from the barrio who joined the Latin Kings; sold drugs and shot three people,” said Pablo, as though making Andrew’s point for him. “Why should God give me grace?”
“Yeah, what about the people you shot?” said Andrew abruptly.
Suddenly, Andrew realized he’d blurted that question aloud. Instinctively, he looked over to make sure a guard was still standing nearby. But Pablo wasn’t angry — instead, he lowered his head and nodded quietly.
“I asked their forgiveness,” said Pablo. “I wrote to the two men I shot; the ones trying to buy drugs. The doctors patched them up and they’re OK.” Pablo shook his head sadly. “Neither one wrote back. They’re still addicts.”
Well, at least he tried, thought Andrew. But he pressed again: “What about the undercover cop? What happened to him?”
“He’s in a wheelchair; can’t walk,” Pablo confessed miserably. “My bullet hit the man’s spine.”
Andrew felt a sudden surge of anger. Pablo Gozo was whole while the man he shot was a paraplegic, yet he claimed to be “joyful.” It didn’t seem right.
Pablo continued quietly. “My lawyer, he got in touch with Officer Gonzalez. I send him all the money I make from my job here. It isn’t much.” Pablo shook his head ashamedly.
Andrew felt a little ashamed himself. Should he really be dredging up Pablo’s dirty laundry? But after all, it isn’t this guy’s fault the three men aren’t dead, Andrew thought. Maybe a little guilt is good for his joyful soul.
Then Andrew noticed a huge guard, a big black man who seemed about as wide as he was tall without an ounce of fat on his frame, step away from his place along the wall. He walked over to the table where Pablo and Andrew were sitting. “Hey man, why don’t you stop disrespectin’ Pablo till you know what you’re talkin’ about?” he said.
“Sorry … officer,” said Andrew awkwardly. Even the guards are on his side, he thought.
“Deonte, he’s fine,” said Pablo to the guard.
“You don’t know what you’re talkin’ about,” the guard insisted to Andrew. “Officer Gonzalez, the cop Pablo shot, he came down here to visit this man. And you know what Pablo did? He got on his knees — his knees — and begged the man to forgive him. I never saw anything like it in 23 years here.”
“Deonte, that’s enough —” broke in Pablo. But the guard continued:
“Turned out that Officer Gonzalez knew Jesus too. ‘Please stop sending money from your job. I have disability; you need it more in here,’ he said. Told Pablo he forgave him. But while Pablo was down on the floor by the man’s wheelchair —”
“Deonte, don’t —” said Pablo.
“This young man needs to know!” said the guard forcefully, pointing a beefy finger at Andrew. “Pablo Gozo got down at the foot of this man’s wheelchair. Then he took a bowl and towel and washed his feet. Gonzalez got all embarrassed; asked why he was doin’ it. Pablo said, ‘He who has been forgiven much, loves much.’
“Do you know Luke 7, young man?” asked the guard. “That’s where a hooker was so thankful for grace that she got down and washed her Savior’s feet. That’s what Pablo Gozo did for this man. You know who sat back and judged the prostitute? A Pharisee, young man. You think about that.”See Luke 7:36-50.
“I … didn’t know,” stammered Andrew.
Deonte the Guard stepped back to his place along the wall, shaking his head. Pablo was visibly embarrassed. “I’m sorry, Andrew. He means well….”
Andrew’s eyes studied the floor. “I really didn’t know….”
“You’re right, Brother,” said Pablo earnestly. “How could I repay my debt to that man? Or Jesus? That’s why I cry. He who has been forgiven much loves much.” Pablo wiped away more tears from his eyes.
But Andrew hardly noticed; he was caught in his own thoughts. He knew the rest of the verse Pablo was quoting: “He who has been forgiven little, loves little.”
He felt suddenly ashamed for questioning Pablo Gozo. After all, when was the last time he, Andrew, had been moved to tears over God’s grace? Or washed anybody’s feet?
Never — that’s when.
* * *
Andrew expected the conversation to take a turn for the awkward. But instead, Pablo immediately changed the subject. He started to ask questions about Andrew’s life. Andrew found himself retelling stories of collegiate pranks (Pablo was curious about dorm life; he’d never been on a university campus) and even grade school hijinks (both men got their first detentions for making armpit noises in class). Andrew began to feel inexplicably encouraged just from talking to Pablo. Anyone can be a good talker, he reflected, but Pablo’s a good listener.
In the midst of telling a story about his sister, Andrew suddenly stopped. He realized Pablo was laughing just as hard as he’d been crying only minutes before.
“Is something wrong, brother?” asked Pablo. “Go ahead; tell me about your sister.”
Andrew struggled to put his thought into words. “Well … a minute ago, you were crying. About — what you did, and God’s forgiveness and everything. But now —”
“Now I’m laughing,” prompted Pablo.
“Yeah. I mean, how —”
“Do you think Jesus is up there dwelling on my past?” asked Pablo.
“Well, no —”
“Then why should I?” Pablo smiled broadly. “Grace is about remembering so you can forget.”
Remembering so you can forget. “So remembering is — like, remembering what you got saved from —”
” — And forgetting is moving on, because Jesus already has.”
It struck Andrew that he — and most of the people he knew — were very bad at balancing those ideas.
“But speaking of forgetting,” continued Pablo, “it seems like we’ve been talking a lot about the past. What about now, brother? How are you doing today?”
