Month: August 2016

Groaning and Waiting

This past week the Captain of the guards met with the men and told them they have to stop fighting when they come out. They want programming to start back but the hostilities must end. Tonight they experimented with a slightly new format. I still did 10 cell-to-cell visits but there were also about a dozen guys who were out in the main area of the cell block. I met with some of them individually as well. Eventually I may do cell-by-cell visits and then afterwards meet with a small group in the multi-purpose room of the cell block.


I met several men who were new to the unit.

One man asked for prayer. As people moved in and out of the courtroom there were fights breaking out between members of his family and the family members of his victim. We prayed for peace and reconciliation.

The next man described his life as going 100 miles an hour and getting nowhere. In his recent encounter that landed him in jail he had been shot at 24 times. Since he survived that he figured God must have a purpose for him. He had been raised in the church and was able to fluently use church phrases as he spoke. We discussed the ease of serving “Jailhouse Jesus” vs. a life transformed.


Another man was wrestling hard with his addictions. He is 25 years old and his addictions have nearly destroyed his liver. I listened at length as he told me his story. Up to now his life has been controlled by aimlessness, alcohol, and drugs. He had recently seen friends die in their addictions. He was now seeking meaning and purpose for his life. I’d like to listen in on the discussion that he may have with the other man in the unit who is trying to overcome 44 years of addiction.

A few other men shared heartbreaking news with me. One of the guys who had been released a few months ago was now in a coma – there were conflicting stories about the cause. He was one of the first men I’d met here when I started two years ago, and I’d grown to like him. I was hopeful for his success on the outside. Several of us prayed together about his situation.

It can be discouraging at times. Before tonight’s visit my prayer partner had already contacted me to meet and pray. Support systems make a difference particularly in times like these.


I live in a state where 65% of those released from prison return within 3 years. Not everyone who is released will be successful. Not everyone who goes to drug treatment will find recovery their first time through, or their second time, or the third, or the fourth…

Recovery programs often say, “it takes what it takes”.

“Every person’s journey is unique, and the experience that provokes transformation is unpredictable. A young person gets drawn deeper into the violent, chaotic, and self-destructive habits of gangs, or someone develops a pattern of drug or alcohol abuse that becomes absolutely ruinous to mind, body, soul, and relationship. Eventually, the person reaches a point that seems beyond any capability of returning. And then something happens that causes the person to want to change, to yearn for a different life more than anything in the world. That’s the moment when the hard work of recovery begins.”[i]

Father Greg Boyle said, “I’m not the one who saves people; God does that. I simply point to the door and say, ‘I believe that if you go through that door you will live a happier life.’”

Romans 8:19-25 (NIV)

19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20 for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.





While I kept silence

Psalm 32:3-4 NRSV

3 While I kept silence, my body wasted away

    through my groaning all day long.

4 For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;

    my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.


Tonight I did cell-by-cell visits with a dozen different men in the maximum security unit of the county jail. I need to think though how to be most effective in this format if this is the new normal.

When I arrive in the unit the COs (correctional officers) tell the men to turn on their light if they want a chaplain visit. There is a light beside the outside of the door that can be turned on and off by the inmate inside the cell. Roughly 1 in 4 cells in the unit will turn the light on. Sometimes I’ll walk by a cell that doesn’t have its light on, but I’ll make eye contact with the man in the cell. I’ll ask if he wants a visit. About half of the time they say yes.


At a chaplain training session a few weeks ago one of the leaders talked about the smell of jails and prisons. A prison that I volunteered at in the Midwest was located on a hill above a slaughterhouse and a sewage treatment plant. It was located a few miles west of a rendering plant. I had always assumed that the odor of the place was due to its location, but now that I’ve been at a number of different prisons and jails I’ve learned to recognize the scent of people living with stress.

Some of the stress may seem benign. Take solitude for example. Many spiritual people will seek out times of solitude, perhaps go on a retreat, for reflection and prayer. But what if this solitude is externally enforced and of indeterminate length? Solitude changes form a time of regeneration to a time of stress.


In Genesis we read about Joseph being put into prison, and while Joseph is there he provides a favorable interpretation of a dream that the cupbearer had – about how the cupbearer would be restored to his position.

Genesis 40:23-41:1a

Yet the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, but forgot him.

After two whole years…

Did Joseph’s mind take him on a roller coaster of emotions ranging form hope to despair?

