Month: July 2015


Thank you for your prayers. There were 17 guys tonight from the lower tier. It was good energy tonight: lively discussion by a number of people with very few “unsanctioned” side discussions.

Side Note:

For the past few months a bagpipe and drum squad has been practicing across the street form the jail. So when I come out of an encounter with gang bangers who are either returning or coming to the throne of Grace for the first time – I transition back to the everyday world with a pipe and drum sound track.


Back to our story…

Tonight I felt particularly anxious before going in.

I’ve been doing prison or jail ministry for nearly 16 years.

As I’ve written before, every time I go in there is a moment of apprehension. Many times there is a minute or two of abject terror. In the back of my mind I hope that there will be a lockdown or some other reason that visits are cancelled. When I enter the room, but before the guys come in, my mind is saying how foolish this is, that it is sheer lunacy to be locked in a room with these guys, that I have nothing of value for these guys.

All of that is true.

I go in any way.

God is constantly faithful to meet me in my inadequacy. Each week the guys teach me about the passages that I’ve been studying. Each week I come out of the study both exhausted and refreshed.

The irony of me being particularly anxious was that tonight’s study was on Peace.

Normally I would just use a single passage for the study. Most of the guys are not familiar with how the Bible is laid out so looking up multiple passages can be a challenge. But tonight it seemed very important that we do this topical study.

I asked for examples of what was the opposite of peace. They provided a long list: war, violence, gang attacks, being black in America, broken relationships, appearing in court, etc.

I asked for examples for phony peace. Some examples were: peace in Middle East, being high or drunk, or being a bully where everyone is afraid of you, or lying quietly on the ground because someone’s boot is on the back of your neck.

So what was an example of real peace? One man described it as being at rest while still being fully aware of your circumstances.

We then read our first passage.

Psalm 29:11

11 The Lord will give strength to His people;
The Lord will bless His people with peace.

We talked about how peace was not a sign weakness. Neither was this “peace through superior fire power.” God strengthens his people so they can face their circumstances instead of hiding, denying, or pretending.

We then looked at the words of Jesus.

John 14:25-27

25 “These things I have spoken to you while being present with you. 26 But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you. 27 Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.

“Not as the world gives.” What kind of peace does the world give? Fleeting peace. The high that wears off. Temporary peace. The mere “lack of active hostilities” is deemed peace by the world.

Some of the guys talked about how prayer and the Holy Spirit was a source of peace for them. It allowed them to find hope and peace while facing the reality of their situation.

I talked about Jesse, a man I met a number of years ago at a Prison Fellowship retreat at a prison in the Midwest. Jesse had been in for 3 months and was doing 15 years for aggravated assault. His circumstances were weighing heavily on him. He was 47 years old. No male in his family had ever lived past 55, so it was entirely likely that we would die in prison. He felt his life was over and questioned the point of going on. Another man in our group was in his late 20s and was serving life with no parole. He encourages Jesse that his life could still have meaning and purpose, even in a place like this. Jesse, who might die in prison, was given hope by another man who knew the he was going to die in prison.

There was some discussion about what to do when distracted by thoughts of rage or violence, or other negative thoughts. That was a good lead-in to the next passage.

Philippians 4:4-13

Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!

Let your gentleness be known to all men. The Lord is at hand.

Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.

Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things. The things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do, and the God of peace will be with you.

10 But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at last your care for me has flourished again; though you surely did care, but you lacked opportunity. 11 Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: 12 I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. 13 I can do all things through Christ[a]who strengthens me.

I reminded them that Paul, who wrote Philippians, wound up behind bars multiple times.

In verse 6 it used the word supplication. No one was familiar with it. I defined it as “asking”. I also explained that it wasn’t talking about the holiday Thanksgiving, but about giving thanks. So verse 6 instructs us to talk to God, ask God for our needs, and to give thanks to God for what we have.

Many of these men truly love their children, so giving thanks for their children is the easiest place for some of them to start.

“Whatever things are true” means stop listening to and telling lies about themselves. The truth is that God loves them and can help them transform their lives.

Noble means the opposite of having a boot on the back of your neck. It means being treated with dignity.

The discussion was great.

What I didn’t know was that almost half the guys had court dates coming up this next week, so they had a lot to be anxious about.

They needed this study on peace — almost as much as I did.


God in the Hole

God in the Hole

There were 11 guys from the upper tier – 6 red, 5 orange. About half the guys were new.

There was a lot of energy tonight. Someone asked me what I meant when I say there was a lot of energy. It means there were lots of side conversations, both spoken and in sign language, which I have to keep on top of. The sad fact is that sometimes activities like Bible Studies and worship services can be used as occasions to coordinate gang activities. I try to find the balance where those conversations are shut down while still encouraging the men to dialog about the passage we are studying. It also means the group frequently wants to go on lots of rabbit trail discussions. Again, I need to encourage legitimate questions without losing focus on the study.

