Month: February 2016

The Golden Calf of Addiction

There were 18 guys from both the upper and lower tiers of the maximum-security unit at tonight’s Bible Study. As I’ve mentioned before, this is highly unusual. Typically only one tier or the other is allowed out in order to avoid interactions between rival gangs. The guys were well behaved tonight and there were no incidents. Men who might have been enemies on the outside were studying the Bible together. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement…. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”  When I observe these men I am amazed.

Our opening discussion was about stress, and the things people do, good or bad, to deal with stress.

Things people did to deal with stress:

  • Sleeping
  • Eating
  • Running
  • Reading
  • Video Games
  • Praying
  • Sex
  • Alcohol
  • Drugs

There was a guy who had lost his marriage to video games. When he and his wife would have conflicts he would retreat to video games. He withdrew further and further until he lost his marriage.

Many of the other guys in the room had used drugs and alcohol when they felt the stress of life. This frequently took a toll on their families, financially, and emotionally.

I asked for examples of situations that were stressful:

  • Going into jail or prison
  • Getting out of jail or prison
  • Boredom
  • Court/Trials
  • Living on the streets
  • Relationships
  • Life in general


For the first part of our study we read:

Exodus 32:1-6 NKJV

The Gold Calf

32 Now when the people saw that Moses delayed coming down from the mountain, the people gathered together to Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make us gods that shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”

And Aaron said to them, “Break off the golden earrings which are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people broke off the golden earrings which were in their ears, and brought them to Aaron. And he received the gold from their hand, and he fashioned it with an engraving tool, and made a molded calf.

Then they said, “This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!”

So when Aaron saw it, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow is a feast to the Lord.” Then they rose early on the next day, offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.


I asked the guys if they new the background of this story: where were the people and why were they there?

Many were completely unfamiliar with the story.

Some people remembered that Moses was a person who lived a long time ago and that he a Hebrew who had been raised in Pharaoh’s house. When he was 40 years old he murdered an Egyptian who had been mistreating a Hebrew slave, so Moses had to leave the country. Another 40 years later God calls Moses to free the Hebrew slaves. His brother Aaron does most of the public speaking because Moses felt inadequate. After frogs and flies and plagues and stuff Pharaoh tells them they can leave, and people even give them gold jewelry as a going away present. After the parting of the Red Sea and escaping the Egyptian army the Hebrews are camping and Moses says he’s going up the mountain and will be back in forty days.

According to the commentaries there was a misunderstanding of when the 40 days started and ended. When Moses doesn’t show up at the time the people expected him they work with Aaron to make gods. Moses’ own brother betrays his trust and helps the people build a false god.

In Genesis 1:26 it reads, “Then God said, ‘Let Us make man…’” and now the people are saying, “Let us make gods”.

Their way of dealing with stress was to make gods.

Why make a golden calf as a god?

  • It’s easier to understand
  • It’s less scary
  • It doesn’t tell you what to do, it doesn’t ask you to change your life

With their new gods the people can eat and drink – it probably wasn’t water. I had to explain the phrase “and rose up to play.” One commentary wrote,” And rose up to play is a tasteful way to refer to rank immorality among the people of Israel.” In other words they were having a drunken orgy.

So how does this apply to our lives today?

The “golden calf” that some of the men deal with is addiction. It is interesting that the golden calf was made from gold taken from their wives, sons, and daughters. Some of these men had supported their drug habit by using money that was supposed to support their families.

Next we looked at

Exodus 32:7-14 NKJV

And the Lord said to Moses, “Go, get down! For your people whom you brought out of the land of Egypt have corrupted themselves. They have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them. They have made themselves a molded calf, and worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!’” And the Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and indeed it is a stiff-necked people! 10 Now therefore, let Me alone, that My wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them. And I will make of you a great nation.”

11 Then Moses pleaded with the Lord his God, and said: “Lord, why does Your wrath burn hot against Your people whom You have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians speak, and say, ‘He brought them out to harm them, to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from Your fierce wrath, and relent from this harm to Your people. 13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Your servants, to whom You swore by Your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven; and all this land that I have spoken of I give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’” 14 So the Lord relented from the harm which He said He would do to His people.

We see a few interesting things here.