The human mind has capacity to envision the most dire outcomes, “what if…”

One of the men had recently been convicted of some very serious violent crimes. He was unsure where he would serve his time or the severity of his next stage of incarceration. “What if” was weighing heavily on his mind.

Other men had received good news this past week and were thankful for how things had turned out.

Many ask for peace in the unit.

I took time to ask some of the men about their families – bothers and sisters, children, nieces and nephews. Some stories are delightful, others are tragic.

One man told me about being in the Navy. I mentioned my father had been in the Navy and learned early on in boot camp not to volunteer to be part of a demonstration. They were teaching fire safety and asked for a volunteer to handle the fire hose. My father was the only person holding on to the fire hose when they turned in on to full power. The hose end flew all over, with my father hanging on for dear life. The man in the cell said he too learned early on what NAVY stood for:





We had a good laugh together.


Some find grace during this time of waiting.

Psalm 32:5-11 NRSV

Then I acknowledged my sin to you,
    and I did not hide my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
    and you forgave the guilt of my sin.  Selah

Therefore let all who are faithful
    offer prayer to you;
at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters
    shall not reach them.
You are a hiding place for me;
    you preserve me from trouble;
    you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.  Selah

I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go;
    I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding,
    whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle,
    else it will not stay near you.

10 Many are the torments of the wicked,
    but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord.
11 Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, O righteous,
    and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.

44 Years of Addiction

It has been 8 weeks since I last did a “large group” study with the guys in maximum security. With the near-lockdown I’ve been doing cell-by-cell visits. This may be the new normal. There was a fight on another floor, but I was still able to get in tonight. A lot of people were interested in seeing a chaplain so I visited about 20 cells tonight.  The new edition of Our Daily Bread came out so I was very popular because I had new reading material.


Many of the guys just want a brief visit and a prayer. One man wanted to know how to get Kosher meals so I explained the process to him. One of the guys who had been sent to the medical unit was back and feeling much better. (Thank you to those who prayed.) There has been a lot of turnover recently as many of the regulars have shipped off to prison or, in a very few cases, freedom.

I had a longer conversation with one man. He is older than most of the guys I see. He has been battling serious drug addictions for the past 44 years. He anxious about his release. He recognizes his pattern that once he breathes “free air” he immediately goes back to using.  We talked briefly about his sources of shame and how he uses his addictions trying to medicate the pain away.


It is by grace we are saved, not by works – but recovery from addiction takes a lot of work. We talked about four needs that he should think through before his release: food, shelter, transportation, and clothing. We talked about plans and backup plans for each need.


Food: People can make a lot of foolish choices when they are hungry. I spoke to another man a few weeks back who was back in within a week because he was caught shoplifting at a grocery store.


Shelter: I’ve heard that 50% of the people released from jail in this county have no housing lined up. Homeless and broke is a very tough combination.


Transportation: Suppose you want to want to recover from your addictions and attend Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings. Without transportation even getting to and from meetings may be a problem. Lack of transportation makes it harder to look for housing, work, going to a laundromat, or the grocery store, or…


Clothing: Some of the guys may only have the clothes on their back when they are released. This becomes another obstacle in looking for work, or doing laundry.

Fortunately there are support services that can help with those needs but he still has to make the choice to utilize those services. Some of the solutions may only last for a few weeks. There is transitional housing, but by its very nature it can only be used as a stop-gap for a few weeks to give them time to look for a longer term solution.

This man has seen friends die from drug overdose. He wants to avoid going down that path. He wants to break the cycle that has trapped him for 44 years.

Recovery is hard work.



You Got New Shoes!

As I entered the unit tonight one of the guys yelled across the cell block, “You got new shoes!”

It was true. I’d ordered a new pair of sneakers that had arrived this afternoon and was wearing them on their maiden voyage to the maximum security unit.


That guy’s comment speaks to how much they notice and remember the volunteers.

The surroundings for the men are fairly colorless. Therefore, when I go to the jail I’m selective in what I wear. I avoid red and orange since those are the colors the inmates wear and see all the time. I also avoid wearing tan or olive drab since those are the colors worn by the COs (correctional officers). I’ll usually wear a shirt that is bright yellow or magenta, and slacks that are dark blue or off-white.


The unit is still on near lock-down so again I was doing cell-by-cell visits. On the elevator ride up I spoke with the Catholic nun that serves the maximum security unit on Wednesdays and she indicated that she too has been limited to cell by cell visits.

