(Author’s Note: This article was originally posted in The Oakdale Chronicles on August 24, 2013 while I was still incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Institution in Oakdale, Louisiana)
“Those who belong to Christ Jesus have nailed the passions and desires of their sinful nature to his cross and crucified them there.” Galatians 5:34 NLT
“We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith.” Hebrews 12:2 NLT
“And this is freedom, this is freedom; This is freedom nailed to a tree.” Karyn Williams – “This Is Freedom”
Towards the end of her long life, the list of my Mother’s physical afflictions and limitations had grown quite long as well. She had a degenerative bone disease called “Paget’s”; a ‘spinal stenosis’ which plagued her with debilitating back pain for years; greatly diminished hearing; and an advanced case of Macular Degeneration which ultimately left her legally blind.
Those afflictions which greatly affected the quality of her physical existence were, nonetheless, no match for her indomitable spirit. Her ability – indeed, her NEED – to smile never waned and never wavered. She seemed to have the power to see through things that were negative about people around her and allowed her to see, and to focus, on the good that she believed resides in us all.
It puzzled me that she could find so much worth smiling about in a life fraught not only with the pain of her physical maladies, but also the internal pain that came from her knowledge that each of her children suffered in his, or her, own way. She accepted the fact that there wasn’t much she could do most of the time, except offer her prayers to God. This is not to say that prayer is an insignificant thing, because it most assuredly is NOT, but it is simply a fact that, as parents, we feel the need to do something tangible, and something immediate, when our children are hurting.
Nonetheless, my Mother was teaching me something important through all of those years, but the lessons would not finally develop clarity for me until I discovered for myself exactly where her ability to ‘see’ things, the way she did, came from.
You see, my Mother’s relationship with God gave her the ability to see things through the ‘eyes’ of her heart. This concept, and this ability, would elude me for years. In fact, it would be sometime after her death, and would require a suicide attempt that was very nearly successful, and a trip to federal prison before I, too, became able to ‘see’ things the way that beautiful, blind woman could.
To that point, I had endured a lifetime of pain and suffering, and had inflicted much pain and suffering upon those around me, the least of whom was the one who gave me life. But my Mother always smiled for me, and she always saw what I failed to see for many years. Finally, a few years after her smile was just an important fond memory, I arrived at a place where I could begin to understand my Mother’s lessons. A place where I could begin to realize my own ability to smile, and to see the good in those around me and, more importantly, I could see the good in myself.
I can clearly recall the exact moment when I felt the first faint stirrings within me indicating that something was changing inside of me. It was shortly after arriving at Oakdale to begin my sentence and I had gone outside to walk around the concrete ‘track’ that comprised the outer boundary of the inmate-accessible portion of the recreation yard.
The track itself is a 1/3 mile loop of sorts; not an oval or a circle or any other recognizable geometric shape, but it does begin and end in the same place. The first segment is a straightaway about 450′ long that heads due east. The track then turns to the north in a long, sweeping curve. At this point, the ‘only’ barrier to freedom is the set of two very tall chain link fences along the outer perimeter that are topped with some decidedly unfriendly looking razor wire, although the razor wire does sparkle brilliantly in the bright Louisiana sunshine or under the powerful lights that illuminate the grounds at nightfall.
As I rounded that first curve on the track, I glanced up over the fence ahead of me and to the right. A few hundred feet away, and outside the fence, there are some warehouses, maintenance facilities and large outdoor refrigeration and freezer storage units that service the compound. My eyes were immediately drawn to what I saw rising above the fence from the middle of those buildings. I could see, silhouetted against the sky, the top portion of an old wooden power pole. My immediate thought was, “That looks just like a cross.” I smiled to myself as I rolled the thought around in my head that it would be rather special to know that from that day forward, for the duration of my stay at Oakdale, each time I came outside to walk I would be able to look up and be reminded of Jesus Christ. The comfort of that reminder of His presence was something I grasped onto hungrily, and eagerly. It was also something I would quickly grow to look forward to seeing each time I ventured out to ‘the yard’ to walk.
I felt that stirring within me I mentioned, and I knew that something significant had begun. I would come to learn that God had chosen that particular moment to allow the ‘eyes’ of MY heart to begin to open.
As I continued walking along the track, my ‘cross’ loomed a little larger at first, but as the perspective changed and I drew closer, it seemed to drop lower until it ‘disappeared’ below the top of the fence. I found joy in my new discovery and felt a strange warmth spread through me. Little did I know at that point, that what I had experienced was just the beginning of a ‘vision’ that would become complete a few days later while I was enjoying another walk.
On that particular day, as I passed the point where the ‘cross’ dropped out of sight, I kept looking at the spot where the power pole itself was located on the other side of the fence. After walking about 50 feet, a picture began to reveal itself to me, clearer with each additional step. When I reached a point that was directly south of the object of my interest, I stopped on the side of the track and stared at the completed picture. What I was looking at was not ONE ‘cross’, but THREE crosses. The power pole that had drawn my attention originally was flanked on either side by another, shorter power pole. From this vantage point, I could see through the fence and, with the eyes of my heart opening wider still, I realized that what I was looking at were the crosses upon which Christ, and the two men who were crucified with him, died.
