Month: December 2016

Job Meets the Three Wise Men

“S” stopped by for prayer but couldn’t stay for the study. As I’ve mentioned before, the men have to choose between attending Bible Study or making their phone call to their family.

He consistently asks for prayer for his grandmother who may not be living in a safe situation. “S” describes the riff-raff that comes around and takes advantage of her hospitality.



“D” was able to stay for study. I’ve know “D” for about 5 months now. Tonight he shared a song with me that he has written about his hope in God. His mother had been a song writer too.

Since coming to jail he has earnestly been reading his Bible. He started at Genesis back in August and now is just wrapping up the book of Job. He was surprised at how much he could relate to Job, particularly the part where Job was complaining (Job 29 and Job 30) and later where God gives Job some perspective on the situation (Job 38). It seems that “D” was airing his grievances with God, and lately God has been responding. We talked about a few key concepts in Job.


If we’ve been trapped doing foolish things, how do we become wise?

Job 28:28 (NKJV)

28 And to man He said, ‘Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom,
And to depart from evil is understanding.’”

Often guys awaiting trial will assume that if God is in control then the charges will get dropped or they will be found innocent. I asked “D” if he would still trust God even if he was sentenced to prison. We talked about the verse:

Job 13:15a (NKJV)

15 Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him.

How much do we trust God, even when things aren’t going our way?

“D” was able to see himself in the book of Job. I asked him where he saw himself or someone he knew in the following scripture.

Matthew 2:1-12 (NKJV)

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.”

When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.

So they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet:

‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
Are not the least among the rulers of Judah;
For out of you shall come a Ruler
Who will shepherd My people Israel.’”

Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also.”

When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. 11 And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

12 Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way.


King Herod: Who is someone who clings to power even at the expense of others?

We talked about some gang leaders who eliminate threats to their position of power through violence and intimidation. “D” saw that behavior in his father. Even now his father is urging “D” to get more deeply involved in the gang so he is protected in prison.

We also talked about our own attempts to try and hold onto power and control in our own lives.

The chief priests and scribes: Who has head-knowledge about God but they are unmoved but it?

“D” grew up in the Bible Belt. He knew lots of people who had knew about God, and had memorized lots of Bible verses, but it made no difference in how they lived.

The wise men: Who was someone he knew who didn’t even realize they were seeking God, but ultimately found God?

“D” described his mother. When he was growing up both of “D’s” parents were drug addicts.  His father also physically abused his mother. After “D” left home his mother finally left “D’s” father to avoid further beatings and moved to another city, but she was still a drug addict. In the new city some people from a local church shared the Gospel with her. She accepted Christ and the church members helped her get off drugs. It was a slow but powerful transition. “D’s” mother passed away a few years ago, but she had turned her life around. She had even become an ordained minister.

She was only looking to avoid abuse, instead she found new life in Christ.


We closed the evening by praying for each other.


Christmas Communion in Jail

Christmas Communion in Jail

Twice a year a number of volunteers come together to offer communion to all of inmates at the jail. I’ve written about this in the past: Easter Communion, Communion Wafers and Life Savers, and Communion in the Max.

Because of the number of people involved that all have to get checked in through security we arrived at 6:45AM in order to meet as a group at 7:30AM.


When we gather the head chaplain takes us through the process and emphasizes the importance of asking each man his name and using his name as we serve them communion. There is a powerful humanizing effect in this.

You are welcome by name to the Table of the Lord.

The chaplain also discussed the realities of offering communion in this environment. We used light weight disposable cups to hold the juice used for intinction. In the past when a heavier chalice was used one of the inmates used the chalice to beat another inmate over the head. That communion cup was taken as evidence in the assault case.

While that may seem over-the-top, consider the subtle, passive-aggressive assaults that may occur in churches outside the walls where gossip is used by one congregation member to undermine another congregation member or the pastor.

I invited a friend to help out who is a fluent Spanish speaker. His first visit was to a dorm that help men who belonged to a particular Spanish speaking gang. They are housed separately because they are rivals of most of the other gangs that operate in this part of the country. They were able to conduct a 20-minute communion service with the men which included scripture reading and prayer.


My group served communion in the maximum security units that I visit each week along with two other higher security units. (max, maxier, maxiest?)

