Friday, January 17, 2014

through the roof!

january 12, 2014
amy muia
Anne and I were with the jail ladies on Sunday, bringing a favorite text: the paralyzed man lowered through the roof to Jesus' feet (Luke 5).
Lately we've been opening each Bible study with guitar worship--it settles hearts, invites God's presence, and seems to break down walls.  Some of the women watched Anne's fingers as she played, but others closed their eyes and enjoyed a few moments of beauty and peace, which is hard to find in the close quarters of the jail. 
Everyone was open to prayer, so I quietly circulated around and prayed for each lady while Anne sang, "Waiting Here for You."  In the first pod, two women clung together and wept.
When Anne finished, there was peace in the room, and we turned to the text.  "This story is about a man who was paralyzed," I began.  "He was stuck in the crowd and couldn't seem to reach Jesus.  Before we start reading, I'd love to know--have any of you ever felt paralyzed in any way?"
Most of the women were nodding.  They felt paralyzed in jail, with their cases largely out of their control.  Some felt paralyzed by fear and anxiety.  Others related a common feeling: not wanting to go backward to their old lives, but afraid to move forward into the unknown.
We went around the circle, each woman reading a portion of the text.  "What stands out to you about the story?" I asked.
"The first thing I would do is question it," a woman said.  "Here you see somebody getting healed, but what I see around me is people not getting better."
"Has anyone ever felt like you haven't had much faith, but someone else carried you?" I asked.
"My dad," one woman said.  Others looked at each other around the circle and exchanged secret smiles--remembering how they were currently supporting each other.
"What did the paralyzed man do, in order to be healed?" I asked.
Their answers reflected the answer they imagined we would want to hear: "He had faith."
"He might have had faith," I suggested.  "But does the text tell us that he did?"
They scanned the text.  "No," someone commented.  "It doesn't say that.  It says the friends had faith."
"Well, he stood up when Jesus told him to," another said.  "So he did have some faith.  He did what Jesus said."
"What do you think the man was hoping for?" I asked.  Most agreed that the man wanted healing.  But we noticed that first, Jesus forgave the man's sins.
"Has God ever answered your prayer, but not in the way you expected?"
This was a common experience.  "I prayed and prayed that I would get bailed out," a woman nicknamed "Monster" said.  "But I didn't.  Another woman came in, and was bailed out the same day.  It was so hard, but maybe God wants me in here so I figure out more stuff."
"Do you believe that God can forgive your sins?" I asked the group.
The women responded in ways we've come to expect--that God offers good news, but only moderately good.  God will do God's part, but we have to earn it.  "God forgives us," said one, "but we also have to do right.  We have to make amends . . . you know, do the right thing, and make a 'living amends.'"
"Yeah, and we also have to suffer the consequences of our actions," added another.
"And God puts us through these kinds of trials," said one.  "Everything happens for a reason."
"I think God forgives us, but I can't forgive myself," a woman said quietly.
"I think most of us are used to being in relationships where love is conditional," I suggested.  "Have you ever had a partner who only loved you when you were doing what he wanted?  But withdrew that love when you went against him?"
This got a bigger reaction.  Almost everyone could relate that that.
"And parents too," another said, relating how her parents seemed to remove their love when she was in trouble.  Others recalled the pain of not receiving any phone calls or visits from family members.
"The Bible says that there's nothing that can separate us from the love of God," I said.  "God is different from human beings.  We don't have to earn God's love.  Maybe, like this story, we just need to present ourselves to Jesus in our neediness and our stuck-ness."
This felt like a new idea.  "Maybe we can do what's in this story," I suggested.  "Some have a lot of faith in this room, and some might have very little.  But maybe we could join our faith together--like the friends--and lower ourselves down in front of Jesus.  What kind of healing do you need today?"
They mentioned physical pain, emotional exhaustion, addictions and cravings, fear, and anger.  I asked if anyone needed healing of painful, recurring memories, and several did.
I invited them to each lay a hand on the shoulder of the person next to her, forming a circle.  We prayed for forgiveness of sins--a washing clean that we don't have to earn.  We prayed for relief of pain, and healing of addicted brains, and all the things the women mentioned.  It felt like such a relief to come to Jesus together as a group, everyone connected, no one excluded for lack of faith or fear.

