Sing a simple song
Another fight broke out in the yard during service. A basketball game drew more than a whistle. Running guards, paramedics, and Swat raced past the open chapel door as worshiping inmates hit the floor and I, the visiting chaplain, was ushered outside for safety. It wasn't all that dramatic this time, only one prisoner escorted away in chains, but the headcount and weapons search takes a good twenty minutes out of our scheduled hour.
I stood next to the Native Nations drummer during our timeout and, despite regulations to the contrary, we decided the holiest thing we could do was make jive plans for me to bring my saxophone to the sweat lodge and jam with the chanters. I can just imagine the paperwork for that scenario being a mountain worth Mohamed. My home church has a Native Nation dancer so on the way home I began to wonder if this crazy idea is perhaps something to pursue. The notion of combining faiths, besides being blasphemy to most everybody involved, took on a dreamlike quality as I wondered how my reeds and saxophone pads would fare in extreme humidity.
A good friend of mine, a reformed Pastor, now attends a church that welcomes the other as significant. Muslims, trans-gendered Republicans, even Hip-Hop artists are greeted warmly and encouraged to share experience and wisdom. From what he tells me the joke of heaven being a collection of rooms separating the denominations seems to be smirking behind their kiss of peace. I don't have a background of open minded catechisms. I remember crying, as a Catholic boy, when I learned Warren Spahn ate beef stew on the days he pitched for the Milwaukee Braves, even on a Friday. The best lefthander in baseball not going to heaven on a dietary restriction was my first serious crisis of faith.
What are we to do with the true or false, multiple choice filter of religious realities? There is a T shirt slogan extolling relationship with Our Creator as the cure for such dichotomy. My re-established relationship with my eldest son gives me an ever evolving perspective. He calls me names. Not derogatory ones, he simply has different ways of addressing me, of getting my attention. Sometimes it's, "Pops", sometimes it's "Schmit." The affection, the connection doesn't change with the word choice. What if God doesn't care what name we name Him with?
I do believe in false religions, but I think their names are greed, avarice, racism, misogyny and the like. Following Jesus makes the most sense for me because Jesus did the most for me, and because He requires the least of me. The traditional world religions all require too much effort on the part of their followers to be even remotely viable for me, but I'm not going to try and earn notches on my spiritual gun handle by trying to convert or convince people otherwise.
One of my supernaturally inclined mentors sums it up with the question, "How's that working for you?" If the Prince of Peace relates to you, then we're related. We might be distant cousins, or brothers from a different mother, but what is incontestable is we are Spirit breathed into existence in His/Her image. We will be known by our fruit; love, joy, peace, long suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control, not by the name of our branch on the Tree of Life.
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.
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.
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.