Babette’s Feast

When I arrived on the unit the CO at the central desk said they were already set up and waiting for me. “D” was sitting at the table in the multipurpose room. I’d met with “D” one other time. Addictions and violence have been key components of his repeated pattern of incarceration. He will serve his time, get released on parole, and then within 6 to 12 months he will begin using and dealing and get locked up again for another 6 years. This pattern has now repeated 5 times in his life. He is tired of this pattern and wants a fundamental change in his life.

When he was a child he attended church, but that stopped as his parents’ lives were dominated by their own addiction issues.

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He tried church again when he was a young father. The people always treated him well, but he was suspicious of their motives. How could they care about him when even his own parents didn’t care that much about him? He also had friends and family members ask him why he was going to church when he could have so much more fun doing what they were doing – music, drugs, women, drinking, gang banging, etc.

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We looked first at:

Matthew 11:28-30 (NKJV)

28 Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.29 Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”

 

The invitation is to ALL

There isn’t a good behavior requirement. Many people who are incarcerated struggle with the idea that their sins and crimes have made them beyond God’s reach.

 

Jim Forbes described this conversation with an inmate at Folsom prison.

“Do you mean Jesus still loves me, despite all that I did in my past?”  the prisoner standing next to me asked.

“Absolutely,” I quickly answered. The similarities between the speaker and the crowd were many—these were men who at one point in their lives had made poor choices and were still dealing with their consequences, both mentally and physically. Many were seeking a new way of life.

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The invitation is to those who are TIRED and BURDENED

Being weary and overwhelmed with life’s struggles further doesn’t preclude us from the invitation. A man waiting for trail has a lot of time for worry. They feel weary and burdened.

I asked “D” what his most tiring job was. He’d worked installing drywall for a period of time. It meant picking up sheets of drywall from the Gradall and lifting them above his head to get them put into place. It worked muscles you don’t normally use and he was physically exhausted by the end of the day. But the emotional labor while waiting for trial has been even more exhausting.

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I will give you rest

“D” was concerned that “rest” was a metaphor for death. He was surprised and relieved to hear that God could give us rest even while we are alive. There is hope for this life.

 

I’ve discussed other aspects of this scripture when I did this study with the men in November of 2016. You can read about it here: Deeper Levels of Max

Grace is simultaneously accessible and incomprehensible. It seems too broad and too deep to be real. It is so simple, yet is multi-dimensional.

Brennan Manning wrote:

“This vulgar grace is indiscriminate compassion. It works without asking anything of us. It’s not cheap. It’s free, and as such will always be a banana peel for the Orthodox foot and a fairy tale for the grown-up sensibility. Grace is sufficient even though we huff and puff with all our might to try to find something or someone it cannot cover. Grace is enough. He is enough. Jesus is enough.

Brennan ManningAll Is Grace: A Ragamuffin Memoir

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There is a film that I enjoy called Babette’s Feast. It is in Danish and French, so subtitles are involved.

In a remote 19th-century Danish village, two sisters lead a rigid life centered around their father, the local minister, and their church. Both had opportunities to leave the village: one could have married a young army officer and the other, a French opera singer. Their father objected in each case, and they spent their lives caring for him. Many years later – their father is now deceased – they take in French refugee, Babette, who asks to work as their servant.

After a few years Babette experiences unexpected good fortune and implores the sisters to allow her to take charge of the preparation of the meal celebrating the 100th anniversary of their father’s birth. Although they are secretly concerned about what Babette, a foreigner, might do, the sisters allow her to go ahead. Babette then prepares the feast of a lifetime for the members of the tiny church and an important gentleman related to one of them. It proves to be an eye-opening experience for everyone.

Those dining at the feast are unaware of the cost of this gift to them, and sometimes unsure how to partake in what was prepared for them. But throughout the night the people are transformed.

Such is the nature of Grace.

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Isolation

I appreciate Tim’s insights and perspective.

Sometimes Care Giving Stinks

The first book signing for Raising a Child With Autism is history, but this isn’t about the book.  It is about the people who stopped to talk at the display table and others who’ve been in touch via the internet.  My prayer list keeps growing with their names and needs.

One man took a break from his job down the street from the bookstore to come in and describe his family’s unique challenges.  They care for a son with autism.

