Month: August 2015

God @ Work

There were 8 guys from the upper tier tonight.

When I met with this group two weeks ago one of the guys had stomped out of the room declaring that there was no such thing as a miracle and that Jesus was just a man the same as anyone else. (->Link)

That same man closed us in prayer tonight. More on that later.

God sometimes has an interesting sense of humor. I’d been praying about what scripture to do tonight. His suggestion was:

Mark 5:25-34

25 Now a certain woman had a flow of blood for twelve years, 26 and had suffered many things from many physicians. She had spent all that she had and was no better, but rather grew worse. 27 When she heard about Jesus, she came behind Him in the crowd and touched His garment. 28 For she said, “If only I may touch His clothes, I shall be made well.”

29 Immediately the fountain of her blood was dried up, and she felt in her body that she was healed of the affliction. 30 And Jesus, immediately knowing in Himself that power had gone out of Him, turned around in the crowd and said, “Who touched My clothes?”

31 But His disciples said to Him, “You see the multitude thronging You, and You say, ‘Who touched Me?’”

32 And He looked around to see her who had done this thing. 33 But the woman, fearing and trembling, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell down before Him and told Him the whole truth. 34 And He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace, and be healed of your affliction.”

So here I am leading an all male group in a study about a woman who’d had a non-stop period for 12 years.

I recalled Nancy Beach remarking at how it always seemed that she ended up preaching on the scripture passages that talked about circumcision.

So what could this group of guys (me included) learn from this story?

It turns out there are striking similarities between this woman’s situation and people who are incarcerated. Her prospects to provide for herself would have been extremely limited. She would have been ostracized by society and described as unclean. Her condition would have strained her relationship with family and friends.

In many ways the guys were in a similar situation. Finding employment would be difficult: job applications that ask if you’ve ever been convicted of a felony, gaps in employment due to incarceration. Relationships with family and friends are strained or have broken down completely.

When we looked at verse 33:

But the woman, fearing and trembling, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell down before Him and told Him the whole truth. 

One of the guys focused on “told Him the whole truth.” Each person who comes to Jesus has a story to tell. I asked each man to think about his own story.

In verse 34 Jesus says, “Go in peace.” I asked if it was possible to have peace where they were right now – even in jail.

Some of the men shared how they had found peace even in these circumstances. The man who had walked out two weeks ago said he didn’t think it was possible. He began to share his story. There is a lot of pain, disillusionment, and crushed hopes. Other men spoke words of encouragement. The prospect of a very long sentence weighed heavily on him. He asked if it was possible to have peace even if you are looking at life in prison. I talked about what one man had written after his 12th prison anniversary. (->Link) I shared how I have seen God use “lifers”, and that it is still possible to have a life with meaning, purpose and peace.

As our study drew to a close the group encouraged him to close us in prayer. The pray was simple and heartfelt. The man who had stormed out of the study two weeks earlier was now speaking openly and honestly with God.

Jesus-touched-woman-touching-Jesus-Divine-Healing

Restaurant Photos of Famous People

Restaurant Photos of Famous People

There were 14 guys from the lower tier tonight. Last January the lower tier was the more troublesome of the two tiers. After 8 months of prayer by many people across the U.S. and Canada it has become the larger and more enthusiastic Bible Study of the two tiers.

One of the guys said it was his birthday today so we sang “Happy Birthday”.

yes-famous-people-have

There was good discussion and examples on my two opening questions:

  1. Have you ever eaten at a restaurant where they had photos of famous people?
  2. Have you ever had someone use you to advance their own status and then they disrespected you?

Tonight’s study was:

Luke 7:36-50

A Sinful Woman Forgiven

36 Then one of the Pharisees asked Him to eat with him. And He went to the Pharisee’s house, and sat down to eat. 37 And behold, a woman in the city who was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at the table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of fragrant oil, 38 and stood at His feet behind Him weeping; and she began to wash His feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head; and she kissed His feet and anointed them with the fragrant oil. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he spoke to himself, saying, “This Man, if He were a prophet, would know who and what manner of woman this is who is touching Him, for she is a sinner.”

40 And Jesus answered and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.”

So he said, “Teacher, say it.”

41 “There was a certain creditor who had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 And when they had nothing with which to repay, he freely forgave them both. Tell Me, therefore, which of them will love him more?”

43 Simon answered and said, “I suppose the one whom he forgave more.”

And He said to him, “You have rightly judged.” 44 Then He turned to the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has washed My feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head.45 You gave Me no kiss, but this woman has not ceased to kiss My feet since the time I came in. 46 You did not anoint My head with oil, but this woman has anointed My feet with fragrant oil. 47 Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little.”

