Sunday, August 19, 2012

Deep Wisdom

The lectionary texts include Proverbs 9:1-6: Psalm 111; Ephesians 5:15-20 and John 6:51-58.

Ever so often the people who compiled the Revised Common Lectionary, apparently accidentally, put together 4 readings that are about the same thing. Today is just such a rare moment and it makes my task a whole lot easier. The subject is wisdom, something rare, both in the past as well as in the present.

The Oxford Dictionary of English defines wisdom as "the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment." That's a very good summary. Wisdom is not merely knowledge. You can have a lot of knowledge and not know what to do with it. We've seen it when companies hire MBAs right out of college to manage people who have worked for decades in the industry and have practical experience that theory can't teach you. A few years ago, when an oil company was doing a review after a refinery fire, they discovered that nobody at the refinery in question had worked there any longer than 5 years and that included the management!

Wisdom is not merely experience, either. You can have experience and not draw the right lessons from it. After the Great Depression of the early 20th century, Congress examined the causes and passed the Banking Act of 1933, popularly called the Glass-Steagall Act, that, among other things, separated commercial banks and securities firms. Then, in 1999, those provisions were repealed by Congress. And in less than 10 years we had a Great Recession, due in large part to banks creating and selling securities so risky that several clever firms bet on them failing. As George Santayana said, "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."  

The key component to wisdom is using good judgment to critically evaluate and then act on what knowledge and experience yield. Knowledge and experience will tell you what has been done and what can be done; wisdom tells you whether it should be done at all, and if so, how to do it so as to produce the maximum good with the minimum amount of bad side effects. Knowledge and experience will tell you what the price of something should be; wisdom tells you whether it is worth the cost to you and others. Knowledge and experience will tell you what most people value; wisdom tells you what should be valued.

In Psalm 111, we are told that fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. A lot of people today do not like that idea. Why should we fear God at all? First of all, the word used in Hebrew has the idea of reverence in it. It is not "fear" in the sense of "dread" or "irrational phobia." It means something more like a healthy respect. In this sense you could say a fear or a healthy respect for the sea is the beginning of good seamanship. Those who go out on the water with too casual or neglectful an attitude towards the sea will usually come to a bad end. A healthy respect for God and his principles will similarly benefit a person, as opposed to someone who is so arrogant as to assume he always knows best and who has no respect for the rules. My wife and I have noticed that the most arrogant chefs on the cooking competition show "Chopped" are inevitably the ones who lose. They are the ones who defend their poor decisions or bad-tasting dishes before the judges. God also condemns arrogance. In Proverbs 8:13 we see it as the opposite of the fear of the Lord.

Humility towards God and deference to his principles is the start of being wise. Why? Well, for one thing, he created us and the universe. He knows how it works and how we work and what's best for us. If you read the biographies of great men who came to tragic ends you realize that they could not be better parables for the fruits of the sins the Bible deplores: arrogance, lust, greed, rage, overindulgence, deceit, betrayal, and folly. Even if these things account for their rise in the world, they also carry the seeds of their downfall. Hitler's arrogance may have fueled his rise from head of one of many fringe political groups in post-World-War-1 Germany but it also led to his military blunders which lost him a war which many historians say his generals could have won. The inability to control one's appetites, desires, emotions or mouth has spelled the fall of people both great and small. Wisdom teaches us the importance of following God's laws, his principles for living in this world of cause and effect, of short-term actions with long-term consequences. People who ignore the law of God seldom fare better than those who ignore the law of gravity.

This doesn't mean that in every instance following God's ways will bring you wealth, comfort and acclaim. When you are moving against a general rush to be the first to jump off a cliff, you will be bruised and battered. Jeremiah was. So was Elijah. To which we can add John the Baptist, Stephen, Paul and, of course, Jesus himself. The wise person follows God even when there are few social and material rewards for doing so. Because he knows that, whatever the temporal penalties, the eternal, spiritual and moral benefits are greater.   

There are worldly parallels. Nouriel Roubini was one of just a handful of financial analysts who said the housing bubble of the early 2000s was going to come crashing down and take the economy with it. Roubini was usually brought on financial talk shows to provide them with some novelty and as an object of ridicule. They called him Dr. Doom. That had to be hard on the Yale economist. And then everything he predicted happened. But while vindicated, I'll bet he wishes that the people who could have made the right changes had listened to him before everything came tumbling down.