We noticed that people stopped inviting us to stuff.  I think they’re afraid of our kid.  My wife is at home alone with him more and more.  She’s really feeling isolated.

All kinds of care givers suffer in similar situations.  People don’t invite you out or you find it too much of a hassle to go.  Competent babysitters or respite providers are hard to find.  The person in your care…

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I Hate Religion, But I Love The Teachings of Jesus

A perspective from behind the walls

Steven D. Jennings

Over the past few months I’ve been struggling.

I stopped blogging.
I almost got in a fight.
My blog domains expired.
I’ve been treating my wife badly.
I quit Stone Catchers.
I quit my cardio class.
I’m frustrated and I have low tolerance towards my peers.
I’m resentful, judgmental, selfish, and narcissistic.
I’ve been disrespectful towards some.
My head hasn’t been right.
Things just aren’t going my way.

But why?
What’s really going on?
I know better!

I should be enjoying one blessing after another. I mean after all, I’ve incorporated some biblical principles into my life. I don’t gamble or hustle at the card table anymore. I submit to authority. I don’t use drugs or alcohol. And I treat most people with respect.

I took all my issues to prayer and meditation. And within hours after praying, a random guy named Zachary invited me to an upcoming church…

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Communion with the Double-Reds

Psalm 69:32-33 (NKJV)

32 The humble shall see this and be glad;
And you who seek God, your hearts shall live.
33 For the Lord hears the poor,
And does not despise His prisoners.

Two times a year, before Easter and Christmas, we offer communion to all residents of the jail. There have been frequent lockdowns, mostly due to inmates fighting, so the main jail chaplain made a point of trying to get us in early so that, in the event of a lockdown, we would have time to reschedule and try again. The chaplain had also requested only experienced volunteers participate this time due to recent challenges regarding security.

The COs (correctional officers) have been encountering two to three fights per shift. I have tremendous respect for the men and women who work as correctional officers. Their job is hazardous and often under-appreciated. Having a large group of volunteers come in for a special event such as communion places additional work on them, yet each of the COs I interacted with was gracious and accommodating.

As usual, I and two other experienced volunteers handled the maximum-security units, plus another unit. We started with two of the pods that are the “maxier” maximum security units. Only one inmate is allowed out at a time. Many of the guys wear double-red (red shirt, red pants) meaning they are considered high security.

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The CO explains that the chaplains are offering communion. If an inmate wishes to participate they turn on the light above their cell door. Then, one man at a time, the COs will open the cell door and the man comes to the door of the pod. As I’ve explained before, communion is server through a 3”x3” opening in the door to the pod.

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I ask each man his first name. This is very important because their first name is so rarely used.

I then explain that I will dip the wafer in the juice and then hand it through the slot. They are to take it with their hand. I speak the words of communion as they take the elements. I then ask how I can pray for him and his family. I then pray for their requests.  I try to make eye contact, particularly as they are coming and going. It is encouraging to see how the countenance of a man changes after taking communion. When we are done praying the man returns to his cell. The process repeats for the next man.

I recognized a few of the guys that had been in the unit where I facilitate the Bible study, but the men had gotten into trouble and were now in the higher security unit.  They seem pleased when I am able to call them by name.

I feel so humbled to be part of this event where I can obverse first-hand as these men have an encounter with God.

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An Officer Struck Him

“R” needed to talk. It had been a rough couple of weeks for him. He’d gotten a write-up for an interaction/altercation with one of the COs (correctional officers). He’d tried to appeal it, but that failed and he was told he’d be on lock-down for 10 days. He was angry and thought the system was treating him unfairly. I gave him the time and space he needed to talk things out.

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After he had talked things through he was ready for our study. I had us first look at this scripture:

Hebrews 4:15-16 (NKJV)

15 For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

I asked “R” to describe what it was like to be arrested, handcuffed, and interrogated.

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We then looked at scripture that describes when Jesus was arrested, handcuffed, and interrogated.

John 18 (NKJV)

Betrayal and Arrest in Gethsemane

18 When Jesus had spoken these words, He went out with His disciples over the Brook Kidron, where there was a garden, which He and His disciples entered. 

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There was a nice park with a rose garden near where “R” used to live. He’d been arrested there once.

And Judas, who betrayed Him, also knew the place; for Jesus often met there with His disciples. Then Judas, having received a detachment of troops, and officers from the chief priests and Pharisees, came there with lanterns, torches, and weapons. 

