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Posts from the ‘The Jail’ Category

Absolute Soul

“I’ve had a bunch of revelations in my life.” The words came from an inmate sitting across the table at the jail recently. He looked impossibly young, was skeletally skinny, indigenous. His face somehow managed to look deadly serious and impishly goofy at the same time, a hint of a smile always threatening to break out into the real thing. He was a big fan of rap music, poetry, anime. He knew his bible well, rattling off passages and references by memory. Read more

The Question the Whole World Revolves Around

“You know that bible verse that talks about the greatest three things, or whatever… you know, the three things that remain and how the best one is love?” The question comes from a young man at the jail. He has this wild look about him, hair everywhere, restless movements, a frantic, searching gaze, cuts on his hands. One is still bleeding. He gets up now and then to go tear a few strips off the toilet paper roll on the bookshelf to slow the flow. He follows this up by spraying disinfectant on his hands (there’s a bottle in the corner by the overhead projector, a lingering remnant of early pandemic days, I suppose). “Yeah, that’s 1 Corinthians 13,” I say, trying to keep tabs on his movements. “It’s one of my favourites.” “Yeah, I read it last night,” he responds. “I like it, too. But he’s missing one. There’s a fourth one that should be in there.” Read more

Far as the Curse is Found

He comes to make his blessings flow
far as the curse is found. — Joy to the World

I often tell people that the bible sounds different when you read it in jail. The same is true for Christmas carols. The words and the melodies sound different when sung far away from festive church sanctuaries, when instead of candles and creches it’s just concrete and plastic and reinforced glass. You’re drawn to different lines of the familiar songs. Read more

The Violent Take It By Force

And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force. — Matthew 11:12

I am not a violent man. I have never been in a fight. Not a real one anyway. I suppose there were hockey skirmishes and the ordinary fraternal conflagrations of childhood, but these little irruptions don’t really count. I was invariably terrible at violence. At heart, I am a peacemaker, if of a conflicted sort. Read more

The Lion

You have to sign in for the weekly bible studies at the jail. Name, unit number, time. Records must be kept. And so, the clipboard dutifully makes its way around the circle. One guy always has a massive grin on his face as he writes his name. I’ll call him Adam. I know why Adam is smiling. He has a standard practice by now. He writes his name, as per the requirements. But then he always leaves a few blank lines before writing another: “Jesus.” This day, he expands a bit. “Jesus of Nazareth.” He hopes he’s spelled Nazareth right. Read more

In Extremis

To be a pastor is to regularly find oneself in extremis. Pastors are expected to bring consolation and hope into extreme situations: contexts of depression, addiction, suicidal ideation, crushing poverty, relational breakdown, violence, existential despair, intellectual doubt, debilitating illness, and ultimately, of course, death. Or, more precisely, to point to the One who promises these things in (and beyond) the fractured and chaotic world of human experience. But what happens to the possibility of consolation when you don’t believe in this One anymore? Read more

There, But for the Grace of God…

Over the past few months, I’ve had a number of people, close to home and from afar, comment that they’ve appreciated my reflections and stories that emerge out of Monday mornings spent at the jail. I’ve obviously appreciated the affirmation, even as I sometimes privately wonder if I’m dancing a little too close to the line of voyeuristically exploiting the pain of hard stories to make a bit of theological hay. In my more optimistic moments, I believe these stories need to be told to bring a bit of humanity into a place where stereotypes and casual dismissiveness abound, to shine a light on the glimmers of hope, to bear witness to the sadness, etc. At other times, I wonder if I’m doing little more than wordily rubbernecking as I pass the scene of a car wreck. Read more

Wednesday Miscellany: Proselytism, Parasitic Morality, and a Punch in the Mouth

I sat in on an attempted proselytism the other day. It was in the chapel at the jail. One of the young women had been pontificating about how she didn’t really believe in God, but she figured there was probably a higher power that was orchestrating things down here. Life was mostly about merging with the energy of the universe and nature and discovering how everything’s connected and all religions basically say the same thing and that it’s all about love and peace (she said this after introducing the word “perping” to my lexicon and talking about how sometimes it’s just so much fun!). She was, in other words, a well-tutored member of the burgeoning SBNR (spiritual but not religious) category of the post-Christian West. Read more

Death of a Simple Narrative

I am learning that the jail is very often a place where simple narratives go to die.