We opened the discussion by talking about various terms for disciplinary segregation: solitary, Special Housing Unit (SHU), the hole.

Tonight’s study was in Jeremiah. I introduced Jeremiah to them by reading a few verses from chapter 38 where Jeremiah is in prison and is literally put into a hole. Even after he is released from the hole he is still in prison.

Jeremiah 38:6

So they took Jeremiah and cast him into the dungeon of Malchiah the king’s[c] son, which was in the court of the prison, and they let Jeremiah down with ropes. And in the dungeon there was no water, but mire. So Jeremiah sank in the mire.

Eventually Jeremiah is released from “the hole” but is still in prison.

Jeremiah 38:12-13

12 Then Ebed-Melech the Ethiopian said to Jeremiah, “Please put these old clothes and rags under your armpits, under the ropes.” And Jeremiah did so. 13 So they pulled Jeremiah up with ropes and lifted him out of the dungeon. And Jeremiah remained in the court of the prison.

I noted that there was interracial cooperation even in this prison setting.

We then read Jeremiah 1:4-10

Jeremiah 1:4-10

Then the word of the Lord came to me, saying:

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you;
Before you were born I sanctified you;
I ordained you a prophet to the nations.”

Then said I:

“Ah, Lord God!
Behold, I cannot speak, for I am a youth.”

But the Lord said to me:

“Do not say, ‘I am a youth,’
For you shall go to all to whom I send you,
And whatever I command you, you shall speak.
Do not be afraid of their faces,
For I am with you to deliver you,” says the Lord.

Then the Lord put forth His hand and touched my mouth, and the Lord said to me:

“Behold, I have put My words in your mouth.
10 See, I have this day set you over the nations and over the kingdoms,
To root out and to pull down,
To destroy and to throw down,
To build and to plant.”

We wondered how Jeremiah felt about those words when he was in prison. Were they a source of comfort or did they cause him to question God?

We talked about if the men felt the words applied to them – did God have a plan for them? Did God still have a plan for them even if they were behind bars?

In verse 6 Jeremiah gives the excuse that he is too young. We talked about other excuses people might give: I’m incarcerated, I’m too poor, I have anger issues, etc.

In verse 7 it talks about being afraid – stepping out in faith can be a scary thing. Change is scary.

In verse 10 it reads, “To root out and to pull down, to destroy and to throw down, to build and to plant.”

We talked about what things might need to be rooted out and pulled down in their own lives – addiction, patterns of violence, unhealthy views of sexuality. We talked about what God could help them build.

I told them about Mario (->YouTube Link) and how God was able to transform him.

Words of hope:

God knows you

God has a plan for you, even here, even now.

The Christmas Story in Jail


Notes from a study on 11-Dec-2014

Most of the guys attending do not have a Bible of their own so they use the ones that I bring with me that have already been inspected. The men can each get a Bible of their own if they fill out a request form available at the guard desk and send it to the chaplain. They cannot keep the Bibles that I bring. I also bring copies of a devotional such as Our Daily Bread which the men may take with them. As a safety precaution the pages of the devotionals are connected with fabric thread rather than staples.

For the studies we use Bibles that were donated. Most were published by the Gideons using the New King James translation. The covers have been removed prior to use in the jail setting so the cover material cannot be used to jam locks.

The officer on duty in the cell block will sometimes inspect all the material I bring in to ensure no contraband is intermixed with the Bibles and devotionals.

We had a good study tonight. We did the Christmas story from Luke 2. Some had never heard this story before, and many had never actually read it.

Luke 2

Christ Born of Mary

And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city.

Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife,[a] who was with child. So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

Glory in the Highest

Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold,[b] 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!”[c]

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[d] 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.

No one knew what manger was. I explained that it was a basically a food trough for animals.

When the savior of the world is born who is the first group to hear about it beyond Mary and Joseph? Shepherds.

I gave them some background on shepherds that I found in a commentary:

  1. “As a class shepherds had a bad reputation . . . More regrettable was their habit of confusing ‘mine’ with ‘thine’ as they moved about the country. They were considered unreliable and were not allowed to give testimony in the law courts.” (Morris)

They resonated with the fact that God entrusted the greatest message in history to a group of guys that society deemed untrustworthy.

The guys talked with a sense of wonder about how God came in human flesh, in humility, to bring salvation to us and to have relationship with us.

They asked for prayers for their families, especially the guys with children, and they asked for encouragement to talk about their faith with each other.


Jesus in Rival Gang Territory

There were 18 guys from the lower tier tonight.

We looked at the story of the “woman at the well” from John 4:1-42. Normally I don’t do that much material, but I wanted them to hear the story from beginning to end.