This is what Andrew had come to discuss, yet he was strangely reluctant to broach the subject. For a few minutes, he’d forgotten about the dullness and actually enjoyed himself. Still, he took a breath and plunged into his account of the past months, from his crummy job to his breakup and everything in between. Finally, when Andrew ran out of steam, Pablo leaned back in his chair and nodded quietly.
“I feel bad dumping this on you,” said Andrew. “I mean, you have enough to worry about, being — locked up and everything….”
“But I have the joy of the Lord, brother!” exclaimed Pablo. “These walls don’t hold me in.”
“Sure,” said Andrew. “But don’t you get — depressed and stuff?”
“I have bad days,” said Pablo. “Of course I do. But that’s not where I live.”
Andrew nodded uncertainly. He admired Pablo’s attitude, but hadn’t the faintest idea how he did it.
“Wouldn’t you say if a man can be joyful in prison, he could be joyful anywhere?” Pablo asked.
“Yeah,” agreed Andrew. “I mean, that’s why I came —”
“Well, I’m not the man to learn from,” said Pablo.
“What? I thought —”
“I’m just a student. When I first got here, I slept as much as I could. Hardly left my cell; sometimes didn’t even eat. Thought life was over. And this was after I met Jesus, brother.”
Andrew was confused. Had he driven two hours to learn that Pablo couldn’t teach him anything about joy?
“Then I discovered an amazing little book,” explained Pablo, with mounting intensity. “Taught me everything. It was written by a man with a past as dark as mine, doing hard time in a filthy cell with chains on his wrists. My namesake.”
“You mean Paul?” said Andrew.
“You ever tried Philippians?” Pablo asked.
Andrew nodded. “Yeah. I mean, my small group studied it a couple months ago —”
“That’s not what I asked,” said Pablo. “Anybody can study it. Have you tried it?”
“It’s Paul’s prescription,” said Pablo. “Better than Prozac, brother. Oh, Prozac helps people who are really depressed; thank God for it. But people like you and me, brother? People who are ‘bored’? We need to take a big dose of Philippians. Less side effects.”
“I told you, I’ve read it —”
“So? Tell me how it changed your life.” Pablo waited expectantly.
Andrew stuttered and stammered for a moment, but found he couldn’t think of a single thing that was different since he read Paul’s epistle. In fact, he could hardly remember anything from the study at all.
“Let me tell you how it changed me,” said Pablo. “Paul gave us so many reasons for joy in that little book … it sounds like you missed them. Are you ready for Joy 101?”
“Should I, like, take notes?” asked Andrew.
“No!” said Pablo vehemently. “You already ‘studied’; see how much good it did you. Don’t take notes, brother. Try it. Live it.”
“OK, I’ll … try,” said Andrew, a bit offended.
“That’s all God expects,” said Pablo.
* * *
The inmate sat up and leaned over the table, staring intently at Andrew. “We already talked about one of Paul’s keys to joy. Do you remember what it was?”
Andrew shook his head, confused. Clearly, he’d missed something.
“Trusting in Christ alone, brother!” said Pablo. “Confidence that He’s all you need.”
“He’s the only one who can save me. I know —”
“That’s the problem — you know,” reprimanded Pablo. “I didn’t ask you to tell me what you know; I care about what you live. See, we have an easier time with this one here on the inside.”
“You mean … it’s easier to trust God in prison?”
“Much easier. Let me ask you a question: Why are you going to heaven?”
“Because of Jesus. He’s my, y’know, ‘Savior and Lord.'”
“Good answer. Now, here’s another one: Why are you a good Christian?”
“I don’t know … I go to church and small group? I don’t, like, drink and stuff … I don’t know; what kind of question is that?”
“A lousy one,” affirmed Pablo. “Because the question should be, ‘Why am I such a horrible Christian?’ That’s why it’s easier on the inside. We know we’re horrible Christians.”
It started to click in Andrew’s brain. “Because if you’re here, you already know you’re a sinner.”
“Right! The Apostle Paul knew, brother. He threw Christians in jail. He was an accessory to murder. He was a horrible Christian. But it’s harder for you on the outside — compared to those heathens at work, you’re a great person! Somewhere deep inside, you think Jesus loves you because you’re a pretty righteous guy.”
“No, I don’t —” protested Andrew.
“Then why did you come in here doing your best impression of a Pharisee?” asked Pablo.
Andrew looked down at the table and managed to shrug weakly.
“In here we know, brother,” said Pablo gently. “We know we have nothing to bring to God. What would I say? ‘Lord, wasn’t I a good dope pusher? You like the way I capped that cop?’ I know my only hope is Jesus. If He didn’t die for me, I’m through.”See Philippians 3:4-11 for the basis of Pablo’s thoughts on confidence in Christ.
“I guess … I mean, I’m sorry. About my little Pharisee act.”
Pablo grinned. “You think I would throw stones for a little sin like that? I got you beat. Listen, so long as you’re trying to earn a closer seat to Jesus, you’re fearing God. ‘What if it’s not enough? Why should I try anyway when I’m such a screwup?’ But when you realize you’re a hopeless cause and grace is all you got, you can experience love. And perfect love drives out fear, and you stop trying to please God and just start loving Him, and then all you can do is wash feet. You know what I mean?”
Andrew nodded slowly. He hadn’t “tried” it yet, but he was starting to grasp the concept.
“That’s the first key for joy, brother,” said Pablo. “Acknowledging you’re a complete sinner … so you can accept that you’re completely loved.”
Copyright 2009 George Halitzka. All rights reserved.