Light in Dark Places

A new guy, “I”, showed up asking for prayer. He had just spent the last 15 months in the “hole”. He is seeking God, and answers for his life. As I have observed with other men who have spent a long time in isolation, he spoke very softly, and there were more pauses in the conversion – much like someone who was out of practice with having someone to talk to, and the natural flow of a conversation.

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After I prayed with him one of the other men asked him if he wanted to join us for our Bible study, so he stayed and participated.

For our opening question I asked them why they thought light and life were often related. One man recalled the science fair experiment where you start plants growing and then put one set in regular light, and another set in colored or no light. The plants that had better light grew, while the plants that had little light shriveled.

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Another man recalled the SHU (Special Housing Unit) in another prison where the light was so dim, if you wanted to read a book, you had to stand by the window in the cell door to get enough light from the hallway to read. It’s hard to flourish in darkness.

We read our scripture:

John 1(NIV)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.

The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

15 (John testified concerning him. He cried out, saying, “This is the one I spoke about when I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’”) 16 Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.

We went around each reading a verse. As I read it again I asked them to listen for a word or phrase that caught their attention.

In Him was Life

One man wondered about that phrase. What did it mean?

Another thought it meant that we find our meaning and purpose in Christ.

Someone observed that everything alive in creation was given through God.

The Light shines into the darkness

Light is more powerful than darkness. Light can chase away darkness. Darkness can never chase away light. Some would consider incarceration to be a dark place, but light can transform dark places.

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Grace upon Grace

Other translations render verse 16 as, “grace in place of grace.”

I needed to explain what the work “grace” meant in this context. For most of the men the only meaning they had was beautiful movement as in, “she danced with grace.” A few knew it as an alternate term for prayer as in, “let’s say grace before we eat this meal.”

The simplest explanation that I had was that grace referred to gifts we receive from God. We are all presented with the beauty of nature, of colorful sunsets, the rhythm of the ocean waves. Every human has the capacity to be loved, and to love. We can experience joy.

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“Grace in place of grace” is another way of saying, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” If you thought those things were great, wait until you experience life in Christ. There is a whole new world of love, joy, peace, and so much more waiting for each of us. Grace that was general now becomes grace that is personal, and so much greater than we had ever imagined.

Out of His fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. 

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Waves of Communion & Seeking Him

I help serve communion twice a year at the jail – around Easter and around Christmas. In the past we’ve had a number of people help and have done the entire jail in a single morning. However, this year was more challenging due to frequent lockdowns and increased security concerns, so a pair of people were asked to serve communion to a unit whenever they could get in.

Another person and I were able to serve one unit even though there had been two lockdowns earlier that day. I asked the other person if she could do the primary serving and I would help, since my hearing was not up to the task this year.

We collected the communion elements, arrived at the unit, and entered the first section. In this jail a unit is divided into three sections.

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The guard announced our presence and purpose. Only a couple of men came into the multi-purpose room where we were serving. After we served these two men we waited for a few minutes and then left the section when no one else came.

It seems that jail and the Navy have something in common: Never Again Volunteer Yourself

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People are extremely reluctant to volunteer to participate in something unless they understand exactly what they are getting into.

As we were waiting to get into the next section we were called back to the first section. Apparently the first two men explained what had happened to the other guys on the unit. When we went back in five more wanted to partake in communion.

This pattern repeated in the next two sections as well. Serve a few. Leave. Get called back. Serve even more than the first time.

  • A small wave
  • Retreat
  • The few explain what happened and what they experienced
  • Return
  • A larger wave of men partakes

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Since my hearing was impaired this was a far more visual experience for me.

  • Watching the walk and the expression of each man as he comes
  • Seeing the wafer dipped in the juice
  • The prayer of the server
  • The hand receiving the elements
  • In this moment he is no longer an inmate, he stands as a human at the altar of Grace
  • The transition of the face of the man as he partakes
  • Watching his steps as he walks away

After we had served the men in a section a second time, one of the guards also participated after all the other men were out of the room.

Jailed, and jailer, receiving grace.

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Seeking Him

After we finished serving I went to the maximum-security unit and began our Bible Study with the six men who were waiting.

