Month: November 2016

What Will You Leave Behind?

 

None of the men in the two more secure units were interested in a visit tonight. A visit from the chaplain is only offered to the men who are out for rec. time, so I know participation will be low. It is also new to even have me visit, so they may not be used to the idea or even understand the purpose.

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I had one man come to Bible Study, and another man requested a visit at his cell door since he was not out for rec. time.

The man who came to the study was fairly new to the unit and it was the first time I’d met him. I’ll call him “M”. He indicated he was schedule for release in a few weeks. I gave “M”  a copy of the devotional Our Daily Bread.

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Last Saturday I heard a former inmate speak. The Daily Bread devotionals were available in his prison. He’s been out of prison for years but he still enjoys reading the devotional and looks forward to when new ones come out.

Our study tonight was:

Luke 15:1-7 (NKJV)

The Parable of the Lost Sheep

15 Then all the tax collectors and the sinners drew near to Him to hear Him. And the Pharisees and scribes complained, saying, “This Man receives sinners and eats with them.” So He spoke this parable to them, saying:

“What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’ I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance.

I read the first part and “M” read the rest. He had heard about this story but had never heard it or read it.

“M” was raised in the city and had no experience with sheep. There was a town a few hours from where he grew up that had lots of farmers and ranchers. “M” said he stuck out like a sore thumb when he was in that town. He did recall how peaceful that town was.

Where I grew up a breed of dog called a Blue Heeler was used for herding sheep and cattle. It’s a lot of fun to watch these dogs work. Even with a good dog it is possible for a sheep to get separated from the rest of the flock. The sheep may not even realize that it is lost. The job of the shepherd is to find it and bring it back to the flock.

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I told him about a sheep that had been lost for 6 years. By the time he was found his wool weighed 60 pounds. All of this wool can become a health and safety concern for sheep, especially if they are in very hot conditions. Heat stress can become a real issue. Also, if a sheep’s wool becomes too large they can get stuck on their backs, unable to get up.

“M” has several children in their teens and a 5-year old. An example we talked about was if he took his family to a mall, and the 5-year old wandered off. He wouldn’t say, “well, I have the rest of the kids, that’s good enough.” He would definitely go looking for the 5-year old. Finding that child would be the most important thing.

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In the same way, God seeks after us when we are lost; even before we know we are lost He is already seeking after us. God isn’t waiting for us to “be good” before He acts.

We read:

Romans 5:8 (NKJV)

But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Before we knew we needed help God had already taken action.

What Will You Leave Behind?

Going back to the parable I asked “M”, what if we switched it around and you were the shepherd, what is important enough in your life that you would abandon everything else to get this?

For him a restored relationship with his kids and his lady is what he desires the most. He regrets the years he lost being with them when he was in prison.

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Mother Teresa said, “If you want to bring happiness to the whole world, go home and love your family.”

This is “M”’s greatest desire and also his greatest fear.

  • What if he messes up?
  • What if he spends so much time working to provide for them that he isn’t home for them?
  • What if he is too demanding?

What will he leave behind to find that which he had lost?

  • His fear of appearing vulnerable
  • His need for control
  • His need to be busy
  • His drive to be a good provider which in the past has meant chasing after money at the expense of spending time with his children

What will each of us leave behind?

Please God…Are You Real?

Perspectives from the inside

Steven D. Jennings

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At some point almost everyone ponders the question, “Is there really a God?”

For years I kept that thought to myself. Even when I was on fire for the Lord. I wondered in the back of my mind if He was real.

I prayed thousands of prayers asking for clarity. I was conflicted. I still am conflicted. Is God real?

One thing that I am NOT conflicted on is the fact that if you live by the laws of the Bible, you’ll live a righteous life.

Early on in my incarceration, I turned away from religion. However, I continued to pray to a God that I didn’t know for sure even existed. I want to believe in God. But for some reason, my mind questions Him.

So for 15+ years I lived without God. I attempted to rehabilitate myself and to live a righteous life without Him. I attempted to…

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Sharpshooters in the Tower

When I arrived on the maximum security unit the COs had me wait in an interview room since there was an incident they needed to deal with first. I never know the details of a particular incident. However, the following is an example of what might constitute an incident where they would just have me wait.

If an inmate gets bored and/or frustrated they may decide to stuff clothes, bed sheets, blankets, etc. into the toilet to block it and then begin flushing the toilet until it overflows flooding their cell and spilling out into the unit. When the COs encounter that they will instruct the inmate to put their hands in the door slot so they can be handcuffed while the guards clean up the mess. If the inmate is cooperative this can be cleared up in about 10 minutes. If the inmate is not cooperative, or worse yet, begins cutting themselves then this can escalate into an incident that may take hours to resolve.

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I met with a friend the other night who is facilitating a study in a minimum security unit. The men are housed in low wall units similar to what you might see in Orange is the New Black. There is no privacy. The men have far more freedom of movement than in the maximum security unit, but there is still relatively little for them to do besides watch TV, play games, talk, and read. A Bible study is a break in the routine so many men will attend just for something to do. My friend will typically have 40 men attending a study.