We first went to the highest security units. These are in an older section of the jail and show the wear of decades of use. In these units the cells are along a single straight wall with only the hallway wall visible from the cell. In the unit that I volunteer in each week the cells are arranged in a slight semi-circle so it is possible to see the guard desk, a TV screen, and even a few other cells. The men have developed hand signals and sign language to be able to communicate with each other. That type of communication is not possible in this higher security area. All of the men were in double-red uniforms (red shirts, red pants) which are the highest security.


There were thick water absorbent ropes on the floor in front of each cell. The purpose of these was two-fold:

  • If an inmate decided to plug their toilet and flood their cell it helped contain the water to keep from flooding other cells
  • It kept the men from “fishing”. Fishing is a means of using a string, usually pulled from their underwear or sheets, with paper or some other object tied to the end. The object is pushed underneath the door at an angle so it is in front of the door of the adjacent cell. The man in that cell will send his fishing line to snag the object and bring it into his cell.

We had two men who asked to receive communion. They received the juice-dipped wafer through a slot in the door. I prayed with them by name and asked if they had additional prayer requests. They almost always ask for prayers for their family.

After finishing there we went to the maximum security unit where I volunteer each week. Participation was somewhat low because of the time of day. The men get breakfast at 3:30AM and most go back to sleep after that. Instead of going cell-to-cell the men are sent out one at a time to come to the main door of the unit, and many are not awake with the call for communion comes through.

I was pleased that I was able to greet almost every man by name who came to the door even before they said their name. In the other two units where I only have brief through-the-door visits I had the other volunteers serve the men. We first ask, “Español or English?” If the man replies “español” then the Spanish speaker of our group continues in Spanish, otherwise one of the English speakers serves.

We ask their name. We explain that we will dip the wafer and hand it to them and they will take it with their hand through the slot in the door. We say the words of communion. We then ask how we can pray for them. As in other units the men almost always ask for prayer for their family. Only a few will ask for prayer for their upcoming trial in court.

Serving communion is as powerful for the volunteers as it is for the men. One of the team said, “I felt the sacredness of the occasion and the role that I took on. “

1 Corinthians 11:28 (NKJV)

28 But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup.


Finding Blessing Hidden in the Waiting


On occasion the CO (correctional officer) who controls access to the build may be busy booking someone into jail. There are a lot of steps that have to be followed to the letter so the CO may choose to have people queue up at the entrance in order to ensure the safety and security of the booking process.

I waited alongside an exhausted package delivery driver who needed a signature, and the Catholic nun who does programming on a different unit on Monday nights, but also meets with the guys in Maximum security on Wednesday afternoons. Since we are in the season of Advent she has been using Advent scriptures from the Lectionary. We chatted for a bit about times of waiting even as we waited to get into the jail.



After we got into the waiting area we waited for count to clear. In many correctional facilities “count” occurs multiple times a day. The facility is temporarily locked down and all inmates must be accounted for.

When count cleared I went up to get my supplies. Before I could proceed I had to wait for a group of incoming men who had just been booked in.

I went to the unit. The COs let me know which group would be out tonight.

I went in and waved to one of the guys who was talking on the phone to his family. During this time each man is given a limited amount of time to make a phone call. As I’ve mentioned before, attending Bible study may mean giving up their phone call to their loved ones.


I set up the Bibles and devotionals. I waited to see who would come in for study.

And I waited.

And I waited.

And I waited…

After about 10 minutes I talked to one of the COs. This was the only group coming out tonight. Apparently there were no participants for Bible study. I figured I’d close up shop and check if anyone from the other two units wanted a visit.

As I was packing up “C” and “D” came in the room. They weren’t there for the study. They indicated they just wanted to pray with me. I’ve know them for a long time and I’ve seen how their faith has grown over time.

Men who understood waiting at a deeper level than I have ever known prayed for me.

I received their prayer.

I was blessed by their prayer.

There was blessing in the waiting.

Isaiah 30:18   Therefore the LORD waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. For the LORD is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him.


He’d Never Read the Christmas Story

He looked though the door opening and then cautiously walked in. “L” has been in and out of jail and prison for the past few years. I asked about his family. He has a daughter who had just started preschool. When he talks to her on the phone he says he is at “work” because he doesn’t want to worry her or have her feel bad about his situation.


Addictions have taken him to some pretty dark places. He is currently waiting for a bed to open up in a drug rehab program.