Moses negotiates with God even though Moses has no power. Rather than trying to bully or demand rights Moses instead appeals to the character of God. Here was Moses, a murderer, who was given a second chance. He Moses was pleading for a second chance for his people.

Recently I watched a video (link to video at the end of the blog) of a man telling his story of a second chance. Two back-to-back events got through to him that he needed to change and convinced him to accept a second chance.

His craving for drugs at 2:30AM led him to a part of town where he didn’t belong. He was by a park and was immediately surrounded by guys with guns. They were taking him into the park and he was convinced that this was the end of his life. Suddenly a police car comes by and shines a bright light and all of the guys with guns scatter. He realizes his life has just been saved. But he still rationalizes that his drug use is only affecting him. No one else is getting hurt.

The next morning his eight year old daughter sits him down. Her uncle and mother are there too. His daughter says to him, “You’re not the right dad for me. I see other kids and their dads come around and they pick them up from school and they do things with them. But you’re not there.”

After she had said what she had to say she let out a wail like someone was hurting her. He said he will never forget that sound. She began crying uncontrollably.

At that moment he realized he wasn’t only hurting himself, it was affecting everyone around him.

He knew he needed a second chance.

Ours is a God of second chances. Aaron was the eloquent one who gave the people what they wanted. But God used Moses, the murderer, who had been given a second chance. And Moses wanted a second chance for his people as well.

We each took silent inventory of the “golden calves” that we’ve clung to in times of stress: addiction, violence, becoming withdrawn, destructive behaviors. We asked God to help us find the life He intended for us in the second chance.

->Video Link (Language warning)








Reward = Punishment

There were 8 men from the lower tier of the maximum-security unit at tonight’s Bible study. I am honored and humbled when anyone comes through the door. They are giving up time for exercise or a haircut in order to attend the study. These guys get very little time outside their cell. It is humbling to know they are choosing to come to the Bible study.

The other volunteer led the study tonight. He uses a Lectio Divina style of study which involves reading the passage though multiple times looking at different aspects of the text and how it is speaking to each individual. It works very nicely in a small group such as this and gives each man a chance to talk about a word or phrase that stands out, and an chance to share how a scripture applies to him in the current circumstances. In fact, Lectio Divina seems to work even better behind bars.


Our scripture was from:

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21(NRSVA)

‘Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

‘So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

‘And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you

16 ‘And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

19 ‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.


The leader asked the men to listen for a word or phrase that caught their attention. For many of the men the word hypocrite stood out. They were familiar with people who said one thing but did another. This wasn’t just in reference to spiritual or religious people. Hypocrisy is prevalent in the lives of people with addictions – saying one thing and doing another, holding others to a different, higher standard than they have for themselves.


Another facet of hypocrisy is hyper-critical. Father Greg Boyle has observed that, for people who join gangs, the mothers or other caregivers were either frightening, or frightened. Frightening because they were trapped deep in their addictions and/or patterns of physical and emotional abuse, or frightened because they were being terrorized by toxic relationships, or trapped by other cages of pain.


A few years ago we had friends who were living in a tough neighborhood. One night a frantic knock came to their front door. A 9 year old neighbor girl was crying and asking for their help. Her dad was beating her mother, but the mother wouldn’t call the police because there was an outstanding warrant against her too, and if both parents went to jail then the kids would go into the foster system.

  • Frightening and frightened
  • Addiction and violence
  • Words in conflict with actions
  • Judgments made using unattainable, ever changing standards

Hypocrisy takes on entirely new dimensions.


The leader asked if there were words they didn’t understand. They group didn’t know what alms meant and he explained it as money given.


This led to a discussion about how literally we should take what Jesus was saying here.

Did it mean that prayers only counted if you were alone? These men are NEVER alone in this setting. They can’t exactly ask their cellie to step out of the cell while they pray. Does that mean he can’t pray?

I had a friend in college who, when he was fasting, would lie and say he wasn’t fasting. Is someone finding out you are fasting a greater sin than telling a lie?

The leader talked about how for years he made sure that his giving to the church was done in secret. He never put anything in the offering plate, but always sent a check instead. Later, when he was trying to teach his daughter about giving, he found that she couldn’t understand why you would ever give money. It was apparent to him that his secret giving meant that his daughter had never seen him give anything.

The group discussed that it seemed to be about the motivation of the person as they prayed, gave, or fasted. Was the person doing this to improve their reputation with the people who were watching, or was it out of their desire for God?

