Today is Shabbat Zakhor. We have a special Torah reading and Haftarah for the Shabbat before Purim. It is the only Torah reading which, according …Purim and the Coronavirus – Shabbat Zakhor 5780
We visited the high-max unit this afternoon where many of the inmates struggle with mental illness – most commonly psychotic disorders such schizophrenia.
The National Institute of Health describes Psychosis as follows:
What is Psychosis?
The word psychosis is used to describe conditions that affect the mind, where there has been some loss of contact with reality. When someone becomes ill in this way it is called a psychotic episode. During a period of psychosis, a person’s thoughts and perceptions are disturbed and the individual may have difficulty understanding what is real and what is not. Symptoms of psychosis include delusions (false beliefs) and hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that others do not see or hear). Other symptoms include incoherent or nonsense speech, and behavior that is inappropriate for the situation. A person in a psychotic episode may also experience depression, anxiety, sleep problems, social withdrawal, lack of motivation, and difficulty functioning overall.
Sometimes the men are so lost in their alternate realities they don’t even recognize when we’ve come – instead staring blankly into the distance. A few will engage briefly in conversation but then continue their profanity-laden monologues of paranoia and conspiracies. Sometimes a man will smear feces all over the walls of his cell. The stench can be overpowering.
I met with one man today who currently believed himself to be Jesus Christ. I’ve met him other times when he is lucid. During those lucid times I’ve found him to be pleasant and intelligent.
This is a challenging unit for the correctional officers (COs) because they are never sure what they are going to encounter. Just because a man was calm and compliant the last time he was moved or checked on doesn’t mean he will be calm or in his right mind the next time. This population has a history of violence towards others and towards themselves.
Because of those risks it took ten years of negotiations with the jail administration to finally get permission to visit this unit every other week. Some might wonder why we bother. There are even days when I wonder.
The philosophy of the worlds says to invest our resources where we see a return on our investment. If we aren’t seeing the return then it is time to move on and invest our resources elsewhere.
The economy of God’s kingdom is different.
Luke 6:32-36 (NIV)
32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. 35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
As I visit these men I need to acknowledge them as created in the image of God. I need to see them with the eyes of love and compassion as Christ sees them.
Romans 5:6,8 (NIV)
6 You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly…. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
When we were mentally ill and living in a jail cell with feces-covered walls, Christ died for us.
For the past six months I’ve been meeting with the guys in one of the cell blocks. Many of the guys are gang dropouts, meaning that they had been active gang members but now no longer wish to be involved with their former gangs. Quite a few have already spent time in prison and have seen that continued involvement in the gangs ultimately leads to incarceration or death.
There tends to be lower turnover in this unit. Most of the guys currently here were also in this unit six months ago. Because of this stability the men coming to Bible Study have been learning how to become the Church for each other.
Some time back “J” was talking about how God transformed his life. He was convicted a few years ago and is currently serving a prison sentence of 25-50 years. He was back in the jail while portions of his case were on appeal and being reviewed. He went to prison as a hard-core gang member. But while he was in prison he had a cell-mate (aka as cellie) who had become a Christian while he was in prison. “J” was impressed by how peaceful his cellie was. The man patiently explained how God had transformed his life, and that God could do the same for “J”. He began attending church at the prison. The men in the church were very open and honest about their backgrounds, about how God had helped them, and about the areas where they still struggled. For about half a year “J” just sat in the background as he watched and listened. One day during church one of them men said to “J”, “you’ve heard our stories – now let’s hear about you.” As “J” began to tell his story it brought him tears and healing. He had never before had an experience like that.
At the jail “J” and some of the other men in the Bible Study shared areas where they still struggled. They shared stories of trauma that still haunted them, and they asked for healing.
You need to understand how much risk these men were taking by sharing these stories. Behind the walls information about others can be used as a tool to control someone, or to exact revenge.
By sharing with the group, they were allowing themselves to be vulnerable. They were also trusting everyone else in the group to hold on to this confidential information, and to not share it, or use it as a weapon against those who had laid bare their souls. In the weeks to come the others in the group learned that this was a place of trust and safety. They too began to share their stories, and received healing and grace. They are becoming the Church.
James 5:13-16 (NIV)
13 Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. 14 Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.
I’ve been able to bring a guitar and have the guys sing a few songs for the Tuesday night Bible Study. There is something special about the singing of the incarcerated. Songs behind the walls take on a powerful character as they become the cry of the human soul.
Holiness, holiness is what I long for
Holiness is what I need
Holiness, holiness is what You want from me
So, take my heart and form it
Take my mind and transform it
Take my will and conform it
To Yours, to Yours, oh, Lord
Occasionally I describe the background of the song. I recently introduced a song that appeared 115 years ago and written in another language, with the opening line:
Dyma Gariad fel y Moroedd
That song was accompanied by a move of God in what is now known as the Welsh Revival.
There were 14 of us gathered as we began to read through the English translation of the words:
Here is love vast as the ocean, Loving-kindness as the flood,
When the Prince of Life, our ransom, Shed for us His precious blood.
Who His love will not remember? Who can cease to sing His praise?
He can never be forgotten Throughout heav’n’s eternal days.
Before we sang the song each man first read a different verse in order to absorb the meaning of the lyrics. Men behind bars and facing the legal consequences of their crimes heard the words:
On the Mount of Crucifixion, Fountains opened deep and wide;
Through the flood-gates of God’s mercy Flowed a vast and gracious tide.
Grace and love like mighty rivers Poured incessant from above;
Heaven’s peace and perfect justice Kissed a guilty world in love.
Men who endured unimaginable suffering and were without hope now heard the words:
Here is love that conquered evil: Christ, the firstborn from the grave;
Death has failed to be found equal To the life of Him Who saves.
In the valley of our darkness Dawned His everlasting light;
Perfect love in glorious radiance Has repelled death’s hellish night.
The music of a song adds a dimension to its power and meaning. Likewise, singing as a group adds a deeper connection. Men with a shared experience of addiction, crime, abuse, and rejection were singing together. This group of Hispanic, Asian, Black, and White sang the cry of triumph:
That same love beyond all measure, Mocked and slain by hateful men,
Lives and reigns in resurrection And can never die again.
Here is love for all the ages, Radiant Sun of Heav’n He stands,
Calling home His Father’s children, Holding forth His wounded hands.
Many of the men were raised in the foster care system and were bounced from place to place – never belonging to a family or having a place to call home. Now they are encouraged as they sing, “Here is love for all the ages… Calling home His Father’s children.” There is a family, and a home for these men.
The songs knit together with our scripture study:
1 Peter 5:6-11 (NIV)
6 Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. 7 Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.
8 Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. 9 Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.
10 And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. 11 To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.
Consider those words from the perspective of someone who is incarcerated:
…because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings….
They are not alone. They are not forgotten.
Together they sing this promise:
Here is love, vast as the heavens; Countless as the stars above
Are the souls that He has ransomed, Precious daughters, treasured sons.
We are called to feast forever on a love beyond our time;
Glorious Father, Son, and Spirit Now with us are intertwined.
Take a Seat on the Throne of Mercy – Yom Kippur 5780
One of the men had his trial this week. Since coming to jail he has worked hard on overcoming his addiction and growing his faith.
He is facing serious charges.
As he was sitting in court the prosecution was pursuing all charges against him.
He was becoming anxious and was praying, “God, they are really coming down hard on me. Where are you in the courtroom?”
A still, small voice responded, “I’m not in the courtroom.”
He prayed again, “But God, they are barbequing me. Why aren’t you in the courtroom?”
“Because,” the still, small voice replied, “I am in you.”
At that moment he was filled with peace.
…because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?”