Month: January 2016

Liars and Thieves

There were 13 guys from the upper tier of maximum security tonight. We went around and each man said his first name. First names are used so rarely


We talked about lying. Why do people lie?

  • to protect themselves
  • to try and gain power or control
  • to make themselves look better
  • to avoid consequences

Apparently dogs can lie. I recently saw an expert trainer with many decades of experience working with a dog. He was training the dog not to go after food until the trainer gave permission. The trainer had put some liver snacks on the ground in front of the dog. He would correct the dog whenever it went near the treats. After a bit the dog started coughing and lowering its head. The trainer corrected the dog and it stopped coughing. I asked why he had corrected the dog for coughing. Apparently dogs will fake a cough in order to lower their head and steal a treat.

Here’s another example. A veterinarian was trimming the toenails of a basset hound. Every time he clipped a nail the dog would howl as though he was being tortured. The vet then showed the owner how the dog was faking it. While holding the clippers over a foot away from the dog he clicked them and again the dog let out a horrible noise as though harpooned even though he wasn’t even being touched. Perhaps the basset hound should have been nominated for an Oscar for his performance.


I gave some context for the scripture passage – when you become a Christian how is your life different on a daily level? Paul, writing while incarcerated, tells us this…

Ephesians 4:25-32 (NKJV)

25 Therefore, putting away lying, “Let each one of you speak truth with his neighbor,”[a] for we are members of one another. 26 “Be angry, and do not sin”:[b] do not let the sun go down on your wrath, 27 nor give place to the devil. 28 Let him who stole steal no longer, but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need. 29 Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. 32 And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.


We talked about some of the lies we have come to believe about ourselves:

  • You’ll never amount to anything
  • You are worthless
  • You just can’t control yourself
  • There is nothing you can do to change

I talked about a 6th grade teacher that said I’d never make it though junior high.

If we put away lying, what truth do we use to replace it? I offered the following:

  • You are created in God’s image
  • You are loved and forgiven by God

How does that message change our outlook as we start the day, or find ourselves struggling with life’s problems? Would you find it encouraging if someone reminded you of those truths? It gave the guys food for thought.


“Let each one of you speak truth with his neighbor,” for we are members of one another. 

I asked who was their neighbor. They pointed to the other guys in the room or mentioned their cellie (cell mate). I asked if neighbor included the COs (correctional officers) and one of the guys shouted out, “F*#k no!” I guess he felt like he didn’t need to lie about his feelings.

Be angry, and do not sin

It was surprising to them that anger might still be part of the Christian life. William Barclay’s commentary says, “There must be anger in the Christian life, but it must be the right kind of anger.”

First we talked about the wrong kinds of anger. Some of these guys have anger management issues. Something sets them off and they are acting entirely on emotion and adrenaline. This is the short-fuse anger. Another type of wrong anger is the one where someone just stuffs and stuffs their feelings and puts on a happy face until finally they explode all over whoever happens to be in the area.


There is a righteous anger when it comes to injustice, oppression, or where people are being wronged. God doesn’t want us to be oblivious to these things. Oftentimes it starts with seeing those behaviors within ourselves and dealing with them.

Do not let the sun go down on your wrath

We talked about practical ways to do that even while behind bars. What do you do with anger at the end of each day? Several of the guys suggested that praying to God about it was a good plan.

Let him who stole steal no longer

I told about a guy I frequently visited in prison. One day he was quite upset. He was housed in a lower security unit – basically it was a gymnasium filled with bunk beds and housed about 100 guys barracks-style. Each man had a footlocker they could use for storing valuables. He said he had a $5 bill that he put under his pillow rather than in his footlocker as he went to shower. When he came back the money was gone and he was angry about it. I knew he had been in prison for 3 years and that the inmates were not paid in cash, so I asked him how it was that he had a $5 bill. He was suddenly very vague about its origin. Apparently he was bothered about theft only when he was the victim.

1969 5 Dollar star note

We talked about employment options on the outside. If all you have known is stealing, drug-dealing, or other gang activities what are your options? One guy said he was really good at handling guns, but now as a convicted felon he would not be able to own or use them. I talked about what I had seen some guys do for careers on the outside I talked about they guy who started Big House Beans.

