Month: May 2016

Ezra: A Re-Entry Journey

California Prisons Second Strikers
In this photo taken Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014, prisoners from Sacramento County await processing after arriving at the Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy, Calif. California counties are thwarting the state’s efforts to comply with a federal court order to reduce it’s inmate population by sending state prisons far more convicts than anticipated including a record number of second-strikers. The state is trying to comply with a landmark restructuring of its criminal justice system through a nearly 3-year-old law pushed by Gov. Jerry Brown that keeps lower-level felons in county jails while reserving scarce state prison cells for serious, violent and sexual offenders.(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

There were 8 guys from maximum security in the Bible study tonight: three in the first group, and five in the second group. Only a portion of a tier is being let out at a time.

Our opening question was about how well did people do once they got out of jail – who was successful, and who was not. The common theme the men observed was that people who went back to doing what they did before they were locked up, and hanging around with the same people as before, tended to end up incarcerated again. Conversely, the men who had a plan for change and continued to work it were less likely to end up incarcerated again. Several of the men had family members – uncle, grandfather, cousin – who had successfully transitioned after incarceration.

Every man in that jail will be transitioning from the jail to somewhere else: treatment programs, prison, or back to the community. Over 650,000 people from prison back into the community each year. Occasionally there are ballot propositions, legislation, or court rulings that cause a large group of people to be released in a short period of time.

Website Slider Sentencing Reform

I let them know that tonight’s study would be a bit different. Usually I select a few verses that we study in depth. Tonight we were going to take highlights from the entire book of Ezra.

The book of Ezra tells the re-entry story of are large group of people. The story arc is as follows:

  • Chapter 1: A change in legislation that releases the captives
  • Chapter 2: The people that were released
  • Chapter 3: The foundation of their transition back home
  • Chapter 4: Opposition
  • Chapter 5: Getting back on track
  • Chapter 6: Re-establishing the normal rhythm of life
  • Chapter 7: Finding people who will tell you the truth
  • Chapter 8: Life on auto-pilot
  • Chapter 9: Bad choices
  • Chapter 10: Repentance and turning back to God


I gave them some background about the Babylonian captivity. People were sent into captivity based on where they lived. There was a time when the Babylonian authorities came through, if you were living in Israel or Judah they’d tell you, “Orange is the new black!” and ship you off to a Babylonian federal minimum security facility.


The people in captivity had some level of freedom, but they couldn’t go home – much like a trustee. Families lived together in captivity. Today there is a similar situation in Bolivian prisons where children under 6 remain with their parents in prison.

By the time the book of Ezra is written there have been children and perhaps even grandchildren raised during the captivity.


Chapter 1: A change in legislation that releases the captives

Ezra 1 New King James Version (NKJV)

End of The Babylonian Captivity

Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and also put it in writing, saying,

Thus says Cyrus king of Persia:

All the kingdoms of the earth the Lord God of heaven has given me. And He has commanded me to build Him a house at Jerusalem which is in Judah. Who is among you of all His people? May his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem which is in Judah, and build the house of the Lord God of Israel (He is God), which is in Jerusalem. And whoever is left in any place where he dwells, let the men of his place help him with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, besides the freewill offerings for the house of God which is in Jerusalem.

There was new political leadership (the first year of Cyrus king of Persia) and the law had changed. The people who had been in captivity were told they could now return to their homeland and rebuild the temple. Verse 4 essentially meant that if anyone who was too poor to make the trip his neighbors would support him. (Rashi)


Chapter 2: The people that were released

Ezra 2 New King James Version (NKJV)

The Captives Who Returned to Jerusalem

Now these are the people of the province who came back from the captivity, of those who had been carried away, whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried away to Babylon, and who returned to Jerusalem and Judah, everyone to his own city.

64 The whole assembly together was forty-two thousand three hundred and sixty,

Since some of the names in this study are rather challenging I told the men they could substitute names like “Nebuchadnezzar” with “Bob”. It made the guys much more willing to read, and it was fairly amusing to listen to.

Here is the transition story of 42,360 people. The men in the maximum security unit are not alone in their journey. Others have gone before.


