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Prison Chaplaincy in Jars of Clay

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 10 We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. 11 For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body.

(2 Corinthians 4.7-11 – NIV)

During the last six years serving as chaplain to a large remand prison in the North of England, I have been struck by Paul’s haunting words as he explores his own frailty and weakness with the church in Corinth. Paul’s context was very different from ours, but particularly in a busy remand situation where each person I meet is in crisis, struggling the unknown nature of the future and the immediate disorientation of coming into prison, I have often felt keenly my own sense of weakness. In seeking to bring hope, a listening ear, and Jesus’ love to those whose own lives are often broken and hurting, I have felt ‘hard-pressed on every side.’ Walking onto a prison wing, I am swamped with requests and demands, and often have felt the pressure of walking the tightrope between the differing expectations of my faith community, the prison service, and the prisoners. Particularly during COVID where chapel groups and services have been restricted, pastoral need has been immense.

Fortunately I have still been able to visit prisoners on the wings and in their cells, and offer them support. COVID has ‘persecuted’ chaplains around the globe, stopping some from even entering their prisons or causing them to have to stay at home for their own health. Yet we are not ‘abandoned’, because even when we are not present in the prisons, God is present there for us and the Holy Spirit is still working. I have been encouraged by the stories of prisoners who, spending 23 hours a day in their cell, have turned to prayer, the Bible, or meditation and found new encounters with God.

There have often been times where the weight of pastoral ministry in prison has caused me to be ‘struck down’. Telling a prisoner their loved one has died. Travelling hundreds of miles to tell a family member their relative in prison has taken their own life. Looking at a sea of hurt and frustration in the lives of prisoners and wondering how much difference I can possibly make. It is those situations in particular we can feel like ‘jars of clay’; fragile, with rough edges, easily damaged, fracture lines all-too-visible.

Despite all this – we are not ‘destroyed’. An empty jar of clay is easily broken – but one within which is a treasure, bursting out and overflowing, making is strong from within – this will stand the test of time. Our power and energy and motivation do not come from trying harder or being tougher, but from the Holy Spirit’s power to change both our hearts and our situations. When we are weary and hard-pressed, he brings the strength needed to carry on. When people see our lives, they will see the cracks around the edges – but they will also see the wondrous Spirit that God has given us, that leads to hope and freedom in Christ.

As we continue to face unprecedented times, we bring our broken jars once again to God’s healing hand, knowing that he will fill them to the brim with his Spirit once again – so we might be a blessing to the prisoners and officers that we serve, and might see his Kingdom come in our prisons.

Tim Dixon is IPCA Europe Rep on the IPCA Worldwide Standing Committee. He has been involved in prison chaplaincy since 2009 and is currently chaplain to a secure psychiatric hospital in Northern England. He is studying for a Doctorate in Theology and Ministry at Durham University (UK), looking at the pastoral care of remand prisoners and the role of the chaplain.