There are even fewer choices while in prison. I’ve known guys who were at a prison that had 1200 guys, but there were only jobs for 700 of them. What do you do if there is no job? This scripture doesn’t say the work is in order to support yourself.

that he may have something to give him who has need

The idea is that you are able to help someone who has a need. I’ve known guys who became skilled at chess, cribbage, or scrabble. Sometimes the “gift” is just helping someone pass the time as they serve out their sentence.

chess cells

Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth

There was some discussion about what the word “corrupt” meant in this context. The guys preferred to think of this as saying “don’t build yourself up at the expense of others.” This dovetailed with the part of the verse, “but what is good for necessary edification”. No one knew what edification meant, but when I explained it meant to instruct someone in order to improve them, that seemed to make sense with the first part of the verse.

Grace: They knew if wasn’t like a graceful dancer or athlete. Substituting the phrase, “God’s love and mercy” seemed to work.

And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God

Don’t give God grief.


all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking

They have heard guys who were getting locked up, (including themselves) that were demonstrating all those things.

And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.

I’ve heard other inmate say that it takes the most courage to be kind and tenderhearted while behind bars.



Workers Outside of Home Depot


I was out this week so another volunteer led the group. Below are his observations:

There were 11 men tonight.

Things went well tonight.  They loosened up after they saw that I laughed at some of their jokes.  They thought that some of things I said were hysterical.  I didn’t expect them to loosen up so quickly.
We did the bible study of the parable of the vineyard workers, using mutual invitation, and read it twice out loud.

The first time I asked them to pay attention to a key word that stuck out.

Matthew 20:1-16 (NKJV)

The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard

20 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. Now when he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did likewise. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing idle, and said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right you will receive.’

“So when evening had come, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, ‘Call the laborers and give them their wages, beginning with the last to the first.’ And when those came who were hired about the eleventh hour, they each received a denarius. 10 But when the first came, they supposed that they would receive more; and they likewise received each a denarius. 11 And when they had received it, they complained against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last men have worked only one hour, and you made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the heat of the day.’ 13 But he answered one of them and said, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what is yours and go your way. I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. 15 Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things? Or is your eye evil because I am good?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few chosen.”


The second time we read it, I asked them to look for where they saw God in the parable.

Many of them understood the passage pretty well, and they have an understanding of Grace and gifts, and were able to verbalize it without prompting.

We had an extended conversation about picking up workers as a contractor at Home Depot, and how fast someone could perform a job.
They asked for prayers for their families, for forgiveness, and a lot of them prayed for the other men.  One man prayed for a long time, asking for innocent persons to be found not-guilty and for guilty persons to have mercy extended to them.

We sang a song called Sanctuary, and Amazing Grace.

It was special for me to see their hope and optimism in the jail.



Compassion For Your Jailer

There were 24 men from both the upper and lower tier of the maximum security unit at the Thursday night Bible study.

Yes, both tiers at the same time.


As you may recall inmates are housed separately based on gang affiliation. The idea is to keep rival gangs separate. But the corrections officer (CO) was new to the unit. He asked me how I ran the Bible study and I explained. I didn’t mention that only the upper or lower tier participated at any given time. So while I was setting up he had both tiers hit their lights to signal if they wanted to participate: 24 guys came.

In spite of the mix of the two groups the guys were all well behaved. There weren’t enough chairs so five guys ended up standing during the hour-long study.

Ponder this: rivals gang members peacefully studying the Bible together.


My opening question was about earthquakes; what had they personally experienced. Some of the guys were old enough to remember either the Loma Prieta quake in 1989, or the Northridge quake in 1994. There was some discussion about what to do in an earthquake. I asked what they would do if an earthquake forced open all the doors in the facility. Some said they would make a run for it. Others said they would stay put and not risk having to spend more time.


My other question was about sounds in the jail at night – what did they hear. For a while there had been someone in the unit who would wake up screaming with night terrors. It was loud enough that it woke the entire unit. Now mostly they hear heater noises, or the sounds of the heavy doors to the units as the COs move through their rounds.

