Month: December 2017

Waves of Communion & Seeking Him

I help serve communion twice a year at the jail – around Easter and around Christmas. In the past we’ve had a number of people help and have done the entire jail in a single morning. However, this year was more challenging due to frequent lockdowns and increased security concerns, so a pair of people were asked to serve communion to a unit whenever they could get in.

Another person and I were able to serve one unit even though there had been two lockdowns earlier that day. I asked the other person if she could do the primary serving and I would help, since my hearing was not up to the task this year.

We collected the communion elements, arrived at the unit, and entered the first section. In this jail a unit is divided into three sections.

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The guard announced our presence and purpose. Only a couple of men came into the multi-purpose room where we were serving. After we served these two men we waited for a few minutes and then left the section when no one else came.

It seems that jail and the Navy have something in common: Never Again Volunteer Yourself

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People are extremely reluctant to volunteer to participate in something unless they understand exactly what they are getting into.

As we were waiting to get into the next section we were called back to the first section. Apparently the first two men explained what had happened to the other guys on the unit. When we went back in five more wanted to partake in communion.

This pattern repeated in the next two sections as well. Serve a few. Leave. Get called back. Serve even more than the first time.

  • A small wave
  • Retreat
  • The few explain what happened and what they experienced
  • Return
  • A larger wave of men partakes

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Since my hearing was impaired this was a far more visual experience for me.

  • Watching the walk and the expression of each man as he comes
  • Seeing the wafer dipped in the juice
  • The prayer of the server
  • The hand receiving the elements
  • In this moment he is no longer an inmate, he stands as a human at the altar of Grace
  • The transition of the face of the man as he partakes
  • Watching his steps as he walks away

After we had served the men in a section a second time, one of the guards also participated after all the other men were out of the room.

Jailed, and jailer, receiving grace.

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Seeking Him

After we finished serving I went to the maximum-security unit and began our Bible Study with the six men who were waiting.

We shared stories about long road trips. One man had done family road trips between Alabama and California when he was a kid. Another man was on a family vacation that traveled the Pacific Coast highway from Los Angeles to Seattle.

Mark Twain wrote, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

Travel changes us.

We then read our scripture:

Matthew 2:1-12 (NIV)

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
    who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

I had used this same scripture three hears earlier: Taking a Different Path Home

The men were not very familiar with the story of the birth of Jesus. Outside of the church there is little to no mention of these events. Christmas is about Santa, presents, a tree, family gatherings, and Black Friday deals.

One man had heard the Jesus could talk as soon as he was born, and that he never cried. Others were unsure how long ago these events actually happened.

We talked though the basics of the birth story, and the timeline. We can infer from the text that the magi didn’t come at the same time as the shepherds, since in this story Mary and Jesus are in a house.

I explained the significance of the gifts:

  • Gold, a gift for royalty, recognized Jesus as a ruler.
  • Frankincense was used in healing and acknowledged Jesus as the One who brings healing.
  • Myrrh was also used in healing, but also used to prepare bodies for burial. This gift acknowledged how we are healed through his death and resurrection.

As had happened before when I shared this scripture, the section that caused the most thoughtful attention was “they returned to their country by another route.”

What does it mean for each of these men to go home by a different way?

They can see where the old path has brought them.

After seeking the Savior, how do they live each day going a different way?

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A Surprise Announcement

There were seven men in the maximum-security unit Bible Study. This was the most I’d had in a long time. We actually ran out of Bibles.

As a conversation-starter I asked what was the biggest good surprise that they had experienced.

One man recalled that he was ten years old when his father announced that the family would be moving to America, and how excited he was.

“G” told of overdosing on heroin, and being told that, due to the overdose, his kidneys had shut down. Furthermore, he was told that since he had a history of illegal drug use he would be put at the bottom of any list for kidney transplant recipients. He was placed on a schedule of weekly dialysis, and began spending 3 hours each week getting dialysis. After a year of this he was about 1 hour into treatment when they disconnected him. They handed him a piece of paper that told him where to go to get his port removed. He asked them to explain. They told him that his kidneys were now functioning normally and he no longer needed dialysis.

