Celebrating Good Friday…. From Bethlehem?

Boasts and Befuddlements

What can wash away my sin?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus
What can make me whole again?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus

Oh, precious is the flow
That makes me white as snow
No other fount I know
Nothing but the blood of Jesus
(by Robert Lowry)

I’ve had quite enough blood this year, and it’s only March. I’ve had enough state sanctioned killing. Enough congressional betrayal for coin. I’ve had enough violent words calling for more blood. Enough crowds demanding imprisonment. I’ve had enough blood. And yet, this time of year we Christians revel in the blood. The blood that flows, giving life to an unquenchable thirst for more blood. There is so much blood, and I just want to get away from the violence.

 This Holy Week (the week that remembers Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem, his last meal, betrayal, death and resurrection) I find myself…

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The Sacred in the Midst of Chaos

 

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A friend who is a new mother posted some photos on Facebook showing the other side of motherhood. She said it was easy for her to look at other people’s photos with their children who were smiling and happy and then wonder what was wrong with her because, while there were those happy times with her new son and she truly did adore him, there were also the confused, frustrated, sleep-deprived, bone-weary times as well. So, to balance out the narrative she posted some of her photos showing that side of being a mom.

Reading this blog it may seem that jail Bible studies are always peaceful, powerful, God-filled experiences. The truth is that sometimes they are filled with strife, confusion, and chaos. Over the years I’ve learned that even those times are still God-filled.

I decided to go to the jail a bit later since I usually arrive on the floor during pill-call and end up having to wait for that to finish.

When I arrived at 7:30 a lockdown had just cleared 3 minutes earlier.

I arrived on the floor but had to wait another 20 minutes for haircuts to finish since they were using the room that I use for Bible studies.

I started the study with 5 guys.

Shortly after we started two guys got into an argument about race relations. (Maybe I need to retract that blog entry on Breaking Down Racism Behind Bars) I tried several times to get them back on track with no success. I finally said I’d have to end the study if we couldn’t get back on topic, at which point one of the belligerents stormed out of the room. (I haven’t had to use that technique for years)

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We continued the study (John 20:24-31) for another 10 minutes with the 4 remaining men.

Then pill-call came and a few of the guys had to step out for that.

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After pill-call ended we continued the study for another 5 minutes which came to a sudden close as the facility went on lock-down.

I waited at the control desk of the floor. The CO indicated that it has been like this all week.

After an extended period of waiting I was finally able to leave – or so I thought.

As I was about to get on the elevator another call came through: Man down, not breathing.

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I waited for that emergency to clear.

After more waiting I eventually was able to leave the building.

During Holy Week it is easy to envision the Triumphal Entry, the Last Supper, the Passion, and the Resurrection through “Hollywood” eyes that see everything as holy and sacred. But the “holy and sacred” was taking place in the midst of everyday human chaos. As the crucifixion took place there were crowds around yelling, gambling, cursing, farting, and arguing. Babies were born, people were cheated, some went hungry that day while others got drunk. Unnoticed by all but a handful, God was doing the most powerful work since creation, even as the world went about its business.

God is still doing holy and sacred things even against the backdrop of our chaos.

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Some days are more chaotic than others.

This is a marathon, not a sprint.

Ephesians 6:12 The Message (MSG)

10-12 And that about wraps it up. God is strong, and He wants you strong. So take everything the Master has set out for you, well-made weapons of the best materials. And put them to use so you will be able to stand up to everything the Devil throws your way. This is no afternoon athletic contest that we’ll walk away from and forget about in a couple of hours. This is for keeps, a life-or-death fight to the finish against the Devil and all his angels.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Arrest Stories

We started out the discussion by sharing stories of one time when we got arrested.

One man was 15 at the time, and after driving a car he didn’t own, and with no license, he ran down an alley, but there was a cop at each end of the ally who boxed him in. It was lunch time and a. large crowd of people watched as he was led away in handcuffs to the squad car.

Another man was 18 years old. He tried running through backyards and eventually crawled into a dog house. Fortunately the dog was not home at the time. However, he was soon apprehended in spite of his hiding place.

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A third man was 11 years old when he was first arrested. He was in the company of his older cousin who tended to be a bad influence on him introducing him to alcohol, drugs, and the trappings of gang life.

