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.

Evil Fathers

Matthew 7:7-12 (NKJV)

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent? 11 If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him! 12 Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

In preparing this study I thought about the incarcerated men I’ve met over the past 17 years, and what each man told me about his father.

 

Good Fathers

For the men who had a good father the passage in Matthew 7 seems pretty straightforward. A father will try to give good gifts to his child, especially if the child asks, and it is a good thing, and it is within the means of the father to provide it.

In a good relationship between a father and his child the act of asking enhances the relationship. The father learns what is important to the child. The child learns that the father wants to provide. Asking is important.

An illustration that I use is about my own son. When he was younger he absolutely loved Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. It was one of the first foods he learned how to make on his own. My wife and I wondered aloud if he’d eventually turn orange because he was eating so much of it. Because I knew he liked Kraft Macaroni and Cheese when I went to the grocery store I would buy it for him. But I would only give it to him when he asked.

Absent Fathers

Many of the men I’ve met, both behind and outside the walls, grew up without a father. How do they read the Matthew passage? How do you ask a father who isn’t there? What perceptions do they have of asking when their father is absent, and even the child support payments were sporadic or missing altogether?

David Blankenhorn said the following:

“Tonight, about 40 percent of children in the western world will go to sleep in homes in which their fathers do not live.

Before they reach the age of eighteen, more than half of our nation’s children are likely to spend at least a significant portion of their childhoods living apart from their fathers.
Never before in this country have so many children been voluntarily abandoned by their fathers.

Never before have so many children grown up without knowing what it means to have a father.

Fatherlessness is the most harmful demographic trend of this generation. It is the leading cause of declining child and adult wellbeing in our society. It is also the engine driving our most urgent social problems…. If this trend continues, fatherlessness is likely to change the shape of our society.”

These men have struggled with believing that God could have any interest in them. Some of these men have found emotional and spiritual healing. Rather than ascribing to God the flaws of their absent earthly father these men have often remembered how they imagined a good father would have treated them. A good father would have been there. A good father would have heard them. God becomes the good father for them.

The Psalmist wrote:

Psalm 68:5-6a (NKJV)

A father of the fatherless, a defender of widows,
Is God in His holy habitation.
6a God sets the solitary in families;

I’ve met men who have found this scripture to be true.

Evil Fathers

I’ve met some men whose fathers could accurately be described as evil. Fathers who, beyond being gang bangers and drug dealers, demonstrate an unusually cruel streak. The ones who are actively keeping the mother, and sometimes even the children, ensnared in the grips of addiction. There are the violent men who use beating against all family members. One man described the when he was a child his father would force him to choose what device the father would use to beat him – a belt, a wooden switch, or an extension cord.

Another man described how, as a teenager he had saved up money to buy himself a car. When he brought it home and showed it to his dad the fathers reply was, “You don’t deserve a car.” His father sold the car and kept the money to “teach him a lesson.” The money was probably spent to feed the father’s crack cocaine habit.

How do men raised by evil fathers react when they read Jesus describing fathers who give good gifts? They grew up in a household where you tried to avoid asking anything of their father for fear of getting him riled up and receiving another beating.

If they ever did receive a gift from their father it always had strings attached. “Remember when I gave you this? Now you have to …” Some gifts might look good initially, but would have something that would eventually confound or frustrate the child.

I‘d rather not have your gift
if it is going to come
with “strings” attached

 

Romans and Greeks

In some ways the Romans and Greeks held a view of their gods much like people who have evil fathers. The Greeks had their stories about the gods who answered men’s prayers, but the answer was an answer with a barb in it, a double-edged gift. Aurora, the goddess of the dawn, fell in love with Tithonus a mortal youth, so the Greek story ran. Zeus, the king of the gods, offered her any gift that she might choose for her mortal lover. Aurora very naturally chose that Tithonus might live forever; but she had forgotten to ask that Tithonus might remain forever young; and so Tithonus grew older and older and older, and could never die, and the gift became a curse.

Even the 1990’s TV show Hercules noted the cruelty of the ancient gods…

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This is the story of a time long ago – a time of myth and legend. When the ancient gods were petty and cruel, and they plagued mankind with suffering, only one man dared to challenge their power…

Approachable

Jesus describes God as approachable, who wants to hear our wants and needs. One man described that God had given him a gift by God being the father that this man could look to, and cry out to, without fear.

Luke 11:9-13

“So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. 11 If a son asks for bread[a] from any father among you, will he give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent instead of a fish? 12 Or if he asks for an egg, will he offer him a scorpion? 13 If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!”

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In Season and Out of Season

2 Timothy 4:2 (NIV)

Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.

As I’ve mentioned before, the study occurs during the men’s rec. time, and only one of three groups is out at any given time. This is one of the few times they have access to a phone to call family, or to shower, or to get some exercise in a area similar to the one shown.

For the past two weeks no one has come to Bible Study. The Catholic nun who leads services on Wednesday had also mentioned there have been some weeks with no participants. It may just be the demographics of the men who are in at this particular time, or a societal change or any number of other reasons.

If, after about 10 minutes it is apparent no one is coming to study, then with the permission of the Correctional Officers (COs) I walk the unit. I’ll chat with some of the guys who are out, and I’ll walk by the doors of the cells where men in the other two groups are still locked up. If I make eye connect I’ll ask if they want a visit. Some men do and I’ll have a 5-10 minute chat with them through the slot in the door.

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I met with “A” who was pleased with some updates in his case. There is still a long road ahead before his case is finally resolved, but he was thankful for some good news. We talked for some time and then prayed together.

I had a conversation with “E”. He is definitely seeking. He is high-energy and asks lots of questions. He wants to know what I believe it means to be a Christian. It is an opportunity for me to share God’s love with him, and to hear about the journey that he has been on. He asked me to pray for the people in the cell block. He was surprised when I included praying for the COs as well.

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“R” was new to the unit and this was a hard time for him. He misses his family, especially his six year old daughter. We talked for a while and then I prayed for him at his request.

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I also had brief conversations with 6 other guys. The latest edition of Our Daily Bread devotionals had just come out so that was a good ice-breaker.

Sometimes jail ministry is Bible Studies with two dozen guys. Other times it is one-on-one conversations. I need to be ready, in season, and out of season.

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