This morning’s lesson was ostensibly about learning how to stop blaming parents and take responsibility for our own actions but, as is usually the case, the conversation tends to meander off in all kinds of loosely-related or unrelated territory. There was a younger indigenous woman who was sitting quietly while the lesson was read. She had spiky jet black hair streaked with blond, a few tattoos on her face, one that looked like a tear drop of blood. I wouldn’t have been surprised if she sat in stony silence throughout our time together. She didn’t look like she had much to say. Read more

Unstuck

There are questions that I encounter as a pastor that haunt me. I’m not necessarily thinking about the “usual suspects” here. Questions about the existence of God or why we suffer or the challenge of pluralism or the historicity of this or that biblical story or the conundrums of interpreting this or that passage or doctrine. These all represent familiar enough terrain and present their own challenges to faith. But the questions I’m thinking about today are much more personal in nature. Read more

When the Women Showed Up

There were two mistakes made at the jail this morning. The first was that the security guard called the wrong unit to the chapel. So, instead of the one or two men who usually show up Monday mornings it was nearly twenty women. In most places, the error would be corrected, the wrong group sent back, the right group recalled. But nothing happens easily or quickly in the jail and we were already running late. So, we decided to just play the hand we were dealt. The circle was widened, more bibles were procured, more photocopies of lessons were made. The women had shown up and we couldn’t very well turn them away. Read more

Genesis

I left the jail this morning feeling a heaviness that I have not felt in some time. I don’t go there each Monday with some big agenda—I’m not there to reform or convert or instruct, but to listen, to pray, to encourage. But most days, I get a glimpse of goodness through a conversation, a smile, a new insight into the human heart and the human predicament. Today was not one of those days. Read more

Bigger Barns

Another Monday morning, another trip to the jail. Again, only two guys show up. There was a third who just about made it, but he transgressed on the walk to the chapel (he said hi to someone in an adjacent classroom, which is not permitted, and which led to a voice over the loudspeaker just as he was entering the chapel: “Back to the unit…”). So, only a few plastic chairs occupied in the circle this morning. Read more

Egypt for Your Ransom

Only two guys showed up for the support group at the jail today. There had been some kind of a disturbance in the unit, apparently, and so it was twenty-five minutes past start time when the pair of them trudged in. One was an older guy who seemed reserved and didn’t say much. The other was a young Cree man who talked a mile a minute and seemed delighted to be anywhere other than his cell. Brandon* introduced himself to me three times, a vigorous handshake accompanying each introduction, before we settled in to the circle. Read more

I’m Not Doing So Good…

Victor* is the last of a handful of inmates to trudge into the Monday morning support group that I’m a part of at the local jail. He’s a small Latino guy, middle aged, a wispy beard and a short ponytail. He looks apprehensive about being there, but then that’s not uncommon. He sits down on a chair and stares at his feet waiting for the group to begin.  Read more

The Old Wanderer

There’s a marvelous scene in Will Ferguson’s novel The Shoe on the Roof where Thomas Rosanoff, a medical student is having a discussion with his Catholic friend Frances about faith and reason and science and God, about what human beings can know and how they can know it. They are discussing a time when a patient’s shoe inexplicably (miraculously?) appeared on the roof of the hospital. Frances demands a rational explanation:

“How do you explain the shoe on the roof, then?”

“I don’t have to. It’s what we call an ‘anomalous experience.’”

“Tommy, everything we do is an anomalous experience. Being alive is an anomalous experience. That’s the problem with science; it always falls silent right when the questions start to get interesting.”

Read more

I Wanna Open My Heart

His eyes rarely leave the floor, even as he’s baring his soul. He’s young, tough-looking, brown skin marked with tattoos, black hair slicked back over the middle of a mostly shaved skull, rosary around his neck. It’s the first time he’s showed up at a group I participate it in at the local jail. He’s looked wary about the whole thing since he walked through the door. But he mustered up the courage to begin a sentence like, “I think I wanna say something…” And the story comes pouring out.  Read more

The Guts to Love

We pray all of these things in the name of your son Jesus, who had the guts to love…

So concluded a prayer spoken together by a handful of inmates and a few of us volunteers at a support group at the local jail that I am a part of on Monday mornings. The guts to love. What an interesting phrase, I thought. I suspect the word “guts” conjures up for us ideas of courage or resolve or a willingness to keep going even when it would be easier to turn back or a refusal to care if others think love is weak or impotent or whatever. It evokes this image of someone who has dug down into the deepest part of themselves and of the world and emerged with love. The guts to love. Yeah, I like that.  Read more