Rebuilding Bridges With The Spirit of Love

A view from the inside. Some of the struggles are so different from those on the outside.

Steven D. Jennings

For a while there, my wife and I were at odds with each other. As a result, our blogging stopped.

I take full responsibility for all that. I had my priorities all mixed up. I was more focused on being a millionaire than I was on our own marriage.

I allowed Suzie’s emotional ”love cup” to run dry. As she cried out for help, I ignored her cries and piled more work on her. There were many times when I wasn’t kind or understanding. I saw things from my perspective only!

I went back and read one of my previous posts called, The Bad Husband. And that’s when I got a glimpse of myself and how I’d been treating my wife, the woman I love. I felt ashamed. I was being the EXACT type of guy that I said I’d never be!

After much prayer and meditation, the answer came to me. And…

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Ending One Chapter, Beginning Another

The jail where I volunteer as a chaplain is on a multi-year remodeling project for their facilities. I’d been told that someday I may go up to the unit and find that no one is there.

Today was that day.

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I also knew that it was coming because past few weeks I’d noticed that only about half of the cells in the unit were populated. The head chaplain will find out what unit the guys have been transferred to and I will start serving the men in that unit as best I can.

Transitions like this are a proper time to reflect on the joys and sorrows of standing with those at the margins of society:

“Compassion isn’t just about feeling the pain of others; it’s about bringing them in toward yourself. If we love what God loves, then, in compassion, margins get erased. ‘Be compassionate as God is compassionate,’ means the dismantling of barriers that exclude.”
― Gregory J. BoyleTattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion

I look forward to what will emerge as I start serving in a different unit of the jail as I see this scripture unfold in the lives of the men:

“Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now He has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in His sight, without blemish and free from accusation—“
Colossians 1:21-22 (NIV)

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First Time Hearing the Parable

The last few times I’ve been to the jail they were on lockdown. Lockdown means no visits, no programming.

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Fortunately, I was able to get in tonight. I guess I am one of the few, rare people who is happy about getting into jail.

I met with “F” again tonight. I mentioned him in Priors. He is counting the days (16) until he is released. We discussed his re-entry plan – where will he go when he first gets out, who will pick him up, where will he stay until he finds more permanent housing, etc.

He knows that he wants to avoid returning to his old neighborhood and friends. He has already seen that that has turned out from the last few times he was released. He says it is time for him to grow up and start acting like an adult instead of an adolescent always looking for a good time. He wants to find a legal way to support himself and his family.

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He would like to connect with his son again, but he recognizes that he has burned a lot of bridges with the boy’s mother. It may take time and a demonstration of responsibility for that relationship to get healed.

For the study “F” and I read the parable of the lost sheep. I’ve written about that study before in What Will You Leave Behind? After we went through the study I asked “F” if he had ever heard the story before.

He had not.

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For those like me who were raised in the church and heard the story since childhood, there is something powerful and refreshing to watch and listen to an adult who is reading and hearing this story for the first time. What “F” saw was something both startling and familiar.

The startling thing is God seeking out, not the one who has it all together and looks good, but rather God seeks the one who has wandered away, who is in danger, the one whose life is in disarray.

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The familiar thing is how God, like a mother, if she had lost her child at the mall, would look relentlessly until her child was found. Nothing less than finding her child would bring consolation.

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The imagery of the Shepherd carrying the lamb back was comforting to “F”.  It meant we were not abandoned to our own devices to try and find our way back. The Shepherd would carry us and care for us.

Stay close to the Shepherd, and let Him at times carry us.

Will we fight the Shepherd, or find rest on the shoulders of the Shepherd?

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Respect and Directions

I often walk through the area of the jail where they bring in new inmates. One evening as I passed through the intake area a man inside one of the processing cells was shouting a loud, long stream of profanities.

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Standing outside the cell there were five slightly out of breath COs (correctional officers). They had obviously just put a man in the cell a few minutes earlier.

During the occasional breaks in the man’s foul-mouthed diatribe one of the COs, Officer M, would explain to the man that, once he calmed himself down, they would transport him to his new unit. It could be in a few minutes, or they could wait all night. It was up to the man and when he had regained his self-control.