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“T” remembered when he was nine and his father took him and his sister to ride the Desperado roller coaster in Primm, Nevada. At that time it was the highest roller coaster in the world.

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Another man remembered when he was told his daughter had been born, and that he could hold her.

We then read:

Luke 2:8-20 (NKJV)

Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold,[a] 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[c] 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.

I gave them some background on the birth of Jesus because I have learned that not everyone has heard the story. For most of these men when you ask them to tell what they know about the Christmas Story they talk about Ralphie and the Red Ryder BB Gun. (A Christmas Story, 1983)

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I also gave them background on shepherds, that these men were not highly respected by society. Yet these are the ones who received angelic news of the birth of the savior.

How would you react if you saw an angel? There responses were:

“I’d assume I was having some kind of a breakdown.”

“I’d wonder if the nurse messed up my medication.”

“I’d guess that there was something janky in the coffee”

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It seems the opening words of most angelic visits are, “Don’t be afraid.”

They hear good news, a savior. But they also hear an unlikely description. The Savior is in a lowly form, a baby. He is also in an unlikely place, a manger or food trough. The Savior is born in circumstances of grinding poverty — no house, not even a suitable crib.

The men observed that the angels appear and proclaim glory to God, and announce peace, but the angels do not compel the shepherds to go.

I asked why Jesus was born in such lowly circumstances instead of in a palace. One of the men explained that if Jesus had been born in a palace then people could have been ordered to go see him. The shepherds came by choice. We each come to Jesus by choice. For a man who is incarcerated it is a powerful thing to be given a choice.

Willingly we choose to. surrender our lives. Willingly our knees will bow.

 

 

 

Silent, Hidden, Waiting

I met with four men for the Tuesday night Bible Study. They represented a cross-section of the jail population. Two men were about to spend their second Christmas in jail while still waiting for their trial date to come up. One man will be “celebrating” his first Christmas in jail. And the final man was scheduled for release at 9AM the next morning.

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All four men knew what it was like to wait. All had experienced hardship. One was eagerly awaiting the next chapter in life’s story. One man was honest enough to say that, as he waited, his thoughts moved to plans of revenge.

Tonight we read:

Luke 1:5-25

There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah. His wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both well advanced in years.

So it was, that while he was serving as priest before God in the order of his division, according to the custom of the priesthood, his lot fell to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord. 10 And the whole multitude of the people was praying outside at the hour of incense. 11 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing on the right side of the altar of incense. 12 And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him.

13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. 14 And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. 15 For he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will also be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. 16 And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 He will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, ‘to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,’[b] and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

18 And Zacharias said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is well advanced in years.”

19 And the angel answered and said to him, “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and was sent to speak to you and bring you these glad tidings. 20 But behold, you will be mute and not able to speak until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words which will be fulfilled in their own time.”

21 And the people waited for Zacharias, and marveled that he lingered so long in the temple. 22 But when he came out, he could not speak to them; and they perceived that he had seen a vision in the temple, for he beckoned to them and remained speechless.

23 So it was, as soon as the days of his service were completed, that he departed to his own house. 24 Now after those days his wife Elizabeth conceived; and she hid herself five months, saying, 25 “Thus the Lord has dealt with me, in the days when He looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.”

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I gave them some background on the story. Here was a man who, by external appearances had done everything right. He was born in the priestly tribe. He had married right. He had even been selected to serve in the temple. Some priests lived their whole lives without ever being chosen for that.

But as he was in the temple serving, something was still on his mind.

When each of us is praying or waiting in the presence of God, what is still on our mind? The men I was meeting with yearned for freedom. They yearned for restoration of broken relationships destroyed by reckless choices. They understood what it was like to be before God, and still have something on your mind – a wound that has yet to heal; a source of shame that is often unspoken. It is the cry of their hearts as they wait in their cell. It is that soul ache that presents itself while waiting for sleep.

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An angel appears before Zacharias with amazing news: “your prayer is heard.” And he responds with skepticism just as these men might. What if an angel appeared in the jail cell? Is this vision a result of bad jail food, or poor ventilation? The men understood why he had questions.

