Month: February 2018

Forgiveness, Sociopaths, and the Precariat

Seven of us met for the Bible Study in the maximum-security unit of the county jail. It was a different mix of guys since they alternate who gets recreation and programming time early vs. late. One of the guys was new to the unit. He was decidedly a type-A extrovert with lots of energy. He’s the kind of guy that makes coffee nervous. Some of the others had come a few times. Another man was one I’ve known for a few years but had lost track of him as he was transferred in and out of various units in the jail system.

The Precariat

I learned a new word a few weeks ago: precariat

It is a merging of the words precarious and proletariat. It is defined as “a condition of existence without predictability or security, affecting material or psychological welfare.”

People who are in a constant state of uncertainty. That is the situation for some of these men as they await trial.

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Forgivness

Our opening discussion was on forgiveness – what did they think about it, and how did it apply to them? Boy, did they have opinions. The opening discussion went on for 30 minutes and everyone participated.

The initial discussion was that, in general forgiving someone seemed like a good idea, but the real-life application was often more complicated.

Many agreed that holding onto hurts was like carrying around dead weight. One man described it as turning sour inside. We eventually turn bitter. In one of my favorite scenes from the TV show Cheers Woody tells Sam, “I’m not bitter, Sam. I’m just consumed by a gnawing hate that’s eating away at my gut until I taste bile in my mouth, but I’m not bitter.”

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There was a lot of discussion about the benefits of forgiving someone.

Why don’t we forgive?

Then I asked them a question that caused them to pause and silently think.

“With all the benefits of forgiving someone, why don’t we forgive?”

After some time a man from the back spoke up and said, “It’s a defense mechanism. If I don’t forgive them then I’ll stay away from them and I won’t get hurt again.”

We then read our scripture:

Matthew 6:9-15 (NIV)

“This, then, is how you should pray:

“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
10 your kingdom come,
your will be done,
    on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us today our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts,
    as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
    but deliver us from the evil one.

14 For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

I asked if verse 15 seemed awfully harsh. They said it actually made sense. We can’t understand and appreciate what it means to be forgiven if we haven’t been willing to forgive when we have been hurt.

Truly Evil People

One of the men said that sometimes you encounter truly evil people. This is particularly true in prison, but truly evil people are also out on the streets. How are we to deal with them?

Should there be forgiveness for the sociopath?

Abusers will frequently twist the concept of forgiveness saying, “If you’ve really forgiven me then our relationship can go back to the way it was.” In this way they manipulate people into being controlled and hurt yet again.

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While in many cases forgiveness may lead to a restoration of the relationship, in some cases that is not possible.

  • The person you are forgiving may still be destructive and dangerous
  • The person you are forgiving may be dead

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Forgiving means allowing yourself to be healed of the wound. Forgiveness does not mean again handing your abuser the baseball bat they used to beat you.

Forgiveness don’t not change the other person, nor what happened in the past.

Forgiveness changes us.

Forgiveness does not change the past

Paul Boese wrote, “Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future.”

Forgiveness means recognizing the wound is there. It takes far more courage to face our brokenness that to put on a stoic face and claim we have no wounds.

Forgiveness allows the wound, perhaps long denied, to be healed and the burden lifted.

Matthew 11:28 (NIV)

28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.

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Loving from Far Off

One of the difference between jail and prison is that the prison population is much more stable. The guys you meet in prison will likely be there next week, next month, next year, perhaps even the next decade. The men I see in the maximum-security unit are often waiting for their trial. Once that is adjudicated they will either be released or be sent to prison, or some other program. But even in jail there are sometimes men that I will see consistently over a long period of time.

Consistency In Chaos

One of my “regulars” I’ve known for 18 months. I started visiting with him when the jail was on an extended lockdown so our visits were just through the cell door. “A”’s backstory is similar to other men I’ve met in the unit. He grew up in an environment of drug addiction and violence. His father was a gang member and drug dealer. His mother was an addict until later in life when she turned her life over to Christ, found sobriety, and eventually became a pastor. “A” was in the maximum-security unit until he got into fights with other inmates and was sent to high-max, which is essentially 23-hour lockdown. I continued to meet with him in high-max and eventually he was sent back to max where, although there is little to no programming, at least the men get more time outside the cell and in a common area.

He is still waiting for his trial, but the COs have noticed enough change in him to “downgrade” him and have him sent to a unit where more programming is available. I will miss seeing “A”, but I am glad he now has a chance to take classes and receive more training, life skills, and encouragement. The unit he is in now doesn’t currently have a Bible Study, but one of the chaplains is looking into starting one on the unit.

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This week’s study was on waiting, and in God’s ironic sense of humor I arrived on the unit just as pill-call started. The flu has been running through the jail so the nurse was seeing more people and having to check more symptoms. As a consequence I had to wait about 45 minutes before I could go in, and had a chance in some small measure to live out “waiting”.