48 Then He said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”

49 And those who sat at the table with Him began to say to themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”

50 Then He said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”

I gave them some background how meals were served (reclining at a low table) and how an honored guest was treated (greeted with a kiss, feet washed, anointed with oil).

I asked the guys to put themselves in the place of the host, Simon the Pharisee, in the story. It appears that host had not greeted Jesus properly. We discussed why. The conclusion was that Simon wanted to be seen with all the trendy people. Having Jesus over for dinner was like restaurants that put of photos of famous people who have eaten there. They also concluded that Simon also wanted to inspect Jesus closer, perhaps to try and reveal Jesus as a fraud. Simon was really feeling superior when this unclean woman was touching Jesus thereby rendering Jesus unclean as well. But Simon gets put in his place by Jesus in verses 45 and 46.

WomanJesusFeet

Next I asked the guys to put themselves in the place of the woman in the story. It never says what her sin was, so I asked each man to take all the sin and baggage that was his own and place it on her.

There was an audible gasp in the room, and it became very quiet.

I asked them to listen to the words as though heard for the first time: “Your sins are forgiven. You faith has saved you. Go in peace.”

The guys discussed at length the peace that comes from God’s forgiveness.

The lifting of the burden.

A chance for life.

Two of the guys are facing different transitions: one will be getting released into a drug treatment program, the other is being sent to a state penitentiary to serve a ten year sentence. Each man is trusting God to see them through this next phase.

20110606_chino_state_prison_54

rehab-center

Wedding, Water, Wine, Weed

TwoBuckChuck

There were 12 guys from the upper tier of the maximum security unit who attended tonight’s Bible study.

Some of the guys attending have been there since I started leading nine months ago. One of the guys seems to have matured in his faith over that time. He is the one most likely to open or close in prayer. I almost always have one of the guys pray at the beginning and end of the study. He is also likely to offer his opinion when I ask questions about the text. It sounds like he had been to church before he was incarcerated. Now he spends a fair amount of his time reading the Bible and other religious material

Another man who has been a regular appears to becoming more hardened. He indicated that he really only reads the Bible because he is bored and there isn’t much else to read in his cell. He seems to be more and more angry the past few times I’ve seen him. More on him later.

Much like people on the outside, men who are incarcerated attend Bible Study for a variety of reasons such as:

  • A break from the boredom
  • A hope that if the CO (correctional officer) sees them attending then they will be treated better
  • Using it as proof that they are changing and should get released, or at least a lighter sentence
  • An opportunity to socialize
  • A chance to coordinate gang activity
  • A desire to draw attention to themselves
  • They are searching for a way to change the course that their life has taken
  • A desire to grow spiritually

I had been unable to participate in last week’s study since I was at an out of town wedding. That backdrop seemed to be inspiration for looking at John 2:1-11, the wedding at Cana where Jesus turns water into wine.

I know that many of the men have children. As an opening question for the text, I asked how many were married. None of them were.

Some have attended weddings so they were able to talk about what they observed. One man described it as “a boring ceremony followed by a party.”

We then read through the text.

John 2:1-12

Water Turned to Wine

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Now both Jesus and His disciples were invited to the wedding. And when they ran out of wine, the mother of Jesus said to Him, “They have no wine.”

Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does your concern have to do with Me? My hour has not yet come.”

His mother said to the servants, “Whatever He says to you, do it.

Now there were set there six water pots of stone, according to the manner of purification of the Jews, containing twenty or thirty gallons apiece. Jesus said to them, “Fill the water pots with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. And He said to them, “Draw some out now, and take it to the master of the feast.” And they took it. When the master of the feast had tasted the water that was made wine, and did not know where it came from (but the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom. 10 And he said to him, “Every man at the beginning sets out the good wine, and when the guests have well drunk, then the inferior. You have kept the good wine until now!”

11 This beginning of signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory; and His disciples believed in Him.

PrisonWIne(photo from vinography.com)

Once we finished reading the text one of the men said that he could turn water into wine. In fact in prison he had learned a number of techniques for making wine from various raw materials. Some of them men saw the phrase “on the third day” and thought it meant that Jesus had 3 days to make the wine, and that wasn’t much of a miracle. Another man said that the wine was created instantly and this was a miracle because Jesus was the Son of God.

Some of the guys thought that miracles had stopped 2000 years ago, because they never saw anything about them on the news. Others said that they had seen miracles. One man had a brother who had been prayed for and healed of deafness, another had heard of a woman with brain cancer who had been prayed for and didn’t need surgery.

The man I had mentioned earlier was becoming more and more angry. He declared that there was no such thing as a miracle and that Jesus was just a man the same as anyone else. Then he stomped out of the room. (The door happened to be unlocked this time, though frequently it is locked.)