Sunday, December 15, 2013


december 8, 2013
amy muia

It's cold outside.  The women of Skagit County jail were grateful to be allowed to take their blankets into the concrete outdoor pen for "rec" (recreation).  The temperature is below freezing, but they wouldn't miss their one chance per day for fresh air.  And then they come inside into the multi-purpose room, where Anne and I are waiting.

It's Anne's first time at jail Bible study, and she brought her guitar.  She plays and sings softly, as the women sink into their seats and I go around and quietly pray behind each one.  It's vulnerable here.  Some women chose not to come, staying behind in their pod.  But these few wouldn't miss their chance for a moment of beauty in this dingy concrete place.  Their chance to feel some relief.

Anne finishes playing, and the women quietly open their eyes.

"That song is just how I feel," a woman comments.  "The good that God is doing in me . . . it's overwhelming."  We note that at times, good can be more difficult to receive than the "bad" we're used to.

We turn to the text.  It's from Lamentations, and even though no one knows what a lament is, they all agree that crying out to God is a familiar posture.

Bitterly she weeps at night; tears are upon her cheeks.  Among all her lovers, there is none to comfort her . . . in the days of her affliction and wandering, she remembers all the treasures that were hers in days of old . . .

"What are some of the treasures you've had in the past--treasures that are lost to you?" I ask.

They can think of many things: family, the self-respect of being a working person, health, peace.

"My kids," the woman on my right says, and she begins to cry.

He has driven me away and made me walk in darkness instead of light . . . I have lost all hope of having any peace.  I've forgotten what good times are like.

Everyone around the circle can relate to this.  I explain that this passage is about a time when God’s people were taken captive.  "What are some of the things that have held you captive, now or in the past?"

These are familiar answers: drugs and alcohol, bad relationships, family members that want to control them, depression, and even themselves.

"God's never left me," one woman says.  "But I tell him to stay out of my face.  He's always there, but I don't want him around."

"What might cause us to want God to stay back?" I ask.

"We want to keep doing what we're doing.  We want to keep using our drug--for just a little longer," a woman across the circle replies.  Several nod.

"Have you ever felt like the author of this passage?" I ask.  "That God had turned away from you?"

"God does turn away sometimes," one woman asserts.  "I think he has to."

"Would you ever turn away from your children, for making mistakes?" I ask.

"Damn!" she exclaims.  "When you put it that way, never . . ."

"Maybe that's what the author comes to see at the end of this passage," I note.  "Could someone read 3:21-26?"

But there is something else I remember.   And it gives me hope.  The Lord loves us very much.  So we haven't been completely destroyed.  His loving-kindness never fails.  His great love and mercies are new every morning.  Lord, how faithful you are!  I say to myself, 'The Lord is my portion, therefore I will wait for him' . . . it is good to wait quietly for the Lord.

"What are some of the things that we put our hope in, instead of God?" I ask.

They mention putting their hope in their regular ways of living, or putting hope in different men, who they hope will save or rescue them.

"I hope in myself," a woman commented.

"Have these things disappointed us?" I ask.

The commenter snorts and rolls her eyes.  Most everyone else nods.

There isn't much time left.  I invite them into a space of prayer.  "First, let's just take some time to pour out our complaints to God.  What's troubling you?  What's not going right?  Let's raise up our lament."

They are quiet, heads down.  "And now let's take a moment to confess.  Let God into the darkest part of your heart.  What's your greatest sin, your greatest shame?"

