Month: February 2017

God Tore Us a New One

Often before I go in I’ll have time to talk to the Catholic nun who also serves at the jail. We can compare notes on who we’ve met with and what we’ve been observing. Both of us have noticed a decline in participation compared to this time last year. Currently we are in a bit of a “dry” season. Because of this I am now more likely to wait in the common area where the rest of the guys are when they are released for their rec. time. Almost everyone lines up by one of the pay phones to make a call to family or friends. Both before and after the study this week I chatted with a few guy who were out for program and met some guys “through the door” because they were not out for program. I also use this time to get to know the staff a bit more.

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I met with “A” and “E” on Monday night. “E” is a fairy new arrival to the unit. In general he was in good spirits but had some anxiety regarding the potential for conflict in the unit. From my perspective things are certainly much better than they were six moths ago, but there is always the potential for another round of escalating violence.

“A” had been punishing himself this week. He took down all the pictures that he’d had in his cell and had been pretty hard on himself for being so wishy-washy with God. This discussion made a natural segue into our scripture.

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Hosea 6:1-6 (NKJV)

Come, and let us return to the Lord;
For He has torn, but He will heal us;
He has stricken, but He will bind us up.
After two days He will revive us;
On the third day He will raise us up,
That we may live in His sight.
Let us know,
Let us pursue the knowledge of the Lord.
His going forth is established as the morning;
He will come to us like the rain,
Like the latter and former rain to the earth.

“O Ephraim, what shall I do to you?
O Judah, what shall I do to you?
For your faithfulness is like a morning cloud,
And like the early dew it goes away.
Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets,
I have slain them by the words of My mouth;
And your judgments are like light that goes forth.
For I desire mercy and not sacrifice,
And the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.

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I often ask the guys to explain the scripture in their own words. How would you describe this passage to someone back in the neighborhood? The paraphrase of verse 1 was, “God tore us a new one, but He will heal us. We’re pretty beat up, but God will will patch us up.”

In verse 4 the prophet criticizes the the peoples’ lack of faithfulness. They start out looking good, but then it disappears. We live in an area that has a season of dense fog each morning by noon it has completely burned off and we are left with clear skies and no hint that there was ever any fog. This also seems to be the pattern of Jailhouse Jesus who is easy to follow as long as you are locked up.

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Previously on this blog someone made the following comment:

I worked in a prison for four years. That’s the pattern I saw also. Holy, holy, holy, and then it’s time to GO. “See you later, Jesus!”

Twice a week, we’d take inmates to the bus station for the ride home. The roadside close to the station is littered with prison bibles thrown out the window by guys fresh out of prison looking for sex, a quick high, and a way to get back to the life that got them into prison in the first place. Many of them will be loaded before the bus stops, and almost half will be back in prison in a year or two. What fools they be.

Jesus doesn’t move. He’ll be right there at the chaplain’s office where He was last time.

We see a similar pattern described by the Old Testament prophets. The people start out looking faithful, but then begin following after other things. It takes a major crisis to get the attention of the people before they turn back to God.

Some people feel like they can buy God’s affection by sacrifice. “A” confessed that his taking down of his pictures and beating himself up this past week was his version of sacrifice that he was using to try and buy God’s favor.

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But God has already taken care of the sacrifice. He delights in giving mercy to His people, and He delights in His people giving mercy to others. So we had a discussion about how do you do mercy while you are incarcerated. Does mercy extend just to your friends? What about rival gang members, or the really hard question, does mercy extend to the COs?

“A” was encouraged knowing that God had already taken care of the sacrifice, and that what He wanted now was relationship with his people, and that He wanted us to receive mercy and to extend mercy to one another.

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INMATES DIE

Oftentimes I don’t know what happens to the guys when they leave jail. Sometime I know they are going to prison, or being released to a program, or to the streets. Occasionally I’ll hear about someone who has died. In addition to the causes of death that I might hear about regarding a co-worker — traffic accident, cancer, aids, heart attack, stroke — some of the guys I’ve met have died due to violence or drug overdose.

I was going to write my own blog post about this, but Jesse Bailey gives you a view from the inside — raw and insightful. Please read his words and think on the men and women who die hidden from society.