Chapter 3: The foundation of their transition back home

Ezra 3 New King James Version (NKJV)

Worship Restored at Jerusalem

3 And when the seventh month had come, and the children of Israel were in the cities, the people gathered together as one man to Jerusalem. 

Though fear had come upon them because of the people of those countries, they set the altar on its bases; and they offered burnt offerings on it to the Lord, both the morning and evening burnt offerings.

11 And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord:“For He is good, For His mercy endures forever toward Israel.”

Then all the people shouted with a great shout, when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid.

I asked them what they thought the phrase meant when it said: “the people gathered together as one man.” The consensus was that it meant unity. There was agreement that when people are unified, whether for good or evil, that powerful things can happen.

And even though they were afraid of the people surrounding them they chose to move forward with offerings. What did that mean? Why was that important? Offerings mean focusing on something/someone outside yourself.

They laid a foundation of worship. Again this takes the focus off our own circumstances. We are part of something greater.

Chapter 4: Opposition

Ezra 4 New King James Version (NKJV)

Resistance to Rebuilding the Temple

4 Now when the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the descendants of the captivity were building the temple of the Lord God of Israel, they came to “Bob” Zerubbabel and the heads of the fathers’ houses, and said to them, “Let us build with you, for we seek your God as you do; and we have sacrificed to Him since the days of “Bob” Esarhaddon king of Assyria, who brought us here.” But “Bob” Zerubbabel and Jeshua and the rest of the heads of the fathers’ houses of Israel said to them, “You may do nothing with us to build a house for our God; but we alone will build to the Lord God of Israel, as King Cyrus the king of Persia has commanded us.”Then the people of the land tried to discourage the people of Judah. They troubled them in building, and hired counselors against them to frustrate their purpose all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia.


The lesson here is that not everyone who claims they want to help are really there for your benefit.

Sometimes it’s incompetence, like the people who stops to help you change a flat tire but somehow ends up starting your car on fire. I had a co-worker who married into a large family. He wanted to do some remodeling of his house. His in-laws offered to help. The in-laws were proficient in the demolition part of the project but completely out of their element when it came to construction.

Sometimes it’s malice. A partial set from Galatians 5 lists deeds of the flesh as: hatred, quarrelling, jealousy, bad temper, rivalry, factions, party-spirit, envy. I seem to recall some church committee meetings where those were evident.


The lesson here is that there will be obstacles. Sometimes they will go on for a long time.

Chapter 5: Getting back on track

Ezra 5 New King James Version (NKJV)

Restoration of the Temple Resumed

5 Then the prophet Haggai and Zechariah the son of Iddo, prophets, prophesied to the Jews who were in Judah and Jerusalem, in the name of the God of Israel, who was over them. So Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and Jeshua the son of Jozadak rose up and began to build the house of God which is in Jerusalem; and the prophets of God were with them, helping them.

They receive some encouragement and things finally start moving forward.

Look for people who offer encouragement and point you back to God.


Chapter 6: Re-establishing the normal rhythm of life

Ezra 6:19 New King James Version (NKJV)

The Passover Celebrated

19 And the descendants of the captivity kept the Passover on the fourteenth day of the first month.

Again, returning to the rhythms of a life of worship are important.


Chapter 7: Finding people who will tell you the truth

Ezra 7 New King James Version (NKJV)

The Arrival of Ezra

7 Now after these things, in the reign of Artaxerxes king of Persia, Ezra the son of Seraiah, the son of Azariah, the son of Hilkiah,

On the first day of the first month he began his journey from Babylon, and on the first day of the fifth month he came to Jerusalem, according to the good hand of his God upon him. 10 For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the Law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach statutes and ordinances in Israel.

27 Blessed be the Lord God of our fathers, who has put such a thing as this in the king’s heart, to beautify the house of the Lord which is in Jerusalem, 28 and has extended mercy to me before the king and his counselors, and before all the king’s mighty princes.

So I was encouraged, as the hand of the Lord my God was upon me; and I gathered leading men of Israel to go up with me.

Ezra arrives. He has a heart for God and for teaching others. Who have been the people that speak truth into your life and continually point you back to God? Part of your transition plan is to look for people who are truthful with you.