This led to a discussion about “reward”. For one of the men reward meant the same thing as punishment. In his life someone saying “you’ll get your reward” always meant he was going to get punished.


It is so easy to assume everyone has the same definition of certain words, but that is just not true. For this man the Good News sounded less good:

God will reward you = God will punish you

We serve a God of healing and of hope. There is healing for those who have grown up with caregivers who were frightening and/or frightened.

There is hope. We can look in amazement at what people can go through and still find hope, redemption, and new life.

In closing the leader asked each man to pray out loud, and every man did. There was a boldness and vulnerability as each man prayed:

  • They prayed for their circumstances
  • They prayed for their families
  • They prayed for each other

Their prayer closet was this common room in a maximum-security unit.

This was kinship.

This was the Gospel.








There were 15 guys from the upper tier of the maximum-security unit at the Thursday night Bible study. We went around and said our first names. Another volunteer has started to join me and I am grateful. I have a hearing loss so I explained to the guys that he was there to hear the things I kept missing.

It was a good setup for telling this story: After the Sunday service a man went up to the pastor and asked if he could pray for his hearing. The pastor placed his hands over the man’s ears and prayed fervently for a long time. Finally the pastor concluded his prayer and then asked the man if his hearing has improved. The man said, “I really don’t know. My hearing isn’t until next Thursday at the courthouse.”


Our opening discussion was what have people done to them that they had a hard time forgiving. Gradually a theme emerged of betrayal. The most tangible way some of these men had experienced betrayal was when a trusted friend was testifying in court against them. As one man spoke that word betrayal you could sense the depth of his anguish, anger, and bitterness. You could see in his eyes he was going back to that moment. He was not alone. Many others in the room had experienced the same thing.


I had been working on this week’s study for some time, but that afternoon someone I respect had suggested a different scripture for the study. So I read it through that afternoon in a few different versions and commentaries and decided to move forward with it


Read this from the perspective of someone on trail whose friends are testifying against them.

Psalm 35:11-28 (NKJV)

11 Fierce witnesses rise up;
They ask me things that I do not know.
12 They reward me evil for good,
To the sorrow of my soul.
13 But as for me, when they were sick,
My clothing was sackcloth;
I humbled myself with fasting;
And my prayer would return to my own heart.
14 I paced about as though he were my friend or brother;
I bowed down heavily, as one who mourns for his mother.

15 But in my adversity they rejoiced
And gathered together;
Attackers gathered against me,
And I did not know it;
They tore at me and did not cease;
16 With ungodly mockers at feasts
They gnashed at me with their teeth.

17 Lord, how long will You look on?
Rescue me from their destructions,
My precious life from the lions.
18 I will give You thanks in the great assembly;
I will praise You among many people.

19 Let them not rejoice over me who are wrongfully my enemies;
Nor let them wink with the eye who hate me without a cause.
20 For they do not speak peace,
But they devise deceitful matters
Against the quiet ones in the land.
21 They also opened their mouth wide against me,
And said, “Aha, aha!
Our eyes have seen it.”

22 This You have seen, O Lord;
Do not keep silence.
O Lord, do not be far from me.
23 Stir up Yourself, and awake to my vindication,
To my cause, my God and my Lord.
24 Vindicate me, O Lord my God, according to Your righteousness;
And let them not rejoice over me.
25 Let them not say in their hearts, “Ah, so we would have it!”
Let them not say, “We have swallowed him up.”

26 Let them be ashamed and brought to mutual confusion
Who rejoice at my hurt;
Let them be clothed with shame and dishonor
Who exalt themselves against me.

27 Let them shout for joy and be glad,
Who favor my righteous cause;
And let them say continually,
“Let the Lord be magnified,
Who has pleasure in the prosperity of His servant.”
28 And my tongue shall speak of Your righteousness
And of Your praise all the day long.

The translation we were using opens with “Fierce witnesses.” The Common English Bible translates is as “Violent witnesses”, and The New International Version reads, “Ruthless witnesses.” All of those translations struck a chord with these men.

“They reward me evil for good.” I was their friend and now they are saying these things on the witness stand.


