Hitting Bottom + Jesus = Hope
by Don Mason
Yesterday I read the July-September issue of Challenger—given to me by a dear 90-year-old friend, Helen Yang. I had never seen this publication before. It was so unlike most Christian publications that deal with social and doctrinal issues. Every article was a personal story about a real person dealing with faith or a physical or spiritual struggle. I read every word of each article and was sorry when I got to the last page. It so blessed my life, I wanted to read more.
When I got to page 22 and saw “We want your stories,” I felt lead by the Lord to write my own story—a story of how God saved me, first from myself, and then from my sins. To God be the glory for changing me from being completely self-centered to being Christ and otherscentered. Only God can do a work like that…as you will see!
When my mother taught me my first memory verse as a preschooler, she had no idea how, one day, God would use that verse at the lowest point in my life. “This poor man cried and the LORD heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles” (Psalm 34:6, NASB).
I was raised in a loving Christianhome —a parsonage, in fact. My father was a pastor and at age 15, during church camp one summer, I asked Jesus to forgive me of my sins and to be the Lord of my life.
But by the time I reached age 27, I had veered far off the path of a Godcentered life. I woke up one morningin a county jail on a urine-smelling mattress on the floor under a bunk, the seventh man in a six-man cell. The night before I had been arrested, charged, and arraigned for second degree murder of my wife — my first love and childhood sweetheart.
That first morning as I awoke I groggily noticed two things. The first was an officer sitting in front of my cell with his feet propped up on the bars staring at me. (I later learned I was on suicide watch.) The second was my cellmates passing around the morning newspaper that had the crime story and my wedding picture on the front page. My first thought was that I wanted to die. I just needed to figure out how to kill myself even though that officer was watching over me. I decided to stand up and make it seem as if I was going to use the toilet in the cell. I would put my back to the wall, bend forward at the waist, and run my head into the opposite wall as hard as I could to snap my neck and hopefully crush my skull.
But at that very moment, I heard a Spirit speak to me—God’s HolySpirit, saying “There’s another way; give your life back to Me.” I was dumbfounded and couldn’t answer Him. The Spirit spoke again, the same thing. How could I respond? It would mean facing my parents whowould surely be on their way to see me, and serving decades in prison. But that still small voice, a third time, gently prodded, “Give your life back to Me.”
My life had hit bottom with a hard thud. But God’s offer of amazing grace helped me respond with, “Yes, Lord, no matter what.” I went out and faced my parents, and, on that fateful morning, I began to take responsibility for my actions.
Giving my life back to God certainly didn’t solve all my problems. A few days later I had a nervous breakdown and would lie for hours on end in a fetal position under my blanket cryingrivers of tears. But during this time God gave me a hunger for His Word, and it began to change me. The chaplain took a special interest in me, meeting regularly with me in his cramped office that had been a broom closet. He ministered to me with Psalm 51, King David’s confession after sinningwith Bathsheba. I learned to accept the promises of the Bible—that God’s grace covers all my sin.
On September 2, 1987, I pleaded guilty, put myself at the mercy of the court, and was sentenced to 22 years-life. When I got back to the jail, I took off my dress suit and handed it to the officer. I knew it was going to be a very long time before I wore one again. I went back on the gallery and stood in front of my cell with one hand on the metal desk welded to the bars. I was stunned. The Holy Spiritasked me, “Will you still serve Me?” I could not answer because I was finding it difficult to imagine 22 years in prison. He asked me a second time. No response. After a third time, I wasable to say, “Yes, no matter what.” This was another crossroad decision of my life.
Once in the state prison system, I felt the Lord telling me to use these years wisely, to get all the education I could for He had work for me to do in prison as well as when I get out. For the first time in my life, I began to love to read, and I started devouring good books that my father and others sent me. By faith in God—not in my academic ability, for I had dropped out of college twice—I signed up for college courses. God helped me get focused, and He gave me a new mind. All glory to God for within my first six years of prison, I earned my A.S., B.A. (summa cum laude), and a Masters degree–the latter from New York Theological Seminary’s program at Sing Sing. And through every experience, my faith soared!
It has now been nearly 24 years since I entered prison, and I was turned down at my first parole board hearing due to the seriousness of my crime. In November, 2010, I will see the parole board again, Father willing. I feel called to do prison ministry and to do what I can to bring higher education back into the prison system. My life purpose now is to preach the Gospel, share my testimony, and to open avenues of hope to others like me, “the least of these.”
I thank God for my godly mother who taught me to memorize Psalm 34:6 as a little child and who has never stopped praying for me. And I am grateful for God’s grace that reached out to me when my life was literally hanging in the balance and reminded me that “There’s another way.” Following the Lord is the best decision I ever made, and my life, even in prison, is better because of it.