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In the maximum security unit we’ve gone back to a structure that I’ve used before where I’ll meet with one group this week and a different group the following weeks. Again, the groups are segregated by gang affiliation. The men who attend the study are giving up their free time/recreation time to attend the study. It means the number of participants is lower, but those who do attend really want to be there.

I had two men attend. I’ll call them “A” and “B”.

“A” had just transferred in from a lower security unit that I described above. He found the isolation of the maximum security unit much more restful. By his own description he was in special needs classes when he attended school. In spite of his intellectual disability he is able to read, albeit haltingly. He said he frequently doesn’t understand the words that he reads. He also indicated that he has issues with anger that led to his incarceration. You can see why, with anger issues, a lack of privacy, and being a target for ridicule due to his intellectual development, that the minimum security unit could be a tough place for him and why maximum, with a cell all to himself might be much more restful. “A’s” own dad died when he was 11, and he has a lot of anger about that situation. He is in his 20s and has a son. “A” wants to be a good dad for his son, and that is his primary motivation for wanting to change his life.

“B” has been in maximum for the past few months. He is in his 50s or 60s and has been to prison before. He has been living with addictions most of his life. I described some about him in the blog post 44 Years of Addiction.

“A” opened us in prayer and “B” volunteered to read our first passage.

Habakkuk 1:1-4 (NKJV)

The burden which the prophet Habakkuk saw.
O Lord, how long shall I cry,
And You will not hear?
Even cry out to You, “Violence!”
And You will not save.
Why do You show me iniquity,
And cause me to see trouble?
For plundering and violence are before me;
There is strife, and contention arises.
Therefore the law is powerless,
And justice never goes forth.
For the wicked surround the righteous;
Therefore perverse judgment proceeds.

Consider these verses from the perspective of a person in a maximum security unit.

Some of the guys describe certain words used in the Bible as “old school” and therefor difficult to understand, so we reviewed a few of the old school words.

Iniquity: something that is unfair or evil

Plundering: to steal things by force. One illustration is that of a car parked in a bad neighborhood. If the radio gets stolen while you are gone – well, that just happens. But if you park the car and a bunch of guys beat you up and steal the radio, the seats, the wheels, the fenders, and the engine – that’s plundering.

Strife: very angry or violent disagreement between two or more people or groups. Think rival gangs meeting on the streets.

Contention: anger and disagreement. “A” could relate to strife and contention.

Righteous: good people

Perverse: wrong or different in a way that others feel is strange or offensive. One example of perverse judgment was the following story. A high school honor roll student lived in a major city where the school bus drivers were on strike. Since she had to walk through several bad neighborhoods to get between home and school, she carried pepper spray in her purse. When she got to school she told the security officer that she had it. He arrested her for bringing prohibited items to school.

One of the observations about this passage is that Habakkuk was mad at God. God can handle our anger. It is more important to be real with God rather than to be nice to God. It’s OK to notice what is going on around you. Guys who grew up in households with addictions and other destructive behaviors were punished for noticing if things were messed up. As addicts they probably punished their friends and family members for noticing their destructive behaviors. In God’s plan they no longer have to deny what they are seeing and doing.

Our second scripture was read by “B”.

Habakkuk 2:1-3 (NKJV)

I will stand my watch
And set myself on the rampart,
And watch to see what He will say to me,
And what I will answer when I am corrected.

Then the Lord answered me and said:

“Write the vision
And make it plain on tablets,
That he may run who reads it.
For the vision is yet for an appointed time;
But at the end it will speak, and it will not lie.
Though it tarries, wait for it;
Because it will surely come,
It will not tarry.

Again, we reviewed a few of the old school words:

Rampart: Some of the older prisons have thick stone walls. The image the guys could relate to was the guards in the towers up on the walls. The sharpshooters are constantly on the lookout.

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Tarry: Delayed. To be slow in going.

We looked at a few sentences:

“And what I will answer when I am corrected.”

In chapter 1 the prophet made the statements to the effect that God didn’t care and was powerless to save. But here he says “when I am corrected.” He expects that God will correct him and show that God does care and that God does save.

“Write the vision and make it plain on tablets, that he may run who reads it.”

In other words, make it like a billboard that you can read while driving on the freeway. Write it so you don’t forget. Write it so you will watch for it to happen.

“for an appointed time”

Why can’t it happen now? We talked about having to grow into some things. One example was driving a car. A 5 year-old can’t drive. They are too short to see over the steering wheel and their feet can’t reach the pedals. There is an expression in addiction recovery, “it takes what it takes.” Certain things have to happen before a person is ready for change.

We shared prayer requests and “A” closed us in prayer.

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Deeper Levels of Max

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There are different levels within maximum security. Factors that may place someone in maximum security are: the crime committed, weapons, if violence was used, prior incarcerations, gang involvement, and so on.