OK…I knew that these were not THOSE crosses, but the vision I was looking at appeared the same as what I had seen in illustrations and it seemed as if I had stumbled upon my own private “Golgotha”. I am fairly certain that most of the men looking through those two chain link fences would only see three older, wooden power poles with wires and transformers on them that serviced a bunch of metal buildings and outdoor refrigerators and freezers, but I saw something else entirely.
With the newly opened eyes of my heart, the fences became transparent and the transformers and power lines disappeared. What I DID see was Jesus Christ hanging from the center cross looking down at me. What I DID see was a man taking the burden of my sins, and the sins of every other person in the world, and replacing that burden with freedom.
With the eyes of my heart, I could see what had been missing in my life. I could see forgiveness for what I had done wrong and I could see what I needed to do to correct those things. I could see the pain that I caused others, and I could see the pain that others caused me, and I could see the pain in the eyes of Jesus as He implored me to give all of that pain to HIM.
I could see the look of suffering on His face as He relieved me of my burden, but at the same time, I could feel His joy at the knowledge that His suffering was not in vain.
Now, with the eyes of my heart wide open, I could see the future and the hope that had been promised to ME. I could see that I was now truly free to do the RIGHT thing, for the RIGHT reason, and in the RIGHT way. I was now free to rid my heart of the darkness that had filled it so completely for so many years and replace it with the light that comes with the unshakeable faith I now had that no matter where I might walk from that day forward, I would never be alone, I did not need to be afraid, and I would never be without purpose.
I began to realize that I was no longer in prison at all. In fact, from that moment forward, I was more free than I had ever been in my life.
In a way, I had come to look upon my Mother’s physical ailments and afflictions as having created a prison of sorts for her. Suddenly, though, I was able to see just how free she had always been because the eyes of HER heart had ALWAYS been open.
Freedom can be a beautiful and inspiring thing.
It can also reduce us to tears when we think about the price that Christ Jesus paid for it. For people like myself, who had used their freedom poorly, and in a selfish, self-serving, and self-indulgent manner, the instant that the eyes of our heart open wide can be a very humbling moment of shame, embarrassment, and sadness.
Fortunately for us, God smiles and says, “It’s alright”. His ONLY concern is that we all – each and every last one of us – allow Him to come into our hearts and open our eyes. NOTHING else matters to him. Not when. Not where. Not why.
For the last three years and four months, I have been reassured and comforted, encouraged and reinforced by what I see out there almost daily. Each time I walk the track, I always say prayers of thanks to the One who suffered so horribly and painfully so long ago in order that we can ALL be free from sin and the slavery that accompanies it and chains us to our own individual versions of prison.
Over the years, I have made it a habit to share what I see with the different people I have walked with. It has always been a desire of mine to share it with those who read these Chronicles, but the description alone seemed inadequate. I felt that some sort of picture was needed to properly convey the image that I see so frequently, but actual photographs are out of the question and I am less an artist than I am even a writer, so I have NOT shared.
My friend Richard Roy, who has been aware of how special those ‘crosses’ are to me, spoke with another inmate whose artistic talents are considerably greater than mine. His name is Will Mattingly, and Richard asked him if he would try to draw what I ‘saw’ out there on the other side of the fences.
The three of us walked one day and I shared my vision with Will, who then spent considerable time out there sitting and drawing. A few weeks later, Will passed along his finished work which I named “Through The Eyes Of The Heart”.
I can now share my personal ‘Golgotha’ with all of you, thanks to Richard’s thoughtfulness, and Will’s talent:
No, there is not really a hole in the fence, and in reality there are TWO fences about 10 feet apart separating ‘us’ from ‘you’, but I told Will that I wanted him to convey the impression that the eyes of a person’s heart can remove obstacles that stand between us and the freedom to see what God wants us to see, and to do the things that He wants us to do.
I believe Will accomplished exactly that.
And thanks to those two good men, not only am I able to share the image with all of you, I will now have this drawing to frame and hang on my wall when I leave here to remind me of the freedom that I was given during my time of physical imprisonment. I will also be reminded of the sacrifice of Jesus and the tremendous burden that He removed from my shoulders.
God has opened wide the eyes of my heart, and He can open YOURS as well. With our eyes wide open we can see many things we could not see before: We can see hope; we can see peace, happiness, joy, love, and forgiveness; we can see the goodness that lives and breathes all around us. And with our eyes wide open we can also see the hunger, the pain, the suffering, and the desperation of other people. But these are not bad things to see, because once our eyes are open, we can also see our place in God’s plan to HELP those who are afflicted. Seeing our place will allow us to take the action necessary to improve the condition of our brothers and sisters who are all God’s children.
And THIS, my friends, is freedom.
May God bless you all, and may He open WIDE the eyes of YOUR hearts.