Chapter 8: Life on auto-pilot

We didn’t actually read anything from Chapter 8. I told the group that it describes people just getting on with life. Another area where people run into problems with their re-entry or transition is when they just start doing things on autopilot. They are no longer watchful for things that can take them off track. We are at risk when we are mindless.


Chapter 9: Bad choices

I prefaced this section by asking what were the common themes that pulled people off their re-entry or transition plan. In the story the issue is intermarriage. What were the things that they would need to watch out for?


The most common issue the guys have seen in either their own recovery of that of others was relapse into addictions.



Another very common are that tripped people up was money. One guy talked about a job that he had that he really enjoyed. He looked forward to going to work in the morning and had a read sense of accomplishment every evening when he clocked out. He was riding the bus every day and he really wanted a car. Doing a little drug dealing on the side he was able to get then can. Then he wanted… And the cycle continued.


They guys are all aware of how easy it is to get quick money through drug dealing. They have seen the trap of striving after more things, but it still remains a risk.


Poor sexual choices and broken relationships are another area where people will run into trouble. This happens to be the issue discussed in Ezra 9.



Using violence also will get people sent back into jail or prison. Some see the adrenaline rush of violence as something akin to an addiction. For others it is a matter of breaking a cycle of violence that has been a recurring theme – finding an alternative to violent responses that seem normal and natural for them.



Ezra 9 New King James Version (NKJV)

Intermarriage with Pagans

9 When these things were done, the leaders came to me, saying, “The people of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands, with respect to the abominations of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites. For they have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons, so that the holy seed is mixed with the peoples of those lands. Indeed, the hand of the leaders and rulers has been foremost in this trespass.” So when I heard this thing, I tore my garment and my robe, and plucked out some of the hair of my head and beard, and sat down astonished.Then everyone who trembled at the words of the God of Israel assembled to me, because of the transgression of those who had been carried away captive, and I sat astonished until the evening sacrifice.

Chapter 10: Repentance & turning back to God

Ezra 10 New King James Version (NKJV)

Confession of Improper Marriages

10 Now while Ezra was praying, and while he was confessing, weeping, and bowing down before the house of God, a very large assembly of men, women, and children gathered to him from Israel; for the people wept very bitterly. 

Who are people that can speak truth into your life? Who are the people that will call you to repentance and weep with you? Whether you are transitioning to prison, a treatment program, or back into the community, find people who will support you and point you towards God.

repent sign


Sometimes Care Giving Stinks

Because the world needs another hashtag.

Blooming Idiots is the title of our little book of stories, insights and encouragement for caregivers.  It is due for release this August from Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas.  If you’re in or around the upper Midwest, we’ll be exhibiting at the South Dakota Festival of Books on September 24th.

While our experience is caring for a son with autism, we’ve had some positive feedback from folks in a number of care giving situations who’ve read the draft.  Even a parent of a neurotypical (fancy word for “normal”) teenager found it helpful.

We hope you’ll find it helpful, too.  More details as the release draws near.

Meanwhile, we’ll keep sharing some tales and reflections here at the blog, as well as short takes via our Facebook page and Twitter.  Stuff like this…

A garden requires patient labor and attention. Plants do not…

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Who do you say that I am?

There were 5 men from the maximum security unit in tonight’s Bible study. Our opening discussion was about how well do you know someone. “Have you ever thought you knew someone, or that they knew you, but you really didn’t?” One of the men started laughing and said, “that sounds like my marriage!”


Some guys noted the district attorney certainly had an opinion of them that may not be entirely accurate.

Miscommunication can also cloud the picture. Earlier that day I’d spoken with a man about his trip to Japan. There was a hand gesture that he thought meant “come on” but it really meant “No!”  He had a few bus drivers slam the door in his face before he finally figured that out.

Screen Shot 2016-05-19 at 10.22.07 PM.png

The next question was, “who do people say that Jesus is?” Some of the answers were:

  • a Jewish guy
  • a good or moral teacher
  • the Son of God

I split tonight’s passage into three different sections. The first section was:

Matthew 16:13-19 (NKJV)

13 When Jesus came into the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, saying, “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?”

