Tuesday, November 25, 2014
Often before preparing for our jail Bible studies, I ask Jesus what the women specifically need.
On Sunday, the word TRUST came through loud and clear, so I chose Psalm 146, which speaks to the notion of where we put our trust.
The first group was a lively bunch--almost everyone in the pod came to the study. I started with a question: What's your experience been with trusting others, God, or yourself?
A few "knowing" glances went around the circle. Their answers were not surprising:
"I've been hurt so many times, I don't trust anyone anymore."
"Why does God let little kids get molested? Stuff like that makes it hard to trust God."
"I trust myself the least of all. When I try to run my life by myself, it turns out bad."
I noticed that the woman sitting to my right had finger tattoos on both hands, spelling out F**K LOVE. I asked the group, "Are there ways we try to take control, so we won't be hurt anymore?"
This was very familiar. They named the ways: We put up walls. We isolate. We hold on to resentments. We reject the others first, before they can reject us. We harden our hearts.
"Drugs are my best friend," someone said. "I can always count on them to make me feel better."
We talked about promises that others have broken, leading us to have difficulty trusting. And we talked about promises that we've broken to ourselves.
"What are some of the ways people promise? What do they swear by?" I asked.
They named the most common vows on the street--ways of using the strongest language you can think of to convince another person to trust you:
"I swear on my kids' lives."
"I swear on myself--or may God strike me down."
"I swear on my grandmother's grave."
"What are some promises we've made to yourselves, that we haven't been able to keep?" I asked.
We've promised to keep our word. We've promised to stop using. We've promised to be there for our families. We've promised to take one day at a time and not "future trip." The list was long--of promises we couldn't even keep to ourselves.
We turned to Psalm 146. The New Living Translation has beautiful and simple language: Don't put your confidence in powerful people; there is no help for you there.
"Who are some of the powerful people we put our trust in?" I asked.
"I put my trust in my drug dealer," one woman said. "It's great--he's always there for me. Until he gets arrested! And then I think, 'Oh, man, what am I going to do? Now I'm going to get sick . . .'"
The women mentioned putting their trust in men, or parents, or a certain public defender with a good track record of getting better deals, or women who they felt were stronger and could offer some protection.
We read on:
But joyful are those who have the God of Israel as their helper, whose hope is in the Lord their God . . . he keeps every promise forever . . . the Lord gives justice to the oppressed, and food to the hungry, the Lord is freeing the prisoners, opening the eyes of the blind, lifting up those who are bowed down, loving the righteous, protecting the strangers, supporting the fatherless and the widow, and the way of the wicked he turns upside down.
"Which one of these people do you identify with the most?" I asked.
Some women felt they were "bowed down"--humble and broken. Others felt they were blind, not seeing answers, not seeing what's true. All said they were prisoners. Several said they were fatherless. A few mentioned that their way has been turned upside down--but were comforted to see that it's the "way" that God turns upside down, and not us.
"Being in jail probably saved my life," one woman commented. "I'm glad God turns our way upside down sometimes."
"This sounds bad because I know a lot of people aren't getting out," one woman exclaimed. "But the promise about God setting the prisoner free is true for meeeeeeeee! I'm leaving this week!" Everybody laughed.
"Do these promises of God sound good?" I asked.
All agreed that the promises did sound good. We talked about how the root of all addiction is trust--if I can't trust God or others, then all that's left is to meet my own needs. Which usually involves destructive self-comforts. Would they be willing to trust God--even a little bit--with some of their needs?
With a few moments remaining, we held out our hands and prayed--calling out to Jesus the areas in our lives where we need breakthrough. The ways we need God to show up. Legal miracles. Peace. Freedom from withdrawal. Protection for kids. For everyone in the pod to get along. I looked up and noticed that the women were holding hands around the circle. There was a sense of peace and unity in the group--some with more faith, some with less, but all willing to offer God a little bit of trust.
Wednesday, July 23, 2014
This past Sunday, Elisa and I went to jail to be with the ladies. As I prayed in preparation, I felt like God wanted me to share about this past month and the things that God had shown me. I really hope that I'm hearing from God, because the last two studies were personal things . . . but the sense I was getting was, "If it's real, it'll speak to them!"
We read from Lamentation 3:
17 Peace has been stripped away,
and I have forgotten what prosperity is.
18 I cry out, “My splendor is gone!
Everything I had hoped for from the Lord is lost!”
19 The thought of my suffering and homelessness
is bitter beyond words.
20 I will never forget this awful time,
as I grieve over my loss.
21 Yet I still dare to hope
when I remember this:
22 The faithful love of the Lord never ends!
His mercies never cease.
23 Great is his faithfulness;
his mercies begin afresh each morning.
24 I say to myself, “The Lord is my inheritance;
therefore, I will hope in him!”
We read the first part (17-20) and asked the ladies if this is a feeling that they can relate to, and if they'd be willing to share when they had felt this way. Some shared about how they feel like that in jail. Some shared times outside when they felt like that. One woman said that actually being in jail is what saved her life.
I shared with them about my hospitalization last month...how I felt so bitter and confused as to why God wasn't doing anything as I lay in bed, sick and in pain. I told them that I felt lonely, as though God had left me and didn't care about me. The ladies nodded in sympathy.
Then I asked someone to read the 2nd part (22-24) and asked if this also resonated with them. One woman in the last pod really surprised me when she shared about how she felt led to make a list of everything she was thankful for. She said that thankfulness is where it all begins--where you begin (or dare) to hope again (just like this passage says).
Another woman shared that she was really scared to go out in 30 days, not knowing where to go, whether to go back to her husband or not, her kids' reactions . . . but that she had to hope because there was nothing else she could do but hope and somehow have faith that it's all going to work out.
I shared that one of my favorite parts in this passage is "his mercies begin afresh each morning." I told them that it encourages me to know that we get a new chance in life every morning because God allows us to live another one. I still don't have the answers to many of my questions, but I'm going to take one step at a time. One day at time and dare to hope again and again.
We ended our time with one of my favorite songs at the moment: "Good To Me" by Audrey Assad, and Elisa went around and prayed for each woman.
Every time I go to jail, I'm amazed at how encouraged I walk out of that building. These beautiful daughters of the King will never know how much they've edified me already and how they helped me to hope again. How thankful they make me feel. I really wish that you could all meet these beautiful women.
Thank you all for your constant prayers.
Friday, January 17, 2014
january 12, 2014
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
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
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
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
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.