Worshiping God in Beauty…in Prison

I’m the pastor of Celebration Fellowship, a prison congregation of the Christian Reformed Church. Last night I met with our music team. The team consists of seven inside members of Celebration Fellowship and one outside member. These men get about thirty minutes a week to practice for our service, and somehow they are able to competently lead the church as we sing our praises to God. The music isn’t always perfect, but the men participating on that team give 100%, and we are often shocked at the beauty that we experience through their musical talents.

As we were discussing worship for the evening, one of the men said, “Pastor Andy, you smell like rainbows.” It wasn’t the first time I’ve been complimented on my cologne. In fact, I can barely go two weeks without one of our inside members mentioning the scent I’m wearing.

In prison, things don’t smell good. They often smell bad. There is no potpourri air freshener. There is no cologne. The cleaning chemicals clean, and nothing more. The first time I walked into a prison chow hall, the scent of the place frightened me. At best, things in prison smell functional – like everything else in prison.

The buildings are functional. Nothing extravagant or more than what’s absolutely necessary. They provide the bare minimum shelter from the elements. The racks provide the bare minimum of comfort for sleep. The food provides the bare minimum nutrition for life. The clothing is uniform, blue and orange, warm enough in the winter and cool enough in the summer. In prison, everything is the bare minimum necessary, except for beauty.

One has to look hard for beauty in prison. It is a place that society keeps intentionally ugly. After all, most believe prison should be an ugly place for ugly people who’ve done ugly things.

We don’t tend to think of beauty as necessary for life. If by life we mean simply continuing to exist, then maybe beauty isn’t necessary for life. However, life as we think of it Biblically is one that requires more than the bare minimum. Biblical life is a life of fruitfulness and abundance of God’s blessings. The eschatological feast is one of the finest wines and foods. It is life, not in the bare minimum shelter, but in the Lord’s mansion. Life in God’s kingdom is one in which we don’t wear baseball caps, but beautiful crowns of gold. The Old Testament church built the temple as a way to transport worshipers into a shadow understanding of the beauty of being in God’s presence. That beauty is for the already and the not-yet.

So, if we believe that God is truly present in our worship, then we must believe that we will see that fruitfulness and abundance among his people. The life that our Lord gives us is a beautiful life, where we walk in his ways, in the light of the truth, and cherish the beauty of his creation through the talents he’s given his people. When we expect beauty, peace, and tranquility, the ugliness of the world becomes glaringly obvious. Our incarcerated brothers have tasted God’s beauty and their eyes are opened to the ugliness around them. As God’s people, our incarcerated brothers want to make prison beautiful, a place where God dwells.

What a strange people the church is in prison. The church stands out, not like a sore thumb, but like a green thumb. In a place of the bare minimum and ugliness, we find abundance and beauty through God’s people. In a place of scowls and anger, we find men smiling and raising their hands in joy to praise the Lord in song. In a place where things smell bad, we enjoy the scents that take us out of the ugliness and into God’s beautiful rest.