We shared stories about long road trips. One man had done family road trips between Alabama and California when he was a kid. Another man was on a family vacation that traveled the Pacific Coast highway from Los Angeles to Seattle.

Mark Twain wrote, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

Travel changes us.

We then read our scripture:

Matthew 2:1-12 (NIV)

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
    who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

I had used this same scripture three hears earlier: Taking a Different Path Home

The men were not very familiar with the story of the birth of Jesus. Outside of the church there is little to no mention of these events. Christmas is about Santa, presents, a tree, family gatherings, and Black Friday deals.

One man had heard the Jesus could talk as soon as he was born, and that he never cried. Others were unsure how long ago these events actually happened.

We talked though the basics of the birth story, and the timeline. We can infer from the text that the magi didn’t come at the same time as the shepherds, since in this story Mary and Jesus are in a house.

I explained the significance of the gifts:

  • Gold, a gift for royalty, recognized Jesus as a ruler.
  • Frankincense was used in healing and acknowledged Jesus as the One who brings healing.
  • Myrrh was also used in healing, but also used to prepare bodies for burial. This gift acknowledged how we are healed through his death and resurrection.

As had happened before when I shared this scripture, the section that caused the most thoughtful attention was “they returned to their country by another route.”

What does it mean for each of these men to go home by a different way?

They can see where the old path has brought them.

After seeking the Savior, how do they live each day going a different way?

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A Surprise Announcement

There were seven men in the maximum-security unit Bible Study. This was the most I’d had in a long time. We actually ran out of Bibles.

As a conversation-starter I asked what was the biggest good surprise that they had experienced.

One man recalled that he was ten years old when his father announced that the family would be moving to America, and how excited he was.

“G” told of overdosing on heroin, and being told that, due to the overdose, his kidneys had shut down. Furthermore, he was told that since he had a history of illegal drug use he would be put at the bottom of any list for kidney transplant recipients. He was placed on a schedule of weekly dialysis, and began spending 3 hours each week getting dialysis. After a year of this he was about 1 hour into treatment when they disconnected him. They handed him a piece of paper that told him where to go to get his port removed. He asked them to explain. They told him that his kidneys were now functioning normally and he no longer needed dialysis.

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“T” remembered when he was nine and his father took him and his sister to ride the Desperado roller coaster in Primm, Nevada. At that time it was the highest roller coaster in the world.

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Another man remembered when he was told his daughter had been born, and that he could hold her.

We then read:

Luke 2:8-20 (NKJV)

Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold,[a] an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. 10 Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. 11 For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.”

13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying:

14 “Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”

15 So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger. 17 Now when they had seen Him, they made widely[c] known the saying which was told them concerning this Child. 18 And all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds. 19 But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them.

I gave them some background on the birth of Jesus because I have learned that not everyone has heard the story. For most of these men when you ask them to tell what they know about the Christmas Story they talk about Ralphie and the Red Ryder BB Gun. (A Christmas Story, 1983)

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I also gave them background on shepherds, that these men were not highly respected by society. Yet these are the ones who received angelic news of the birth of the savior.

How would you react if you saw an angel? There responses were:

“I’d assume I was having some kind of a breakdown.”

“I’d wonder if the nurse messed up my medication.”

“I’d guess that there was something janky in the coffee”

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It seems the opening words of most angelic visits are, “Don’t be afraid.”

They hear good news, a savior. But they also hear an unlikely description. The Savior is in a lowly form, a baby. He is also in an unlikely place, a manger or food trough. The Savior is born in circumstances of grinding poverty — no house, not even a suitable crib.

The men observed that the angels appear and proclaim glory to God, and announce peace, but the angels do not compel the shepherds to go.

I asked why Jesus was born in such lowly circumstances instead of in a palace. One of the men explained that if Jesus had been born in a palace then people could have been ordered to go see him. The shepherds came by choice. We each come to Jesus by choice. For a man who is incarcerated it is a powerful thing to be given a choice.

Willingly we choose to. surrender our lives. Willingly our knees will bow.

 

 

 

Silent, Hidden, Waiting

I met with four men for the Tuesday night Bible Study. They represented a cross-section of the jail population. Two men were about to spend their second Christmas in jail while still waiting for their trial date to come up. One man will be “celebrating” his first Christmas in jail. And the final man was scheduled for release at 9AM the next morning.