Judas had been part of Jesus’ gang for the last 3 years, but now Judas was a snitch for the police.

“R” had felt the pain of being betrayed by friends. He had also felt pressure from the police as they tried to get him to provide information about some of his associates.

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Jesus therefore, knowing all things that would come upon Him, went forward and said to them, “Whom are you seeking?”

They answered Him, “Jesus of Nazareth.”

Jesus said to them, “I am He.” And Judas, who betrayed Him, also stood with them. Now when He said to them, “I am He,” they drew back and fell to the ground.

 

What was it about the power of Jesus that caused the officers to fall back? “R” though it was because the officers knew they were dealing with a good man, an innocent man, and that this was just a set-up, and they knew it was wrong.

 

Then He asked them again, “Whom are you seeking?”

And they said, “Jesus of Nazareth.”

Jesus answered, “I have told you that I am He. Therefore, if you seek Me, let these go their way,” that the saying might be fulfilled which He spoke, “Of those whom You gave Me I have lost none.”

 

Even as He was being arrested Jesus still cared about the men who were with him.

10 Then Simon Peter, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant, and cut off his right ear. The servant’s name was Malchus.

11 So Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword into the sheath. Shall I not drink the cup which My Father has given Me?”

Why did Peter even have a sword? And Peter must have been flailing pretty wildly to cut off someone’s right year.  “R” and I talked about how drive-by shootings don’t really involve a lot of aiming of the weapon. Perhaps Malchus stepped in the way to try and protect whoever it was Peter was trying to stab. Was Malchus acting like secret service agents to step in front to protect the president?

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John 18:19-24 (NKJV)

19 The high priest then asked Jesus about His disciples and His doctrine.

20 Jesus answered him, “I spoke openly to the world. I always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where the Jews always meet, and in secret I have said nothing. 21 Why do you ask Me? Ask those who have heard Me what I said to them. Indeed they know what I said.”

22 And when He had said these things, one of the officers who stood by struck Jesus with the palm of his hand, saying, “Do You answer the high priest like that?”

23 Jesus answered him, “If I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil; but if well, why do you strike Me?”

24 Then Annas sent Him bound to Caiaphas the high priest.

People often underline or highlight verses in their Bible because those verses have meaning for them. Verses 22 and 23 were the ones that “R” underlined. In verse 22 he read that Jesus was treated worse in jail than “R” was. In verse 23 when Jesus is treated unfairly He doesn’t respond with rage, or saying woe-is-me. Jesus responds to the situation with truth.

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This was a powerful lesson for “R”. Whether we are treated fairly or unfairly, we are called to respond with truth.

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Afraid of Your Child

I met several new guys from the lower tier of maximum-security at the county jail. One man dropped by for a copy of Our Daily Bread, the devotional that we hand out.

I exchanged greetings with “I” who I’d met previously.

“S” dropped by for a brief chat. I asked him how he was doing. His reply was, “this place has the cure for wellness.” I asked if I could use that line. He said, “sure”. After a bit more talking “S” decided he didn’t want to stay for the study.

This place has the cure for wellness

Initially “D” was somewhat shy about coming in. An older man, he said he was just a child the last time he’d been at a Bible Study or attended church. He’s already completed 5 stretches in prison, and the weight of the world was heavy on his shoulders with the prospect of a 6th sentence.

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We looked at Psalm 30 and stopped for discussion every few verses.

Psalm 30 (NKJV)

30 I will extol You, O Lord, for You have lifted me up, And have not let my foes rejoice over me.
O Lord my God, I cried out to You, And You healed me.

A word rarely used in jail is “extol”. If someone had made a great play in the game the fans might extol the abilities of the player saying how great he was.

Foes: “D” absolutely understood this word and had no trouble naming his foes.

Another way of saying verse 2 was, “I was all busted up, but God, You made me better.”

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O Lord, You brought my soul up from the grave;
You have kept me alive, that I should not go down to the pit.

We talked about times of depression where all the life has been drained out of us.

The “pit” that the men could relate to was being sent to the Hole, Solitary, the SHU (special housing unit). There was also discussion about people going down into the pit even when they were out of the streets. Addiction and violence has taken these men to some very dark places.