John 4 

Therefore, when the Lord knew that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus made and baptized more disciples than John (though Jesus Himself did not baptize, but His disciples), He left Judea and departed again to Galilee. But He needed to go through Samaria.

So He came to a city of Samaria which is called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob gave to his son Joseph. Now Jacob’s well was there. Jesus therefore, being wearied from His journey, sat thus by the well. It was about the sixth hour.

A woman of Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give Me a drink.” For His disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.

Then the woman of Samaria said to Him, “How is it that You, being a Jew, ask a drink from me, a Samaritan woman?” For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.

10 Jesus answered and said to her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.”

11 The woman said to Him, “Sir, You have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep. Where then do You get that living water? 12 Are You greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank from it himself, as well as his sons and his livestock?”

13 Jesus answered and said to her, “Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again, 14 but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life.”

15 The woman said to Him, “Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw.”

16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.”

17 The woman answered and said, “I have no husband.”

Jesus said to her, “You have well said, ‘I have no husband,’ 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; in that you spoke truly.”

19 The woman said to Him, “Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet. 20 Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, and you Jews say that in Jerusalem is the place where one ought to worship.”

21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father. 22 You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. 24 God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”

25 The woman said to Him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When He comes, He will tell us all things.”

26 Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am He.

27 And at this point His disciples came, and they marveled that He talked with a woman; yet no one said, “What do You seek?” or, “Why are You talking with her?”

28 The woman then left her waterpot, went her way into the city, and said to the men,29 “Come, see a Man who told me all things that I ever did. Could this be the Christ?”30 Then they went out of the city and came to Him.

31 In the meantime His disciples urged Him, saying, “Rabbi, eat.”

32 But He said to them, “I have food to eat of which you do not know.”

33 Therefore the disciples said to one another, “Has anyone brought Him anything to eat?”

34 Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to finish His work. 35 Do you not say, ‘There are still four months and then comes the harvest’? Behold, I say to you, lift up your eyes and look at the fields, for they are already white for harvest!36 And he who reaps receives wages, and gathers fruit for eternal life, that both he who sows and he who reaps may rejoice together. 37 For in this the saying is true: ‘One sows and another reaps.’ 38 I sent you to reap that for which you have not labored; others have labored, and you have entered into their labors.”

39 And many of the Samaritans of that city believed in Him because of the word of the woman who testified, “He told me all that I ever did.” 40 So when the Samaritans had come to Him, they urged Him to stay with them; and He stayed there two days. 41 And many more believed because of His own word.

42 Then they said to the woman, “Now we believe, not because of what you said, for we ourselves have heard Him and we know that this is indeed the Christ,[a] the Savior of the world.”

We noticed a few things:

Jesus is tired and thirsty. He who spoke galaxies into existence had now poured himself into flesh and was fully human. He understood what it was like to be human and to be in need. He understands us. He let the woman at the well know that he needed water, and she observed that he lacked the resources to get it himself. He needed her help. We can acknowledge our need for help.

The rivalry. The analogy we used was Jesus and the disciples were traveling through “rival gang” territory. But Jesus is talking to someone from the “other gang”, and the members of Jesus’ gang, the disciples, were conducting commerce as well. The lines of demarcation were being erased.

He is talking to a woman, thereby elevating her status. The ones that society would claim are second-class are the ones that Jesus lifts up.

He is talking to someone who is outcast even by her own people. Some of the guys knew what it felt like to be cut off from family, to be rejected by friends. They people they thought would visit them in jail have never come.

Hearing truth, even when it’s hard. Jesus tells her the truth about herself. He allows her to change the subject, but at some point she needs to deal with reality. Each of us needs to deal with reality.

One of the guys said the reason he hasn’t dealt with some of his broken relationships is because it’s too painful. We talked about how patient Jesus is to help us through our steps for healing.

God meeting us even when we come for the wrong reasons. At the end of the story the men talk about coming to see Jesus because of what she said, but that now they believed for themselves. We talked about how some might be coming to Bible study just to get out of their cells, but that God is still willing to meet them and transform their lives.

I asked those who were willing to look around the room and find one man that they would pray for this coming week.

Several men have court dates coming up soon. While each man would like to be released they expressed the willingness to go where God could use them, even if that was in prison.

Please ponder that.

Who of us would be willing to spend the next 12 years in prison if that is what God asked of us? I am humbled to be able to meet with these guys each week.

A Different Perspective

There are 31 people that regularly pray for the guys I meet with each week. They were an integral part of tonight’s lesson.

