There were 24 men from both the upper and lower tiers of the maximum security unit at tonight’s Bible study. We have shifted to Monday night in order to let more people participate. The Monday night staff are not used to having programming so this was new for them. I recommended that they do either upper or lower tier, but the CO (correctional officer) decided to do both tiers, so it was standing room only for a few of the guys. Remember that this means there may be rival gang members in the same room and, other than having to stop some gang sign language, the men were well behaved.
I shook hands with all who were willing and for the regulars I greeted them by name. There were a number of new faces. There was also a man who remembered me from the last time he was locked up. I’ve now been doing this long enough that I’ve seen a few guys come back through two or even three times.
Our opening discussion was about fire. One of the men had been through a house fire when he was a child. He was cooking on the stove and a grease fire started. He threw water on it to try to put the flames out and instead the fire exploded everywhere. Some people have lost family photos and other memorabilia. After a fire you are left with ashes. Things that were valuable are now worthless.
Our study was from Isaiah 61, but for context I had them first read:
Luke 4:16-21 (NKJV)
16 So He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read.17 And He was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He has anointed Me
To preach the gospel to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed;
19 To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”
20 Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him. 21 And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
I wanted them to think about Jesus as we read Isaiah. Instead of reading the whole scripture I just had them look at one verse at a time.
Isaiah 61:1 (NKJV)
61 “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me,
Because the Lord has anointed Me
To preach good tidings to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives,
And the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
I asked what was meant by “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon Me.” Some men clearly had some church background and talked about the infilling of the Holy Spirit. Another man described it simply as when God shows us the right thing to do.
We looked at the word “tidings”, and asked what it meant. It seemed that “good news” was an appropriate replacement for “good tidings”.
Heal the brokenhearted: One of the men lamented that he was supposed to be across the country and back with his fiancé by now, but instead he got arrested. This verse seemed tailored just for him.
Liberty to the captives: We had a wide-ranging discussion about the difference between liberty and freedom. Men who are incarcerated think deeply about these things.
Opening of the prison: I asked if Jesus was a get-out-of-jail-free card. They understood that it didn’t mean that if you trust Jesus the jail door instantly pops open. Some of the guys talked about how for them, “those who are bound”, meant that they could find help in overcoming their addictions. Others thought it meant finding peace and purpose for your life irrespective of whether you are incarcerated or not.
“What you did may define where you live, and perhaps how you die, but what you did doesn’t have to define who you are.”
I shared a little bit about the book “Finding Freedom” which was written by a Jarvis Masters who is currently on death row at San Quentin.
Isaiah 61:2 (NKJV)
2 To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord,
And the day of vengeance of our God;
To comfort all who mourn,
This was a hard verse.
There was an extended discussion about what it meant for vengeance to be God’s responsibility and not our responsibility. For many of these men taking vengeance into their own hands is a fundamental part of their environment.
The First Time I Got Shot
From time to time things are said that remind me that I live in a much different culture than many of these men. One of the guys was explaining about the culture and cycle of vengeance when he said, “The first time I got shot…”.
Let all the levels and nuances of that phrase sink in.
In the gang culture if family or a fellow gang member was shot and you knew who did it you MUST seek vengeance. Every act of violence is answered with equal or greater violence. “That’s just how it is!”
It is a major act of faith to trust God even in areas where these men have been hurt, even when they have seen friends or family killed.
Each man must ask if he is willing:
- to let God take care of vengeance in God’s own time
- to receive comfort from God
- to let God teach him how to become an instrument of comfort to others as they mourn
Isaiah 61:3 (NKJV)
3 To console those who mourn in Zion,
To give them beauty for ashes,
The oil of joy for mourning,
The garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness;
That they may be called trees of righteousness,
The planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified.”
To console those who mourn
I sensed that it had been a really tough time for some of the guys this week. While they are locked up the mind tends to go over not only the mistakes and actions that got them arrested, but some will keep thinking back to major trauma they have experienced. Serving “hard time” is when those traumatic memories play over and over.
For some what were once their hopes and dreams have now become like ashes. The promise of this verse is that God can exchange those ashes for beauty.
Oil – a symbol of healing – can be applied to their mourning. Once man shared about healing being a slow process, and to not get discouraged if healing takes some time.
Some people look like they are carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders. God offers the garment of praise – the clothes of honor like those worn by the groom at the wedding – in place of the spirit of heaviness.
Trees of Righteousness
Trees are alive. They clean the air. They generate oxygen. They provide shade, and cover from the rain. They do all of that while remaining stationary.
Some of these men may be looking at long prison sentences. They won’t get yearly vacations. They will remain in the same place, yet though God’s power they can bring comfort and protection to those around them.
We ended with prayer requests.