Have you done things in the past that make you shudder when you remember them? I was reminded of one of those today when I heard a news report about the possibility of a smoking ban being introduced in UK prisons. Let me set the scene…
I was about 21, fairly fresh out of University with a Law Degree. I was working for a wonderful provincial firm of Solicitors in South Devon in the Litigation Department. We carried out civil and criminal litigation, including being Duty Solicitors for police stations. There were some people who became ‘regulars’ of ours and on one occasion we had a call from Exeter Police that one of our clients was under arrest in their cells and had asked for us.
My boss, for whom I have the greatest of respect, asked me to go and see the client. He gave me some money because the client had said he was out of cigarettes and told me to buy him some and some matches. He told me that this would calm him down and help him to listen to my advice. I did as asked (don’t ask me which brand I bought even though it’s the only packet of cigarettes I have ever bought) and drove up to Exeter with them in my briefcase (which I carried so I looked like I knew what I was doing).
I went to the custody section and was shown into a room where I could meet my client in confidence. He came in and I passed him the cigarettes and matches, which he gratefully took and I listened to his story. I can’t remember much about what we said (and of course I couldn’t tell you anyway) but at the end of the time he was happy with the advice I had given. The police were not going to interview him immediately so I left and drove back to the office.
Later that day I had a phone call put through from the switchboard. It was Exeter Police. I assumed it was to do with my client. It was the Custody Sergeant. He asked if I had visited my client that day and I confirmed that I had. Then he asked if I had given him some cigarettes and matches. I said that I had. Then he said something that made my blood run cold.
My client had been sitting in his cell lighting matches and flicking them around the cell as they burned. Thankfully the cells were pretty spartan and he had not set light to the mattress, but the police officer gently pointed out that he could have caused a fire, he could have been injured and it’s possible the police station might have been set alight. he calmly reminded me that if I wanted to give clients anything at a police station I should do so through the custody officers not simply pass them over.
I was horrified at my mistake. I remember going very red with embarrassment (I could feel my cheeks burning) and offering profuse apologies. I certainly learnt that lesson and (as you can tell) have never forgotten it.
Today’s news about smoking and prisons brought it all back. But what it has also reminded me is of the gracious way in which the Custody Sergeant dealt with me. He had seen me when I came into the police station and it would have been clear (despite my briefcase) that I was very new to all of this. He could have screamed down the phone at me and told me I was a blithering idiot (and I would have agreed) but instead he had been calm and courteous and had explained what I should have done.
Today that is a reminder to me of God’s grace to me – he does not scream at me when I get things wrong but patiently and calmly points me back in the right direction, receives my apology and helps me to learn the lesson.
It is also a reminder to me of how we can all better relate to each other. This is especially poignant because on Sunday evening I am looking at the moment in Acts 15 when Paul and Barnabas had a major falling out and went their separate ways. How we need the help of God’s Spirit to help us emulate Jesus at times when we disagree or even argue. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control anyone?
And with God’s grace he can also take the memories that make us shudder and offer fresh starts if we offer them to him openly and honestly.
Be blessed, be a blessing