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All four men knew what it was like to wait. All had experienced hardship. One was eagerly awaiting the next chapter in life’s story. One man was honest enough to say that, as he waited, his thoughts moved to plans of revenge.

Tonight we read:

Luke 1:5-25

There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah. His wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both well advanced in years.

So it was, that while he was serving as priest before God in the order of his division, according to the custom of the priesthood, his lot fell to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord. 10 And the whole multitude of the people was praying outside at the hour of incense. 11 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing on the right side of the altar of incense. 12 And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him.

13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. 14 And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. 15 For he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will also be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. 16 And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 He will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, ‘to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,’[b] and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

18 And Zacharias said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is well advanced in years.”

19 And the angel answered and said to him, “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and was sent to speak to you and bring you these glad tidings. 20 But behold, you will be mute and not able to speak until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words which will be fulfilled in their own time.”

21 And the people waited for Zacharias, and marveled that he lingered so long in the temple. 22 But when he came out, he could not speak to them; and they perceived that he had seen a vision in the temple, for he beckoned to them and remained speechless.

23 So it was, as soon as the days of his service were completed, that he departed to his own house. 24 Now after those days his wife Elizabeth conceived; and she hid herself five months, saying, 25 “Thus the Lord has dealt with me, in the days when He looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.”

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I gave them some background on the story. Here was a man who, by external appearances had done everything right. He was born in the priestly tribe. He had married right. He had even been selected to serve in the temple. Some priests lived their whole lives without ever being chosen for that.

But as he was in the temple serving, something was still on his mind.

When each of us is praying or waiting in the presence of God, what is still on our mind? The men I was meeting with yearned for freedom. They yearned for restoration of broken relationships destroyed by reckless choices. They understood what it was like to be before God, and still have something on your mind – a wound that has yet to heal; a source of shame that is often unspoken. It is the cry of their hearts as they wait in their cell. It is that soul ache that presents itself while waiting for sleep.

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An angel appears before Zacharias with amazing news: “your prayer is heard.” And he responds with skepticism just as these men might. What if an angel appeared in the jail cell? Is this vision a result of bad jail food, or poor ventilation? The men understood why he had questions.

There was some discussion about verse 20:

“But behold, you will be mute and not able to speak until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words which will be fulfilled in their own time.”

Was God being petty and vindictive? One man wondered if this punishment was Gabriel’s idea and God had nothing to do with it. How much does God punish us for unbelief, and how often does God just expect unbelief from us? There are no easy answers in tonight’s study.

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The men understood what it was like to not be heard, and to have difficulty communicating to others.

…for he beckoned to them and remained speechless.

In some ways being incarcerated is like being stricken mute.

We wondered how being mute changed him. What did he learn in this time of enforced silence? What did he learn during this time of waiting? The men talked about how they have learned to observe others. Is this a good day to joke around with that guy? Is the guard in a particularly crabby mood today? Did someone just receive their divorce papers?

Elizabeth was hidden away for 5 months. Being in jail is like being hidden away. Elizabeth could see the world carrying on while she watched. These men watch the daily news programs and the world moves on, for better or for worse, without them.

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It seems that Zacharias and Elizabeth had much in common with the waiting experienced by the incarcerated.

 

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How Long, O Lord?

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The season of Advent, which comes from the Latin word adventus meaning “coming” or “visit”. It seems to best be characterized as a time of waiting. Something significant is going to happen, but it isn’t here just yet.

That also characterizes the experience of the men that I see in the jail. Each man is waiting for something that will profoundly impact his life: a court date, a trial, a hearing, or the end of a sentence.

The men I met with on Tuesday night exemplified that. One man will soon spend his second Christmas in jail still waiting for this trial to begin.  Another man is eagerly awaiting the completion of his time served and will be released within the next week. Every man is waiting for something that is not yet here.

They are in the between-time of transitions. They are from something and going to something.

In Poetry from Prison: Advent Hope one person described it this way:

By D

I am from the front yard.

I am from gunshots, running from cops.

I am from a broken home.

I am from a weed plant smokes that if you hit it you would choke.

I am from BBQs that end in fights and cops come and someone goes to jail tonight.

I am from where the fear of God is not number one.

