Prayers Behind Bars

The prayers that I hear behind the walls are often not the prayers that people on the outside would expect to hear. People on the outside assume that most of the prayers would be, “Lord, let the court find me innocent and drop all charges.” Sometimes, actually rarely, that prayer is prayed, but not as often as you would expect. I’ve learned to pay attention, with open eyes and open ears, to the men that are praying.

I noticed three things from the prayers last Tuesday night.

A Lack of Entitlement

Prayers of the church behind the walls comes from a place of humility. A phrase which is have heard frequently behind bars is, “we thank You for this day which we were not promised.” Would I be thanking God for the day if I were incarcerated, or would my prayer begin with a lament for not receiving the things I felt I had coming?


A Sense of Identity

One of the men prayed, “Lord, we thank you that we are the jewels in Your crown.”


What makes that statement so striking is that these men throughout life have been told how worthless they are.

  • “You’ll never amount to anything.”
  • “No one could ever love you.”
  • “I wish you’d never been born.”

They have been given a new identity: Jewels in the Savior’s crown.

Praying For Things We Dare Not Pray

Churches on the outside are afraid to ask for the things I have heard these men pray for — prayers that I’ve only heard of from missionaries in places where the church is persecuted.

In order to understand the depth of this prayer you need to understand that all of these men are survivors of trauma. They have walked through suffering in deep and profound ways. It would be difficult for most of us to understand the physical, mental, and spiritual suffering these men have already experienced.

With that in mind, consider the power of the prayer, “Lord, let us suffer for You.”

When was the last time you heard the church outside the walls invite suffering in the name of the Lord? Yet this is a recurring prayer behind the walls.

“Suffering is nothing by itself.
But suffering shared with the passion of Christ is a wonderful gift, the most beautiful gift, a token of love.”
– Mother Teresa



Seeking the Living Among the Dead

We served Easter Communion on the Saturday morning before Easter. I appreciate this time because it is one of the few occasions where we can go into the high maximum-security units where normally there is no programming. These men are on lockdown as much as 23 hours a day.

Two of us enter the unit and either move cell-to-cell, or sometimes a man may exit his cell to receive communion at the cell block door. In a place where he is never called by his first name, we ask his name, and ask how we can pray for him. Usually the request is for their family members, as many have young children. They will ask for prayers regarding their upcoming court cases. Often as not they will also request prayer for the other men in the unit.

High-max also houses overflow from the mental health unit. The confluence of the message of hope meeting up with those who have experienced, and in some cases been the perpetrators of unspeakable violence and tragedy leads to some interesting experiences. In one of the units a man was loudly shouting out a string of profanities in his cell while we were serving communion through the small slot of other mens’ cell doors. Rage and anguish as the backdrop for the words “the body of Christ broken for you, the blood of Christ shed for the forgiveness of sins.”

This becomes another experience of seeking the living among the dead. There, among those steeped in despair and violence, comes a message of hope — new life in the most unlikely places.


Luke 24:1-12  (NKJV)

24 Now on the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they, and certain other women with them, came to the tomb bringing the spices which they had prepared. But they found the stone rolled away from the tomb. Then they went in and did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. And it happened, as they were greatly perplexed about this, that behold, two men stood by them in shining garments. Then, as they were afraid and bowed their faces to the earth, they said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen! Remember how He spoke to you when He was still in Galilee, saying, ‘The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.’ ”

And they remembered His words. Then they returned from the tomb and told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them, who told these things to the apostles. 11 And their words seemed to them like idle tales, and they did not believe them. 12 But Peter arose and ran to the tomb; and stooping down, he saw the linen cloths lying by themselves; and he departed, marveling to himself at what had happened.



I Can’t Do This Alone

Because of changes in security policies I’ve switched from facilitating Bible studies in the maximum-security unit and now serve in the protective custody unit. I’ve been intentional about not writing blogs because the guys in protective custody are a more vulnerable population.

Unfortunately, that means I haven’t been updating my prayer support group for quite some time now. This past week exemplified what happens when I go in without prayer support. The study did not go well. But in retrospect things have been degrading for a while. Ironically, even as I was facilitating Bible studies on the importance of living in community I was failing to update and connect with my own extended support group.

I cannot do this alone.

I don’t mean to imply that I was leading the Bible study solo. One of the other chaplains is in there with me most weeks. But rather, I was, am, and will be, in need of the men and women who support me, and the men in jail, with their prayers.

Prayer support is critical preparation.

Imagine trying to:

  • do a craft project with no supplies
  • make a meal with no cooking utensils
  • do woodworking with no tools or machines
  • play in a symphony with no music

Trying to facilitate a Bible study in jail without adequate prayer support can be just as frustrating as the examples mentioned above. I need the prayer support of others. We are in this together.