Giving warning to those who are heading for disaster is actually a Biblical duty. In Ezekiel 33, God uses the metaphor of the watchman, whose duty it is to blow a trumpet to warn the people against an approaching army. If he fails to warn them, though the people are killed by the army, God says he will hold the watchman responsible for their deaths. Then God tells Ezekiel "I have made you a watchman…When I say to the wicked, 'O wicked man, you must certainly die,' and you do not warn the wicked about his behavior, the wicked man will die for his iniquity but I will hold you accountable for his death. But if you warn the wicked man to change his behavior, and he refuses to change, he will die for his iniquity but you will have saved your own life." That puts Ezekiel on the spot. And us as well.

Before I let inmates speak to me I warn them that I am legally bound to report any confessions of a crime, whether past or planned for the future. I am also bound, as a nurse, as clergy, and as a decent human being, to report any suicidal talk. Contrary to popular thought, people usually talk about harming themselves before they do it and so all such talk has to be taken seriously. It turns out they often talk about harming others before they do that as well. So if a disgruntled coworker or classmate talks about shooting up your workplace or school, don't dismiss it, especially if he is also very knowledgeable about weapons.

But the mandate in Ezekiel makes us uncomfortable. We all know people who are engaging in risky behaviors health-wise, like drinking too much or eating too much or smoking. And we are often quiet about those because we are afraid of their reaction if we nag them about such behaviors. Does this mean we also have to bring up the things they do that negatively affect their spiritual health, like their sexual promiscuity, their unforgiving attitude towards their relatives, or their habit of talking about everyone behind their back?

I don't recommend standing outside their house with multi-colored Westboro Baptist-like signs denouncing them. But if you know the person well-enough to talk to them about personal things, and if you are alone with them and if it seems appropriate, like they have just had a major problem with their behavior, and are looking remorseful or reflective, you could ask if they want to talk about anything. And if you were willing to listen to them and really hear them out, and share a little about you facing a similar problem, they might be open to some friendly advice. But only if it's truly done in the spirit of friendship and not from a holier-than-thou position. And if they respond positively, you have saved your friend as surely as if you had convinced them not to drive drunk.

But you won't get far if you are being hypocritical. Jesus paints the satirical image of a person trying to get a splinter out of his neighbor's eye while walking around with a log in his own. His point: fix yourself before you presume to fix others. And a lot of Biblical wisdom is about that--about how the individual should conduct himself morally. It's about controlling your tongue and your behavior. It's about being honest and faithful and generous and hard-working and chaste. It's about not starting arguments or being violent or lying or getting drunk or being lazy or hanging around with bad people. Much of it is basic. But then so is much of sin and folly. Outside of movies, evil masterminds are rare. The insidiousness of evil is that it is often banal.

There are more subtle insights in the Bible's wisdom literature. The Book of Proverbs offers some tidbits. Like the fact that the righteous care about the welfare of their animals. That the naïve believe everything while the wise consider each step they take. That hard work brings a profit but not mere talk. That fools are often both arrogant and careless. That wise words heal. That it is better to have only a little but have a healthy respect for the Lord rather than have a lot of wealth with needless turmoil thrown in.

The closest the New Testament has to wisdom literature is the Book of James. It is full of pithy sayings and common sense. Such as we must be doers of the word of God and not just hearers who deceive themselves that they are doing God's will. Such as the fact that faith that does not result in good works is dead. Such as the fact that the church should not treat the rich differently than they do the poor. Such as comparing the tongue to a flame that can get out of control and burn down a forest.

There is another kind of wisdom in the Bible and that is the profound kind we see in our passage from John. This is not the "a prudent person behaves this way" sort of wisdom. This is about pulling back the veil and getting a glimpse of how God saves us.

The last few Sundays we've been reading about the aftermath of the feeding of the 5000. The people are ready to make Jesus their king, the conventional understanding of the Messiah. Jesus doesn't want people following him for mundane reasons like he makes a great fish sandwich. He wants them to realize that what they really need him for is their spiritual life. And so he tells them that in the most graphic manner possible.

John's gospel is known for not showing certain key events in Jesus' life. As the last to write a canonical gospel, perhaps he figured he didn't need to rehash what the others covered. And while he tells us of events immediately before and after the Last Supper, he doesn't have the words of institution. But that doesn't mean the sacrament of the Lord's Supper is missing. Here we get a fuller explanation of what Jesus meant when he said "This is my body" and "This is my blood."