I am from soups and beans were what we had and if you cried you got slapped.

I am from drug task kicking in the door.

I am from gunshots at our house, cops coming, someone hit.

 

But that’s not the end of my story…

 

I am to a loving wife.

I am to showing my wife that I am worth her love.

I am to being better than I was.

I am to God’s loving hands.

I am to never hurting my family again and making up for what I have done.

I am to better days where people see people for people not color or race and gangs see people not red or blue.

I am to the best I can be, not and until I meet God.

 

For our study we looked at:

Psalm 6

O Lord, do not rebuke me in Your anger, nor chasten me in Your hot displeasure.
Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I am weak; O Lord, heal me, for my bones are troubled.

My soul is in deep anguish. How long, Lord, how long?

Turn, Lord, and deliver me; save me because of your unfailing love.
Among the dead no one proclaims your name. Who praises you from the grave?

I am worn out from my groaning. All night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears.
My eyes grow weak with sorrow; they fail because of all my foes.

Away from me, all you who do evil, for the Lord has heard my weeping.
The Lord has heard my cry for mercy; the Lord accepts my prayer.
10 All my enemies will be overwhelmed with shame and anguish; they will turn back and suddenly be put to shame.

Verse 1: These men have felt the hot displeasure of others. Will God be the same way towards them?

Verse 2: These men knew that feeling – for my bones are troubled – the anguish that is felt at the core of your being.

Verse 3: The cry of the inmate – how long?

Verse 4: God deliver me, not because I am so good, but because of who You are – your very character is mercy.

Verse 5: The spiritually dead don’t proclaim God’s name.

Verse 6: There is crying in the jail cells. Most of the time it is hidden from others.

Verse 7: Prosecutors and family members remind them what a disappointment they are.

Verse 8: My hope is in God.

Verse 9: There is a well-known judge who looks for alternatives to incarceration. He is willing to listen to the accused, and to understand their addictions. He connects them with treatment options. He wants to see these men changed for the better.

Verse 10: Through the transformation by God, those who have told them that they would never amount to anything are finally silenced.

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The Lion and the Lamb

I’ve been wanting to share this Bible Study with the guys in max at Santa Clara main jail. They’ve been on lockdown the past two weeks that I’ve been there and finally I shared it tonight — and they went on lockdown halfway through the study.

 

Remember that Paul was in prison when he wrote this:

Ephesians 4:1-5 (NIV)

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism;

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Paul, as an inmate, is asking other inmates and those outside the walls to walk with humbleness and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love. Do you suppose he meant us to have this attitude just towards other believers, or to everyone?

What if someone is being a real jerk towards you?

Remember that Paul was raised and trained in reading the scriptures, which at that time consisted of the Old Testament. Let’s look at a scripture he would have studied:

Isaiah 11 (NKJV)

11 There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse,
And a Branch shall grow out of his roots.
The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him,
The Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
The Spirit of counsel and might,
The Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord.

His delight is in the fear of the Lord,
And He shall not judge by the sight of His eyes,
Nor decide by the hearing of His ears;
But with righteousness He shall judge the poor,
And decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
He shall strike the earth with the rod of His mouth,
And with the breath of His lips He shall slay the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt of His loins,
And faithfulness the belt of His waist.

“The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb,
The leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
The calf and the young lion and the fatling together;
And a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze;
Their young ones shall lie down together;
And the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

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Regarding that scripture, in his book The Inner Voice of Love, Henri Nouwen wrote:

“There is within you a lamb and a lion. Spiritual maturity is the ability to let lamb and lion lie down together. Your lion is your adult, aggressive self. It is your initiative-taking and decision-making self. But there is also your fearful, vulnerable lamb, the part of you that needs affection, support, affirmation, and nurturing.

When you heed only your lion, you will find yourself overextended and exhausted. When you take notice only of your lamb you will easily become a victim of your need for other people’s attention. The art of spiritual living is to fully claim both your lion and your lamb. Then you can act assertively without denying your own needs. And you can ask for affection and care without betraying your talent to offer leadership.

