The Door is Adore

Chapel service is always about equipping the saints to be saints in the yard, in their cell, in their hearts. Today we discussed a diagram of the three R's that make up The Eternal Triangle (apologies to jazz buffs that know that's a title of a Sonny Rollins tune...)

The bottom two corners of the triangle are Religion and Rebellion, both common choices of people looking for a place to belong. The top of the triangle is Relationship which is the real cure for the alienation we feel and try to solve in a group setting, or a tribe mentality. Jesus said Eternal Life is in knowing Our Father(personally) and Jesus Christ whom the Father sent. John 17:3

Part of this knowing is of course belief. Hebrews 11:6 "But without faith it is impossible to please God, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him." Jesus straight about how to diligently seek connection with Our Father. 

Matthew 6:6 "But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut the door, pray to your Father who is IN the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly."

We all admitted to knowing about the door in the context of, "Knock and it shall be opened to you." (Matthew 7:7) but were a little surprised too see the instruction to close the door behind us when we entered the secret place to pray. Folks who meditate might see a reference to shut the world out and tune into the Divine Presence, I wouldn't say they were wrong. We drew a picture of a door with a handle in the center of our triangle to reinforce the concept of going in and coming out of a secret place to sit with the Lord.

And then the Holy Ghost took over the chalk board. There is no other way to explain it because as I went to write 'door' next to my poor illustration, the word came out Adore and we were given a key as to how to activate our time in the prayer closet. "The Lord is Holy and enthroned in praise."  Psalm 22:3  We come into the secret place to worship, even silently, as individuals, we come to adore Him and a reward of being in Divine Presence is the divine attributes, the fruits of the Spirit, begin to root in us.

Love blooms, joy blossoms, peace spreads its fragrance, longsuffering strengthens our stalk, kindness gives leaf, goodness grows, faithfulness ripens, gentleness deepens its root and self control transforms us into saints, witnesses, and ministers of reconciliation.

In John 15:15 Jesus calls us friends. Let that sink in for a minute. We are friends of God. Friends do things together; they enjoy each other's company, they make plans, have adventures, they develop trust through experience, and they share the good, and the bad, together. Friends spend time together, and friend, as the Master of Eternity, time is one thing God has plenty of to share with you and I.

 

Imparting with Inmates

A riot closed the yard down at Pelican Bay State Prison in late May. Eight guards were stabbed, eight inmates shot. No fatalities, just the cost of doing business with violent offenders. We were scheduled for a chapel visit the next day, but had to wait until early July to get clearance.

The list of inmate attendees was paired way down, possibly as a consequence of the disturbance. Two, or more, gathered together is many times the extent of our fellowship. Yesterday we drew four, which seemed to allow more room for God to work through our meeting.

The point of Prison chapel meetings is to equip the saints that live there, and the first part of that equipping is encouraging an inmate to see himself as a saint rather than a sinner, even while serving time. One way to promote this idea is to take into account the fruits of the Holy Spirit as evidence of the change in our lives and self perception. We hit on the fruit known as self-control and at first the discussion revolved around the traditional interpretation of doing something good when tempted to do something wrong. I won't suggest God was bored with our rehashing a rather obvious perspective, but something moved in us to take a different look at the notion of self control.

I play saxophone to open up our service and Michael, an inmate up from Los Angeles, asked if playing music was an example of self control because he said a musician practices to learn the right notes. As people began to nod their head in agreement Brian, a new timer who had been quiet through most of our meetings this year, pointed out just playing the right notes doesn't make for very good music. Inflection, dynamic, emotion all add to the interpretation and enjoyment of a tune, for both the musician and the audience. Perhaps, he reasoned, self-control is also made up of knowing how and when to use our gifts. Incorporating skill, grace, intention, and a receptive sensitivity can add seemingly supernatural qualities to our efforts to communicate and connect with each other.

"What about casting your pearls before swine?" Michael asked. "Is knowing who to share with part of self control?"

"More like crowd control," teased Juan, a member of a rival LA based gang. "When you shop for a birthday present, you want to get the right thing for the person. You don't want to ever give a Laker hat to somebody to somebody like Pastor Will, who's rooting for Boston."

After the laughter died down Michael added, "That's for sure right. And don't write me no checks that I can't cash. You should only give if you've got something to give."

At this point I challenged the guys to come up with some of the things that they had to share. I asked them to be honest about what gifts had the Holy Spirit given them and it came down to being willing to admit that He may have indeed given each of us gifts that we had not as yet recognized.

"I can always tell when somebody just wants something from me," Juan motioned over his shoulder back toward the yard. "It's just a survival skill, are you telling me that's from God?"

