Month: June 2015

Communion In The Max

prison-GA-high-max-unit

1 Corinthians 11:23-26

23 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

As I’ve mentioned before, I volunteer to do weekly Bible studies in the maximum security unit of a county jail.

Actually, I only do a Bible study in one of three units in the maximum security section. The unit where I serve has limited access to programming such as Bible studies, Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, etc. Even for those events only a portion of the population may participate at any point in time. They are separated by gang affiliation such that members of rival gangs are not allowed out at the same time.

In maximum security the inmates are on lockdown for 23 hours a day. A man is let out of his cells an hour a day for shower and exercise, or for programs in one of the units. Most of the guys in max are active gang members with a history of violence.

In the other two units no programs are not allowed. There are no church services or Bible studies. With this group of men there is just too much risk of violence. In these units only one man is allowed out at any given time.

Twice a year, around Christmas and Easter, communion is offered to the men in all three of the maximum security units. For two of those units this is the only religious programming they will have all year.

There are two or three of us on a team that serves communion. When we arrive at a unit the correctional officer (CO) announces that anyone who wishes to receive communion should turn on their light. The CO will unlock a door of a single cell via remote control. The inmate will then walk from his cell to the door of the unit. The steel door is 2 inches thick with a small opening that is 3” by 3”. There is just barely enough room to pass a communion wafer to the man. After he receives communion he returns to his cell, the door is locked via remote control, and the next man is released. At no time is there ever more than one person out of his cell.

prison-cell-door

Only about 25%-30% of the men participate. Some of the guys come just to be out of their cell for a minute, but many come profoundly seeking communion – with another human being, and with God.

When the man arrives at the door we ask him if he speaks Spanish or English. In the designated language we ask his name. This is one of the few times where he will ever be referred to by his first name while he is in jail. We use his first name when serving him communion. Hearing his name spoken is incredibly powerful. It means that God knows his name. He matters to God. Friends and family may have severed all contact with him. He is isolated from all other people. But God knows his name, and the people serving communion know his name. For that brief moment there is assurance that he is not forgotten, he is not alone.

We dip the wafer in a cup of grape juice and hand it through the slot to the man, saying his name and “the body of Christ broken for you, the blood of Christ shed for you.”

As we hand him the juice-dipped wafer through the slot our fingers may touch. This may be the only human touch he will experience for weeks.

We will then pray for the man by name. It is not uncommon to see one of these men shed a tear as we pray for them. A man whose life has been filled with unspeakable pain and whose has committed acts of extreme violence is brought to tears through communion.

There is power in communion.

You matter to God. There is grace. Change is possible. There is hope.

Communion brings hope to a place where there is palpable despair.

A lay person, who had never visited a jail or prison before, was struck by the emotional and spiritual darkness of the place. This was such a contrast to all the Christmas activity that was happening on the outside. After we were done he had an overwhelming desire to just go home and hug his family.

A pastor who participated wrote the following:
I was invited to serve communion to inmates on Christmas Eve morning. The inmates I served were in the maximum security unit.

I wasn’t expecting it, but it turned out to be a very sacred moment for me. The meaningfulness of communion really hit me.

I think it is because for the most part these men live isolated lives.

  • They’re separated from their families by walls
  • They’re separated from each other by cells
  • They’re separated from the correctional officers by bars

And when I was there to serve communion they were separated from me by a door with a tiny square slot. But through that slot they were able to receive God’s grace and the invitation to belong in God’s family. The interaction was short. I asked each man his name, served him the elements, and said a short prayer.

A few of the inmates saw communion as an opportunity to simply come out of their cell and to showboat as they walked to the door. One person even tried to pass me a note; thankfully I had been briefed beforehand and knew not to take anything.

But overall, the vast majority of the men were humble and respectful. They recognized the depth of the moment. It was as much a sacred moment for them as it was for me.