After a moment of quiet, I say, "According to the Bible, if we confess our sins, Jesus is faithful to forgive us, and to wash us clean.  We need to receive that forgiveness.  Imagine a wrapped present in the middle of the circle.  Picture yourself going to it, picking it up, and opening it.  Receive God's forgiveness for you as a free gift."

Anne picks up her guitar again, and the women remain in a restful, receiving state.  They sit quietly, letting the good news of the text settle over them.

"God is telling me he loves me," one woman says softly.

"He's just telling me to wait," added another.

Others are quiet.  A woman who appears to struggle with mental health watches Anne's fingers move across the guitar frets, and taps her leg nervously.  Across the circle, the woman who has kept God at arm's length just sits--with her face turned upward and tears sliding down onto her red jail uniform.

Monday, November 25, 2013


november 24, 2013
ruby tanaka

Last Sunday in the jail we read about Paul and Silas in the prison singing praises to God while being shackled, their backs having just been severely flogged.

I asked the girls why they thought Paul and Silas were praising Him. Most of them seemed intrigued by that part of the story but they weren’t sure why. One girl wondered if it was because they knew what God was about to do.

We read about how God opened the doors and unlocked the shackles with a great earthquake and how none of the prisoners left.

I asked them to visualize how it would be to hear inmates singing in a cell next to there’s, and then an earthquake following that would open all the doors.  They gave nervous laughs over how strange it would be.  The girls mentioned that just the night before they had been talking about how they would react if there was a big earthquake while they were in the jail.  They talked about where they would hide, or if they would panic.

I asked them what they would do if it meant that all the doors opened. Would they run or stay?  The girls with short sentences said they would stay. They wouldn’t want to jeopardize getting out.  The girls with long sentences said they would run as fast as they could.

I asked them why they thought the inmates stayed in the jail of Paula and Silas.  One said that maybe they felt convicted of their sin and felt that it was right to stay.

When I asked who they related to the most in the story, the inmates, the jailer, Paul and Silas; they said the inmates and that in that situation they would have stayed too.

I asked who they thought was truly imprisoned in the story, and they all felt the jailer was most imprisoned because he was so afraid of the Roman authorities that he was ready to kill himself.
We discussed the lengths God went to touch the lives of the jailer and the inmates. That He was willing to send His servants into dark dungeons for their benefit.

After prayer we had a little extra time so I offered to sing one of the Psalms while they closed their eyes.

“Here,” said one of the inmates sitting next to me. “This bible is already open to the Psalms.”

Psalm 18 was underlined and so I began to sing from that open page. We were amazed when it came to the following.....In my distress I called to the Lord; I cried to my God for help. From his temple he heard my voice; my cry came before Him, into  his ears. The earth trembled and quaked, and the foundations of the mountains shook.

Thank you for remembering these ladies in prayer.

Friday, August 9, 2013

God's hotel

august 4, 2013
amy  muia

Sunday was one of our more interesting Bible studies in the jail!  Last week, several women had asked us to bring copies of the jail poem, "God's Hotel."  The basic idea of the poem is that God "redeems" jail time by rescuing a destructive person from herself--and the time can be spent in rest, learning God's ways, and coming closer to a Father who weeps for her and loves her.

I thought there were some similarities to the prodigal son story in Luke, so I printed the Biblical text on the back and set off.

As soon as Phyllis and I arrived, the guard told us that the women--packed to capacity--had all been fighting.  "F Pod" had lost their Bible study privileges, so we would meet instead with G pod and then the trustees.  We entered the multi-purpose room, expecting tensions to be running high.

We started off by reading the poem together, and sparks began to fly.  "I disagree with this poem!" one inmate said with raised voice.  "This isn't any 'hotel!'  They treat us without any respect.  They treat us like . . . criminals!"

"I don't like the title either," another said irritably.  "Jail is evil.  It's not God's hotel. I think this is blasphemy!"

Several joined the rant, while others remained silent, waiting to see what we would do.

"Well," I said.  "I see this is stirring you up.  We came with this honest question . . . do you think that there's anything helpful about your time here?  Could God use this time in any way?"

