Month: January 2018

Broken Pottery

Due to a combination of health issues and several lockdowns I’d been unable to meet with the guys for the past 3 weeks.

While we were waiting to go in the guard in the unit said he had announced twice for Bible Study, but that no one was interested. As I’d mentioned in my description of serving communion in the jail at Christmas, the guys inside tend to be suspicious of anything that is announced if they cannot see it. Once we got in and set up, once guy came to briefly speak with the other chaplain, and then four guys came for Bible Study.

Our opening discussion was about visits, phone calls, and letters – what is good when they happen, and what is bad when they don’t happen. They or their cellie might have been expecting a visit from someone, but that person never showed up. Maybe they received a “Dear John” explaining that the relationship was over. One man had recently gotten a “Dear John” phone call.

For many of these men, this is not the first time they’ve been in serious trouble. There has been a pattern that has been repeated to the point that family and friends may have said “enough” and cut off the relationship. Some have had no visits, phone calls, or letters since they began their incarceration.

As we read through Psalm 31 the first time I asked the men to listen to a word or phrase that caught their attention.

Psalm 31

In you, Lord, I have taken refuge;
    let me never be put to shame;
    deliver me in your righteousness.
Turn your ear to me,
    come quickly to my rescue;
be my rock of refuge,
    a strong fortress to save me.
Since you are my rock and my fortress,
    for the sake of your name lead and guide me.
Keep me free from the trap that is set for me,
    for you are my refuge.
Into your hands I commit my spirit;
    deliver me, Lord, my faithful God.

I hate those who cling to worthless idols;
    as for me, I trust in the Lord.
I will be glad and rejoice in your love,
    for you saw my affliction
    and knew the anguish of my soul.
You have not given me into the hands of the enemy
    but have set my feet in a spacious place.

Be merciful to me, Lord, for I am in distress;
    my eyes grow weak with sorrow,
    my soul and body with grief.
10 My life is consumed by anguish
    and my years by groaning;
my strength fails because of my affliction,[b]
    and my bones grow weak.
11 Because of all my enemies,
    I am the utter contempt of my neighbors
and an object of dread to my closest friends—
    those who see me on the street flee from me.
12 I am forgotten as though I were dead;
    I have become like broken pottery.

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13 For I hear many whispering,
    “Terror on every side!”
They conspire against me
    and plot to take my life.

14 But I trust in you, Lord;
    I say, “You are my God.”
15 My times are in your hands;
    deliver me from the hands of my enemies,
    from those who pursue me.
16 Let your face shine on your servant;
    save me in your unfailing love.
17 Let me not be put to shame, Lord,
    for I have cried out to you;
but let the wicked be put to shame
    and be silent in the realm of the dead.
18 Let their lying lips be silenced,
    for with pride and contempt
    they speak arrogantly against the righteous.

19 How abundant are the good things
    that you have stored up for those who fear you,
that you bestow in the sight of all,
    on those who take refuge in you.
20 In the shelter of your presence you hide them
    from all human intrigues;
you keep them safe in your dwelling
    from accusing tongues.

21 Praise be to the Lord,
    for he showed me the wonders of his love
    when I was in a city under siege.
22 In my alarm I said,
    “I am cut off from your sight!”
Yet you heard my cry for mercy
    when I called to you for help.

23 Love the Lord, all his faithful people!
    The Lord preserves those who are true to him,
    but the proud he pays back in full.
24 Be strong and take heart,
    all you who hope in the Lord.

For one man these verses seemed to echo his own story:

I am the utter contempt of my neighbors and an object of dread to my closest friends—those who see me on the street flee from me. I am forgotten as though I were dead.

The gang member has become the object of dread in his own neighborhood. Yet once he is off the streets he is quickly forgotten.

This verse describes well what it feels like for the people waiting in jail, waiting for a trial to happen that will profoundly impact the rest of their life:

My life is consumed by anguish and my years by groaning; my strength fails because of my affliction, and my bones grow weak.

Several men keyed in on the word “refuge”.

  • I have taken refuge
  • be my rock of refuge
  • for You are my refuge

They found comfort in the thought of a refuge – a safe place, a shelter.

refuge

As we read through the scripture again this time I asked them to look for the action that God was doing.

  • Delivering
  • Listening
  • Saving
  • Leading and guiding
  • Shining
  • Storing
  • Sheltering and hiding
  • Keeping safe
  • Preserving

 

On the overhead light in the cell where one of the men was staying, a previous occupant had scratched a Bible verse into the fixture. It was a scripture of hope, and putting our trust in God. That is what he sees each night before the lights go off.

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The final discussion was about how this scripture applies to our own life.

Many felt that God did love them and could forgive their sins, but they wrestled more with forgiving themselves. Shame was a word that came up frequently.

One man found it hard to trust in God. He had a sense of dread that, at the last minute, God would abandon him. For someone who was raised by two parents who were trapped in their own addictions – where chasing after the drug was more important than the children, it is not surprising that he would have a hard time trusting that someone who was supposed to care for and about him would suddenly bail at the last minute.

The other chaplain encouraged the man to memorize Hebrews 13:5

God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”

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Light in Dark Places

A new guy, “I”, showed up asking for prayer. He had just spent the last 15 months in the “hole”. He is seeking God, and answers for his life. As I have observed with other men who have spent a long time in isolation, he spoke very softly, and there were more pauses in the conversion – much like someone who was out of practice with having someone to talk to, and the natural flow of a conversation.

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After I prayed with him one of the other men asked him if he wanted to join us for our Bible study, so he stayed and participated.

For our opening question I asked them why they thought light and life were often related. One man recalled the science fair experiment where you start plants growing and then put one set in regular light, and another set in colored or no light. The plants that had better light grew, while the plants that had little light shriveled.

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Another man recalled the SHU (Special Housing Unit) in another prison where the light was so dim, if you wanted to read a book, you had to stand by the window in the cell door to get enough light from the hallway to read. It’s hard to flourish in darkness.

We read our scripture:

John 1(NIV)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.

The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

15 (John testified concerning him. He cried out, saying, “This is the one I spoke about when I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’”) 16 Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.

We went around each reading a verse. As I read it again I asked them to listen for a word or phrase that caught their attention.

In Him was Life

One man wondered about that phrase. What did it mean?

Another thought it meant that we find our meaning and purpose in Christ.

Someone observed that everything alive in creation was given through God.

The Light shines into the darkness

Light is more powerful than darkness. Light can chase away darkness. Darkness can never chase away light. Some would consider incarceration to be a dark place, but light can transform dark places.

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Grace upon Grace

Other translations render verse 16 as, “grace in place of grace.”

I needed to explain what the work “grace” meant in this context. For most of the men the only meaning they had was beautiful movement as in, “she danced with grace.” A few knew it as an alternate term for prayer as in, “let’s say grace before we eat this meal.”

The simplest explanation that I had was that grace referred to gifts we receive from God. We are all presented with the beauty of nature, of colorful sunsets, the rhythm of the ocean waves. Every human has the capacity to be loved, and to love. We can experience joy.

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“Grace in place of grace” is another way of saying, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” If you thought those things were great, wait until you experience life in Christ. There is a whole new world of love, joy, peace, and so much more waiting for each of us. Grace that was general now becomes grace that is personal, and so much greater than we had ever imagined.

Out of His fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. 

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