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I had a pleasant reunion with one of the COs (guards) when I got into the unit. I hadn’t seen him for some time because he’s been off training new COs in various units of the jail systems, and recently he’s been working in the high-max units. He was one of the first COs I met when I started volunteering at the jail. Early on I learned that his mother has been leading a Bible Study at a federal prison for a number of years. He has been very supportive of the chaplains.

There were five guys that joined me for Bible Study. We had a range of ages, with some in their 20s ranging up to one man who was a grandfather and had already served several long prison stretches.

For our opening question I asked the guys what they did while waiting:

  • Reading
  • Praying
  • Meditation
  • Writing journals or letters
  • Working out
  • Writing music

For our study we looked at:

Psalm 27:7-14 (NIV)

Hear my voice when I call, Lord; be merciful to me and answer me.
My heart says of you, “Seek his face!”
    Your face, Lord, I will seek.
Do not hide your face from me, do not turn your servant away in anger; you have been my helper. Do not reject me or forsake me, God my Savior.
10 Though my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will receive me.
11 Teach me your way, Lord; lead me in a straight path because of my oppressors.
12 Do not turn me over to the desire of my foes, for false witnesses rise up against me, spouting malicious accusations.
13 I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
14 Wait for the Lord;
be strong and take heart
and wait for the Lord.

I asked the men to listen for a word of phrase that caught their attention as we read this.

For one man it was: Though my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will receive me as this was his own situation. After years of addiction and getting into trouble, jail, and prison, his parents had severed ties with him.

For another man it was: for false witnesses rise up against me, spouting malicious accusations since he saw that happening at his own trial.

We looked at the last verse:

14 Wait for the Lord;
be strong and take heart
and wait for the Lord.

I asked them if it was possible to love while waiting. One man said, “we love from far off.” They are separated from their children or grandchildren. They still love them, but they are unable to be an active part of the lives of their family members.

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Love is what makes waiting unbearable

One man said, “Love is what makes waiting unbearable. The aching of wanting to be with our family, but we cannot. It would be easier to do time if you didn’t care about anyone.”

Love is what makes the waiting bearable

But another man who had already served a lot of time said, “Love is what makes the waiting bearable – knowing at any time that someone cares about me – that is how I can withstand the waiting.”

I asked them if it was possible to be loved while they were waiting. They agreed that it was and several cited their family members as loving them. All of them struggled with the thought that God actually loved them. One man said he mostly felt that God was disappointed in him. He desired for God’s love, but certainly wasn’t feeling it. The closest he could come was:

Do not reject me or forsake me, God my Savior.

The challenge of being loved during the waiting means that we are loved for who we are.

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Witnesses

There were seven of us at Bible Study. One man had been part of the group until 8 weeks ago when he was released (Silent, Hidden, Waiting). At that time I’d told him that I hoped he’d be able to stay out, but if he did return he would be welcomed back. I’m glad he felt like he could join the group again.

Our opening discussion was about family history – what did they know, if anything, about their ancestors. One man was adopted and his adoption records were sealed, but he knew the history of his adoptive parents. Another man knew nothing of his father beyond the fact that his father was from New York. One man was from Alabama and knew that his ancestors had been slaves. A few actually had a fairly extensive family history that could be traced back hundreds of years.

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I asked them to think about what life must have been like 100 generations ago – about 3000 years ago. I asked them to consider what their ancestors endured – how disease or disaster could have ended their family line, but they were alive today. We are the descendants of those who came through the wars, the plagues, the famines, the mass migrations, the survivors of the slave ships. Our very existence could be called a miracle. Some of the men found encouragement in this. Most are used to hearing what a disappointment they are. They’ve never been called a miracle.

For our study we looked at two different sections in Hebrews.

Hebrews 4:14-16 (NIV)

14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. 16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

Verse 15 was a topic of conversation. By Jesus being fully human He was able to experience life on human terms – knowing our weaknesses and temptations. I asked them to consider if Jesus was tempted by some of the same things they are tempted with. They agreed that He probably was, and yet He remained sinless.

Grace is still an unfamiliar word for the men. In the human world we are all too familiar with “gifts” that come with strings attached. The men are well aware of their own patterns of manipulating people. A gift from God based on what Jesus did, rather than our own effort, is still a difficult concept.

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Hebrews 12:1-3 (NIV)

12 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before Him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

They are all familiar with witnesses from their court appearances. This scripture seems to refer to friendly, supportive witnesses rather than witnesses for the prosecution. The message is clear: we are not alone.

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Running with perseverance means this isn’t a sprint. We are in it for the long haul. This is an ultra-marathon. Staring at our own feet isn’t helpful. The only way we can keep moving forward is to fix our eyes on Jesus, constantly looking to Him.

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The perfection of our faith isn’t in our own self-effort. Jesus is the perfecter of our faith.

“Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinners”

The One who understands our weaknesses and temptations spent time in a jail cell awaiting execution by the state.

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.  Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.