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Far as the Curse is Found

He comes to make his blessings flow
far as the curse is found. — Joy to the World

I often tell people that the bible sounds different when you read it in jail. The same is true for Christmas carols. The words and the melodies sound different when sung far away from festive church sanctuaries, when instead of candles and creches it’s just concrete and plastic and reinforced glass. You’re drawn to different lines of the familiar songs.

For sinners here, the silent Word is pleading.

Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother.

And you, beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low. 

Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light.

Be near me Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay close by me forever, and love me, I pray.

Last night my task was to go around with some volunteers to sing carols and deliver treat bags to the units that were, for whatever reason—disciplinary, health, protective custody—not allowed to attend the Christmas service in the gym. It was… well, what was it, exactly? Sobering. Occasionally inspiring. Heartbreaking. Yes, all of the above and more. It sounds so hollow to say “Merry Christmas” as you’re shoving a treat bag through a tray slot to someone you know will quite likely have a lonely Christmas far from anyone who they might love or who might love them. But these simple gestures—a few songs, some candy and fruit, a bar of fresh soap—seemed to mean so much.

A few scenes I will not soon forget. One guy bounds out of his cell into the common area. “Oh man, this is so great! I think I might cry.” We sing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” He tries to follow along, sings where he can. I’m not sure how well he can read. We finish the song and move on the next one. “Wait!” he says. “What does ‘hark’ mean?” I ponder that one for a second or two. I think it means, “Hey! You! Pay attention.” He grins. “Cool.” We fist bump. He tells me he might cry again.

We ask the guys in segregation if they have any favourites. Through the tray slot, I see a pair of tattooed hands. I wonder what all they might be reaching for. He leans down and I see his eyes. “How about the drummer boy?” he says. “I played the drums as a kid.” Yeah, we can do that. We blunder along as best we are able. He sings along with a big smile on his face. Rump-a-pum-pum…

Back in the gym, the women’s unit is in for the half hour service. The speaker is talking about home, about how God wants us to come home, welcomes us home, how we always have a home with God. A few women in the middle have tears in their eyes. I think about the kids that might be missing their mom this Christmas. A few rolls of toilet paper are making their way around the bleachers. I’m struggling not to cry myself. The women sing more than the men, but even here the participation is mixed. One young indigenous woman is sitting off by herself. Her singing has a quiet unashamed confidence. O come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant…

Back out carolling on the units. We’re in the biggest one. It’s the last stop of the night. We have to stand in the middle of all the cells because they’re not allowed out. They’re not happy about this. They can hardly hear behind the doors. I yell, “We’re here to sing a few songs and give you some treat bags!” I try to look joyful, but I feel kind of sick inside. Some of them are kicking on the doors, yelling all kinds of things. We sing one song. I see some of them drifting back and forth from their windows and then out of sight. More kicking on the doors. “Encore!!”

We look at each other? “Should we try Silent Night,” someone says. The incongruence seems impossible, almost laughable. But we sing. And amidst all the chaos I see one guy leaning against the window. His head is bowed, his ear is pressed up against the glass.

Silent night. Holy night.

Joy to the world.

I feel a tear trickle down my cheek and thank God for this tiny blessing, flowing as far as the curse is found.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ajanzen #

    Good piece, Ryan. Your visits to prison are leading to some punchy reflections. I think the Gospel is only relevant when it applies in those situations where people are locked up, trying to sing … and everything is wrong.


    December 22, 2022
  2. Beth Moyer #

    So poignant. I am sure your service of carols and treats was appreciated.

    Minor correction: Far as the Curse is found is from Joy to the World


    December 22, 2022
    • Thanks, Beth. And thanks for the correction! Not sure how I missed that one.

      December 23, 2022

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