Another volunteer who had worked in law enforcement for a number of years wrote the following:

I was struck by how few men actually left their cells and walked the 50 feet to the door to be prayed for and receive communion. Having freely walked into Max that Saturday morning and knowing that I would be able to walk out, I thought that everyone in the place would jump at the chance to have communion, even if to just get free of their cells for 5 minutes. I thought we would have 50% of the men coming out of their cells for the blessing to commune in some small way with the living God and be prayed for by Christians. So I was surprised when only a few men actually came for Communion.

  • Maybe it was because we don’t wear the white collar
  • Maybe because they are wrapped up in their own world inside their own cell
  • Maybe because they just don’t believe they can get forgiveness or new life from God

Anyway, I was struck by how little freedom they have and at the same time, how little they availed themselves of a freedom that was offered to them. I think we’re all like that. We build a cocoon around our lives of family and friends and home and habits and often don’t leave that cocoon unless there is something very special outside. Sometimes the Spirit is prompting us to leave the cocoon to meet with the Living God but we don’t because it doesn’t fit into our priorities for the day. But the blessing comes to those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”

I was blessed to meet with the Christians and receive Communion and be “sent out” from the jail basement. It was life-giving to see so many different faces from so many different Christian traditions come together as one band of brothers.

I have been impacted seeing the power of communion served in the darkest places of humanity. If you serve communion I encourage you to examine what a powerful event this is.

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When Things Are Turned Upside Down

There was a brief delay as they were doing a sweep of the unit. Basically this is a check from weapons and other unauthorized items. If someone is concerned they might be attacked they may try to alert the staff. In some institutions an inmate will alert the staff to the need for a sweep though a designated signal such as the handset of the payphone being placed upside down.

prison-pay-phones-upside-down

There were 17 guys from the lower tier tonight.

There was a lot of nervous energy in the room tonight. Sometimes humor is a good way to break through some of that nervous energy – that seemed to be the case tonight.

We went around and said our first name. In court they are often just referred to by their last name – Mr. Jones – or whatever. At least for the hour of the Bible Study they are known by their first name.

Lately we’ve been opening with the first verse of Amazing Grace. I’m at a loss to explain the power and importance of singing behind bars. It is life giving.

I gave them some background for tonight’s story. The setting was a man who was dealing with people he felt were moving in on his territory. He was high enough in his organization that he could write down the names of those he wanted terminated and others would carry out the actual executions. He would never do the dirty work himself so as to keep is hands clean from a legal perspective. This is a man filled with a lot of rage. But suddenly his world is turned upside down.

Acts 9:1-9

Then Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.

As he journeyed he came near Damascus, and suddenly a light shone around him from heaven. Then he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?”

And he said, “Who are You, Lord?”

Then the Lord said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.[a] It is hard for you to kick against the goads.”

So he, trembling and astonished, said, “Lord, what do You want me to do?”

Then the Lord said to him, “Arise and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

And the men who journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice but seeing no one. Then Saul arose from the ground, and when his eyes were opened he saw no one. But they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

So Saul got a blinding light and a voice from heaven – it sounded very Hollywood…

I asked why everyone didn’t get a blinding light and a voice from heaven when they were called by God. The conclusion of the group was that Saul must have been pretty stubborn and this is what it took to get his attention. For some of the men tonight, getting locked up in maximum security is what it took for God to get their attention.

In the translation we were using tonight verse 5b reads, Then the Lord said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” No one in the group knew what it meant to kick against the goads. I suggested another way to read this was, “It is hard for you when you fight against the handcuffs.” They completely understood that reference since handcuffs hurt even more if you struggle against them.

In verse 9 where it reads, “And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank.” We talked about fasting and wondered if Saul was fasting for those three days or if he was just ill. There was much discussion but little consensus. But it was a good opportunity to talk about fasting, and some of the men shared their own experiences with fasting: the purpose of fasting, different types of fasts. I told them about a group of Christians in another prison who are currently fasting and praying for a cessation of violence that they have been seeing in their prison.

Acts 9:10-19

10 Now there was a certain disciple at Damascus named Ananias; and to him the Lord said in a vision, “Ananias.”

And he said, “Here I am, Lord.”