"I like the poem," the woman to my right said.  "I don't have any family or support on the outside.  The jail is like my home."

"God can use other resources to help us--opportunities on the outside," the first angry lady said.  "But not jail.  I really, really dislike this poem."

"Yeah, but how many of us actually use those resources when we're on the outside?  We keep doing the same thing, over and over . . . and end up here again," another said. "Maybe this is the only place that God can use."

"If I wasn't arrested, I'd be dead," one woman said simply.

Suddenly one of the "detractors" began to get tearful.  "This isn't God's hotel," she said.  "I should be on the outside . . . helping my kids . . ."

"Yeah, but what we WANT and what we NEED are two different things," another added.

"I love it," someone said.  "This is right where I'm at."

We flipped the page over, and read the Biblical text together.  The story of the prodigal son wasn't too different from the poem: a young man, running wild, ends up hitting bottom.  And it brings him back to God, his loving and embracing Father, who runs down the road to meet him.

"What do you hear in this story?" I asked.

"This makes me angry too," one woman said.  "My sister is just like this.  She destroys her life, and everyone stands by her, but none of them will support me.  She's the favorite . . ."

"I don't think the Father should have rewarded the son," another commented.  "He'll just go out and do the same thing again if he isn't punished . . ."

"But hasn't he been punished enough?" the woman on my right countered.  "Just by what he did to himself?"

The ladies were doing a good job leading the study all by themselves.  "Do you hear any good news here?" I asked.

Even the most irascible woman in the bunch admitted that yes, this was good news.  The Father doesn't condemn the son.  He doesn't give him a "trial period," or lecture him in any way.  He just hugs him, and loves him, and forgives him.  He's so happy that his son has come home.  Gently, the good news of the text began to settle over the the women.

I suggested that--wherever we are (close to God, or feeling "far down the road")--we pray, calling out our various needs to a Father who loves us.  They were willing, and began releasing their needs to God: sobriety, another chance, help, safety when they get out, peace in their hearts, protection for loved ones.  When the guard clacked the door open, there was a sense of calm in the room, and many tears.  I noticed that the most vocal woman in the group took an extra copy of the handout.

"This really gave me something to think about," she said.

Phyllis and I had a feeling that the "wrestling" would continue, back in the pod.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

you're not a monster

april 7, 2013
amy muia

God showed up in the jail this week, with an amazing word for all the ladies, but one inmate in particular.  Read on!

The jail ministers usually sit in the car outside the jail, to pray together, before going inside.

"There's one inmate I can't get off my mind," Ruby told me.  "She goes by the name 'Monster.'  I was just thinking of how destructive a name like that is . . . and when I look at her, I just keep seeing the name 'Sarah' instead.  I'm not sure exactly what to do with that."

"Let's just see where God wants to take it," I said.  And we went inside.

This Sunday, I brought the "Jesus calls Levi" text.  It's one of my favorites.  There Levi sits, in his tax-collector booth, not looking for Jesus.  He’s right in the middle of wrongdoing, something most of the women can relate to.  Many of them have stories of God encountering them, even when they’re in the middle of doing something bad.

We spoke about how God isn’t afraid of the dirty places.  But he sees something in us.  He singles us out, and calls us to join him.

“What stands out to you about the passage?” I asked the women, after we read it together.

"Jesus didn’t come for the healthy.  He came for the sick,” one woman said.  That line resonated with a lot of them.  They liked the idea of Jesus choosing Levi, instead of the “Bible thumpers.”

“Who followed who?” I asked.  A few answered that Levi followed Jesus.  But then they noticed that—although Jesus said, “Follow me”—Jesus actually followed Levi to his house.

“He comes to where we are,” the woman on my right said.  This woman happened to be ‘Monster.’