The mother of his daughter began attending church a while ago and has been encouraging “L” to read the Bible and seek after God. “L” had been in maximum security for about a month but this was his first time coming to a Bible Study. He recently got a New Believer’s Bible which he reads each morning and evening. By his own admission he is not a strong reader so he has to read something several times before he can understand what it is saying.


I asked what Christmas was like for him growing up. It was hit-or-miss. When times were good there were presents. When times were tough his family didn’t even acknowledge Christmas.

Outside of church it is nearly impossible to hear the Christmas story. We can see Santa, Frosty, elves, reindeer, and toys. There may occasionally be a nativity scene, but there is rarely and explanation of what it means.


I asked if he had ever read the Christmas story. He had not.

It is so humbling for me to be there when someone opens a Bible for the first time, or reads a scripture passage they have never read before, or to explain to them that God loves them and there is hope and purpose for their life.

I listened as “L” read the story in Luke 2 for the very first time in his life.

Luke 2:1-20 (NKJV)

Christ Born of Mary

And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city.

Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife,[a] who was with child.So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

Glory in the Highest

Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid.10 Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. 11 For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.”

13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying:

14 “Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”

15 So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger. 17 Now when they had seen Him, they made widely[d] known the saying which was told them concerning this Child. 18 And all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds. 19 But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them.

We talked about what a crazy time it must have been for Mary and Joseph. “L” recalled what it was like when his daughter was born. His parents were and the hospital and so were his lady’s parents. He got scared and took off for a bit but came back in time for the birth. We wondered what Joseph was like during the birth. Was he cool the whole time or did he freak out a bit too?


We talked about how Jesus was born into poverty. He was essentially “born in a barn”, and rather than a crib, he slept in a food trough.

We read about the shepherds. What was it like to seen an angel? And just as you were getting used to that what was it like to see a whole bunch of angels?

I explained that the shepherds were likely the ones that raised the lambs that were used in the sacrifices at the temple. Perhaps the reason the angels came to them was to tell them about Jesus who would become God’s perfect sacrifice for us.


“L” was surprised that he could go back to his cell and read that same story in his Bible. He thought difference versions of the Bible had different stories. I encouraged him to check it out for himself.

I asked about prayer requests. He was concerned that if he just started being good and conforming to what everyone else wanted him to be that he would lose his own identity. We prayed that God would help him to become the man that God had created him to be.


Philippians 2:5-11

5-8 Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human!Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.

9-11 Because of that obedience, God lifted him high and honored him far beyond anyone or anything, ever, so that all created beings in heaven and on earth—even those long ago dead and buried—will bow in worship before this Jesus Christ, and call out in praise that he is the Master of all, to the glorious honor of God the Father.

The Word on the Street

I visited one of the guys (“A”) in the higher security section. I gave him a copy of the Daily bread devotional and told him how to fill out request forms to get additional reading material. In the higher security units (maxier maximum security?) they don’t have access to a bookshelf with reading material.

In the maximum security unit where I facilitate the Bible Studies there is a book shelf in the in a multi-purpose room with various random books. When I started a few years ago it was constantly empty. The staff is more conscientious about keeping it stocked now, and it may be that the inmates are better about returning books when they are done. Some guys do hang onto books to use as weights. Those movie scenes that showed prison yards with everyone doing weight training are not true in this state. A warden at one of the state prisons told me that if the inmate were bulked-up from all the weight training it became a greater risk for correctional officers to handle the population, so they pulled out all the weights and exercise machines from the yard.


“A” asked for prayers for security and safely. He also asked when I’d be back for another visit. I think he wanted to talk to someone who wasn’t correctional staff or a lawyer. He was yearning to talk to someone who would see him as a human being rather than “a list of charges”.

For Bible Study “J” showed up. He’s pretty intense, but in a good way. He might be on the Bipolar 2 spectrum in the hypomania phase:

  • Flying suddenly from one idea to the next
  • Having exaggerated self confidence
  • Rapid, “pressured” (uninterruptable) and loud speech
  • Increased energy, with hyperactivity and a decreased need for sleep

Yep, that’s “J”.

He’s actually fun to be around. He has a sharp mind and interesting perspectives. One of the larger face tattoos he has is the word “Loyalty” above his right eye. I’ve got to find out the back-story about that some time.