I Cor 12:12-20,26-27

Unity and Diversity in the Body

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.




A Sermon Given on the First Sunday of Lent: Luke 4: 1-13

Boasts and Befuddlements

The following are notes from a sermon given at the 8:30, 9:30 and 11am services at an Episcopal Church:

(Brief introduction and thanks.)

This morning I wanted to share with you some

Lenten reflections on The Temptations of Jesus.

Please pray with me….

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts always be acceptable to you Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

This Sunday is the First Sunday of Lent.

Lent is a season in the church calendar when we remember Christ’s time in the wilderness.

Lent runs from Ash Wednesday (this past Wednesday) to Easter Sunday.

It is a time of fasting and prayer.

Often times people will give up things such as chocolate or bread

or they’ll take on a discipline such as committing to reading the Bible more diligently

Or this year, I’ve heard of people cutting down on plastic consumption.

By focusing…

View original post 1,395 more words

Christmas Communion 2018

Twice a year, as Christmas and Easter, we go into the entire jail to serve communion.  The main jail chaplain and served communion in the maximum security and high-max units. What I appreciate about these times is that we are allowed to go to the high-max units that normally have no contact. One correctional officer explained that high-max is being used as overflow for the mental health unit.  Men who are too dangerous and unpredictable to stay in the mental health unit were sent to high max. These men are typically alone in their cell for 23 hours a day — often alone with only the voices that are tormenting them.


In the maximum-security unit when we come any men who are out for their rec. time are sent back to their cell. From the control center one of the guards will contact each cell through the intercom and ask if they want to participate in communion. If they do then the guard in the control center electronically opens the cell door and the man walks out of his cell to the main door of the unit. Through a small slot in the door we ask the man’s name. In a place where a person’s identity can be stripped away this is a moment where their humanity is recognized. The God of the universe calls them by name to participate: “This is my body which is for you, do this in remembrance of me.  This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.” For a brief moment that door, which is designed to separate them from freedom, becomes a holy place where the gift of forgiveness and restoration is remembered.


After we finished in the maximum-security unit we went to high-max.

We waited for about 20-30 minutes because one of the men in high-max was having a mental health crisis. This is a risky situation. Earlier in the week 5 guards were injured by a single inmate in high-max. Consider where the gospel of Mark records, ”…and no one could bind him anymore, not even a chain. For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him.”


As we waited that morning the correctional officers were eventually able to get the man calmed down and were moving him to a different area. The head chaplain knew the man and was able to briefly speak to him.

In the high-max units, rather than the men coming out of their cells, we instead go into the unit and go cell-to-cell. The correctional officer who accompanied us in the unit was very respectful and supportive of what we were doing. I actually prefer this. Men to participate who normally would be reluctant to leave their cell. Symbolically it brings communion to where they live. For some men this extended isolation is soul-crushing. While in the unit we would occasionally hear cries that sounded more animal than human.

Other men in the unit have found a way to adapt. One of the men had used crayons and covered the walls and ceiling of his cell with his artwork. He had transformed his cell into a chapel and a place of worship.


A Whisper Across My Heart

I was a substitute Bible Study leader in the mental health unit at the county jail. I knew some of the guys, and some of the staff too, from my time in the maximum-security unit. The guys in the mental health unit have a lot more latitude to enter and leave the room where we are holding the study. Therefore, the group size ranged from 7 to 13 people.


My opening question was, “can you describe a time when you were afraid, and running for your life?” Those that shared said that is exactly what was happening just before they got locked up.

We read a passage about a man who was wanted by the government, who was afraid, and running for his life.

1 Kings 19:3-13 (NIV)

Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.”Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep.

All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again.

The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. There he went into a cave and spent the night.

And the word of the Lord came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

10 He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”

11 The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”


Reflections from a Mental Health Unit

The scripture opens with, “Elijah was afraid and ran for his life.” Every man in that room had a visceral memory of what it was like to be afraid and running for his life. They could pull up that memory instantly.


Next we read “he left his servant there.” He was alone. Perhaps he felt he could no longer trust those closest to him. These men understood that feeling.

And then, “while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness.” Alone and in an unfamiliar place – perhaps a dangerous place – and certainly lacking the comforts of home. That could well describe being in jail.

“… and prayed that he might die. ‘I have had enough, Lord,’ he said. ‘Take my life…’“ Again, the scripture moves from an intellectual exercise to a deep memory of times of hopelessness. But even in this there is comfort because this powerful prophet of God wrestled with the same feelings of despair that these men felt.

“Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” The guys thought this might mean he came from a family with generations of despair, abuse, violence, or even addictions. Certainly that was the case for some of these men.


But God doesn’t abandon him there. What the group saw was that his very basic needs were being taken care of. The first being sleep.

“Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep.”

He was exhausted. I’ve known people who have been on Crystal Meth binges where they have neither eaten nor slept for 3 straight days. One of their most critical needs was sleep.


All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again.

Elijah also needed food and water. Many of these men in the past have been released from jail but did not have a place to sleep, or food to eat. Even access to safe drinking water can be a challenge if you have no home and no money. They agreed that people make poor decisions when they were tired, hungry, and thirsty.

Open questions: Who baked the bread, and who brought the jug of water, and why?

The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” So he got up and ate and drank.

This time, while dealing with the basic needs, encouragement grounded in reality begins. There is a tough journey ahead. Several of the men in the group were waiting for an opening in a drug rehab program – there is a tough journey ahead of them.


And the word of the Lord came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

For each of the men in the unit there is this direct question: “What are you doing here?” or perhaps, “Why are you here in jail?” This might seem a shaming question, but we see that even in Elijah fear and running, God is still speaking to him. In the deepest wilderness he is not abandoned by God.

There is nowhere that God is not. He is present even in times or terror, or despair, when we are otherwise all alone.

He is there

The questions, “what are you doing here?” also has an existential aspect to it. What are we doing here on this earth? What are we doing with this life, with this time that has been granted up?

Elijah gives a well-rehearsed response which doesn’t really answer either the direct nor the existential question.

10 He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”

The structure of his answer is “I, they, I, they”, but the question was “what are you doing here?”

Yet God takes Elijah where he is at, and God gives him a gift. Perhaps Elijah was expecting another big Hollywood production like fire coming down from heaven.

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.

Power that exceeded winds, earthquakes, and fires, was in the whisper.

What does the voice of God sound like?










Man of the Tombs

From time to time I’ve met with men in jail or prison who have had struggles with mental illness — depression, bi-polar, schizophrenia. Probably six years of my weekly visits were with men who heard voices. Some chose medication to help them deal with it, others did not.

At times I’ve met with men who were having  a major mental health crisis. In those times I am keenly aware of my own inadequacy.

  • I can listen
  • I can speak words of comfort
  • I can pray
  • I can let the staff know if someone is expressing thoughts of harming themselves


But ultimately my own abilities are quite limited. These interactions can be quite unsettling. At times like that I take comfort in the song lyrics written by Bob Bennett.

I invite you to read through the lyrics and think of the men and women who are incarcerated and struggle with mental illness.


Words & Music: Bob Bennett, © 1989 Matters Of The Heart Music (ASCAP)
Man of the tombs
He lives in a place where no one goes
And he tears at himself
And lives with a pain that no one knows
He counts himself dead among the living
He knows no mercy and no forgiving
Deep in the night he’s driven to cry out loud
Can you hear him cry out loud?
Man of the tombs
Possessed by an unseen enemy
He breaks every chain
And mistakes his freedom for being free
Shame and shamelessness equally there
Like a random toss of a coin in the air
Man of the tombs, he’s driven to cry out loud
Underneath this thing that I’ve become
A fading memory of flesh and blood
I curse the womb, I bless the grave
I’ve lost my heart, I cannot be saved
Like those who fear me, I’m afraid
Like those I’ve hurt, I can feel pain
Naked now before my sin
And these stones that cut against my skin
Some try to touch me, but no one can
For man of the tombs I am
Down at the shoreline
Two sets of footprints meet
One voice is screaming
Other voice begins to speak
In only a moment and only a word
The evil departs like a thundering herd
Man of the tombs, he hears this cry out loud
Underneath this thing that you’ve become
I see a man of flesh and blood
I give you life beyond the grave
I heal your heart, I come to save
No need to fear, be not afraid
This Man of Sorrows knows your pain
I come to take away your sin
And bear it’s marks upon My skin
When no one can touch you, still I can
For Son of God I am
Dressed now and seated
Clean in spirit and healthy of mind
Man of the tombs
He begs to follow, but must stay behind
He’ll return to has family with stories to tell
Of mercy and madness, of heaven and hell
Man of the tombs, soon he will cry out loud
Underneath this thing that I once was
Now I’m a man of flesh and blood
I have a life beyond the grave
I found my heart, I can now be saved
No need to fear, I am not afraid
This Man of sorrows took my pain
He comes to take away our sin
And bear it’s marks upon His skin
I’m telling you this story because
Man of the tombs I was