Fred Lemon was sleeping the fitful sleep of a man who has spent a day without exercise or satisfying work. Since his last unappetising meal, the evening had stretched endlessly. The light from the gas-lamp was too dim to read by, and bed had been the only alternative. Fred stirred slightly and turned on his prison bunk. It was the night of 10th August 1950, alone in his cell, that he woke to find three men standing quietly at the foot of his bed, ordinary men in ordinary suits.
Fred swung his legs out of bed and sat bolt upright on the edge, now wide awake. The man on the right said, “Fred, this is Jesus”. The man in the middle to whom he pointed then spoke to him. Clearly yet gently, He traced the whole of Fred’s criminal life up to the desperate present, the drinking, the violence, the bad friends and the crime that had brought him at last to Dartmoor, on a charge of robbery with violence. He spoke of the good things too, of Fred’s small kindnesses and his efforts to reform. There was no harshness in the words, only love. Fred listened to every word, surprisingly not afraid or overawed in this unusual situation.
Jesus showed Fred that God was offering him forgiveness for every wrong he had ever done, because of Jesus’ death. At the end of that wonderful talk Jesus said, “If you want to become a Christian, you must drive hatred from your heart.“ Fred knew He spoke the truth, and that He referred to his attitude to the prison warders, towards some of whom he had felt extreme hatred, to the point of contemplating murder.
Fred had been listening with his head in his hands, but as the last sentence was spoken, he looked up. The three men, still facing Fred, were passing through the thick stone walls and out of his cell.. There was a distinct click and he was alone. “That was Jesus Himself, here in this cell”, Fred told himself. There was no fear, instead he lay down in peace and slept.
Next morning, he knew that what had happened had not been a dream. Jesus Christ had appeared to him just as surely as he had appeared to Saul on the Damascus road nearly 2,000 years before. But as for those words -‘Drive hatred from your heart’— that was impossible.
Four long months passed. One morning, a fellow prisoner murmured ‘Compliments of the season’ through half-closed lips. It was Christmas Day. Fred went back to his cell to await the call to the traditional carol service. As he waited, he flicked through his Bible and read the well-known story. Suddenly it took on new meaning. The one who came to the stable as a baby was the one who had visited his cell. He too had been unfairly treated but he held no hatred in his heart. His prayer had been, ‘Father, forgive them’.
Fred longed to be free from the icy hatred that gripped his heart, hatred for the prison officers who had treated him badly. He knelt on the cell floor and prayed, “Lord, I want to give you my heart. Get rid of this hatred inside me. I want to forgive them all.” Then he repeated the nicknames of the prison officers, faltering a moment before he could name the one who had wronged him most. He felt the love of God flow into his heart, dispelling the long-harboured bitterness. ‘Peace on earth’ the angels had sung. For Fred they seemed to sing the words again, in Dartmoor Prison.