14 So they said, “Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”

16 Simon Peter answered and said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

17 Jesus answered and said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. 18 And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. 19 And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”


I asked the men to describe the passage in their own words…

Jesus asks what people thought of Him. People had different opinions about Jesus. Jesus presses the questions with Peter. Who do you say that I am? Peter says that Jesus is God’s Son. Jesus tells Peter he is correct.

We had a discussion about what the people at that time were looking for in a Messiah. Israel had been under foreign rule for a long time. They were looking for someone to get them out from under the boot of oppression. They expected the Messiah to drive out the foreign occupiers. To Peter’s ears “binding and loosing” seemed like things were about to happen. Peter probably thought they would go riding into Jerusalem “splittin’ some wigs.”

Next we read:

Matthew 16:20-23 (NKJV)

20 Then He commanded His disciples that they should tell no one that He was Jesus the Christ.

21 From that time Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day.

22 Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, “Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You!”

23 But He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.”


Now Jesus suddenly seems like a real buzz-kill.

Why didn’t He want to disciples to tell anyone? The men concluded that people would misunderstand since they were looking for a military leader. But now He was talking about being killed. Was Jesus bi-polar and looking to commit “suicide by cop”? No. These men had an understanding of propitiation – though they would never use that word. Some of these men in maximum-security understood:

Romans 3:24-26

24 being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,25 whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, 26 to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

It was with understanding and purpose that Jesus described what must happen. But Peter is still clinging to the old view of Messiah as conqueror, not as sacrifice. Jesus doesn’t always fit our mold and preconceived notions. And Jesus is willing to bring it to our attention when we are “being stupid”.

Next we read:

Matthew 16:24-28 (NKJV)

24 Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. 

25 For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. 26 For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? 27 For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his works. 28 “Assuredly, I say to you, there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.”

take up his cross

Putting this in the modern day vernacular:

  • carry the lethal injection syringes
  • carry the cyanide tablets for the gas chamber
  • carry the rope for the hangman’s noose

Some thought that “take up his cross” meant that we had to pay for our own sins. Other men explained that Jesus had paid for our sins. They explained this as putting to death our own desires – “me first”, but instead following Jesus.

One of the guys had an interesting football analogy. Without Jesus it’s like a bunch of people on the football field all trying to draw attention to themselves by doing victory dances and spiking the ball. But there is no organization, it is just chaos.


But if we allow Jesus to the be coach and follow the plays that He calls then we begin working together – seeing each other, and valuing each other.


One of the men asked the question, “Why does it matter if Jesus is the Son of God?” He was not being disrespectful, he was genuinely curious. Ideas offered by others in the group were:

  • It means God is really interested in us
  • It means Jesus paid the price for our sin and that forgiveness is available
  • It means that we can follow Jesus rather than continuing to lead a self-centered life

The overall conclusion of tonight’s study that Jesus asks each of us,

“Who do you say that I am?”



Wonderful Words of Life

Philip P. Bliss, 1838-1876

Sing them over again to me, wonderful words of life;
let me more of their beauty see, wonderful words of life;
words of life and beauty teach me faith and duty.

Beautiful words, wonderful words, wonderful words of life.
Beautiful words, wonderful words, wonderful words of life.

Christ, the blessed one, gives to all wonderful words of life;
sinner, list to the loving call, wonderful words of life;
all so freely given, wooing us to heaven.

Beautiful words, wonderful words, wonderful words of life.
Beautiful words, wonderful words, wonderful words of life.

Sweetly echo the gospel call, wonderful words of life;
offer pardon and peace to all, wonderful words of life;
Jesus, only Savior, sanctify forever.

Beautiful words, wonderful words, wonderful words of life.
Beautiful words, wonderful words, wonderful words of life.







In the Midst of the Storm


I ran the study for two different groups in the maximum-security unit. There were 8 men in the first group and 5 in the second group. Our opening discussion was about water. Many of they guys have been to the ocean. Some played tag with the waves when they were little – as the wave recedes you run out towards the ocean, and as the wave comes back in you run towards shore trying not to get wet.


Water is both treacherous and life-giving. You can drown in water. Floods and tsunamis can cause tremendous damage. We also need water and will die if we go too long without it. Many cultures and faith traditions use water as a symbol for life.