How does the death of the Jesus give us eternal life? We are speaking of God and things that are really beyond our ability to totally comprehend. And so, just as we do when explaining relativity or quantum physics, we use metaphors. Usually we use legal metaphors to explain how Jesus took the death penalty for us. But, taken too far, the metaphor breaks down and it sounds like God is trying to save us by pulling a sneaky legal trick that requires the death of his son.

But the connection between Jesus' torn body and shed blood and our life in him is more essential than that. Life requires food and drink. That's the metaphor Jesus uses here. "If you're going to live my life, eternal life, you need me. You need me like you need food and drink." And Jesus doesn't pretty it up. He's going to die in a particularly gory way. It's a necessary part of the process, the way a heart donor must die and be cut open and have his heart removed for someone else to live. And Jesus must get into us, as a transplanted heart must get into the recipient. But for that time and place, the idea of eating a sacrifice, the Passover lamb, whose blood must be shed to save others from death, whose body nourishes those freed by God, was more accessible to his audience. And they still didn't get it.

Throughout the Bible, we get metaphors for what God is to us--Father, Shepherd, Husband, etc. All of them capture some part of the essence of that relationship. This picture of Jesus' flesh as our food and his blood as our drink is the most disturbing one but it is absolutely vital. Food is not optional. The fact that all food was once living, either plant or animal, is inescapable. But that is how vital God to us. If we do not feed on him, regularly, our spirits will weaken, sicken and eventually die. The world is hungering for what God offers in Jesus Christ. And yet, most people would rather do without. We like our spiritual junk food that fills us and yet leaves us empty of true nutrition. Or we are like anorexics, starving for the Bread of Life, but loathe to allow more than a few crumbs of God into us.

Worldly wisdom says, "What you see is what you get." A piece of bread is just ground, baked grain. Wine is just fermented juice of the grape. It's just matter and it doesn't really matter in the long run. True wisdom doesn't stop at appearances. It knows the difference between the form of something and how it functions in our intellectual, emotional, social and spiritual lives. God's wisdom knows that reality has layers and meanings that don't show up on an electron microscope or in a chemical analysis. If we have a healthy respect for God, for his living Word and his Wisdom Incarnate, if we open up and take him into our life, if we draw our spiritual sustenance from his life, we will be able to see that which is not apparent to the eye but which is now written in our hearts and we will live our lives according to his deep wisdom.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

All The Rage

The Scripture being examined is Ephesians 4:25-5:2, with a reference to John 6:35, 41-51.

When I do my marriage preparation classes with couples, the first part consists of what we can learn from the Bible and the second part is what we can learn from all the scientific research on marriage. And what's remarkable is how much of the latter is consistent with the former. There's a reason why people still find the wisdom contained in a 2000 year old compilation of Ancient Near Eastern books compelling and relevant. And while I cover the 4 main issues that couples tend to get into major fights about, namely sex, money, children and in-laws, I really stress communication skills. To deal with any major issue in a relationship you need to be able to discuss it in as reasonable and sensitive a fashion as possible. You have to listen and you can't clam up. You have to learn to fight fair.

A lot of the principles, both psychological and theological, that apply to marriage apply to any community. And in our passage from Ephesians, Paul masterfully lays out just what we need to do and not do if the church is to function as Christ's body in the world.                  

He starts by emphasizing the need to be honest. We need to put away any lies. The last role I played for the Marathon Community Theatre was George in Edward Albee's excoriating play, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?" As the play unfolds you realize that the 2 couples' marriages are based on lies. In the case of George and Martha, it is an imaginary son onto whom each originally projected their dreams but which they now use as a weapon against each other. When Martha goes too far, George decides to kill off the illusion. At the end of the play the characters face the possibility of building a marriage based on truth and the audience is left to wonder if they can make it.

Dishonesty poisons relationships. Mutually agreed upon fictions can work in the short term but if not dealt with, they can eat away at the trust that must underlie any enduring relationship. So Paul, quoting Zechariah 8:16, says "each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor." What's interesting is that in verse 17, Zechariah says, "let none of you imagine evil in his heart against his neighbor." Often when someone does something we disagree with, we imagine all kinds of evil motives for what their actions.