There was some discussion about verse 20:

“But behold, you will be mute and not able to speak until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words which will be fulfilled in their own time.”

Was God being petty and vindictive? One man wondered if this punishment was Gabriel’s idea and God had nothing to do with it. How much does God punish us for unbelief, and how often does God just expect unbelief from us? There are no easy answers in tonight’s study.

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The men understood what it was like to not be heard, and to have difficulty communicating to others.

…for he beckoned to them and remained speechless.

In some ways being incarcerated is like being stricken mute.

We wondered how being mute changed him. What did he learn in this time of enforced silence? What did he learn during this time of waiting? The men talked about how they have learned to observe others. Is this a good day to joke around with that guy? Is the guard in a particularly crabby mood today? Did someone just receive their divorce papers?

Elizabeth was hidden away for 5 months. Being in jail is like being hidden away. Elizabeth could see the world carrying on while she watched. These men watch the daily news programs and the world moves on, for better or for worse, without them.

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It seems that Zacharias and Elizabeth had much in common with the waiting experienced by the incarcerated.

 

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How Long, O Lord?

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The season of Advent, which comes from the Latin word adventus meaning “coming” or “visit”. It seems to best be characterized as a time of waiting. Something significant is going to happen, but it isn’t here just yet.

That also characterizes the experience of the men that I see in the jail. Each man is waiting for something that will profoundly impact his life: a court date, a trial, a hearing, or the end of a sentence.

The men I met with on Tuesday night exemplified that. One man will soon spend his second Christmas in jail still waiting for this trial to begin.  Another man is eagerly awaiting the completion of his time served and will be released within the next week. Every man is waiting for something that is not yet here.

They are in the between-time of transitions. They are from something and going to something.

In Poetry from Prison: Advent Hope one person described it this way:

By D

I am from the front yard.

I am from gunshots, running from cops.

I am from a broken home.

I am from a weed plant smokes that if you hit it you would choke.

I am from BBQs that end in fights and cops come and someone goes to jail tonight.

I am from where the fear of God is not number one.

I am from soups and beans were what we had and if you cried you got slapped.

I am from drug task kicking in the door.

I am from gunshots at our house, cops coming, someone hit.

 

But that’s not the end of my story…

 

I am to a loving wife.

I am to showing my wife that I am worth her love.

I am to being better than I was.

I am to God’s loving hands.

I am to never hurting my family again and making up for what I have done.

I am to better days where people see people for people not color or race and gangs see people not red or blue.

I am to the best I can be, not and until I meet God.

 

For our study we looked at:

Psalm 6

O Lord, do not rebuke me in Your anger, nor chasten me in Your hot displeasure.
Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I am weak; O Lord, heal me, for my bones are troubled.

My soul is in deep anguish. How long, Lord, how long?

Turn, Lord, and deliver me; save me because of your unfailing love.
Among the dead no one proclaims your name. Who praises you from the grave?

I am worn out from my groaning. All night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears.
My eyes grow weak with sorrow; they fail because of all my foes.

Away from me, all you who do evil, for the Lord has heard my weeping.
The Lord has heard my cry for mercy; the Lord accepts my prayer.
10 All my enemies will be overwhelmed with shame and anguish; they will turn back and suddenly be put to shame.

Verse 1: These men have felt the hot displeasure of others. Will God be the same way towards them?

Verse 2: These men knew that feeling – for my bones are troubled – the anguish that is felt at the core of your being.

Verse 3: The cry of the inmate – how long?

Verse 4: God deliver me, not because I am so good, but because of who You are – your very character is mercy.

Verse 5: The spiritually dead don’t proclaim God’s name.

Verse 6: There is crying in the jail cells. Most of the time it is hidden from others.

Verse 7: Prosecutors and family members remind them what a disappointment they are.

Verse 8: My hope is in God.

Verse 9: There is a well-known judge who looks for alternatives to incarceration. He is willing to listen to the accused, and to understand their addictions. He connects them with treatment options. He wants to see these men changed for the better.

Verse 10: Through the transformation by God, those who have told them that they would never amount to anything are finally silenced.

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