Month: June 2016

The First Time I Got Shot

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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.

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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.

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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”.

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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.

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Isaiah 61:2 (NKJV)

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!”

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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)

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.”

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

Heart of Stone

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There were 15 men from maximum-security in the Thursday Bible study. There was just a single group instead of two, and the men didn’t have to choose between rec. time and Bible study. Things are finally returning to normal.

I asked one of the men to open us in prayer. He prayed for a “softening of hearts”.

Our opening discussion was on what it meant for someone to be hard-hearted or soft hearted.

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I told the men that for tonight’s study we would look at three sections of scripture in the book of Ezekiel.

Our first scripture was:

Ezekiel 11:19-20 (NKJV)

19 Then I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within them,[a] and take the stony heart out of their flesh, and give them a heart of flesh, 20 that they may walk in My statutes and keep My judgments and do them; and they shall be My people, and I will be their God.

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We talked some more about what it means to be hard-hearted. Many of the men in the maximum security unit would be viewed by society as hard-hearted. We discussed why someone becomes hard-hearted. A common theme mentioned by several of the men was frequent trauma. They have been hurt in the past and eventually wall off their feelings. They learn how to be indifferent to their own pain, and then they become indifferent to the pain of others. They see it as a coping mechanism.

For some of the men the adrenaline rush caused by rage becomes like a drug. For a fleeting moment it make them feel powerful and in control.

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I asked another person to read the next scripture. The Bibles that I bring are the New King James Version supplied to the jail by the Gideons. However, the man who read had his own Bible which was the New American Bible Revised Edition. Below is what he read:

Ezekiel 18:30-32 New American Bible

30 Therefore I will judge you, house of Israel, all of you according to your ways—oracle of the Lord God. Turn, turn back from all your crimes, that they may not be a cause of sin for you ever again. 31 Cast away from you all the crimes you have committed, and make for yourselves a new heart and a new spirit. Why should you die, house of Israel? 32 For I find no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies—oracle of the Lord God. Turn back and live!

Curiously, this translation uses the word “crimes” whereas the NKJV uses the word “transgressions”. For this group the word “crimes” had a clear meaning.

The message here was that God does not find pleasure on someone’s death. God delights when we turn back and live. God isn’t the boney hand of condemnation. God finds pleasure when we turn back to Him.

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For our final scripture we read:

Ezekiel 36:25-27 (NKJV)

25 Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. 26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them.

I asked for their thoughts on what the water symbolized. Some thought it was baptism, other thought it symbolized birth, and other thought it demonstrated washing. Some of the research I did indicated that this described the water used for cleansing after handling a dead body.

From Rashi’s commentary:

clean water: I will grant you atonement and remove your uncleanliness by sprinkling purification water, which removes [even the highest degree of defilement,] the defilement caused by a corpse.

Consider what this might mean to a man who is in maximum security awaiting trial for murder:

18:31 Cast away from you all the crimes you have committed, and make for yourselves a new heart and a new spirit…. 36:25 Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. 26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.

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I asked the men if they had ever seen someone transformed like this. One of the men who has been part of the study for a long time offered to tell his story. He talked in detail about the past trauma of his life, and how he had hardened his heart to become numb to his own pain. He had turned to God when he was incarcerated. When he was released we was working in a church. But he saw people in the church doing things that disillusioned him. He became discouraged and went back to his old ways, and did even worse things than before. He was arrested and again found himself behind bars. God was faithful when he cried out to Him. God has softened his heart. God has given him courage to face his trauma and the pain that he has caused others. God has allowed him to be and encouragement to others. The other men agreed.

I asked if there was any risk to giving up a heart of stone for a heart of flesh.

A heart of flesh can get hurt.

You don’t have to be brave to have a heart of stone – only indifferent.

Exchanging a heart of stone for a heart of flesh requires courage. But time and time again God says to us, “Don’t be afraid”. God take pleasure in giving us a heart of flesh and in giving us the Spirit.

We ended with prayer requests and then sang Amazing Grace.

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