We see this in the current election cycle. Both sides are imputing the most evil motives they can imagine onto the other candidate or party. They make their rivals out to be Bond villains, plotting to plunge this country or the world into chaos and destruction. I think it's more accurate to say that each candidate wants what is best for this country. Where they disagree is on how to accomplish that and what the best for this country might look like. Those are points for legitimate disagreement and debate. But if you start thinking that your fellow American is evil incarnate, you are a short step from the neo-Nazi who shot up the Sikh temple in Wisconsin. He ceased to see the Sikhs as human beings trying to do what they thought was right. He saw them as evil beings to be eradicated. Some of the rhetoric being spewed onto the airwaves and the internet on political and even religious issues has bordered on a similar demonization of the other side. No good can come of that.

We are to be truthful because, Paul says, we are members of one another. We are all part of something bigger; in this case, the body of Christ. We are called to be part of the ongoing embodiment of God's Spirit in this world. And if one member of the body is in pain, the other parts need to take note and get to the bottom of it. If not, the cause of the pain will fester and the problem will become bigger. In practical terms, the member of the body of Christ who is hurting will get angrier and will either cause a big blow up or leave. That's why Paul, quoting Psalm 4, says, "Be angry but do not sin."

Isn't anger a sin in itself? Not always. Jesus got angry at the hardness of heart he found in the Pharisees who would rather let a man with a withered hand suffer than let Jesus heal him on the Sabbath. He famously got angry at the money changers in the temple. Anger at the conditions in which some people live often leads to reform. But, if allowed to get out of hand, it can lead to war. Rage, uncontrollable anger, is one of the seven deadly sins. Paul does not use the Greek word for rage at this point. So it is possible to get angry without crossing the line into sinning.

In fact, Aristotle said something very wise about this subject: "Anyone can become angry. That is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose in the right way--that is not easy." Anger is powerful. It can make you ready to handle a situation that frustrates you or is harmful to you or those you care for. It can help motivate you to rectify something that is wrong. It can also make things worse, especially if you brood on the perceived injustice until it builds to rage.

How can we avoid letting our anger grow into sinful rage? Paul says, "do not let the sun go down on the cause of your anger." That's the NET Bible's translation and I think it fits the original Greek better. Here Paul does use the word for rage but in the literature of the time, it referred to the "provocation" or external cause of the rage. What Paul is saying is deal with the issue when it first arises. Get at the cause and work on fixing it before another day passes or it will grow into rage.

Now that doesn't mean that you should broach the subject when you're both angry. You may have to wait a few minutes or hours until you can deal with the issue calmly and civilly. But don't let the matter slide. Or, as Paul points out, you will make room for the devil. You will miss the opportunity to accomplish something constructive and give your anger the opportunity to become destructive.

So after cooling down and being able to discuss things rationally, the thing to do is to deal with the cause of the anger, as Paul says. Now there may be an actual sin at the root of the conflict. Paul talks about thieves giving up stealing. Was that a problem in the church at Ephesus? It's possible that some members were misapprehending Paul's teachings on grace. They may have thought that since we are saved by grace through faith and not through works that they needn't clean up their act. Some parts of Romans imply that people in the church thought they could go on sinning that grace may abound. And if some members of the church were stealing you can see that such behavior would trigger real and justifiable anger on the part of others. So Paul echoes the first word in the good news Jesus proclaimed: Repent. Following Jesus means turning you life around, leaving behind your sins and changing the way you think and act. In the case of thieves Paul says they need to work to give to those who are in need. They must change from a lifestyle centered on fulfilling their own desires and live one centered on filling others' needs. 

But what if the cause of the dispute isn't a sin on someone part? What if it is a misunderstanding? If you listen to the other person tell their side, you may find that you can see their point.  And if you repeat it back to them to make sure you're understand them correctly,you may find that one or both of you were not making yourselves clear. It may be that you are substantially in agreement with them. You might even be saying the same thing in different ways. The difference may be in your methods of doing things or in your emphasis on what's important.

When we get angry we tend to exaggerate or making sweeping statements that overstate the nature of the problem. And when we are angry we are often more interesting in fixing the blame than fixing the problem. So Paul says, "Let no rotten word come out of your mouth but only what is good for building up what is needed, so it gives grace to those who hear it." Don't say that nasty thing that you've been saving up so long it's gone bad; use constructive words that will fill the need of the occasion, words that bestow grace on everyone within earshot. Good communication means not saying things that will inflame the listener but only what will enlighten the situation. In my marriage classes we speak of the Four Horsemen of Martial Apocalypse: criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling. Avoid criticizing or accusing the person, especially by saying "You always…" or "You never…" That's rarely true. Don't get defensive; don't get focused on circling the wagons when you are supposed to be listening to the other person. Don't express contempt for the other person; it's the clearest predictor of divorce and, I would imagine, of a person leaving the church. And don't stonewall; don't clam up or else refuse to actually engage in the dialogue, like saying anything just to end the whole discussion. That doesn't help matters. Those are the most rotten things you can say or do in an argument. Others include blaming, bossing, name calling and threatening.

