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.
1 In you, Lord, I have taken refuge;
let me never be put to shame;
deliver me in your righteousness.
2 Turn your ear to me,
come quickly to my rescue;
be my rock of refuge,
a strong fortress to save me.
3 Since you are my rock and my fortress,
for the sake of your name lead and guide me.
4 Keep me free from the trap that is set for me,
for you are my refuge.
5 Into your hands I commit my spirit;
deliver me, Lord, my faithful God.
6 I hate those who cling to worthless idols;
as for me, I trust in the Lord.
7 I will be glad and rejoice in your love,
for you saw my affliction
and knew the anguish of my soul.
8 You have not given me into the hands of the enemy
but have set my feet in a spacious place.
9 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.
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.
As we read through the scripture again this time I asked them to look for the action that God was doing.
- Leading and guiding
- Sheltering and hiding
- Keeping safe
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.
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.”