The guys had a question about the phrase, “My clothing was sackcloth.” I explained that there was a tradition of dressing in special clothes for mourning. Something they could relate to was dressing in your most comfortable clothes like sweat pants and a t-shirt when you were staying by the side of a child, family, or friend at the hospital – wearing the clothes that say, “I’m staying here as long as it takes.”


With that understanding a phrase like, “I paced about as though he were my friend or brother” made sense to them. Imagine being worried for someone who is like family, and then having them betray you.

One of the commentaries described the phrase “With ungodly mockers at feasts” to describe the people that were chasing their meal ticket – who ever had the money, or the party, or the power.

“But in my adversity they rejoiced And gathered together; Attackers gathered against me, And I did not know it; They tore at me and did not cease;”

Some of the guys had been told people were glad that they were locked up. The people they thought would help them out were not. Some were actively helping the prosecution.


At this point a few of the guys talked about the fact that they really had done the things they were being accused of. They understood that they were receiving consequences for their actions.

Other guys were upset that, while they had done some things, that their friends were accusing them of things that just were not true. They could relate to the verses such as, “Let them not rejoice over me who are wrongfully my enemies” and “But they devise deceitful matters.”

The conclusion was that they could understand having to serve time for what they had done, but they didn’t want to serve more time because of false charges, or to have friends who had been involved in the crime serve a lesser sentence because the friends testified against them. One example was a few years ago where two men were involved in killing a police officer. The man who had actually pulled the trigger testified against his friend. The man was sentenced to life without parole while the friend was given a death sentence. (It was later commuted on appeal)

It seemed like every man in that room had prayed, ”Lord, how long will You look on?” There was a feeling of abandonment.

“Do not keep silence. O Lord, do not be far from me.” They desperately wanted to see God move in their situation.


We looked at the final verse, “And my tongue shall speak of Your righteousness
And of Your praise all the day long.” I asked how it was possible to rejoice and to praise God in these circumstances. Some of the guys have already been given long sentences and are just waiting to get shipped of to a state prison. Several of these guys talked specifically about their experience. They are choosing to honor God even in these circumstances. Several talked about the gift of life. Each day is a gift to them. They choose to look for God in the midst of their circumstances.

One of the men talked about how being in jail had forced him to take a look at there his life had been going. He recognizes the destructive and foolish things that he had been doing. He has taken God’s wakeup call seriously.

Another man talked about how important the Bible has become for him. Even as he serves a long sentence he is encouraged that this will provide him a long time to study the Bible and develop a pattern of prayer even in these unlikely circumstances.

One man said that forgiveness was key to being able to move forward. Praising God was not possible about forgiveness.

We looked at:

Matthew 18:21-22 (NKJV)

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.

For the men who were feeling betrayed because one of their homies had testified against them, they would find themselves recalling that betrayal. Each time they would have a choice in how to respond – with thoughts of bitterness, anger and revenge, or with forgiveness. And they would have to do it not once, or three times, or seven times, but over and over again until the anger was eventually replaced with forgiveness.

Seventy Times Seven
Seventy Times Seven

‘Sup Dawg?


There were 9 guys from the maximum security unit at tonight’s Bible study. There was a mix of new faces, familiar faces, and even some that I recognize from a long time ago that are coming back through the system again.

For our opening discussion we talked about dogs – what kind of dogs did they grow up with, did they ever encounter mean dogs, etc. One of the guys said that he grew up with a dog that was a Coon Hound/Chihuahua mix. We could only image what that looked like. I actually found a photo of one:


I talked about spending time in a developing country. There were stray dogs everywhere, but they seemed nice enough, or at least aloof during the day. Where we were sleeping was located 2 blocks from the nearest outhouse. When I had to get up at 3AM I found that those friendly dogs during the day were more likely to growl and nip at my legs as I waked by in the middle of the night.


I indicated that we were going to read two different versions of the same story. Many of the guys are familiar with having multiple witnesses testify in their court cases. Some of the story elements agree. Witnesses will each emphasize different details as well.

First we read:

Matthew 15:21-28 (NKJV)

21 Then Jesus went out from there and departed to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22 And behold, a woman of Canaan came from that region and cried out to Him, saying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed.”

23 But He answered her not a word.

And His disciples came and urged Him, saying, “Send her away, for she cries out after us.”