We agreed Juan's gift was discernment and, to put a bow on the discussion, asked him if he'd impart discernment to the rest of us by putting his hand on our shoulders and praying for us to receive it. It took some concentrated cajoling and exhorting for him to realize we were serious but just as our hour was winding up we formed a short line and received our blessing from the freshly appointed, and anointed, San Juan.

Faith is an action verb and we each left the service with our spiritual antennae finely tuned to the Holy Ghost's broadcast channel. If there's a blessing floating in over the barbed wire and concrete walls we want to be able to pick it up out of the thin air and share it with those we care about.

 

 

Easter Insider

Our Easter visit to Pelican Bay Maximum Security Prison gave us a sunlit view of the yard from inside the cement chapel walls. Almost like looking out from a tomb onto a new world. We gathered in a circle and pictured Jesus standing in our midst as John recorded in his gospel. Jesus, the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow showing the marks in His hands and feet, showing the wound in His side and asking us to not be unbelieving, but believing. He breathed on the gathered disciples and they received the Holy Spirit. John records what happens next in chapter 20:21 "So Jesus said onto them again, "Peace to you! As the Father sent me I also send you."

My guest minister, Mark Gordon of Teen Challenge, and I went around the circle, placing our hands on each inmate, to reiterate both Christ's grant of peace and His commission. It may seem strange to consider yourself as sent by God if you can't go anywhere, but we're not asked to judge the significance of our influence as much as to acknowledge the opportunities to witness hidden in the ordinary exchanges of our day. For an inmate the briefest contact may shed the most light on a dark situation, a letter from home, a song echoing in the corridor, a guarded smile, maybe an actual conversation on the exercise yard.

As ministers we go inside to equip the locked up saints living as examples to their incarcerated communities and their families. Today we practiced praying for one another. One brother would step forward to receive, as another takes the time to pray for insight and encouragement. We prayed for a sister dealing with diminished eyesight, we prayed for a smooth upcoming transition for an inmate's release date. Sometimes the request is just one quiet word, "Family." Sometimes its too personal to be expressed in public, sometimes its too funny not to be.

A few days after Jesus appeared in the upper room He came across the disciples fishing and, upon learning they had not caught any fish during the night, He instructed them to cast their nets, once more, off the other side of the boat. The ensuing catch was so great they couldn't haul all the fish into the boat.

We may be earnest in our attempts to pray for others, or to influence them positively and have nothing to show for our effort. This business of grace and mercy always returns to receiving what we don't deserve from Someone we can not see. At His suggestion our nets too will be so full they nearly burst, and the folks we labor with to haul them in will become brothers-in-arms.

Our relationships are the operating arena for the miraculous. We are to live our lives as if gathered in an upper room, awaiting a visit from a Holy Guest, praying that when the stone of our isolation is rolled away we rise to the occasion of compassion, conviction, and community. The traditional Easter greeting of He is Risen can expand to include us, we are risen, we are risen in deed.

Getting In

The first miracle to getting in to Pelican Bay State Prison yesterday was just getting to the gate. Heavy rainstorms for the past month had repeatedly washed out the coastal road that winds through the redwoods in Northern California to the prison. Huge rock walls prevent most of the landslides, but when a tree with a trunk the size of a small house topples over the road it takes a crew of engineers and heavy equipment operators to clear the path.

Once we're inside clearing the path for the Gospel to take root in an inmate is a big part of our mission. As my Pastor, Donald Wesley, used to say , "The problem with Christianity is always the Christians, never Christ." And the problem with representing the Gospel is a lot of preachers use it as an excuse to browbeat people about the 'do's and don'ts' they perceive to be the core values of Christ's message.

Presenting the true nature of God is why Jesus came to earth, and presenting the true message of Christ is the least we on earth can do to honor Him. He gave us but two commandments, "Love God and love your neighbor as yourself." When your neighbor is a friendly person who leans over a picket fence to offer you lemonade on a hot summer day that commandment is pretty easy to follow, but when your neighbor is a violent offender serving time in a maximum security prison the challenge is to engage, not ignore the opportunity for connection, for fellowship.

Spreading the Gospel doesn't require us to be Biblical scholars, but to be living epistles. We are jars of clay and when we take the time to compassionately break the barriers we construct between ourselves and others we begin to put Jesus's commands into play. Sometimes loving someone needs just a smile to prove itself, sometimes a listening ear, occasionally a shared prayer, or act of charity. The outreach is a result of how we've been in-reached by the Spirit. John says if we claim to love God but hate our brother we are a liar, and liars make their entire lives a prison.

