You may have thought I was dead since I've been away so long, but I'm not. All is well in the world of AnneDroid, thankfully. At least nothing's wrong that a fortnight on my own somewhere sunny wouldn't cure, but that's not on offer, sadly.
Prison at Christmas is kind of depressing but my children at home are so hyper that my mood is stabilised somewhere in between.
In both prisons I work in we had carol services. They were both really great. Admittedly, the second one was a challenge to me as I was throwing up all over the place and wanted to lie down all the time (I have since got better but shared my bug with three of the other five people in this house). The first one was a revelation to me, though. We had a drummer, who is a prisoner, and a guitarist (the husband of a local minister) and someone to lead the singing - the minister who is married to the guitarist. She turned up with a big shopping bag. I couldn't imagine what was in it and was astonished (that's not a strong enough word, btw) when she produced bells, shakers and tambourines for all the guys. I was thinking, "No! No! No! Scotland's Toughest will never wear this! They'll never shake bells and rattle tamourines - they'll laugh in your face." But how wrong I was. The guys had a whale of a time. When I got up at the end to thank everyone, I found I was pretty deaf between the drums and the bells and tambourines. Then we had coffee and mince pies, and, for a little while at least, it was as if none of us were in a prison at all. I love these moments. So often, at chaplaincy events, I've had guys say to me, "It's great to get out of the prison for a wee while" and yet of course we're right in the middle of the prison.
This evening I've been writing Christmas cards to the prisoners. Many of them will get Christmas cards of course, from family and friends, but we do have a significant number of guys who won't otherwise get a single card from anyone. As the wife of a parish minister, we get heaps and heaps of Christmas cards. Sometimes we don't even know who they're from to be honest. If it says "Bill and Anne" or "Jim and Mary" we have to think "Which Bill and Anne?", "Which Jim and Mary?" and so on. But if you either genuinely have no one, or more likely, your behaviour, your crime, your addiction, whatever, has alienated everyone you know, and all your relatives, then you may well get no Christmas cards.
I know it's an insanely busy time of year for most of us, but if you're the praying kind please remember in prayer those who will have no Christmas cards this year: not because cards matter or are useful particularly, but because of what that means - people who have no one who cares enough to send them a card. Even if it's their own fault. That's not the point. To succeed in desisting from crime, the evidence suggests, people need strong and significant supportive relationships.
Recently I was at a meeting where people from a charity for the homeless were speaking. As it happens both of them were former homeless alcoholics themselves. They were talking about the difference that their drop in centre has made in the life of people. Those who come along have next to no real friends to start with and yet in a short time have a circle of people who really care and really are their friends.
I am thinking this Christmas of someone who is enjoying his first Christmas on the outside for many years. When I first met him, in prison, he told me he could see two possible futures for himself - one as a dope-smoking hermit and one as involved in a local church somewhere. The latter he was shy of, though, and apprehensive about. I'm delighted to see what God has done in his life. He has been baptised since leaving prison. He is at church every week and home group midweek. The church he has gone to have been welcoming and supportive. And, on top of that, or below that as a foundation perhaps, he has friends now. A network of friends - he'll have had Christmas cards this year. And that's significant.
These two brain scans come from Bruce Perry, M.D., Ph.D., of the Baylor College of Medicine. The image on the left is a CT scan of a normal healthy three year old child, average in head size, intellect etc. and the image on the right is the brain of a three year old child suffering from severe sensory neglect.
I was shocked by the contrast in these images. I hadn't realised that neglected children were affected mentally in a literal, physical, neurological way by what had happened to them. I suppose I vaguely imagined their main problems were due to bad example and lack of love and so on.
The poor little child in the slide is an extreme example, admittedly, but the truth is that there are actual neurological consequences to neglect in children. In particular, there are fewer connections in the brain than there should be, and the bits of the brain that enable us to understand where other people are coming from, to have empathy, to have sensitivity to the complex feelings of people around us, don't get the chance to develop very well in the neglected child. These children are therefore biologically more likely to end up behaving in an anti-social manner in the future as they don't understand the effects on other people's feelings of their actions.
I want to encourage anyone who is involved in working with young children in any way that all the time you give is worthwhile. I used to be involved as a volunteer in helping to run a parent and toddler group and my really wonderful friends Gillian and Norma are faithfully still involved, and have been since their own fourteen year olds were babies.
These early years are so critical.
This is a concern to me in Prisonworld too. It seems to me that huge resources should be devoted to parenting classes for prisoners (and perhaps their partners too, in some circumstances). So many of our prisoners had really appalling childhoods, as the children of alcoholics, drug addicts, neglectful or abusive parents. Also, many were in care as children and/or are the sons of parents who were themselves in prison. I have heard some stories that are so horrendous I nearly wept to hear them.
We need, as a society, to do all we can to break this dreadful cycle.
But cynically, I suspect that the problem is that there are no votes in this. It's too long term, isn't it? It's about sowing seeds now that might bear fruit in eighteen years. In party political election terms, that's too far in the future...
You may have seen this DVD clip before. If not, you're in for a really special treat if you watch it.
But.... can you imagine the immense privilege of watching this with a bunch of prisoners who are having the Fatherly love of God explained to them, in some cases for the first time? I don't need to imagine it! I have experienced it, and it was a very special thing indeed.