Friday, February 3 Devotional from Pastor John Hartman.
“An All-Night Wrestling Match”
Jeff Chandler, my Princeton Seminary Covenant Group friend, who pastors First Presbyterian Church in Bakersfield, California told me the story of the time that he served as a chaplain at the maximum security prison in Trenton, New Jersey. This was part of Jeff’s field education work while at the seminary. The prison is home to 30,000 inmates. One of the inmates was named Anthony. Anthony was not a Christian. In fact, he was quite vocal in his to opposition to Christianity, calling it “the white man’s religion.” Anthony was about 30 years old. He had spent the last 12 years in the New Jersey prison system. He was over 6 feet 2 inches tall, with an 18½ inch neck, and with arms bigger than most people’s legs. To put it mildly, he was an imposing figure. To the other chaplains at Trenton State Prison, Tony was not a model prisoner. He would constantly brag about his ability to manipulate the guards, and intimate the other prisoners. He was also constantly rambling about the oppression of the “white man’s Jesus.”
Anthony was sentenced to multiple-life terms for the brutal murders of a husband and wife. His “rap sheet” was longer than a yardstick, -- including grand larceny, drugs, armed robbery, and other felonies and misdemeanors. He had been breaking the law for as long as he could remember. If anyone was born to be trouble, -- it was Anthony.
One day, my friend Jeff noticed a blue form on the chaplain’s desk at the prison. A blue form always meant bad news. It indicated an inmate had lost a loved one. The chaplain’s responsibility was to make contact with the grieving prisoner. The only information on the blue form was the inmate’s number and cell. As Jeff read the form, he discovered it was Anthony’s cell. His mother had died.
When he arrived at Anthony’s cell, it was dark. The light was off, and a sheet was pulled up to cover most of the cell door. This meant, “do not disturb.” Anthony did not want to be bothered. With the notification of his mother’s death. The sun had set for Anthony. All of his crimes, stealing, drugs, taking of innocent lives, -- all of his crimes, piled one on top of the other, he had to re-live. That night, Anthony began an all-night wrestling match with God.
No one knows for sure what exactly happened that night, but by daybreak, Anthony was a different man. He was still as big and scary as ever, but without the swearing, manipulation, or intimidation. Jeff asked him, “Anthony, what changed your life?” He said, “Last night, I prayed the prayer my momma wrote in the back of the Bible she gave me.” What did it say? It said, “Jesus, I know you love Anthony. I know you always have, and I know you always will. He don’t need nobody else but you. Even when he is all by himself, you are right there with him. Thank you, Jesus. Amen.”
Anthony looked up from his Bible. He said, “Chaplain, I know God is real. I know, because He let me live last night. I was going to kill myself, and He let me live.” Through the words of his mother, Anthony saw God face to face, and his life was spared.
This Sunday, February 5, I continue my sermon series on the book of Genesis, and we will be talking about Jacob’s all-night of wrestling with God. We will also resume our regular worship schedule this Sunday. So, please come and join us in the sanctuary either at 8:00 am or at 10:30 am. The 10:30 service we will also broadcast on Zoom, Facebook Live, and YouTube. As a reminder, we will also celebrate Holy Communion at both services.