The Spirits in Prison

A sermon preached by Martin Hattersley to the Prison Fellowship Group at Edmonton Institution, August 6, 1988, shortly after the death of his daughter Catherine Greeve.

“It’s me, it’s me, it’s me, O Lord,
Standing in the need of prayer”

I had to make a decision as to whether I should be with you or not tonight. I do assure you, it would have been very easy to ring up Bud and say I couldn’t be there—and I am sure Bud would have understood. But at the back of my mind, I could not get over the fact that there couldn’t be such a coincidence in timing in this whole matter without the hand of the Lord being somehow involved—and if the Lord is saying to me ‘go’ then I’d better go.

Besides, there is something right about my being here with you tonight. Perhaps just because of your background you can understand a little bit of what I am talking about. I, and some of you also, know firsthand just what murder is. So many people do not.

Only when you have been through something like this do you know what it is to lose a child in this way. First there is the awful mystery. Cathy has not been at work since lunch; hasn’t picked up the children at the day care center. Her husband Tony answers the Centre’s phone call and goes around and picks them up.

We phone our friends. No sign of her. We phone the police, but they are not interested in missing person until they have been gone for 24 hours. They suggest we try the emergency wards of the hospitals. We phone them. No success.

Then a rumour reaches us that an unidentified woman’s body was found in the Rapid Transit station early in the afternoon. Tony finds Cathy’s car parked downtown. More phone calls. We go to pick the car up. It is cold, and looks as if it hasn’t been touched all day. We take it to Tony’s home, and find ourselves suddenly in the company of police who are already there. Questions, questions, questions, about our movements, our family, about Cathy, the boys.

Finally the news is broken. The body in the L.R.T. station is that of our daughter.

After a time to pull ourselves together from the shock of the news, it is down to the police station, through corridors and into areas we have never seen before: statements, questions, and above all, waiting, waiting, waiting—not knowing for what.

Then to the Medical Examiner’s office. There, behind a glass panel, to see the Catherine I knew. The same, but not quite the same. The left side of her face blackened and bruised. A strange expression of pain coupled with surprise on her face. Beneath her chin, an unusual redness. But more than anything else, not moving, not laughing as we always knew her, not even breathing as we knew her when asleep, but still—utterly still.

It is three in the morning before we get to bed, but certainly no to sleep. The following day, phone calls, TV cameras outside the door, the Press, statements, rumours, pressure, pressure, pressure—and infinite sadness.

Earlier this year, I attended a course on healing put on a by a husband and wife team of counsellors from the States, John and Paula Sandford. They went into some detail into what makes people behave as they do: particularly, why so many of us are cursed that, even when we want to do right, violence and evil are all that come out of us.

God has made man to love, and has made parents to teach children what love is. A child when born needs love—needs it in the form of attention to its needs for food and warmth, to change its diapers, to give it cuddling and affection. Parents are called on to give their children this love, and whatever a child at that early age receives from its parents, it interprets as love.

This is fine, if the child indeed receives the love and the care it expects to have. But what if it doesn’t? What if it is neglected, unfed, unwashed. If it cries, what if its parents beat and abuse it to shut it up, rather than deal with its needs? What if the child is sexually abused?

The answer is, that this child will interpret whatever it receives as love, even if what it receives is really abuse. And having received hatred or neglect in infancy, and believed that this is what love is, its every effort to express love when it is older will be in actions of cruelty and abuse. So a culture of abuse and hatred can spring up in one generation, and be passed on from parent to child from generation to generation, if nothing happens to stop it. As Jesus said: “If the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” How great indeed!

All of what I have given you so far is the bad news. The good news I have to give you is that God has given to man a way out of this mess, and I would like to talk to you about that also.

The first step in this way back is simply the nature of God. God is love. One of the hobbies I used to pursue in my basement at one time was a model railroad. I guess people like model railroads as a hobby just because it gives them a chance to play God. We can create our own world, and make things happen in it. Quickly, however, we find that all does not go exactly according to plan. Trains derail, switches don’t always work; I used to have the greatest trouble with my speed controllers, which ever so often would go up in smoke. Whatever it was, however, what I noticed was that what gave the most trouble also got the most attention. The whole railroad had to work. If some part of the track, some engine, some rolling stock, was giving trouble, the whole railroad would come to a standstill, as I left everything to put right whatever was not working.