Developing your identity as a child of God in no way means giving up your responsibilities. Likewise, claiming your adult self in no way means that you cannot become increasingly a child of God. In fact, the opposite is true. The more you can feel safe as a child of God, the freer you will be to claim your mission in the world as a responsible human being. And the more you claim that you have a unique task to fulfill for God, the more open you will be to letting your deepest need be met.”

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Looking back at the scripture in Ephesians is Paul asking us to deny the lion part of who we are and only let the lamb show through?

Actually, it takes the strength of the lion, the wolf, the leopard, or the bear to do what is being asked in Ephesians.

Humility requires courage and honesty. Christian humility comes from self-knowledge. To face oneself is the most humiliating thing in the world, particularly as we compare ourselves to God’s standards.

So long as we compare ourselves with second bests, we come out of the comparison well. However, when we compare ourselves with perfection we see our failure. A girl may think herself a very fine pianist until she hears one of the world’s outstanding performers. A man may think himself a good golfer until he sees one of the world’s masters in action.

Self-satisfaction depends on the standard with which we compare ourselves. If we compare ourselves with our neighbor, we may well emerge very satisfactorily from the comparison. But the Christian standard is Jesus Christ and the demands of God’s perfection–and against that standard there is no room for pride. We are creatures, and for the creature there can be nothing but humility in the presence of the creator. Christian humility is based on the sight of self, the vision of Christ, and the realization of God. Courage is needed to face this humility.

Gentleness: The man who shows this type of gentleness is the man who is always angry at the right time and never angry at the wrong time. To put that in another way, the man who is gentle is the man who is kindled by indignation at the wrongs and the sufferings of others, but is never moved to anger by the wrongs and the insults he himself has to bear.

In order to do this we have to remind ourselves who we belong to. Does our value come from who God says we are, and our identity in Christ, or does our value come from what other people think of us? If our identity, value, and worth is from God, then other people cannot take that away from us.

I was talking with another chaplain a few weeks ago. He had been talking to the men for several weeks about changing their attitude towards others when someone does something wrong to them or treats them with disrespect.

Recently one of the men was waiting in line to get into the wash room. The guy in front of him farted and then turned to him and said, “Did you like it?”  The man said that, in the past he would have started punching the guy for disrespecting him, but know he was able to set that aside because he wasn’t trying to get his value and self-worth from that other man.

Patience: It describes the spirit which will never give in and which, because it endures to the end, will reap the reward. In their great days the Romans were unconquerable; they might lose a battle, they might even lose a campaign, but they could not conceive of losing a war. In the greatest disaster it never occurred to them to admit defeat. Christian patience is the spirit which never admits defeat, which will not be broken by any misfortune or suffering, by any disappointment or discouragement, but which persists to the end.

Another aspect of patience is used to describe something which has the power to take revenge but never does so. To take a very imperfect analogy–it is often possible to see a puppy and a very large dog together. The puppy yaps at the big dog, worries him, bites him, and all the time the big dog, who could annihilate the puppy with one snap of his teeth, bears the puppy with a forbearing dignity. This type of patience is the spirit which bears insult and injury without bitterness and without complaint. It is the spirit which can suffer unpleasant people with graciousness and fools without irritation.

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Love:  If we regard a person with this type of love, it means that nothing that he can do will make us seek anything but his highest good. Though he injures us and insults us, we will never feel anything but kindness towards him. That quite clearly means that this Christian love is not an emotional thing. This love is not only of the emotions, but also of the will. It is the ability to hold onto good will to the unlovable, towards those who do not love us, and even towards those whom we do not like. This love is that quality of mind and heart which compels a Christian never to feel any bitterness, never to feel any desire for revenge, but always to seek the highest good of every person no matter what he may be.

 

When humbleness, gentleness, patience, and love are in place, peace is the natural outcome.

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Re-Entry After 38 Years

There were three men in the Tuesday night Bible study in the maximum-security unit. A new guy had been invited by one of the other men. All of the men have previously served prison time. One will be released in a few months. The others may be looking at substantial time.

We discussed how the patterns of institutional living carry on even after release. Some guys continue the same breakfast schedule even years after their release.

A New York Times article (You Just Got Out of Prison. Now What?) tells about Roby and Carlos.

Roby started reciting the weekly prison menu, to see if he could still do it. When he got to Thursday — peanut butter and jelly, four slices of bread, Kool-Aid — Carlos, without turning to look at him, chimed in with ‘‘sugar-free gum.’’