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Sing praise to the Lord, you saints of His, and give thanks at the remembrance of His holy name.
For His anger is but for a moment, His favor is for life;
Weeping may endure for a night, But joy comes in the morning.
 

We discussed football and basketball games where a team may have been trailing for much of the game but suddenly comes back and wins in the final minutes.

This gave him hope, that God hadn’t given up. God wasn’t looking at the scoreboard of “D’s” life and throwing in the towel. God delights in the sudden upset.

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“D” pondered the deeper meaning of His favor is for life;

A surprise for “D” was that God still had hope for him. God hadn’t given up. A transformed life was still possible.

The group concluded these next verses sounded prideful.

Now in my prosperity I said, “I shall never be moved.”
Lord, by Your favor You have made my mountain stand strong;

One man talked about when things were going well thinking, “It’s all good. I don’t need anybody else. I’ve got this under control.” But then it all fell apart.

You hid Your face, and I was troubled. I cried out to You, O Lord;

For one man one of the most troubling times was seeing his sons getting caught up in the gang life. He had been absent most of the time the boys were growing up, and the mother had addiction issues. He had come home after release from prison. He and the mother wanted the youngest son, aged 11, to finish his dinner, but the boy wanted to go off and play his video games. When the man pressed the issue the boy reached under a sofa cushion and pulled out a pistol and pointed it in his father’s face. The man feared for his life at the hands of his 11 year-old child.

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One man talked about when things were going well thinking, “It’s all good. I don’t need anybody else. I’ve got this under control.” But then it all fell apart.

And to the Lord I made supplication:
“What profit is there in my blood,
When I go down to the pit?
Will the dust praise You?
Will it declare Your truth?

One man thought about times of mental illness as “the pit”.

10 Hear, O Lord, and have mercy on me; Lord, be my helper!”

The hope here is that God is more interested in seeking life for us rather than seeking our death or destruction.

11 You have turned for me my mourning into dancing;
You have put off my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness,
12 To the end that my glory may sing praise to You and not be silent.
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to You forever.

“D” found this study surprisingly encouraging. He was concerned that it was too late for him, or that all God had for him was anger and punishment. Instead he learned:

His favor is for life

Facing the Death Penalty

Two of the three states that I have lived in still have the death penalty. Over the years I have encountered men who have been on death row, or were facing the possibility of a death sentence in their current trial.

When I was in elementary school I remember a high-profile trial that frequently was in the news. The prosecution was asking for the death penalty, even though it hadn’t been used in that state since 1947. The all-white jury found the man, who was of another race, guilty and sentenced him to die in the electric chair. Nearly two years later the governor commuted this man’s sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

A number of years later I was at that prison. Our church was assisting with the worship at the prison. I’m a guitar player, so I pay attention to other guitar players. He was playing a Gibson ES-335. When I looked at the guitar player I saw that the man who had been sentenced to death was the man playing guitar in the worship band. He was older now than the photos shown during his trial years before. But there I was worshiping together with a man who had once been sentenced to death.

For me this was a powerful illustration of God’s grace. A man that the world had judged unfit to live because of his crimes had found forgiveness and redemption at the foot of the cross.

A verse from an Isaac Watts hymn reads:

Was it for crimes that I had done
He groaned upon the tree?
Amazing pity! grace unknown!
And love beyond degree!

Imagine the thoughts of that convicted man as he sang those words.

Two Different Patterns

I’ve observed two different patterns in the men who come to Bible study who are in a death penalty trial.

One type is the man who is desperate for an escape from the death sentence. If the trial does not go in their favor they abandon Jesus saying, “obviously this doesn’t work.” Conversely, if the trial goes well they abandon Jesus because, “whew, I was able to work my way out of it.”

Jesus reminds us of the parable:

Matthew 13:20-21 (NIV)

20 The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. 21 But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away.

 

I have met another type of man. These are the men who have been radically transformed by God’s grace. They are eager to give God the glory if things are going well in their trial, but they are also holding onto Jesus even when things are not going well. I’ve heard them express, “whether I live or die I am in God’s hands.” It is very much like talking to someone who is in hospice and has made peace with their death. While these men desire to avoid a death sentence, the hope and peace that they have is not dependent on their circumstances.  These scriptures take on powerful meaning for these men:

Job 13:15a (KJV)

15 Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him

Philippians 1:20-21 (NIV)

20 I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.

 

I am humbled to have met men such as these.