11 So the Lord said to him, “Arise and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for one called Saul of Tarsus, for behold, he is praying. 12 And in a vision he has seen a man named Ananias coming in and putting his hand on him, so that he might receive his sight.”

13 Then Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he has done to Your saints in Jerusalem. 14 And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on Your name.”

15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel. 16 For I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name’s sake.”

17 And Ananias went his way and entered the house; and laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus,[a] who appeared to you on the road as you came, has sent me that you may receive your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 Immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he received his sight at once; and he arose and was baptized.

19 So when he had received food, he was strengthened. Then Saul spent some days with the disciples at Damascus.

We talked about what it would be like to have God ask you to go pray with the head of a rival gang, particularly if that man had been responsible for ordering the deaths of your friends or family. We talked about what kind of courage it took for Ananias to trust God and go meet and pray with Saul.

ananias saul

We took prayer requests. They guys are encouraged to know that people are praying for them. I remind them that they are not alone; they are not forgotten.

The prayer requests were as follows:

  1. For men who have a court date coming up soon
  2. For the family members of the men: for a father who is distraught that his son is in jail, for a wife who is battling depression, for young children
  3. For a sense of peace in the midst of their current circumstances
Be at Peace

Be at Peace

Notes from a Bible Study in the maximum security unit of a county jail.

Nov 27, 2014

We were on lockdown for about 35 minutes but then I was able to go in and do the study.

There were 17 guys from both upper and lower tiers — meaning guys from rival gangs were in the same room. This is highly unusual. Normally only one tier or the other is allowed to attend the study. It typically alternates each time.

Participation was good in spite of having a larger, mixed-gang crowd.

We started by looking at:

Romans 8:38-39

38 For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

These guys are on lockdown 23 hours a day. There is an overwhelming sense of isolation. Many while growing up have received messages telling them they were worthless and unlovable.

They may have committed horrendous acts of violence and depravity. They are in a system men whose spirit has been crushed are easier to manage and control. For some, the guilt of those acts whispers to them that they are beyond hope. The criminal justice system may be saying the same thing if they are in for their third strike – life in prison.

Beyond hope. Unredeemable.

But here is this message that says God’s love transcends circumstances.

We had a very frank discussion about what this means. Is God’s love only available once they are no longer incarcerated? What does it mean to be loved by God if you are serving a life sentence?

Some of the guys were able to talk about how being loved by God has made a difference even where they are now in maximum security. With God’s love comes peace even in these circumstances; even with the uncertainty of their upcoming trials.

We also looked at:

1 Thessalonians 5:12-18

12 But we beseech you, brethren, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, 13 and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. 14 And we exhort you, brethren, admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. 15 See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all.16 Rejoice always, 17 pray constantly, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

Look at those verses from the perspective of incarcerated gang members.

It seemed appropriate that the one night we had rival gangs in the same room we read, “Be at peace among yourselves.”

There was debate on whether verses 12-13 included the guards.

JailGuard

Prayers:

  • Almost every guy asked for prayers for their families. Remember that these are sons, brothers, cousins, fathers, husbands.
  • There were prayer requests for upcoming trial dates as well.

When your name is called

18-June 2015

There were 11 guys from the upper tier of the maximum security unit that came to Bible Study tonight. The group was a bit more subdued tonight.

We talked about names tonight. In this particular county when they appear before the court only their last name is used.

  • What did it mean to hear your mother call your name when you were a kid?
  • What did it mean when someone used your full name, including your middle name?
  • What were times when they were happy to hear their name called?
  • What were times when it was not a good situation to have their name called?
  • Did they ever mistakenly respond to someone who didn’t call their name?

Tonight’s script was the story of God calling Samuel. I gave them a bit of backstory. Eli was a priest. He was raising a young boy named Samuel.