We then read our scripture.

Acts 16:23-36 (NKJV)

23 And when they had laid many stripes on them, they threw them into prison, commanding the jailer to keep them securely. 24 Having received such a charge, he put them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks.

25 But at midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 26 Suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were loosed. 27 And the keeper of the prison, awaking from sleep and seeing the prison doors open, supposing the prisoners had fled, drew his sword and was about to kill himself. 28 But Paul called with a loud voice, saying, “Do yourself no harm, for we are all here.”

29 Then he called for a light, ran in, and fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 And he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

31 So they said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32 Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33 And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their stripes. And immediately he and all his family were baptized. 34 Now when he had brought them into his house, he set food before them; and he rejoiced, having believed in God with all his household.

35 And when it was day, the magistrates sent the officers, saying, “Let those men go.”

36 So the keeper of the prison reported these words to Paul, saying, “The magistrates have sent to let you go. Now therefore depart, and go in peace.”


Explaining the story in their own words:

Paul and Silas were beaten and locked up. In spite of that they were singing at midnight when a big earthquake hit. All the doors popped open and the anchors for their shackles came loose. The CO thought everyone had escaped and was about to commit suicide. Paul told the CO to stop, that everything was OK. The CO asked Paul and Silas what he needed to do to be saved. Paul told him to believe in Jesus. The CO and believed and so did his family. He took Paul and Silas home and washed the wounds that they had received from when they were whipped. The next day the judges said they could go.

Why were Paul and Silas singing?

Answers were:

  • Because it hurt too much to sleep, so this is how they dealt with the pain
  • They wanted the other prisoners to hear about Jesus
  • They did it to encourage themselves
  • Sometimes you just gotta sing

Why did the CO try to kill himself?

Answers were:

  • Because he was afraid that the prisoners were going to kill him — better to go out by your own hand
  • Because he had failed his duty, it was a shame to let the prisoners escape so this was the honorable way out

I explained that the jailer had to serve the sentence of any and all men who escaped under his watch, be it 5 years, life in prison, or even a death sentence. (Barclay’s Daily Study Bible)

How did Paul react to his jailer?

  • He showed compassion

Understand that many inmates view the COs as adversaries, as the enemy. They have a hard time even seeing the guards as people, as human beings. Paul showing compassion to his jailer was a real confrontation to them. Would they show compassion to their own jailers or would they try and take advantage of the situation?

They talked about how Jesus was in jail. He was mistreated by his guards. Jesus shared a title in common with all the men at that study: inmate. Rather than being brought low by His jailers He showed how a life transformed by the Spirit responds. Jesus responded with love and compassion and He invites us to do the same.


Why did the CO ask about being saved?

  • He had just faced death and knew something in his life was lacking
  • He saw something powerful in Paul and Silas

Does being saved mean all your troubles go away, that no one will mistreat you? Is it a “get out of jail free” card? Clearly not. In fact, for believers like Paul and Silas it meant that they would go to jail.

One man asked how to avoid responding in anger, because that is what has landed him in jail.

Several other men shared how their faith has sustained them even in hard times; to make the choice to not respond in anger, but instead to show patience.

Why did Paul mention the CO’s family?

Answers were:

  • Family is important
  • Paul knew the CO’s family needed help too

For some of these guys family is their connection back to their own humanity. It is what keeps them holding on each day, and trying to turn around.

One of the guys had received some tough news this week. He had accepted a plea bargain which meant he would serve a 12 year sentence. He has a wife and a seven year old son. (you do the math) This is weighing heavily on him and has shaken his faith. The other men are encouraging him as best they can.

What was the evidence the CO had gotten saved?

Answers were:

  • He treated Paul and Silas with respect
  • He showed compassion by washing their wounds
  • He showed hospitality by inviting the men into his home

Salvation demonstrates itself through changed actions.


Lost & Caught or Lost & Found?

There were 9 guys from the lower tier of the maximum security unit at Thursday night’s Bible Study. It had been about a month since I last met with the lower tier. Three of the nine guys were new. When we went around the circle saying our first names one of the new guys was a bit reluctant to give his real name. I’ve seen this before. Trust is not automatically assumed particularly in an environment where “anything you say can and will be used against you”.


