Month: September 2015

Called by Name

Roll Call

There were 12 guys from the bottom tier at tonight’s Bible Study.

Each week I normally have the guys say their first name as we go around the circle. Tonight I made it a bit more complicated. (This is always risky) I had them also say the name of the man on either side of them, as in “This is Tom, I’m Dick, and that’s Harry.” It was reasonably successful.

I then asked those that wished to share what they knew about their name: what did it mean, were there other family members who had the same name, etc. There was some good sharing. Some of the guys with unusual or ethnic names talked about the troubles that caused. One of the guys said in school he refused to answer if they pronounced his name wrong. The teacher thought there was something wrong with him. It wasn’t until his father explained to the teacher how to properly say the boy’s name that things got straightened out.

We talked about how the COs (correctional officers) always referred to them by their last name. In court they were seldom referred to by name. It was usually “the accused”, “the defendant”, or sometimes just by the case number. In the experience of these men only a friend was allowed to call you by your first name.

the defendant

We then read the first part of our study:

Isaiah 43:1-2

But now, thus says the Lord, who created you, O Jacob,
And He who formed you, O Israel:
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by your name;
You are Mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
And through the rivers, they shall not overflow you.
When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned,
Nor shall the flame scorch you.

But now…

I explained that “But now” meant a lot of bad news had been talked about up to this point. The complaints had been filed. The charges had been read. Up to this point it had all been bad new.

The Lord who created you… and He who formed you…

Created for a purpose. One man talked about how he had been born premature and had spent months in the hospital as a newborn. He wasn’t expected to survive, but he is still here. He believes he is here for a purpose. We are here for a purpose.


The best explanation was that it was like trading up: turning in something of no value for something of value. Exchanging our fear for God’s peace.

I have called you by your name;

This wasn’t an anonymous, blanket invitation. It isn’t like crashing a party. This isn’t just showing up uninvited. We were specifically invited – by name.


You are Mine.

You belong. You are selected on purpose.

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
And through the rivers, they shall not overflow you.

They could relate to the waters and the river being like the cares, concerns, and troubles that we encounter. They can overwhelm us and sweep us away. The analogies that resonated with them were: we can hold onto Jesus as we go through deep, swift waters, or we could fully depend on Him by riding on his shoulders.

When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned,
Nor shall the flame scorch you.

In the trials of life the unimportant things get burned away: material things, jobs, status. Who am I when those extraneous things are gone? Who is it that God is calling out to?

We then looked at:

Isaiah 62:1-2

For Zion’s sake I will not hold My peace,
And for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,
Until her righteousness goes forth as brightness,
And her salvation as a lamp that burns.
The Gentiles shall see your righteousness,
And all kings your glory.
You shall be called by a new name,
Which the mouth of the Lord will name.

God is doing the work. God is pursuing us.

You shall be called by a new name,

Our names, which we have tarnished and sullied, are made clean and new. The men cited some examples of people who used to be known for one thing, that God and radically transformed. It was now hard to believe that this was the same person.

A new name

Volunteering for Torture

Volunteering for Torture

There were 15 guys from the lower tier tonight. There were a few new guys.

I sensed a bit more stress with both the staff and the guys. This is also two weeks in a row I’ve noticed in the common room of the unit that the phone receiver is upside down on the hook. I don’t know if it is true here, but in some facilities that is a way for an inmate to signal to the staff that there needs to be a shakedown to check for weapons and other contraband.

My opening question was, “What is the largest amount of cash you have ever handled at one time?” The answers ranged from $1,000 to $10,000.


Our scripture tonight was the parable of the unforgiving servant.

Matthew 18:21-35

21 Then Peter came to Him and said, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?”

22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven. 23 Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made. 26 The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, ‘Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ 27 Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt.

28 “But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, ‘Pay me what you owe!’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down at his feet[a] and begged him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’[b] 30 And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt. 31 So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done. 32 Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. 33 Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?’ 34 And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him.

35 “So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.”

When asked how many times society says we should forgive someone the answer was, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” In other words, just once.

Fool Me Once

There was some discussion that if we always forgive like Jesus said, how to we keep from becoming someone’s doormat – how do we keep from enabling someone else’s addictions or other bad choices? Some people talked about forgiving, but maintaining healthy boundaries.

We talked about the large debt of the man in parable. One commentary compared it to the amount needed to run a large province or state, so we used the budget of the state of California as an example – over $100 billion dollars. When the man says he can pay it all back if given enough time his claim is clearly preposterous.

