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.