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There were seven guys at the study including me. A few I have seen get released and come back a few days to a few months later. I told them that for tonight’s study we were going to read the story of how Jesus got arrested. One man was surprised by that. He never knew Jesus had been arrested.

John 18 (NIV)

Jesus Arrested

18 When he had finished praying, Jesus left with his disciples and crossed the Kidron Valley. On the other side there was a garden, and he and his disciples went into it.

Now Judas, who betrayed him, knew the place, because Jesus had often met there with his disciples. So Judas came to the garden, guiding a detachment of soldiers and some officials from the chief priests and the Pharisees. They were carrying torches, lanterns and weapons.

Jesus, knowing all that was going to happen to him, went out and asked them, “Who is it you want?”

“Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied.

“I am he,” Jesus said. (And Judas the traitor was standing there with them.)When Jesus said, “I am he,” they drew back and fell to the ground.

Again he asked them, “Who is it you want?”

“Jesus of Nazareth,” they said.

Jesus answered, “I told you that I am he. If you are looking for me, then let these men go.” This happened so that the words he had spoken would be fulfilled: “I have not lost one of those you gave me.”

10 Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.)

11 Jesus commanded Peter, “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?”

12 Then the detachment of soldiers with its commander and the Jewish officials arrested Jesus.

I asked the men to describe this story in their own words.

Jesus was with his own gang. They went to a park that had a nice garden. (We have garden parks like that in this area.) Judas was a snitch and led the cops to Jesus – some of the men in the group know firsthand what it is like to have someone in your own gang testify against you. The soldiers must have been expecting trouble because there was a whole detachment of soldiers with torches and weapons.

The guys were confused why the soldiers fell back when Jesus said who He was.

They understood Peter pulling out a weapon and going at it. I pointed out that Peter must have been flailing the sword wildly in order to take off someone’s right ear. Holding a sword in your right hand it is far more likely that you would cut an opponent’s left ear, head, or neck. Gang shootings are more notable for their randomness due to adrenaline rather than any marksmanship. The same seemed to be true of Peter’s use of a sword.

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Even as He is arrested, Jesus seems to care more for His disciples than for His own situation.

And He went willingly.

There was some discussion on why Jesus went willingly, and why He had to die. One man said it was to be the sacrifice on our behalf. Another said it was because God was mad at Jesus for taking up with a prostitute, Mary Magdalene.

At that point the entire facility was put on lockdown, the men were hustled back to their cells, and I was directed out of the building.

 

 

Breaking Down Racism Behind Bars

Racism

Many gangs tend to divide based on race. That carries into the jail system as well.

There are two televisions in the maximum security unit. There is a de facto Hispanic television, and the other the black television. If you aren’t affiliated with either group you will have no say regarding the televisions.

Rival gangs may be housed in the maximum security unit but by and large the two groups are not allowed out at the same time. The exception recently has been for men that want to participate in Bible Study.

This week I had two men, “P” and “A” come to Bible Study. They are of different races and different gang affiliations. Normally they would not be allowed out at the same time, but the COs (guards) have been making an exception for religious services.

An interesting thing happens as the men study the scriptures together and wrestle with how these ancient words apply to their situation today. The barriers of prejudice begin to fade away. That was made clear when, at the end of the Bible Study, “P” said to “A”, “I used to think you were a racist bastard, but it turns out you’re OK.”

Matthew 5:43-44 (NIV)

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,”

Isaiah 2:4 (NIV)

He will judge between the nations
    and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
    and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
    nor will they train for war anymore.

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I’m no Mary, he sure ain’t no Jesus…

Sometimes Care Giving Stinks

When Joey was a toddler and we were at camp, the thought flooded my head like perfectly heated steam, while the sun poured into my skin like soft lotion. Some distant, bitter stranger, more like a stick-figure with a disproportionate index finger pointing at me was saying “That is blasphemy, you fool and you will writhe in the pit of Godless Hell.” My conscience made no sense of that brittle, screeching thing.

My thought was that Joey was Jesus and I was Mary. Well, not really. It was more like it felt so perfect, that the love was so pure that it had to be the same love. I thought of my other two children. Did I love them less? I loved them as much, no second thought. Immaculate Conception? Did any reader who barely knows me remain in their chair at that thought? Lastly, Joey had never spoken but…

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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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