The guys had a lot of understanding of the man when he found a fellow servant and tried to shake him down for money. Yes, he had been forgiven a great debt, but what was he supposed to do to survive now?

Many of these guys have been incarcerated before and then released without having to pay a huge debt of a long prison sentence. Maybe they were “somebody” before they were locked up, but that identity had been striped away, and they were out of jail or prison, but with no money or other resources. When they were released some of them actually had gone to a friend who owed them money and forced their debtor to pay up immediately.

They completely understood this man.


The conversation shifted to the topic of unforgiveness. I asked them to think of the people who have mistreated them: perhaps it was an abusive father, an addicted and neglectful mother, people who have used them, or conned them or… Each man had no trouble conjuring up images of those who had wronged them in the past.

We talked about unforgiveness being like drinking poison in hopes that the other person would die. The other person is probably unaware of the hatred being directed towards them. The other person may not even be alive any longer.

We talked about the “torturers” being the thoughts of unforgiveness that we harbor until we are tired of holding onto them. Holding onto unforgiveness is like volunteering for torture.

When we understand how much we are forgiven we can then forgive others. Forgiveness transforms our very identity.

Some of these men are facing serious legal charges. Their crimes may dictate where they live (perhaps life in prison) but their crimes do not need to define who they are. In Christ they receive their new identity: Forgiven.


Haircuts and Thirsty Deer


There were 8 guys from the upper tier tonight. One of the regulars wasn’t at the study because he was giving haircuts. The guys have limited time they can spend outside the cell so sometimes they have to choose between getting a haircut or attending Bible Study. At another prison I volunteered at programming only happened during rec. time so they guys have to choose between, working out, getting a shower, church services, or a Bible study.

During the singing of Amazing Grace I had a coughing fit. The guys finished singing without me, but it made for a good lead-in to talking about what it felt like to get a cool drink of water when you were really thirsty. One of the men talked about going out camping and he didn’t have enough water. When he got back to civilization and was able to get a drink of water it tasted so good.


Our study tonight was:

Yearning for God in the Midst of Distresses

Psalm 42

As the deer pants for the water brooks,
So pants my soul for You, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When shall I come and appear before God?[b]
My tears have been my food day and night,
While they continually say to me,
“Where is your God?”

When I remember these things,
I pour out my soul within me.
For I used to go with the multitude;
I went with them to the house of God,
With the voice of joy and praise,
With a multitude that kept a pilgrim feast.

Why are you cast down, O my soul?
And why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him
For the help of His countenance.[c]

O my God,[d] my soul is cast down within me;
Therefore I will remember You from the land of the Jordan,
And from the heights of Hermon,
From the Hill Mizar.
Deep calls unto deep at the noise of Your waterfalls;
All Your waves and billows have gone over me.
The Lord will command His lovingkindness in the daytime,
And in the night His song shall be with me—
A prayer to the God of my life.

I will say to God my Rock,
“Why have You forgotten me?
Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?”
10 As with a breaking of my bones,
My enemies reproach me,
While they say to me all day long,
“Where is your God?”

11 Why are you cast down, O my soul?
And why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God;
For I shall yet praise Him,
The help of my countenance and my God.

I provided some background on this Psalm, that some commentaries suggest that it was written during the captivity – by someone in captivity, and for someone in captivity.


In verse 1 some of the men talked about seeing deer in the wild. They discussed what might be sources of water for the deer.

In verse 2 one of the men focused on the phrase “living God.” There were various opinions about God: a Higher Power, the energy of the universe, what it means that were are created in His image, but we don’t all look the same. The conclusion was the “living God” meant that we could have a relationship with Him. God is interactive and involved with us.

In verse 3 we dispelled the myth that Christians are happy all the time – like Ned Flanders on The Simpsons. You can be going though hard times even if you believe in God.

In verse 4 some of the guys talked about being able to pray and sing even if they are in their cell.

Verse 5 talked about hope in God and we discussed how precious hope is for each of them right now.

Verse 6 talked about home sickness – what were the paces they missed.

In verse 7 we talked about waterfalls. There are some cool ones where you can swim behind the falls and look out from behind the thundering water – deep calling to deep.


Verse 8 reminded us that God is approachable day or night.

In verse 9 we talked about sometimes feeling angry with God about our situation. God is able to handle our anger, and we are reminded that His mercy is great enough to deal with any circumstance we are in.

In verse 10 a few men talked about how their own thoughts and doubts were the “enemy” saying, “where is you God?”

Verse 11 reaffirmed the main message: even when you are feeling bad, hope in God.