24 But He answered and said, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

25 Then she came and worshiped Him, saying, “Lord, help me!”

26 But He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.”

27 And she said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.”

28 Then Jesus answered and said to her, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.


In verse 23 it seems like Jesus is being a jerk. At the very least it appears like he is ignoring her – much like how people tend to ignore the homeless that are on street corners or by stop lights around town.

In verse 26 it seems like Jesus is calling her a dog. Is Jesus some racists, sexist jerk? The guys weren’t sure what to think.

Then we read:

Mark 7:24-30 (NIV)

24 Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret. 25 In fact, as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an impure spirit came and fell at his feet. 26 The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter.

27 “First let the children eat all they want,” he told her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

28 “Lord,” she replied, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

29 Then he told her, “For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.”

30 She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.


I asked the guys to notice what was the same between the two stories, and what was different.

They noticed the following similarities:

  • It was in Tyre
  • The woman is there because of her daughter
  • There is some discussion about feeding children’s bread to the dogs
  • Her daughter is healed

There were the following differences:

  • Matthew said the woman was from Canaan but Mark said she was Greek but born in Syria
  • Matthew mentions that the disciples were annoyed
  • Mark makes it sound like Jesus wanted to be left alone
  • Matthew says that at first Jesus didn’t talk to her and Mark picks up the story at the start of the conversation
  • In Matthew Jesus says, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” which really confused some of the guys, but Mark doesn’t say that
  • Mark talks a bit more about how the woman saw her daughter was healed

I gave them some context that prior to this story Jesus had been arguing with the religious leaders about whether what we ate made us acceptable to God. It seems like Jesus is needing a vacation at the beach. It’s like Jesus and the disciples have ducked across the border much like someone might go over into Mexico and hang out at the beach.


I explained that there were bad relations between the Israelis and the people of this region. It was unusual that a Greek woman would be speaking to a Jewish man, or that he would answer her at all.

The idea of the woman’s daughter being demon possessed was a bit abstract for the guys, but if they read it as her daughter had an addiction — drugs, alcohol, or whatever – then they could relate to that.


Love: One of the first things we talked about was that the woman was there because she loved her daughter. She wanted healing for her daughter. I remember one of the guys talking about that his wife was still using Meth, and that he was concerned for her and for their 7 year old son who was in her care. The man really loved them, and wanted healing for her addiction, and a safe environment for his son.

Humility: We also noticed that the woman wasn’t coming with a sense of entitlement – Jesus you owe me. She was coming humbly, but also persistently. She knew that Jesus had the power to heal her daughter, and she desperately wanted to see that healing.

Matthew makes it seem like Jesus is using this as a teachable moment for the disciples. Their inclination is to have Jesus send her away rather than seeing her with love and compassion. Also, their assumption was that Jesus was sent solely to the lost of Israel

The guys and I talked about this for a bit. Was Jesus just sent to a few chosen people, or was He sent for the entire world? Was love and forgiveness something that God had to ration our carefully as though it were in short supply?

It was time to talk about the dog reference. Normally for either a Jew or a Greek to refer to someone as a dog would be a pretty bad insult. But Jesus didn’t use the normal term for dog here. The word He used referred to the small family pets.

The other thing I needed to explain was that in a Greek household they weren’t using knives, spoons, forks, or napkins as they ate. They used their fingers. As the fingers got messy people would wipe them on scrapes of bread and toss them to the dogs. The illustration of tossing bread to the dogs was a symbol of abundance, not scarcity.


Additionally there was a tradition of friendly arguing or banter within the Greek culture. Jesus is engaging this woman in a way that was part of her culture. Perhaps He had a smile as he conversed with her. Was this interchange more like saying, “Whassup dawg” or swapping “Yo-momma” jokes?


For some of the guys it was important to hear that Jesus isn’t confused by their culture. He understands. Jesus isn’t restricted to “Middle-class Western White” culture.

Here was Jesus contextualizing the Gospel for someone who was not born into His own culture. Jesus used an illustration that explained the abundance of the Gospel of Grace. Love and forgiveness were not commodities that had to be carefully rationed. This was a powerful lesson for the disciples.

We concluded with a discussion about God answering prayer. Some the guys have prayed for people to be healed and they weren’t. One of the men had been praying for his brother who eventually died. We talked about how God wasn’t a cosmic vending machine where we put in a prayer like a coin and out drops the candy of our answered prayer. Prayer was about faith, not manipulating God.