I told them that tonight’s study was the story of Jesus walking on water. I remarked that I’d lived in Minnesota for a number of years and it was very common of people to walk on water there – at least during the winter months.


They guys had a hard time believing that a lake ice could freeze solid enough to support the weight of a car or truck. I described a friend’s ice fishing house that was heated, had windows, carpeting, an electric generator, a TV, and overstuffed chairs. It was nicer than some peoples’ homes!



Before reading the scripture I gave them some background. This takes place just after the Feeding of the 5000. I asked them to read focusing on symbols and how this passage could provide guidance for themselves.

Matthew 14:22-36 (NKJV)

Jesus Walks on the Sea

22 Immediately Jesus made His disciples get into the boat and go before Him to the other side, while He sent the multitudes away. 23 And when He had sent the multitudes away, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray. Now when evening came, He was alone there. 24 But the boat was now in the middle of the sea,[a] tossed by the waves, for the wind was contrary.

25 Now in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went to them, walking on the sea.26 And when the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out for fear.

27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Be of good cheer! It is I; do not be afraid.”

28 And Peter answered Him and said, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.”

29 So He said, “Come.” And when Peter had come down out of the boat, he walked on the water to go to Jesus. 30 But when he saw that the wind was boisterous,[b] he was afraid; and beginning to sink he cried out, saying, “Lord, save me!”

31 And immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and caught him, and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased.

33 Then those who were in the boat came and[c] worshiped Him, saying, “Truly You are the Son of God.”

Many Touch Him and Are Made Well

34 When they had crossed over, they came to the land of[d] Gennesaret. 35 And when the men of that place recognized Him, they sent out into all that surrounding region, brought to Him all who were sick, 36 and begged Him that they might only touch the hem of His garment. And as many as touched it were made perfectly well.


Here are some of the things we observed…

Take Time for Prayer

Jesus had just done something tremendous – the feeding of the 5000. In John 6:15 it indicated the crown had hoped to make him. But rather than coasting on this wave of popularity He instead sends everyone away and spends time in private prayer. Prayer isn’t just for when things are bad. Prayer is important even when things are going well.  This stands in contrast to what the men have observed – people pray when their trial date is coming up and they are looking at hard time. But people seem to forget about praying once they have been acquitted, and even less so once they are released.

Why does this matter? Because a discipline of prayer transforms Jailhouse Jesus and Gumball God – where we put in a prayer request and out comes the answer we want – to a relationship with the Living God where we also learn to listen for God’s direction.


There Will Be Storms

Here were the disciples. They were following Jesus. They were doing exactly what He had instructed them to do. And they were in the middle of a storm. Being a follower of Jesus doesn’t exempt you from the storms of life.

Jesus in the Midst of the Storm

One of the guys said, “learn to look to Jesus in the midst of the storm.” Consider the perspective of a man awaiting sentencing hearing Jesus say, “Be of good cheer! It is I; do not be afraid.” The wind and waves were not quieted when He said that. Look to Jesus to sustain you through the storm.

God’s Voice or Last Night’s Pizza?

Peter says, “Lord, if it is You…” How do we know it is God’s voice, or our own imagination, or last night’s pizza, or… There was good discussion on this topic. Some thoughts were:

  • is it consistent with scripture
  • is it consistent with the character of God
  • is it loving or beneficial
  • is it something God has said or done before


Out of Our Comfort Zone

Peter’s request to Jesus indicates he was willing to trust Jesus enough for Peter to risk going outside his comfort zone. What are the areas where we want God to shake things up and take us outside our comfort zone?

What if God Doesn’t do Magic?

Some of the guys were not comfortable with the idea of miracles and Jesus walking on water. It seems too much like God doing magic. Barclay’s commentary covered that well.

The truth is that there are two perfectly possible interpretations of this passage, so far as the actual Greek goes. It may describe a miracle in which Jesus actually walked on the water. Or, it may equally mean that the disciples’ boat was driven by the wind to the northern shore of the lake, that Jesus came down from the mountain to help them when he saw them struggling in the moonlight, and that he came walking through the surf and the waves towards the boat, and came so suddenly upon them that they were terrified when they saw him. Both of these interpretations are equally valid. Some will prefer one, and some the other.