Tonight only three men were allowed out of their cells at a time, and this evening they were using that time for phone calls home. As I was making the rounds one of the men who was talking on the phone stopped me and asked his wife to hold on while he had the chaplain pray for him. As precious as time talking to his wife was, he considered it more important to put that on hold while he received prayer. I was truly humbled. I causes me to ponder – what am I willing to put on hold in order to receive prayer?


In addition to the man on the phone I met with 9 guys at their cells. I didn’t meet with a couple of the regulars because they were sleeping. Sleep is a coping mechanism for these extended lock-downs.

With the one-on-one visits the guys tend to share more personal information. I’m more likely to hear about the specific charges they are facing. The crimes are both serious and wide-ranging. I’m seeing more tears than I’d normally see if we met as a group.

A number of the guys had received some tough news this past week. Many of my “regulars” are shipping out to prison very soon. For most it will not be their first time. One man who had been hoping for an acquittal was now feeling the weight of the upcoming sentence.


A few more are either in their trial or sentencing phases, and this next week will define where and how they will live for at least the next few years. Some are openly anxious while others wear a more stoic façade – yet all would appreciate prayer.

I was talking to one of the COs I’ve known for a few years. I remarked that I hadn’t seen him in a while. He said he has been moved around a lot doing training in various areas. They are training in new COs as best they can.


Last weekend I attended training for the volunteer chaplains. I heard encouraging news. The county judicial system is taking a different approach with juveniles with far less dependence on incarceration. As a result the population in juvenile has gone down by 75%, from 400 kids down to 100.


I also heard sobering news. A large number of COs (correctional officers) have retired so the facilities are short-staffed and having to rely more on COs working overtime. They are hiring new COs when they can, but they come straight out of the academy with little to no experience and lack of familiarity with the correct process for moving high-risk inmates. There have already been twice as many attacks on COs this year than there were in all of last year.

This weekend I was amazed by the other volunteers who have been doing this so much longer than I have. I heard from people who have been doing this for 20 years, 38 years, even 45 years. In one of the sessions we talked about what people are doing for self-care and how they prepare for going into the jail.

Pray support was critical, and I’m thankful for the base of prayer support that I receive.

Worship was frequently cited as a key part of their preparation. Worship is a key reminder that it is God’s power and not our own that will transform the lives of these men and women. Out of worship flows ministry.



Fix Your Eyes

The maximum security unit is still on near-lockdown. At present no more than 3 men are allowed out at a time. Again I did cell-by-cell visits and met with 15 guys. A few guys were new to the unit and I met with most of the regulars.  We would talk about what they have been doing to pass the time. I’d have them tell me about books they are reading, letters they are writing, and descriptions of their exercise routines. One of the men proudly showed me the business plan that he has been working on for the past few weeks.


Part-way though the visits there was an incident on another floor so the entire facility was on lock-down. The CO escorted me out of the unit and had me wait at the main desk for the floor. This gave me some time to get to know the CO that was working the desk. After about 10 minutes the issue was resolved enough that I was able to go back in and resume the cell-by-cell visits.


I’d ask about prayer requests. Upcoming trials were heavy on the minds of some. A few are looking at capital murder charges. Others are faced with multiple felonies that may mean decades in prison. Some men are hoping for release to a treatment program – many of the men have struggled with addiction issues. Sometimes a man may receive encouraging news. One man had his charges downgraded and was looking at being released soon. Others are still looking at a long time before anything is decided on their situation. They are learning to just take one day at a time because it is too frustrating to try to plan when the future is so uncertain.


Another common prayer request is for their family. Many have young children. The relationships range from strong support to being completely cut off. Nonetheless almost every man asks for prayer for his family.

Earlier today I’d been feeling so inadequate in my ability to support these men. I was reminded that yesterday my wife and I sang a song she had written. The chorus, inspired by Hebrews 12:2, declares:

Fix your eyes upon Jesus
The Son of God,
Author and perfecter of faith,
Who for the joy set before Him
Endured the cross
Despising its shame  
Now sits down at the right hand
Of the throne of God.

A friend (thanks Tim!) has been reading Edith Stein and I found these words encouraging:

The world is in flames. The conflagration can also reach our house. But high above all flames towers the cross. They cannot consume it. It is the path from earth to heaven. It will lift one who embraces it in faith, love, and hope into the bosom of the Trinity.

The world is in flames. Are you impelled to put them out? Look at the cross. From the open heart gushes the blood of the Savior. This extinguishes the flames of hell.

[At the Foot of the Cross, 14 Sep 1939]