By This Time There is a Stench

By This Time There is a Stench

There were 16 guys from the lower tier tonight. The group was lively – I mean that in a good way this time.

I asked about funerals and funeral customs. Most had attended a funeral. One man from the south talked about the customs of New Orleans – sad on the way to the cemetery, upbeat music walking away from the cemetery. Another man told about when his grandfather died – his grandfather wanted a mariachi band at the funeral, and the family honored his wishes. Other men talked about the confusion of emotions: sad for the loss, but the reassurance of seeing other family and friends, and perhaps comfort knowing someone’s suffering had come to an end.

Our study was the passage where Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead.

John 11:20-44

20 Now Martha, as soon as she heard that Jesus was coming, went and met Him, but Mary was sitting in the house. 21 Now Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give You.”

23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”

24 Martha said to Him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”

25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. 26 And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?”

27 She said to Him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”

28 And when she had said these things, she went her way and secretly called Mary her sister, saying, “The Teacher has come and is calling for you.” 29 As soon as she heard that, she arose quickly and came to Him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come into the town, but was[a] in the place where Martha met Him. 31 Then the Jews who were with her in the house, and comforting her, when they saw that Mary rose up quickly and went out, followed her, saying, “She is going to the tomb to weep there.”[b]

32 Then, when Mary came where Jesus was, and saw Him, she fell down at His feet, saying to Him, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.”

33 Therefore, when Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her weeping, He groaned in the spirit and was troubled. 34 And He said, “Where have you laid him?”

They said to Him, “Lord, come and see.”

35 Jesus wept. 36 Then the Jews said, “See how He loved him!”

37 And some of them said, “Could not this Man, who opened the eyes of the blind, also have kept this man from dying?”

38 Then Jesus, again groaning in Himself, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.”

Martha, the sister of him who was dead, said to Him, “Lord, by this time there is a stench, for he has been dead four days.”

40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not say to you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?” 41 Then they took away the stone from the place where the dead man was lying.[c] And Jesus lifted up His eyes and said, “Father, I thank You that You have heard Me. 42 And I know that You always hear Me, but because of the people who are standing by I said this, that they may believe that You sent Me.” 43 Now when He had said these things, He cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth!” 44 And he who had died came out bound hand and foot with grave clothes, and his face was wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Loose him, and let him go.”

The man who volunteered to read the passage put some expression into it as he read. It was quite well done and the group complimented him on it.

I asked the guys to give an overview of what the story was about. Several shared their opinions, with one man going into detail about how people were struggling with belief. They had seen Jesus perform miracles before but were confused by his delay now.

Another man asked if they were on the right track with their interpretations. I explained that each week I studied the scripture before presenting it to them. Each week I think I have a good handle on what the passage means. And much to my delight each week the guys on Thursday night give me an entirely new perspective on what I’ve been studying.

We talked about the two different ways that Mary and Martha were able to talk to Jesus. Martha met with Jesus privately and expressed her disappointment and her faith: “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give You.”

We talked about times when we were disappointed with God – times when He failed to act when WE thought He should. Where was God when…

Mary’s interaction with Jesus is in a very public setting. While others watch she falls at the feet of Jesus with the same confusion that Martha had. “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Jesus, where were you when…

We looked at verse 35: Jesus wept. I encouraged them that they too could memorize scripture, and this was an easy one to start with.

I asked why they thought Jesus wept? He was disappointed at everyone’s lack of belief, He was crying in sympathy with Mary, He was seeing how hurtful death was, He really cared about Lazarus…

“Lord, by this time there is a stench, for he has been dead four days.”

I talked about the town I grew up in: meat packing plant to the northwest, sewage treatment plant to the north, and the rendering plant to the northeast. I explained how a rendering plant dealt with animal carcasses, and the odor related to that.

How many of these men had been told their situation was hopeless? “My parole officer told me that!” Did their situation stink? Were they given up for dead?

Jesus brings hope where all hope is gone.

44 And he who had died came out bound hand and foot with grave clothes, and his face was wrapped with a cloth.

We speculated if Lazarus had to do the bunny hop to get out of the tomb, or was it more like the shackle-shuffle the guys do when they are bound hand and foot.

Jesus said to them, “Loose him, and let him go.”

Lazarus needed help as he transitioned from death to life. It’s OK to get help. It also allowed those around Lazarus to experience the reality of his change.

I reminded the men that people are praying for them on a regular basis. They are not alone. They are not forgotten.

We had an extended fellowship time after the study because they had to keep us locked in the room for a few extra minutes while a prisoner transfer was going on.