“A lot of times we don’t see ourselves the way God sees us,” I commented.  “Would you be willing to pray with me, and ask how God sees you?”  They were willing.  They held out their hands.  I told them to picture themselves in their left hands—how they see themselves.  And then, I invited them to ask God: “Could you show me a picture of how you see me?”

There were many tears.  One woman said, “Wow.  I have a whole Cinderella story going on over here.  I saw myself as dark, and small.  And God showed me that I’m a princess . . .”

‘Monster’ seemed particularly moved.  Tears were streaming down her face.

Ruby gently said, “I keep thinking about you . . . about your name.  When I look at you, I don’t see a monster.  I keep seeing the name Sarah.”

Her eyes widened.  “My real name is Angelita,” she choked out.  “But my grandfather . . . he wanted to name me Sarah.”  She continued to cry.  "He's been telling me that it's time to be a better mom to my kids.  And I'm f---- ready . . ."

A new name, for a new season.  Jesus was busy today, calling and inviting and revealing his love in the most secret places of our hearts.  Thank you for the prayers.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

daughter, your faith has healed you

November 25, 2012
Phyllis Mills

This week in the jail, I shared the story of Jesus healing a woman with an issue of blood. After reading the passage from Mark, I asked the women the following question.

How does this story make you feel?

One woman answered that she felt invisible, like the old lady in the story, lost in the crowd and without Jesus. Others said they felt like out-casts from normal society, like this woman in this story.

I then asked the women if they would be willing to do a prayer activation with me using this passage.  We formed a circle and I asked each woman to hold one hand out towards the middle, as a way of symbolizing us reaching out to touch Jesus' cloak. Then I asked each woman to close her eyes and to speak out any issues that were weighing her down.  They began to speak:  people hurting my feelings, being in bad relationships, lost families, addictions. As the tears began to flow, I quietly began to read this verse in the passage over each of them.

Jesus said to her, "Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering."

Saturday, August 11, 2012

take my yoke upon you

August 5, 2012
elizabeth turman-bryant
One of the first things that Crystal, a twenty-something Latina girl, asked me when the ladies shuffled into the room in their red scrubs and plastic sandals was, "So were people praying for me last week?"   I said yes, we sent out their requests to all of you.  She said, "Good, I'm going to check up on that every week because I really need it".  Your prayers are coveted and checked up on!  

Well, this week I went in solo and it was a good opportunity for me to practice for an upcoming teaching I was giving. I love hearing scripture afresh through the honest replies and perspective of the women in jail. 

Ok, so how many of you are coming in today feeling really weary, worn-down and tired?

All hands go up.  What things feel like heavy burdens? What weighs you down and makes you tired?

The ladies responded: Not seeing my kids, the domestic violence situation I am in, my addiction, waiting in here.

Well, Jesus had something to say to anyone who was feeling like this  Let's look at a promise that he offers.  

Matthew 11:28-30 :  Come to me, all of you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me for I am gentle and humble.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.  

For those who are tired, what are the three things that Jesus asks them to do?  To come to him, take up his yoke, learn from him.  What does he promise in return?  Rest for our souls.  We talked a bit about what a yoke was and the image of Jesus being the bigger ox who is carrying the burden and teaching the younger ox. 

That sounds really easy, just to come to this Jesus and get rest.  If its that easy, why don't you think that we do this when we are in that place of being so tired and exhausted?   We forget, we are running around so much and too busy.  We may not know Jesus and know if we can trust him.  We have been let down-prayed in the past and nothing happened.  

What do we run to instead when we get in that exhausted place?  We as humans usually run to something when we feel down to make us feel better...
We run to old abusive relationships, drugs, keeping busy.  

And those things that we run to, do they bring rest?  Are they gentle and humble masters?   No way! They make us feel worse and more guilty and tired afterwards. 
From here we had to quickly transition into prayer for the time goes by soooo quickly!   I invited the women to take their burdens and to come with them to Jesus and offer them to him and hear his words over them.   I prayed for the peace that passes understanding to settle over them and then the guards came....