We closed our service at Pelican Bay with a 21 day challenge to silently pray for someone we suspect has the fewest praying people in their life. Intercessory prayer is a great investment of time, especially when doing time behind bars. Incarceration is not a requirement to pray over other people, so go ahead try it yourself for 21 days. We'll be going back to Pelican bay about that time and look forward to carrying your full report ! 

Game Day at Pelican Bay

The first visit to Pelican Bay State Prison chapel for the new year came in on sheets of cold rain and tree whipping wind. The schedule for Sunday was directly opposite playoff football and, as a lifelong Green Bay fan, I was glad to be inside very secure walls to keep me from screaming at a TV set. 

We had seven attendees for chapel, two first timers, and two eager for front row regulars. Our Scripture reading was from 2 Peter chapter 1:4 as it includes a favorite word of prison preaching, 'escape' as in "through these great and precious promises of God, you make be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust and sinful desires."

Peter begins his greeting proclaiming grace and peace be multiplied to us in our knowledge of God and Jesus Our Lord. Recognizing grace and peace in our lives became our discussion point and understanding ways we might participate in multiplying it to each other gave us something to carry back into the yard and cell blocks. Peter wrote his letter as intentional strategy, "add to your faith virtue, and to virtue knowledge, and to knowledge self-control,..." concluding, "if these things be yours and abound you will be neither barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of the Lord."

Making sense of this spiritual knowledge is like an antennae sensitive to the leading, prompting, and encouragement of the Holy Spirit, especially as it pertains to bearing witness in our communities. We agreed maximum security communities are ripe for divine appointment and bounced around a few ideas of how we ,"the least of these" might be on the lookout for conducting introductions between Jesus and folks we would meet during the week. 

A smile came across our faces as we realized smiling itself was the beginning of graceful and peaceful connection. We realized we were not required to become Bible experts to further the KIngdom, but merely willing spirits trusting the joy of the Lord to be our strength. The kiss of peace was how the early Christians greeted each other. Prison decorum requires we replace that gesture with handshakes and fistbumps, thus armed and dangerous to the enemies of peace and grace we went out, back into the rain and wind, as ambassadors of The Son, shining in a dark world.

 

Dear Jorge...

 

Jorge got the letter from home no inmate wants to receive. She wouldn’t wait for him. She was through. The attendees found him with a torn string of bed sheets around his neck. The resulting lockdown prevented me, a volunteer preacher, from holding worship that following Sunday though it was weeks before I learned the reason.

At our next service we talked about John 10:10 ‘ The thief does not come but to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.’ A fellow inmate, who knew Jorge’s condition, asked that we pray for him. Our prayer group gathered in a circle but before we began I confessed I had tried to harm myself with an overdose over a girl when I was in my twenties, long before I was saved.

Jorge had not been attending our service and I asked the group to invite him to meet with me as we had a lot in common.

The following week Jorge slunk in the back of the chapel and I stopped the reading to go back and introduce myself. I told him I was so glad he was alive because more people than he could imagine were waiting to hear a good word from him.

He looked at me warily as I led him to the front of the room and if I hadn’t squeezed his hand I’m sure he would’ve busted out a window.

I asked him if I could guess what was going through his mind after he got his ‘Dear Jorge’ letter and after he nodded I spelled out the despair, self-loathing, and desire for revenge that I remembered from my own trauma of rejection. I pressed down on his shoulders and neck with each pronouncement until he was bent down to the floor and asked the group to recite in unison

Matthew 11:28 ‘Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I AM gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.’

I straightened Jorge up and turned him to face the group. I asked him if he was willing to do me a favor and memorize something for a week. With our hands on each other’s shoulders and our eyes locked I had him repeat the phrase, ’Learn from me for I AM gentle and humble in heart.’ Jorge stuttered through a swelling of tears and tried out the phrase a few times with the group echoing his efforts after each voicing.

Jorge collapsed in a front row pew as we continued to repeat the phrase over him. We concluded our service, we only have an hour before the guards come to close the building, by discussing that the enemy deceives us into self harm and that his tactic can be overcome by reversing the ‘Garbage In, Garbage Out’ theory with ‘Scripture In, Scripture Out’ therapy.

Every week for the next few months when Jorge comes to worship—he enters through the front door now—I ask him if he has a good word for the group and he stands clear and tall and says, ‘Learn from me for I AM gentle and humble in heart.’

Sadly things have not yet repaired with his wife, but Jorge did report he got a letter from his daughter, a first ever from her. She had stopped using drugs and entered re-hab because as she put it, “If my Dad can have a good attitude in jail because of Jesus and fellowship, then I have no reason to belly ache about my life on the outside.”

Jorge has gone on to increase his personification of Matthew 11:28. He says it is much easier to get across the yard knowing his burden is light.