What struck me about this was that Officer M was saying all of this in a calm and respectful manner. He was not being patronizing. He was relaying information that this man needed.

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Later that evening I again walked through the intake area. The man was still in the cell, but he had finally calmed down. Officer M was respectfully explaining in greater detail what the man needed to do. He was doing it in much the same manner that someone might give directions to a traveler who was lost and needed directions to get back to the main highway. Officer M was treating this man with dignity and respect. He was giving the man directions he needed to continue with this part of life’s journey.

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Officer M has been doing this job for a long time. He is just a few years away from retirement. I’ve overheard him speaking with other inmates. He frequently will say “sir” when he addresses them.

  • Sir, would you please face the wall.
  • Sir, I need you to face the wall now!

Even as he is commanding, he is still respectful. He doesn’t get caught up in other people’s drama. He treats people with dignity and respect, even when those people are being disrespectful and out of control.

In Romans Paul reminds us that when we were out of control, Christ treated us with honor and respect by offering himself up for us.

Romans 5:6-8 The Message (MSG)

6-8 Christ arrives right on time to make this happen. He didn’t, and doesn’t, wait for us to get ready. He presented himself for this sacrificial death when we were far too weak and rebellious to do anything to get ourselves ready. And even if we hadn’t been so weak, we wouldn’t have known what to do anyway. We can understand someone dying for a person worth dying for, and we can understand how someone good and noble could inspire us to selfless sacrifice. But God put his love on the line for us by offering his Son in sacrificial death while we were of no use whatever to him.

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Priors

 

pri·or1
ˈprī(ə)r/
noun NORTH AMERICAN informal
plural noun: priors
a previous criminal conviction.
"he had no juvenile record, no priors"

I met with “F” tonight. He is new to the unit. Apparently, his trial went quickly since he said he is due for release in 60 days.

This is not his first time through. Middle-aged, he said he is an example of the revolving door of the system.

He has priors.

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Chasing his addiction brings him back each time. He is getting weary and is searching for a way to break the cycle.

He said he’s had little exposure to church, or the Bible. But he has seen others break their cycle of addiction when they began following God. He wants to know more.

We discussed his release plan: what he was going to do for shelter, food, clothing, transportation. Things that many of us take for granted can become a major stumbling block. There are resources, but it still takes some planning. Guys without a plan and a support system can end up getting quickly re-arrested.

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For our study we looked at how God dealt with other people who had priors. I gave “F” some context for what we were reading. In our scripture God was speaking to people who had a history of messing up and ignoring God’s instructions. Now they were serving 70 years in captivity.

Jeremiah 29:11-14a (NKJV)

11 For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope. 12 Then you will call upon Me and go and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. 13 And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back from your captivity;

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What are God’s thoughts towards those with priors, who are serving time now? Thoughts of peace and not evil. Consider the contrast for a person behind the walls where there is violence and evil plotting.

to give you: not earned, but a gift of grace.

a future: this is in stark contrast to the prospect of a life with no future

a hope: many things are in short supply behind the walls. At times hope can be the most rare

Even as the people are serving their sentence God isn’t plotting revenge. He isn’t pointing the boney finger of judgement. God has hope for a future even when the people were without hope.

So, what is the road back? How is the cycle of the revolving door broken?

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Then you will call upon Me: Even before the prayer there is a call. God is already listening and waiting for the call.

and go and pray to Me: It is a safe place to pour your heart out to God. It is a safe place to ask for what you need.

and I will listen to you: The most influential relationship we have are with people who listen to us. God doesn’t immediately start telling us what to do. He listens. He wants relationship. It isn’t about fixing us, it is about Him being in relationship with us, and we with Him.

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when you search for Me with all your heart: The addict knows what it is like to search for something with all his heart – when nothing else matters.

you will seek Me and find Me: Seeking implies that there is a journey, there is a process. It isn’t just a flash of light and all is suddenly better. God isn’t found as a destination. God is found in the seeking.

I will be found by you, says the Lord:God is actively seeking and searching for us. He isn’t just waiting passively. We do the seeking, but God does the finding.

I will bring you back from your captivity:This is a recognition of the things that have held us captive. It isn’t just incarceration. It can be in addictions, in unforgiveness, in all the things that have ensnared us.

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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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