As face tattoos go that one is certainly better than the one Father Greg Boyle describes. A man was having trouble find work after he’d gotten out of prison. Perhaps one of the barriers to employment was the large tattoo on his forehead that read:


although his version was not censored. Father Greg arranged for him to get the tattoo removed.

For our opening discussion we talked about how difficult it can be to explain someone to someone who has never experienced it.  How would you explain music to someone who has never heard it? How do you explain computer graphics to a person who doesn’t know about computers? How do you explain colors to someone who is completely colorblind?

Our conclusion was that some descriptions sound almost mystical as we try an use simple language to describe powerful concepts.

We did the study using a variation of the Lectio Divina method. I’ve found this ancient study technique to be surprisingly effective with people behind the walls.

For our scripture we looked at:

John 1 (NKJV)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.

When someone one the street says, “What’s the word?” or uses “word” as an exclamation or description “J” said it meant “truth”.


In the beginning was the Truth

The Truth was with God

The Truth was God

There have been essays written recently about whether we are living in a post-truth society where objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.

There is still power in Truth (capital T) even as people spin and debate truth (small t).

My father, a former Navy man, learned that to avoid sea-sickness he needed to fix his eyes on the horizon rather than on the pitching deck of the boat. A steady, unmoving point was needed in tumultuous circumstances.


People in prison have a similar need for a point of focus that is steady and trustworthy. What is true even when life is in chaos?

The concept of light and life was a topic of discussion.

An important observation was that the Light was not repelled by the darkness. In Romans we read:

Romans 8:38-39 (NKJV)

38 For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, 39 nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
“J” doesn’t make phone calls even when he has the chance. There is no one to call. There are too many burned bridges, or too much drama. Yet God hasn’t given up on him.

And the light shines into the darkness…



Sending a Wake-up Call to Voice-mail

This write-up is a combination from two different weeks since I used the same study for different groups, but I will write them as a single event.

Background on this Study

When we hear a phrase like “those in the margins of society” we tend to think solely of those on the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum. Yet a study of both Scripture and history reveals a commonality of the human spirit and condition between the poor and powerless, and the rich and powerful. Issues of addiction and mental illness are present in both groups. Both groups struggle with meaning and purpose.

In Ecclesiastes 1:3 we read:

What profit has a man from all his labor in which he toils under the sun?


This question has been asked over generations by both rich and poor. There has to be something more than working and collecting material goods.

With that in mind I decided to use the story of the rich young ruler.

The Study

Under the current structure if the men want to attend the Bible study it means they are giving up their time for phone calls, exercise, or walking around and socializing in the common area with the dozen or so other guys that are out.

Attending the study carries a price. Economist would describe this as an opportunity cost: “if I do this then I cannot do that.”

Some men are choosing to come for the whole study. Others will come by at the beginning or end of the study for prayer.

“A” came by for prayer before anyone else arrived. In earlier one-on-one meetings with “A” I’ve learned that he comes from a very violent background, often had the hands of his father, and “A” has, himself, done profoundly violent acts. He struggles with mental illness and addictions. He is worried about violent retaliation against his family members. I reminded him that 19 people outside the walls are praying for him and the other men in the maximum security unit on a regular basis and asked how he wanted us to pray. His greatest concern was for his grandmother who is not in a safe environment.


Next “B” came in and he was here for the whole study. We had a bit of time to talk so I asked about what he had been reading. Because of the extended amount of time the guys spend in their cell they do a lot of reading. “B” has been reading the Bible a lot, and another book that he says is really speaking to him. The other book talks about god as an unformed intelligence that is present in all matter and responds to our thoughts. Therefor we can build wealth and gain power over our lives by envisioning the end result. The book asserts that it is our duty to acquire wealth and appreciate the finer things of life in order to have a spirit of gratitude. And the only way we can help others is by becoming wealthy.

“B” believed that this was the direction he needed to pursue – that the problems he had experienced up to this point were because he hadn’t envisioned wealth and controlled the god-intelligence present in all matter.


Remember, I had selected the scripture passage before I had spoken to “B” about his theology.

“C” and “D” joined the study. “C” opened us in prayer. We talked for a bit about voice mail. The guys indicated that when they were on the outside they were pretty conscientious about answering their phones and checking their voice mail. If they were busy or saw the call was from someone they didn’t want to talk to they let it roll over to voice mail.