God is like that. He has created the world. He has his idea of how it ought to work. Things don’t always work out as well as they should in His universe, because most of us aren’t as perfect as we ought to be, but there He is, the eternal engineer, ready always to fix us up, clean us, straighten us, mend us, rewire us, so that at the last we will fit into His universe the way He always wanted us to be. There is no limit to His patience. His concern applies to the worst of us—who get more attention than those who don’t cause problems. This we can count on: it is the first stage of the solution.

The second stage is, that God has given us the Law. Through the Bible and the leaders of ancient times, He has told us the way of life we can follow in order to be able to live at peace with Him and our fellow men. The basic code is the Ten Commandments—which tell us not to steal or murder, to be faithful to our wives, to tell the truth, to honour our parents, and not to covet things that belong to other people. These commandments tell us also how to relate to Him—to worship no other God, to honour His name, to respect His times of rest, and to put Him first in our lives. People who do this don’t get in trouble. A nation that lives by these rules is strong and peaceful—a good place to live.

This is great in theory, but the trouble about the Law is that it is a bit too perfect—and we are not perfect. The Law is great if we keep it, but if we don’t, the same Law that says we won’t have trouble if we keep it, also says that we will have trouble if we break it. And most of us do break the Law, and most of us make trouble not just for ourselves, but also for others, by doing this, and trouble means suffering—not just for us, but also for innocent people, if you and I are as sinful as most of the rest of the world, the Law is no comfort to us. All it does is tell us we’re in trouble.

God has to give us something better, and in the third stage, He does. The Law is sometimes called the Old Covenant—the old arrangement between God and Man, in which God promises that if we will be good to Him, He will be good to us. We need an arrangement that will help people who have broken His law—people who are sinners. To deal with our sin, God has given us, through His son Jesus Christ, a new arrangement—a new covenant—a new deal.

The terms of the new arrangement are quite clear. God will no longer worry about our sins. He proves it by allowing His son to be put to death on a cross even though He was innocent. He just wants one thing from us. Just as we have been forgiven by God through the death of Jesus, so we are expected to forgive others the sins they do in a place like this. It’s something different—even dangerous. It’s following a Christ who lost his life for the sake of what He believed in. It’s something that can cost you your life, too.

I am told that a number of you today were baptized. This is a great day for you, because in this Baptism is shown exactly what all this new covenant is all about. Through the symbol of water, we allow God to put to death the person that we once were. We allow God to give us a new nature, the character of Christ himself.

I gather that one of the problems you have in a jail like this is of people getting depressed and wanting to kill themselves. So many people, also, go half way there by attacking their bodies and their minds with alcohol and with drugs. The strange thing is, they’re not completely wrong. The sort of person we are does have to die. The good news of the Christian life is that there is a way of dying that can leave us more alive than ever. My fourth piece of good news is that not only does God love us, tell us how to live, and forgive us when we go wrong—He gives us a way of ending our old lives and putting on something entirely new.

Jesus died on the Cross. Imagine yourself, also, along with Him, dying, and being laid in a grave. Imagine yourself lying from Friday evening, cold and in the dark, through Saturday—the Sabbath, the day of rest. Then, as the dawn breaks on the Sunday, new life comes to you. The stone is rolled away from the dark prison of the grave. Life is yours—but it is a new life. You can consider that your old body, your old way of life, is dead. The life you now live is the life of Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, living inside you. Living a life that will never end, even with earthly death, because it is already the life of heaven.

This is what your Baptism means. That is why we need not despair, even in the presence of death. May God be with you as you go forward as new men into the Christian life ahead of you. It may not be easy—but it will be Life—LIFE with a capital ‘L’!

– Text of a sermon delivered on August 6, 1988
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