But, whatever interpretation of the Greek we choose, the significance is perfectly clear. In the hour of the disciples’ need Jesus came to them. When the wind was contrary and life was a struggle, Jesus was there to help. No sooner had a need arisen, than Jesus was there to help and to save.

In life the wind is often contrary. There are times when we are up against it and life is a desperate struggle with ourselves, with our circumstances, with our temptations, with our sorrows, with our decisions. At such a time no man need struggle alone, for Jesus comes to him across the storms of life, with hand stretched out to save, and with his calm clear voice bidding us take heart and–have no fear.

It does not really matter how we take this incident; it is in any event far more than the story of what Jesus once did in a storm in far-off Palestine; it is the sign and the symbol of what he always does for his people, when the wind is contrary and we are in danger of being overwhelmed by the storms of life.

Failing Forward

As Peter becomes fearful of the wind and waves he continues forward towards Jesus, trusting Him for help. In both groups the men observed that when children are learning to walk they are moving towards the parent, and a good parent encourages the child even as they stumble. Jesus reaches out to Peter. Jesus reaches out to us even was we are overcome with doubts and disbelief.


Receiving Correction

Jesus asks Peter to examine the source of his doubt. Not everything that comes form the mouth of Jesus is sweetness and light. A real relationship means Jesus can call on me to reflect on my past failings and receive His guidance on how to break the destructive patterns in my life.

Fellowship – Fellows in the Same Ship

After his walk on the water Peter doesn’t become a spiritual superstar who lives apart. We are designed to live in community.

A powerful act of community is worshipping together. There was some discussion on why worship is important. For those who weren’t raised in the church the idea of worship is still quite strange.


Jesus had a reputation that preceded Him. Once they had landed “word on the street” was to bring the sick for healing. No sermon is recorded here. The “sermon” happens in the act of bringing the sick and broken to Jesus where people are healed and their lives are transformed.


Don King and the Holy Spirit

The restrictions in the maximum security unit have eased up a bit. The guys now can get both rec. time AND participate in the Bible Study. We still ran the study for two different groups. There were seven guys in the first group and nine guys in the second group.

The first group was a bit more subdued. A close family member of one of the men had died. The person who died was also friends with several other men in the group too. Tonight’s study was comforting to the men in the first group, and a positive challenge to the men in the second group.

The other volunteer led tonight’s study. As I’ve mentioned before, he uses a style that involves reading the passage the first time listening for a word or phrase that stands out. The second time the passage is read each man listens for how the scripture applies to his own life and circumstances.

John 14:23-29 (NKJV)

23 Jesus answered and said to him, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him. 24 He who does not love Me does not keep My words; and the word which you hear is not Mine but the Father’s who sent Me.

25 “These things I have spoken to you while being present with you. 26 But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you. 27 Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid. 28 You have heard Me say to you, ‘I am going away and coming back to you.’ If you loved Me, you would rejoice because I said, ‘I am going to the Father,’ for My Father is greater than I.

29 “And now I have told you before it comes, that when it does come to pass, you may believe.


The words or phrases that stood out for these men:

  • Peace
  • Peace I leave with you
  • Let not your heart be troubled
  • The Helper

It struck me that these are words of comfort and encouragement in everyday life, not just for men awaiting trial, or for those who have just lost a friend or family member to death.

Some of the most animated discussion came when each man looked at how the scripture passage applied to his own life. Tonight was one of those night when the men do most of the talking and teaching and the leader just has to try and keep it to one conversation at a time.

An alternate term for the Holy Spirit is the Advocate. Who else had been an advocate for them?

Mothers and grandmothers were mentioned most often.


In one sense an advocate is like their defense attorney. The defense attorney is supposed to advocate for their defendant, and point up all of that person’s good qualities. One of the men remarked that the guys in maximum haven’t had great experiences with their court appointed lawyers.


Another man suggested that an example of an advocate was Don King, the boxing promoter. Here was a man who knew how to come up with catchy phrases like “Thrilla in Manila” and “Rumble in the Jungle,” and he could get people excited about his clients. So now they guys are imagining the Holy Spirit advocating on their behalf like Don King.


