I have a gift. It's a talent. I am able to say precisely the wrong thing. Effortlessly. Not always but sometimes. I just open my mouth and put my foot right in it.
I once told a man with an artificial leg that he didn't have a leg to stand on.
Another time I was talking to a lady as we watched children having a snowball fight. I said jokingly, "I'm allergic to snowballs", in response to which the lady introduced her friend... whose name was Mrs Snowball.
Foot in mouth disease strikes me in prison too.
A very shy prisoner used to come into my office quite often and just sit and say next to nothing. Making conversation was hard work. One day (it was the 5th of November) I happened to say, "It's Bonfire Night tonight". As the words were still leaving my mouth, I thought, "You dumpling - this guy is in prison for wilful fireraising." Oops.
This week I was having a chat with a young prisoner who had been reflecting on growing up as the son of an alcoholic father. He was telling me that he and his partner had been talking about their desire to make sure their own children don't grow up with the types of memories he has. We were talking about how drinking alcohol is fine if you can drink in moderation, but if you can't drink without getting drunk, you are better not drink at all. I was explaining that I myself am quite happy to have a glass of wine and then just go on to coke. I noticed that his expression suddenly changed and, although he didn't say anything, he looked absolutely astonished. It was then I re-thought my statement that after a glass of wine I move on to coke. "Er, I mean Diet Coke. The drink. Not cocaine" "Ahh! Right!" - the penny dropped. Good job I noticed his misunderstanding or it would have been all round the jail that their chaplain was a cokehead.
Anyone who studies counselling is likely to come across Carl Rogers and his three core conditions, namely congruence (being real, genuine), empathy (understanding) and what he calls "unconditional positive regard". The counsellor must treat the client with unconditional positive regard. I think it could be argued that a simpler word for unconditional positive regard is "love". The counsellor must treat the client with love.
I have often reflected in the 32 months I've been a prison chaplain that much of what is contained in the two A4 pages of job description I was given could be summarised in an instruction to "love" the prisoners. Of course, the Scottish Prison Service, my employers, do not tend to use such language and nor would anyone expect them to. But I do see my role in the prison, at least in part, as being to love the prisoners.
I've had two interesting conversations recently which have awakened me to the fact that this is quite likely to be misunderstood by non chaplains.
A number of weeks ago, a prison officer asked me whether I got fed up sometimes with some of the prisoners who were unlikely to change and who had unpleasant attitudes and behaviours. He had noticed that I had been willingly giving a lot of time to one particular young man who, it was generally felt, was likely to be a lifelong habitual offender due to his background as a child and his pattern of offending thus far, along with his attitude to authority. As we talked it dawned on me that this officer thought that I was blind to the prisoner's faults and that I was naive to be giving him the time of day. It was great that we had that conversation as I was able to explain that we do not, as chaplains, divide prisoners in our minds into two groups - the bad guys and the good guys. On principle we treat them all as if they were "good guys", not because we are blind to their faults (far from it - some of their offences and attitudes are extremely offensive) but because we intentionally choose to treat them that way. As a Christian, I believe that I am to love everyone. I believe that everyone is made in the image of God and although that bit of them can be suppressed and repressed very thoroughly, it is my job to look and look for that bit and draw it out and encourage it.
The other conversation I had was similar in a way. I was contacted by email by a lady who writes for a German business magazine. They have a regular piece where they compare and contrast two people doing the same job in different parts of the world. For some reason they had decided to have an article on prison chaplains (not sure why, in a business magazine!) and had randomly picked myself in Scotland and a chaplain of a maximum security prison in Jamaica. We had a fascinating three way phone conversation. At some point in that conversation I said, as above, that I thought my job was to love the prisoners. A week later, I was emailed with some questions of clarification, including the question of whether it was always possible to love prisoners who had done bad things or had bad attitudes. My response was that love is not a feeling but an act of the will. Loving prisoners is not based on how lovable they are but on my intention, with God's help, to love them.
If prison chaplains were blind to the faults of the people they meet, or if they believed everything they heard (we certainly don't!) then, yes, naive would be the word. If prison chaplains choose, as an act of the will, to love those they work with and to look for the vestiges of the image of God in them in order to draw that out, then this is not naivete.
(Note: Non-Christian readers, unimpressed with talk about being made in the image of God, may relate better to the idea of how we treat people affecting how they behave. If I treat a man as a useless good-for-nothing, that may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If I treat him instead as someone with the potential for change, with the potential to do good for his family and community, then this may result in his behaving better.)
I know that like me you will have been overwhelmed as we've followed the news from Haiti. It is unimaginably awful. This evening I found this blog which gives insight into what it is like there just now. I'm sure there are other blogs too. For people like me who know no one in Haiti they help to personalise the story and help me see that (unfortunately) it is all too real.
I was of course also interested to hear on the news that the prison was affected by the earthquake. A few people died but most of the 4,500 prisoners have escaped. I am imagining that this will cause additional problems for the people of Haiti. Some of these will be dangerous individuals and some will be desperate individuals. The police are already stretched to capacity without being able to pursue all these fugitives.
Two of the great loves in my life are Facebook and Jesus - not, hopefully, in that order. Who knew that you could combine the two in this teeshirt? I love it. Not in the sense of wanting one. Not in the sense of being willing to wear one. And He needs a better profile picture. But it makes me smile all the same.