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Its has amazed me how many people die in prison. I have lived in H-3 unit at Stafford Creek now for 8 years. I have seen many people from this unit die.

There has been quite a few people die at this facility. But at least 8 or 9 just from this unit alone. Two personal friends of mine.

When I first came to prison I didn’t see a whole lot of wheelchair bound people or sickly people either. They just weren’t around. Most inmates seem healthy and capable. At least physically. There are a lot of inmates that are noticeably, mentally not all there. But are in generally good health.

Looking back on it now, I think it was because of where I was located. In closed custody ( max security ). If a person can’t defend them self they don’t last long and or get taken advantage of.

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Following Isn’t About Geography

I met with two different men in maximum security.  I did the same study with both men.

“N”, unlike most guys in max, is not tattooed. Actually, he reminds me of myself in my late 20s. He said he was transferred to max a few weeks ago for disciplinary reasons. Although this is not his first time in jail, or even prison, he’s a little freaked out being surrounded by “red shirts”, i.e. guys who are in for more serious charges.

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A family member suggested that “N” get a copy of the Bible and read the book of Job. He has started reading that, but has no other background or familiarity with the Bible, or even Christianity for that matter.

“D” has been a regular the past few months. One of the things he was explaining was how discipline and order works among the inmates. Apparently it falls clearly along racial lines. A new guy had come the unit and was frequently shouting and throwing food and papers into the common area outside his cell. As “D” explained it, “There aren’t many brothers in max, so we gotta stick together. One of the Hispanic dudes said, ‘What’s wrong with your boy? You gotta have a word with him.’” So it was incumbent on “D” to get the new guy in line. Apparently the new guy wasn’t open to instruction and disrespected “D”. “D” was feeling angry and frustrated with the situation, and trying to discern how to handle it in a Godly manner.

For our opening discussion I asked they guys if they had even been to a party with amazing food. Each of them could recall a neighbor who would have awesome barbecues. When we lived in Berkeley there was a Cuban immigrant who lived near us that would throw epic parties with music from a live band and overflowing with slow cooked succulent meats.

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For our study I wanted to use two different version of the same story. Fortunately, for guys like “N” we all use the same edition of Bible provided by the Gideons so I can just refer to page numbers.

We read:

Matthew 9:9-13 (NKJV)

Matthew the Tax Collector

As Jesus passed on from there, He saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax office. And He said to him, “Follow Me.” So he arose and followed Him.

10 Now it happened, as Jesus sat at the table in the house, that behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Him and His disciples. 11 And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to His disciples, “Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

12 When Jesus heard that, He said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.”

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Luke 5:27-32 (NKJV)

Matthew the Tax Collector

27 After these things He went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax office. And He said to him, “Follow Me.” 28 So he left all, rose up, and followed Him.

29 Then Levi gave Him a great feast in his own house. And there were a great number of tax collectors and others who sat down with them. 30 And their scribes and the Pharisees complained against His disciples, saying, “Why do You eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”

31 Jesus answered and said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.”

I gave them some background about tax collectors. They were despised because they were exploiting their own neighborhoods. Some of the guys in max could certainly to this where collection “protection” money, selling drugs, and shaking down people or robbing them was the norm.

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The guys were comfortable with the idea that Matthew and Levi were the same person, much like how someone has a name they were given at birth, but they may also have a street name.

We noticed it was Jesus who came to Matthew. The message here is that God is already seeking them out. But they aren’t being sought after like “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” It’s more like “Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling.”

Matthew responded to the call of Jesus to come follow Him, but following didn’t seem to mean a change in geography, because the next thing we read is that he’s throwing a great feast in his own house. Jesus isn’t partying with the judges and lawyers. Matthew is throwing an epic party where all the other despised people are invited, and Jesus is there in the midst of them.

Following Jesus isn’t about geography. You can follow Jesus even if you are:

  • in jail
  • in prison
  • in a treatment program
  • on the streets

Jesus talks about helping those who know they need help. We talked for a bit about how ineffective it is to try and help someone who doesn’t believe they need help. The scribes and the Pharisees didn’t believe they needed help. In fact, they were thinking that Jesus was the one who needed to be corrected for eating and drinking with sinners.

Jesus said, “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance”. For a man like “N”, this was surprising. Jesus was calling to someone like him. This was good news.

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