Tonight there were 9 guys from the upper tier: four in red and five in orange. The system uses a formula to categorize inmates based on severity of the crime, prior convictions, history of violence, etc. You might assume that those in red are the “hardened criminals” but that isn’t necessarily the case. Sometimes it is the guys in red that are the most willing to listen and to share. Don’t judge an inmate by their clothing. Don’t judge a book by its cover. And, mixing metaphors, don’t judge a person by the early chapters of his life.

As usual I had the guys go around and say their first name. At least for this hour of the week they aren’t inmate, or Mr. Smith – they are Bob, Carlos, Moses, James, …

We opened with the first verse of Amazing Grace. We have song sheets but many of the guys can sing the first verse without needing the words printed. We sing it through a couple of times so it will stay with them. How often has a song from church stayed with you throughout the week?

We talked about a change of position and a change of perspective. A friend had climbed Half Dome at Yosemite today and posted a picture form the top. Some of the guys talked about when they had climbed a mountain – the view, the fear, the exhilaration.

Half Dome, Yosemite
Half Dome, Yosemite

For our study tonight we looked at Luke 5:17-26 where Jesus forgives and heals a paralyzed man.

Luke 5:17-26

Jesus Forgives and Heals a Paralytic

17 Now it happened on a certain day, as He was teaching, that there were Pharisees and teachers of the law sitting by, who had come out of every town of Galilee, Judea, and Jerusalem. And the power of the Lord was present to heal them.[a] 18 Then behold, men brought on a bed a man who was paralyzed, whom they sought to bring in and lay before Him. 19 And when they could not find how they might bring him in, because of the crowd, they went up on the housetop and let him down with his bed through the tiling into the midst before Jesus.

20 When He saw their faith, He said to him, “Man, your sins are forgiven you.”

21 And the scribes and the Pharisees began to reason, saying, “Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?”

22 But when Jesus perceived their thoughts, He answered and said to them, “Why are you reasoning in your hearts? 23 Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Rise up and walk’? 24 But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins”—He said to the man who was paralyzed, “I say to you, arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.”

25 Immediately he rose up before them, took up what he had been lying on, and departed to his own house, glorifying God. 26 And they were all amazed, and they glorified God and were filled with fear, saying, “We have seen strange things today!”

The story starts out where those concerned with “Law enforcement” — the scribes and Pharisees — had come from all around were taking an interest in what Jesus was saying and doing. He was being watched. “the law was sitting by” The authorities were hoping that anything He might say could be used against him. Someone joked that there were probably guys in an FBI van across the street listening in on what Jesus was saying.

The second part of verse 17 reads, “And the power of the Lord was present to heal them[a]” I asked if that meant that Jesus only sometimes had power to heal? The consensus of the group was that Jesus always had the power to heal, it was just particularly evident that day.

Next a paralyzed man is brought by his friends to see Jesus, but the crowd is too thick. His friends decide to change their perspective and point of view of the situation. They climb up on the house and tear a hole in the roof and bring the man to Jesus that way. We noted a few things here:

  1. This man had friends who were willing to do extreme things because they cared for him.
  2. Apparently no one tried to stop them even though they were “breaking and entering”. At least the crowd in the house must have been supportive of what they were doing.
  3. While they were tearing apart the roof debris was probably falling on the people below, including Jesus. Jesus was willing to be interrupted.

When Jesus saw their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.”

The faith of the man’s friends made a difference. I reminded them that 31 people were praying for them each week. They are not alone. They are not forgotten. People from a different perspective and point of view were laying them before the feet of Jesus.

The men who tore the hole in the roof to help their friend weren’t afraid to interrupt Jesus. The people who pray for them each week aren’t afraid to interrupt Jesus to lay the men in maximum security before the feet of Jesus. Jesus is willing to be interrupted.

We talked about why forgiveness was important. I could tell that this was very important to some of the men. They needed to hear that forgiveness was possible.

We also talked about the worldview that saw poverty and handicap as a sign of God’s judgment whereas prosperity and health are seen as a sign of God’s blessing. Jesus turns that view on its head as a man who the people saw as unworthy was now forgiven and healed.

There was a fair amount of discussion about verse 26. And they were all amazed, and they glorified God and were filled with fear, saying, “We have seen strange things today!”

The crowd starts with God being glorified, but then they back pedal to fear – was this a mixture of awe and being scared? It finally is categorized as “strange”. We talked about the challenges that their friends and family may have when a man has been radically transformed by God’s grace. It may be met with fear and doubt. One man was encountering that now. His wife was devastated when he was arrested. She is now having a hard time believing that he has changed, and rightfully so, since many of the men have started out transformed but have ended up back behind bars.

I spent a few minutes after the study listening to one of the men share his story. This has been a hard journey and he is sealing with depression.

Prayer requests:

  • For their families, particularly for wives and children
  • For them to accept the forgiveness that God makes available to them
  • For a lasting change in their lives