I asked about things that get lost – which ones are worth looking for, and which ones aren’t. One man deemed Bic lighters as items not worthy of a very intense search since they were inexpensive, easily replaced, and were quickly used up. Another man had lost his car keys while on a 4 hour hike and had to retrace most of his trail until he found the keys. My mother had a penchant for losing car keys. Whether she arrived somewhere one time – or even at all – was predicated on her ability to find the car keys. Ultimately her solution was to use a long chain and attach the keys to her purse, since the purse was easier to find.


When they were young I took my children and one of there friends to a large zoo. At one point I looked down and the kid’s friend was missing. How do you explain to a mother that you’ve lost her child? I searched frantically for her and eventually found her in another group. The terror and subsequent relief were profound.

We talked about the difference between found and being caught. Being caught usually had some sense of guilt attached to it because you had done something wrong, i.e. being caught by your mom, or the teacher, or the police. Begin found had a sense of joy associated with it.


For our scripture we looked at:

Luke 15:1-7 (NKJV)

The Parable of the Lost Sheep

15 Then all the tax collectors and the sinners drew near to Him to hear Him. And the Pharisees and scribes complained, saying, “This Man receives sinners and eats with them.” So He spoke this parable to them, saying:

“What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’ I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance.

I gave some explanation since many of these men have no church background. I explained that tax collectors were looked down upon because collected money for the Romans who were occupying the country, and they made their money by overcharging people for the taxes they collected.

The Pharisees and scribes were people in power who tended to look down on everyone else. They had a saying: “There will be joy in heaven over one sinner who is obliterated before God.” (Barclay’s Commentary) They seem irritated that Jesus is hanging out with ordinary people.

Shepherds were responsible for watching the sheep. But the grazing land was rugged and the sheep would spread out in search of food. It was possible for sheep to wander off and not be able to find their way back. Shepherds were not trusted. If a sheep was lost the shepherd must at least bring home the fleece to show how it had died. (Barclay)

We talked about how people had trouble trusting God and demanded God prove himself in various ways.

One of the men who has been coming for a while began asking some hard questions that he has been struggling with.

How am I supposed to apply this to my life?

Have you seen God do this for other people?

Was it only for people who are lifers or does it apply to people who get out of prison?

If I give my life to God does that mean I won’t have to spend time in prison? (He is facing some pretty serious charges) If not, what is the point of believing in God?

Some of the other men respond, and I try to answer as best I can, but I feel really inadequate. Later that evening I think of various ways I could have given better answers.

Perhaps that is just as well.

I don’t want him convinced by my own eloquence. Transformation in his life needs to be a work of the Spirit.

The pain in these men’s lives can be overwhelming.

Ephesians 6:12-13 (NRSV)

12 For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.




Lamenting in the New Year

I’ve noticed that sometimes God has a peculiar sense of humor. As I was preparing for tonight’s study I was trying to think of happy, encouraging scriptures. “Look at Lamentations”, said a still small voice. “A fragment of underdone potato”, I thought to myself. An old scripture chorus kept running through my head:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases
His mercies never some to an end
They are new every morning, new every morning
Great is Thy faithfulness O Lord.
Great is Thy faithfulness!


Hmm, I thought to myself, I wonder where that is found in the Bible. A quick Google search later:

Lamentations 3:22-23 (RSV)

22 The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,[a]
his mercies never come to an end;
23 they are new every morning;
great is thy faithfulness.

So tonight’s study was from everyone’s favorite feel-good book of the Bible — Lamentations.


The first guy to enter the room was one of the regulars who has been pretty consistent in growing his faith and encouraging others. In the few moments before anyone else entered the room he indicated that it had been a pretty tough week. A petition of his that had gone to a higher court had been rejected. That met his case was going to trial soon. This was scary and discouraging for him and has shaken his faith since he is potentially looking at a long sentence.

As the other guys entered the room they, likewise, seemed rather subdued. Apparently “in jail” was not high on their list of places they’d like to be on New Year’s Eve.


There were 11 guys from the upper tier of maximum security at tonight’s Bible study.