1 Samuel 3:1-11Revised Standard Version (RSV)

Samuel’s Calling and Prophetic Activity

Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. And the word of the Lord was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision.At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim, so that he could not see, was lying down in his own place; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down within the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!”[a] and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. And the Lord called again, “Samuel!” and Samuel arose and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. And the Lord called Samuel again the third time. And he arose and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy.Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for thy servant hears.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

10 And the Lord came and stood forth, calling as at other times, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for thy servant hears.” 11 Then the Lord said to Samuel, “Behold, I am about to do a thing in Israel, at which the two ears of every one that hears it will tingle.

We talked about “the word of the LORD was rare in those days.” They concluded that it meant that the people weren’t very interested in God. They were all busy just trying to make a living. Nobody really talked about or even thought about God. That seemed to parallel the life many had been living on the outside.

The group discussed what it meant where it reads, “Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.” I asked why God was calling to Samuel, who didn’t know God, rather than Eli, who did know God.

One of the men explained that God was reaching out to Samuel even before Samuel knew he needed God. God wanted a relationship with Samuel. That is why He called Samuel directly rather than just speaking through Eli. It’s not just knowing about God, it is knowing and being known by God. And that God reaches out to us in the same way. Even before we know we need Him, God is calling to us. God wants to build a relationship with each of us.

The best sermons are the ones the men give to each other.

We also looked at another scripture:

Psalm 46:10

10 “Be still, and know that I am God.
    I am exalted among the nations,
    I am exalted in the earth!”

Time behind bars can pass very slowly. One of the things the men have in abundance is time to be still, wait, and listen. Now that time has purpose.

We stopped a bit earlier tonight and prayed for another inmate at a different institution. The man has two more years to go on his sentence. His 4 year old daughter was just diagnosed with cancer. Several of the men prayed out loud for this father and daughter.

The men find so much encouragement knowing that people on the outside are praying for them. Here are their prayer requests:

  1. For upcoming trial dates
  2. For their families on the outside, especially their children
  3. Prayers of thanks that there have been no violent incidents in their cell block for the past few weeks

Worry

Note: I’m going to start publishing the updates from the weekly Bible Studies that I have with the guys.

2015-06-11

We had 14 guys from the upper tier tonight. Lately some of the Muslim guys have been joining us. They participate, are respectful, and ask good questions.

I asked the guys how many had a court date coming up. A bit over half raised their hands. I asked how many were worried about it. All but one man kept their hands raised.

We discussed the difference between worry and just thinking about something. The distinguishing character of worry was: playing a future scene over and over in your mind accompanied by an undercurrent of fear.

The study was about worrying, and the alternatives. We looked at Matthew 6:25-31 and Philippians 4:4-9.

Matthew 6

Do Not Worry

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his span of life?[f]28 And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith?31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.

34 “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.

Philippians 4

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let all men know your forbearance. The Lord is at hand. Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do; and the God of peace will be with you.

Jesus talks about people worrying about clothing, food, and drink. In their current circumstances the guys have all of that provided for them – though their choices are drastically limited especially when it comes to clothing colors: red, orange, and brown.


The group decided that the worry Jesus described here referred to the fearful worry that sucked life and joy. They concluded Jesus wasn’t advocating a “don’t worry, be happy” attitude where people sit around lazily and expect things to be done for them.

They were interested in the Philippians scripture since it was written by Paul while he was in prison. A key thing they took from this scripture was transforming worry into conversations with God, and finding things to be thankful for even in their current circumstances. They liked the promise “and the peace of God which transcends human understanding, will keep constant guard over your hearts and minds as they rest in Christ Jesus” where the guard wasn’t just some guy sitting at a desk watching TV monitors. This was an active guard, a Seal Team 6 or Delta Force guard.

The words that seem to consistently impact them are, “There are 31 people praying for you each week. You are not forgotten. You are not alone. How can they pray for you this week?” That brings so much hope and encouragement to them.

The guys asked for the following:

  1. Pray for their families, particularly for the seven year old son of one man
  2. Pray that they would transform worry into opportunities for prayer
  3. Pray that their needs would be met in areas where they don’t yet know they need help