This provided a good opportunity for some of the men to ask questions and others to offer answers to basic questions of faith:

  • Who was Jesus?
  • Was Mary made pregnant by some guy or through the power of God?
  • Why did Jesus die?
  • Was he really raised from the dead?
  • Are there still miracles?

I was able to be quiet for a few minutes while some asked questions and others offered answers.

I then drew them back to the text.

Below are some of my questions interspersed with some of their questions and comments:

Why would someone invite Jesus and the disciples to a wedding? Did they crash the wedding? Was Jesus related to the bride or groom?

Why had they run out of wine? Did somebody throw up in the punch bowl? Was the couple too poor? Did they have a lousy wedding planner?

Why was Mary concerned that there was no wine? Was she a major alcoholic? Was she the wedding planner? Why did she ask Jesus for help? Had he been turning water into wine at home?

Was Jesus being rude to his mother in verse 4? “If I talked to my momma like that she’d slap me into next Tuesday”.

Why didn’t Jesus put on a show about changing the water into wine? There’s no magic wand. He doesn’t get up on a table and call for everyone’s attention. Was he trying to save the bride and groom from humiliation, or his mother if she was the wedding planner?

How good was the wine? Was it Two-Buck-Chuck from Trader Joe’s? “Hey, I LIKE Two-Buck-Chuck!” Was it red wine or white wine? If really good wine picks up the flavor from the soil and the things that grow around it, what did this wine taste like? Did people get drunk from the wine that Jesus made?

A question that made for quite a bit of debate was, “If Jesus made wine for them, does that mean when I get out I can ask Jesus for a bag of weed and he’ll provide it?” Never once did anyone mention that marijuana was illegal. The group’s conclusion was that the wine was to help out Mary and the bridal couple, whereas the bag of weed would just be for selfish reasons.

Weed

I concluded by saying that this scripture was about God being present in the little things of life – not just in times of crisis.

The jars for washing means that beyond basic cleanliness, that this was a time to remember the priests washing before the sacrifice, and that Jesus was the sacrifice. God in the little things means an act of grace for a poor bridal couple in an obscure village.

I asked the men to consider where they could begin inviting God into the little things in their lives:

  • remembering Him as they wash their hands
  • asking God to bless family and friends
  • looking with expectation to see God’s small graces even where they are right now

HandWash

Gang Signs and Wonders

gang_hand_signs

This post is based on an email I sent out January 12, 2015.

As you may recall, I’ve been leading the Thursday night (7pm-8:30pm) Bible study in the maximum security section of the main jail.

The bad news:

I’ve noticed some sign language & hand signals during the study which I’ve been addressing and attempting to stop.

These are active gang members, and the sign language is used to coordinate gang activity.

Each gang has their own gang hand signs that they use to identify themselves and others, show allegiance to their gang or to disrespect rival gang members.

Hand signs often represent letters of the alphabet and other signs to represent a word or a phrase.

So what could they be communicating about inside the jail?

An example is that an inmate who is due for release soon is told by one of the gang leaders (via sign language) that he has to attack a particular person/business/family when he gets out. If he doesn’t then his own family will be attacked. The guy confided in a counselor that he was afraid of being released because he didn’t want to do what the gang required but he was fearful for his family if he didn’t do what the gang wanted.

The good news:

Many of the guys are genuinely interested in breaking out of the cycle of violence and incarceration. Many of they guys have already had prison time. They are desperate to hear about another way. Some of the guys are clinging to God and providing encouragement to others. All the guys are particularly interested when I talk about other former inmates whose lives have been radically transformed by God. They are hungry for good news. They are starving for hope. I recently had a red shirt (the most violent offenders) volunteer to pray out loud. The prayer was heartfelt and powerful.

From the world’s perspective these guys are lost causes and without hope.

God has another plan.

Here’s how I asked people to pray:

  • Pray for a halt to the gang communication that is taking place during the study.
  • Pray that these men would open their lives to God’s transforming power.
  • Pray for the safely of their families.

Update Eight Months Later

I still keep an eye out for sign language and side conversations. As I’ve said in other blog entries, I try to shut down side conversations while still inviting participation and discussion on the material at hand.

These gang signs and side conversations have dropped off – partly because the group knows I am watching for them, but also because of the prayer support that we receive on a regular basis.

One of the leaders who was coordinating most of the gang signs that I referenced in this post has been doing a lot of soul searching. He is hungry for change. But stepping out of that leadership role and away from the gang means he is subject to attack for being disloyal to the gang. His family may be at risk because of his choice to change.

Consider what the cost of following Jesus means to this man.

Think of a gang leader turning towards God as you read what Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in The Cost of Discipleship:

“Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: ‘Ye were bought at a price’, and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”