We talked a bit about what they had done on previous New Years. “Blacked out” was a common theme. I talked about a New Years a while back at a prison in the Midwest. The cell block in this 1800s era prison was 3 stories tall with bars rather than walls that faced the walkway. Some of the guys in different cells on the top floor decided it would be fun to light rolls of toilet paper on fire and toss them down to the ground floor at the stroke of midnight. One of the problems with their plan was that the stream of toilet paper led back up to each cell. This made it very easy for the guards to identify who threw the flaming streamers. So all of the inmates involved ended up spending the first 60 days of the new year in the SHU (special housing unit, a.k.a solitary confinement).

They guys agreed that would be a poor way to start out the new year.


I gave the men some background on Lamentations. They were unfamiliar with the word “lament”. For context I said it was that really sad feeling when someone you car about dies, or something really bad happens to your family or friends. Lamentations was written by Jeremiah, who spent some time in prison (Jer. 20:2, Jer. 37:15). He had also seen bad things happen to people he cared about.

In chapter 3 of Lamentations he starts out being pretty angry with God. I actually encouraged the guys to read the whole chapter when they got back to their cells since Jeremiah writes about a lot of the feelings that they have experienced.

We read through our first scripture:

Lamentations 3:21-26 (NKJV)

21 This I recall to my mind,
Therefore I have hope.

22 Through the Lord’s mercies we are not consumed,
Because His compassions fail not.
23 They are new every morning;
Great is Your faithfulness.
24 “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
“Therefore I hope in Him!”

25 The Lord is good to those who wait for Him,
To the soul who seeks Him.
26 It is good that one should hope and wait quietly
For the salvation of the Lord.


I asked what they thought about, what were the things they recalled while waiting in their cells: often it is of things that they regret. I asked about things that gave them hope or encouragement: family, relationships they value, God’s love.

Several of the men shared about how prayer and scripture study has been a source of encouragement for them. This has been especially helpful when they have felt angry or discouraged.

Some of the men talked about dealing with anger. As humans our tendency to try and control things is to hang onto them more tightly. But these men are learning that hanging on more tightly to the thoughts that make them angry does not give them more control. Instead when they let go of the things that make them angry. Instead of holding onto the anger they instead recall the things that give them hope and encouragement.


New Years is all about endings and beginnings. Yet God seems to be able to provide mercies that are continuous and never ending, yet always new.

25 The Lord is good to those who wait for Him,
To the soul who seeks Him.
26 It is good that one should hope and wait quietly
For the salvation of the Lord.


These men spend a lot of time waiting. I asked if “The Lord is good to those who wait for Him” meant that you have to wait for God to be good to you. There was some discussion. I offered that a sign of a deeper relationship is when you can just hang out together.

We live in a culture that emphasizes the things people do. We are not comfortable just “being”. Dallas Willard made the following comment:

“The command is “Do no work.” Just make space. Attend to what is around you. Learn that you don’t have to DO to BE. Accept the grace of doing nothing. Stay with it until you stop jerking and squirming.” 

Waiting means coming to grips with the concept that we are created in God’s image, that each of us has value. It means looking around the room and seeing each other as someone created in God’s image, thinking of family members as people created in God’s image, and for those who are willing, to even see the COs (correctional officers) as people created in God’s image. (Some of the guys aren’t ready for that last one.)

Lamentations 3:55-57 (NKJV)

55 I called on Your name, O Lord,
From the lowest pit.
56 You have heard my voice:
“Do not hide Your ear
From my sighing, from my cry for help.”
57 You drew near on the day I called on You,
And said, “Do not fear!”



Each man can vividly recall that, after all the processing and they were finally in their cell and the door closed, they let out a sigh. They remember that. Each of us can likewise recall various times we have let out a deep sigh.



Another thing we observed is that a lot of anger traces back to fear. We are afraid of losing something we value, we are afraid of being disrespected, we are afraid of being shamed.

Making Everything New

I wanted to leave them with a final scripture that I find comforting.

Revelation 21:1-5 (NIV)

21 Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,”[a] for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes.There will be no more death’[b] or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”


Happy New Year from maximum security.