16 August 2011

Considering the Gifts of the Spirit

He told us a story about being in the park, seeing a trio getting out of their car, putting purses in the trunk, then going for a walk. One was a grandmother, one was about three, and the other, he guessed, was probably The Mom. In the few minutes he saw them, they walked into his heart, even though he didn't know it yet.

Months later, on a sunny August day, he is in jail, sitting in a church service on 2 West. He's sober now, all the drugs finally out of his system. And he's crying. Not sobbing, but the tears just keep coming.

He's remembering that trio in the park. "For the first time," he says, "I don't just see them. I see my mother, my grandmother, my daughter. For the first time, I know that I would never inflict on my family what I did to those people in the park." He'd broken into the car, he confessed, had stolen their money and credit cards. Used it all to feed his drug habit.

"I have a gift for crime," he says. "Anything you want, I can walk down the street and get it. Half an hour, I'd be back, giving you an iPod, laptop, shoes, you name it. I can get anything. It's a gift." He twists the songbook in his hands and swipes at the tears on his face.

"I don't understand why I'm crying all the time. Day or night. I've never cried like this in my life. I feel bad about what I did to those people in the park, and all the other people I've stolen from and hurt." His voice breaks as he struggles for words. "Why does it hurt so much?"

Someone offers, "Maybe you're feeling your conscience again." We all consider that truth.

"I think maybe your heart got really hard, like a rock, over time. Your tears are softening your heart, breaking it open again. Your heart is healing. You are healing."

He only nods and cries more. Around the small circle, we consider this gift of tears and pray that God will be as merciful to the rest of us.

06 August 2011

Truth in the Margins (or the back cover)

Do you write in your bible? I don't. I don't highlight verses in different colored inks. I don't put exclamation marks in the margins or pencil in comments. Lots of other people do, but I never have. My hesitation comes from knowing that what is so real and pertinent today will be incomprehensible in two years or ten. I don't want to lock in one meaning and not have the opportunity to see differently the next time I encounter the text.

I want to lay myself open to the new possibilities.

Having said that, I'm always curious to go through the bibles that have gotten recycled back to my office. Some come back in pristine condition. Probably the requestor left the jail before the bible made it to him. Or maybe she had good intentions, but that fifth grade reading level wasn't enough to make the Book speak.

Some bibles come back with careful notations. Inside this one is a list of important passages: "Do not be afraid." "Love one another." "Of course I want to heal you."

Inside another is a list of memorable characters: Jacob the trickster, Rachel and Leah, Naomi and Ruth, Paul and Silas.

There are dates when the back-sliders slid back into the arms of the Prodigal God. On the title page of one, "With much love, from the Author of Life."

I opened a Good News Translation of the bible last week. This is version seen rarely, but every now and then it comes through. Do you remember its old title? Good News for Modern Man and do you remember the line drawings? You can see them here. Good News images

I got a note from an offender a month ago asking for this specific translation and I'd sent a response explaining the scarcity of copies. Now, here was that Good News Bible. The original requestor was gone, but there was a another request in the stack on my desk. I slipped that note inside the bible and then set about checking the book itself. Sometimes people leave important numbers in their bible: phone numbers, booking numbers, Social Security numbers. Sometimes it's a name or a birthdate. I take out all the identifying information and clean it up before I send it upstairs.

This Good News Bible is clean, just a little banged up. No markings on the pages, only one corner and about twenty pages curled. I check the inside of the front cover. Nothing. I look at the inside of the back cover.

"I am homicidal," the note says. A full name and a birthdate follow. There are dates of admission to Western State Hospital "for being homicidal." A court date, a day in April.


It's all in pencil and as I carefully erase the name, the dates, the notes, I think about the man who had this bible last spring. I wonder what has happened to him in the last three months. Is he still in jail? Did he get sent to prison? Has he gone to the mental hospital for the help he needs?

I write a note to the man who will receive this bible. "Your request and this bible arrived on my desk together today. You can see it has been used by at least one person before you. When you read God's Word, pray for the person who read this bible before you and for the one who will read it after you. May you find strength and hope here."


I went on to the other requests.

Several hours later, on the bus headed home, I realized that the note-maker had said, "I am homicidal." Homicidal. Not suicidal. Wanting to harm others, not himself. I prayed for the intended victims and for the man who had written the words.

03 August 2011

The View from the Eighth Floor

Last night I was up on the eighth floor assisting with a Word and Communion Service led by one of the Catholic volunteers. Rudy's partner is recovering from knee replacement surgery and is out of commission for a few weeks.

The eight floor, south wing, houses Medium Security level men in eight dorms, twenty beds to the dorm. Because the multi-purpose room we meet in isn't huge, only three men from each dorm were allowed to come to the service for a total of 24. Twenty men actually came and they were a fairly lively group. I'm up on that floor often during the day to meet with someone who requested a chaplain, so many of the men have seen me at one time or another. There are always a few who haven't and we go through the "Gee you look familiar" and "Did you go to prison any time since 1999?" and the "Oh that's where I know you from!"

When I'm on the floor for visits, I can't see outside, but there are windows in the multi-purpose room and on a beautiful summer night, I looked out the window. It faces east, so the first thing I could see was the freeway that runs right alongside the jail. Just across the freeway, at the edges of some trees, I saw a line of tents. It could have been an outdoor sale for REI, but it wasn't. The tents are occupied by some of the homeless in the city.

I would never see those tents when I'm on the bus or driving the car into work. They sit right above my exit and the concrete wall is too high to see over at that point. Some of the men in the service said they'd camped out in that spot before, when they were on the streets. One of them knew two places to get a hot meal within three blocks of the campsite. There was a brief discussion about the differences between those in the tents and those in the jail. The men agreed there were good things about both places.

Some of the campers were sitting outside their tents, on the grass, looking at a grand summer sun setting over the water and the Olympic mountains. They could see the jail and I'm guessing some of their conversations were along the line of "I've been inside that building. Glad I'm out here. No, I didn't have dinner tonight, but at least I'm in my own tent."

We read next Sunday's readings, Elijah looking for the sign of God's presence, Jesus showing up on the water in the middle of the night. "It's a ghost!" were the words I carried with me. Our prayers were wide enough to include the homeless campers, the drug habit that got interrupted, the family members struggling with broken promises and disappointments.

Who do I see when I look up? And who is looking at me, pondering the possibilities?