Roby went on. (Roby tends to do most of the talking.) The trick, he said, is to save those packets of peanut butter and spread it on your pancakes, the next time there are pancakes. It sounds gross, but it’s not. ‘‘The only way I eat my pancakes now is with peanut butter — because that’s the way I ate them in there,’’ Roby explained.

Carlos understood. He still put peanut butter on his pancakes, too. ‘‘It does have a different flavor,’’ he said.

‘‘Yeah! And you can put it in your oatmeal!’’

‘‘Oatmeal is real good with peanut butter,’’ Carlos said.

‘‘I still do that, too!’’ Roby blurted.

He continued with the menu. After Sunday — eggs, ham, hash browns — he looked at Carlos and said, ‘‘You put it all together?’’ to make sure Carlos knew to heap the whole thing between two slices of toast and squeeze jelly over it. Carlos knew. ‘‘That’s a pretty fat sandwich, right?’’ Roby said.

‘‘Yeah,’’ Carlos said emphatically.

Roby still puts jelly on his egg sandwiches, too, he explained. Strawberry, grape — he doesn’t care. ‘‘People look at me like I’m crazy!’’

‘‘People don’t even know,’’ Carlos said. They were laughing at themselves now. Carlos had done almost 11 years; Roby, close to 12. Now they were free men, sitting outside a prison, waxing nostalgic about prison food.

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We then read our passage for the study:

John 5:1-14 (NKJV)

After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew, Bethesda,[a] having five porches. In these lay a great multitude of sick people, blind, lame, paralyzed, waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain time into the pool and stirred up the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the stirring of the water, was made well of whatever disease he had.[b] Now a certain man was there who had an infirmity thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he already had been in that condition a long time, He said to him, “Do you want to be made well?”

The sick man answered Him, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; but while I am coming, another steps down before me.”

Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your bed and walk.” And immediately the man was made well, took up his bed, and walked.

And that day was the Sabbath. 10 The Jews therefore said to him who was cured, “It is the Sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your bed.”

11 He answered them, “He who made me well said to me, ‘Take up your bed and walk.’”

12 Then they asked him, “Who is the Man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?” 13 But the one who was healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, a multitude being in that place. 14 Afterward Jesus found him in the temple, and said to him, “See, you have been made well. Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you.”

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In many ways the men could relate to the story. The sick man was like someone who had served a 38 year sentence. Every time the water was stirred but he missed out, it was like going before the parole board and getting denied, but then watching someone else get released.

They noticed that Jesus didn’t heal the man without his permission.

How do we answer when Jesus asks, “Do you want to be made well?”

Do we deny that anything is wrong? Do we consider ourselves doing better than others around us?

The sick man is alone and without resources: I have no man to put me into the pool”

Being alone and without resources is a situation the incarcerated can relate to.

After the man explains his circumstances Jesus does something unusual. He doesn’t tell the man he is healed. Instead Jesus treats him like someone who not only is healed, but is capable as well.

“Rise, take up your bed and walk.”

Even more surprising, the man doesn’t try to argue the point. He owns his new identity.

And immediately the man was made well, took up his bed, and walked.

Haters Gonna Hate

But the man is hassled in his recovery. Even being healed by Jesus isn’t good enough. After release these men had experienced the pressure to go back to the way they were. It was assumed that they would go back to the same places, the same patterns of using, the same destructive behaviors.

Afterward Jesus found him in the temple

There was some discussion about this. Was the man in the temple when he was being hassled? Was the church a place of criticism and shame? Or was the man at the temple to try and regain his bearings?

The men were quick to notice that Jesus said, “Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you.”

The men understood this to be like when you get a second chance – getting sent to treatment rather than prison – but if you mess that up you may end up with an even harsher sentence.

In recovery “it takes what it takes” for someone to break the cycle of denial about their addiction.  Sometimes the “worse thing” is what is needed to convince a man of his need for healing.

I reminded them that the very first thing that Jesus says when he sees the man again is:

“See, you have been made well.”

Jesus affirms his healing.

After being hassled by the world we need to be reassured of our identity, of who we are, and whose we are.

Sin no more” can only come from our identity in Christ.