The unit that I go to each week had some level of programming – at least it did until 18 weeks ago – and as many as 30 men might be out or their cells at a time for showers, recreation, haircuts, etc. The men were grouped or separated based on gang affiliations.

In my blog entry on Violence I explained that there are some inmates who are in a constant state of rage and always pose a risk to the staff, other inmates, and even themselves. Here’s an example. At a prison in the Midwest they had an inmate with a consistent pattern of violence. The man was about 6’7” and 375 lbs. He was kept in the SHU (Special Housing Unit, aka solitary) because it was unsafe for anyone to share a cell with him. Being in the SHU meant he was in his locked cell 23 hours a day. Whenever they needed to move him they would have his hands and feet chained together in shackles. There were 4 guards each holding chains connected to his feet so that, if he tried to attack anyone – which was almost every time, they could use the chains to pull his feet out from under him.

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If a man in getting into fights or causing other disruptions, they can be sent to one of the other maximum security units that has even greater restrictions. In these unit only one or two men are allowed out at a single time – perhaps 3 men at once.

In the past I’ve only been to those units when we serve communion at Christmas and Easter. Only about 10%-20% of the men in those units are interested in receiving Communion even though it provides them a reason to come out of the cell.

Since it was unclear if/when the Bible studies would ever resume, and since I had been doing cell-to-cell visits for the past 18 weeks I asked about going into the other two units that are even more restrictive than the unit that I’ve been going to for the past two years. Thanks to the cooperative efforts of the administration, staff, and full-time chaplains I began my visits to those two units tonight.

In the more secure units I will not have the opportunity to meet with every man each week – only the few that are out for their recreation time when I come by. Since they would have to use their rec time talking to me I understand that participation may be rather low. Consequently, I was pleased when I was able to talk to and pray with two different men in these units, and to hand out 6 devotionals.

If it seems to tarry, wait for it

Habakkuk 2:3 (NKJV)

For the vision is yet for an appointed time;
But at the end it will speak, and it will not lie.
Though it tarries, wait for it;
Because it will surely come,
It will not tarry.

 

The last time I was able to facilitate a Bible study in the maximum security unit was 18 weeks ago.

Until tonight…

Remember that time spent in Bible study means they are giving up other uses for their rec time.

The men are getting more time out of their cells, but time out or still a precious commodity. Just being able to socialize with someone other than their cell-ie is a relief. One of the most important during this rec time is a chance to make a phone call. For those who don’t get visitors or letters this is their sole connection to the outside.

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I had two men come to the group tonight. One just wanted prayer, which I did. The other wanted to do the Bible study. He wanted to do Bible study so much he gave up his telephone time. I told him I’d wait, but he wanted to do the study more.

He had recently gotten a Bible of his own and was reading it voraciously. He was already in Leviticus. We talked for a bit about what he had learned so far.

For the study tonight I had two different scriptures which seemed like they would be good compliments to his Leviticus readings.

The first one:

Matthew 23:1-4 (NKJV)

23 Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do. For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.

The man knew who Moses was since he’d just finished Exodus but he didn’t know who the scribes and the Pharisees were. He did know people who liked to lay rules on others but not follow the rules themselves. He also knew of people that liked making life harder for everyone else.

We talked about the games people play – “God if you let me________, then I’ll never/always ________.” Another game he and others have played with God is “God, first I’ve gotta take care of some business, but right after then I’ll be good and righteous.”

We talked about why people want to be seen as good, powerful, or important, even when they aren’t.

Our other scripture was:

Matthew 11:28-30 (NKJV)

28 Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”

We talked about the phrase “heavy laden” since that is not commonly heard on the street. I recall a description of merchants in the middle east who would load their wares on donkey. They would keep it all together using netting. Then they would tie more stuff onto the netting. It would just look like a pile of stuff moving down the road – you couldn’t even see the donkey. We then talked about people who were weighed down so much by their emotional baggage that you couldn’t even see the person, you just saw their “stuff”. We had each been in that situation before.

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The man didn’t know what a yoke was, but he knew what it was like to have bad shoes that made blisters, and good shoes that fit well and felt good on your feet.

Gentle is not a word that some of the men can easily relate to. If their mother was abusive or still in her addiction they may not have received gentleness, but most have observed it at one time or another.

The phrase “lowly in heart” was also unclear for him. We talked about learning how to read. A good teach would break it down until it was understandable. I had a lot of trouble learning how to read. Fortunately, a good teacher was able to help me through my learning disability by breaking it down in a way that worked for me. In the same way, Jesus meets us where we are and breaks it down for us to understand.

We talked about rest. For him the most restful time in his life was when he could come home from school, make himself a baloney sandwich, and sit and watch Scooby-Doo.

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The yoke and the burden implied that there was work to do – that there was purpose. He found great comfort and encouragement in that.

We prayed together.

I was grateful to be able to sit at the table together, and to discuss how the scriptures apply to our circumstances now, and how God is guiding each of us.

Thanks be to God.

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