There was discussion about where the Holy Spirit lives. Two ideas discussed were: within each of us, and/or within a community of believers. They discussed how sometimes it is easier to see to see the Holy Spirit in others than in themselves.

This suddenly became a God-filled moment. There I am sitting in a room full of heavily tattooed young guys in jail jumpsuits discussing the power of a Holy Spirit filled community to raise up the broken, to encourage the downcast, and to transform lives through God’s grace. I watched and listened in amazement as the seed of kinship was planted in the maximum security unit.


Seven More Wicked than Himself


In the jail’s maximum-security unit they are still limiting the number of guys let out at a time, so I led the study for two different groups.  There were 4 guys in the first group, and 8 guys in the second group.

For the opening discussion I asked if they had ever seen anyone go back to their addictions after getting out of jail. Prison, or rehab. Many had seen that. Some had done it themselves. One man had a friend who was an alcoholic. The friend had spent several years in prison, but the day he was released he resumed drinking just as much as he had before going to prison – he didn’t even have to ramp back up to his previous level of drinking.

For our study I indicated we would be reading two different versions of the same story. The guys understand that two people seeing the same event will describe it with slight differences.

Matthew 12:43-45 (NKJV)

43 “When an unclean spirit goes out of a man, he goes through dry places, seeking rest, and finds none. 44 Then he says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when he comes, he finds it empty, swept, and put in order. 45 Then he goes and takes with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man is worse than the first. So shall it also be with this wicked generation.”


Luke 11:24-26 (NKJV)

24 “When an unclean spirit goes out of a man, he goes through dry places, seeking rest; and finding none, he says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’25 And when he comes, he finds it swept and put in order. 26 Then he goes and takes with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man is worse than the first.”

I suggested that the phase “unclean spirit” with “addiction”. This made the verses more understandable for the guys. The phrase “swept and put in order” could be replaced by the phrase “clean and sober”. They have seen this first hand as someone’s addictions multiply and escalate.


William Barclay observed, “That means we can never erect a real religion on negatives.” Perhaps this is why 12 Step programs have twelve steps rather than just one: “Stop Using”. Many of the men are familiar with one or more 12 Step programs. As a refresher, here are the steps for Narcotics Anonymous.

Step 1: We admitted we were powerless over our addiction, that our lives had become unmanageable.

Step 2: We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

Step 3: We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

Step 4: We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

Step 5: We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

Step 6: We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

Step 7: We humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

Step 8: We made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

Step 9: We made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

Step 10: We continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

Step 11: We sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

Step 12: Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to addicts, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

I asked them to look for differences between the two passages. One difference that came up was the word “empty” appears in Matthew 12:44, but Luke did not use that word.

We discussed some of the challenges when someone stops using. Without the masking effect of the drug the person feels the full weight of their pain. Often that is what causes the person to spiral back deeper into their addiction.


Step #1 “powerless over our addiction” can practically become an excuse for relapse, therefore steps 2 & 3 are critical to filling the emptiness.

The first three of the twelve steps are seen in Romans 5:6,8,10-11:

For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. [For] God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. And not only that, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation.

From emptiness to reconciliation.


Some of the guys have kept a journal as part of their 12 step recovery which was part the process for steps four through eight.

We also talked about how people can use “good” things like an addiction. Someone can become a hard worker – ultimately a workaholic. They get lots of praise for working so hard, but it is just another way to medicate their pain.

Interesting aside – none of the guys who have sold drugs took pride in that “work”. Some talked about having more pride in an earlier job, such as a construction worker, than as a drug dealer. In spite of the increased cash flow from drug dealing, it didn’t give them a sense that they were building anything of value.


I had the guys read the scripture that followed this story:

Matthew 12:46-50 (NKJV)

46 While He was still talking to the multitudes, behold, His mother and brothers stood outside, seeking to speak with Him. 47 Then one said to Him, “Look, Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside, seeking to speak with You.”

48 But He answered and said to the one who told Him, “Who is My mother and who are My brothers?” 49 And He stretched out His hand toward His disciples and said, “Here are My mother and My brothers! 50 For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother.”

We talked about how it was not a coincidence that this follows the story. Steps none through twelve of the 12 Step program are completed when “whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother.”