We then had “D” read the scripture.

Mark 10:17-22 (NKJV)

Jesus Counsels the Rich Young Ruler

17 Now as He was going out on the road, one came running, knelt before Him, and asked Him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?”

18 So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. 19 You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not bear false witness,’ ‘Do not defraud,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother.’”[a]

20 And he answered and said to Him, “Teacher, all these things I have kept from my youth.”

21 Then Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “One thing you lack: Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow Me.”

22 But he was sad at this word, and went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.


I asked the guys to summarize the story in their own words. We then took a closer look.

How had the man arrived? He was running, so he was probably operating on emotion. Something had stirred him up so much that he was running to meet Jesus. We took some guesses about what had the man so worked up. Was he about to be caught for doing something wrong and his world was crashing in? Had someone close to him died? Clearly something has causing him to think about eternal life. The man kneels and opens with a compliment.

Now we notice that Jesus seems like somewhat of a jerk. He dismisses the man’s compliment.

We talked about smooth-talker and manipulators. Each of the guys could recall someone who was always manipulating others with their smooth words. The manipulators sounded sincere in their compliments, but they really didn’t care about others – they just wanted their own way and to get others to do their bidding.


Was this guy a manipulator, and did Jesus just want to throw this guy off his game?

Next Jesus recited some of the commandments, but not all. He did not include the beginning commandments about honoring God, not making graven images, and keeping the Sabbath. Did Jesus skip those because He knew the man had broken those? There was a variety of speculation.

Ten Commandments

One of the men had an interesting read on “all these things I have kept from my youth.” He wondered if the guy really meant, “I kept them when I was young, but not so much now.” Again, if the rich man was used to manipulating people he could pick and choose words to be technically correct while obfuscating the true meaning.

“Then Jesus, looking at him, loved him”

What does it mean to have someone see you and love you? Jesus isn’t looking at the man’s wealth or position, or any of the other externals that people saw instead of that man. Jesus saw him. The guys in jail are often seen based on their charges, or their criminal record, or their race, or their tattoos. I asked the guys what would happen if the judge, the the prosecutor, their defense attorney, and the jury saw them as Jesus sees them? Each man believed there would be more understanding and compassion.

Jeff VanVonderen has written that humans have three basic needs:

  1. to know they are loved with no strings attached
  2. to know that they are valuable and capable
  3. to know that they are not alone to face life

These men struggle with those basic needs. Some of the men struggle with feeling lovable. They fear their deeds have made them unlovable even to God. They sometimes question if their life has value and meaning. As they have burned various relationships they feel more and more alone. They long to hear, “Then Jesus, looking at him, loved him.”

In love Jesus tells the man what to do. The man came talking of himself.

  • What must I do…
  • All these things I have kept…

Jesus points the man to kinship. Not only is he to see the poor and help them, he is to become one of the poor himself, to have kinship with them.

“Kinship– not serving the other, but being one with the other. Jesus was not ‘a man for others’; he was one with them. There is a world of difference in that.”
― Gregory J. Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion

Take up the cross

Jesus clearly lays out the cost of discipleship. In saying “take up the cross” He is saying, “carry the hangman’s noose”, “bring the cyanide pellets for the gas chamber”, “bear the drugs for the lethal injection”.


Western Christians are happy to talk about the resurrection, but less inclined to examine the pain and shame of crucifixion. He doesn’t promise sunshine and roses. There will be pain and struggle. But we are not alone. We are loved. We have purpose and meaning for our lives. We are worth God’s time and attention, and we are not doing this alone.

The man had received life’s wakeup call from Jesus, yet he chose to let it rollover to voice mail.


We discussed if this was the man’s only chance. Each man recalled time after time that God had given him one more chance and he had turned his back on God; yet here was God continuing to call each of us.

Each of us can stay focused on our circumstances, or we can take up the cross and follow Jesus.

“C” stayed around for a bit longer and we talked. He takes great comfort in knowing his home church continues to pray for him. He doesn’t know how his case will turn out. He may be looking at some serious prison time, but he has expressed hope in God’s plan, that wherever he ends up going, that God has a plan and a purpose for him.

Afterwards three other men came by for prayer. We prayed in a circle lifting up each man and his circumstances, and for each man’s family.