When you say and do such things you grieve God's Holy Spirit. You wouldn't call someone a dirty name in church; don't do it anywhere, especially to a fellow Christian. The Spirit dwells in both of you. His presence, says Paul, is like the wax seal a merchant would put on a jar of oil or wine, to say that it was his and the contents were pure. We should not do anything to break that seal. It marks us as God's own when the day of our complete redemption comes. 

So Paul tells us to put away all such grievous acts and attitudes: bitterness-- brooding over past injustices until you have poisoned your present--and being quick-tempered and being hot-headed and yelling and slander along with malice--the desire to harm others. We are instead to be kind to one another. We are to be tenderhearted, compassionate. We are to be forgiving of one another, as God in Christ has forgiven us. As we are reminded in the Lord's Prayer, being forgiving of others and being forgiven by God are linked. If we refuse to forgive others, we can't expect God to forgive us as we continue to sin in maintaining our unapologetic resentment towards our fellow human beings.

Then Paul raises the bar. We are to be imitators of God. Obviously we can't create universes (except fictional ones) but we can imitate his character. We are to do it as beloved children do. Kids will imitate their parents. Or caretaker. My little patient will grab a Kleenex, hold it to his nose and blow a raspberry in imitation of my loud nose blowing. He also says "Thank you" a lot, a habit of mine I'm glad he picked up. We, in turn, are to imitate God's love and forgiveness.

Furthermore we are to imitate Christ who loved us and gave himself up for us, an offering and sacrifice to God. While pagan moralists sometimes told people to imitate the gods, their gods showed no humility and never gave up their lives to save others. The true God, the God of love, whose purest expression we see in Jesus, does. And as his followers we too are to love others unselfishly. Which precludes giving free range to our anger.

Human anger, James reminds us, does not lead to God's righteousness. Jesus said if you are angry with a brother you are liable to judgment, if you insult him you are liable to the council and if you call him a fool you are liable to hell. Sadly, there are some Christians who didn't get the memo. They seem to always be angry and/or to provoke anger in others--deliberately. God's Word inevitably angers some people but I don't think we should go out of our way to rile people up. When Jesus clashed with his critics it was over essential things, like putting the healing and wellbeing of people ahead of nitpicking rules, or the nature of his mission as Messiah, or his authority to forgive sins. He didn't get into unnecessary arguments about taxes and politics, though others tried to draw him into such hot button issues. What made Jesus angry was callousness towards the sick and poor and powerless. But when the authorities came for him, he didn't resist. He rebuked the disciple who fought back and healed the person his disciple harmed.

Why do we usually want to imitate the anger of Jesus and seldom his restraint and gentleness? Because, as Aristotle says, it's easy to be angry. And it's easy to convince ourselves that our anger is moral, that it's not just human irritation but righteous indignation. But that's merely self-justification. People get angry all the time. And everyday we see what happens when people get angry. They fight and kill one another. Even if they don't get physically violent, they yell or act nasty to each other and everyone gets their back up and nothing but damage is done. That's not how you run things. That's not how you save the world. That's how you destroy it. And Jesus came to save.

We can't totally eliminate anger. If you care about people and they are threatened with harm, or if they are so stupid or selfish as to harm themselves, you will get angry. God's anger does not arise out of hate but out of love, as any parent would get angry if he or she saw her kids hurting one another. But what he ultimately does is absorb our anger and turn our worst act of violence, the murder of God's son, into the reversal of death and destruction for all. He shows us the ultimate result of our rage and then he doesn't get angry; he gets creative. Torn flesh becomes spiritual sustenance; shed blood becomes eternal life flowing from God into humans. No more sacrifices need to be made; no more lives need to be taken; no more revenge need be exacted. When Jesus cried from the cross, "It is finished," he meant it.

The Kingdom of God doesn't come from out of a gun or out of the belly of a bomber or out of the rage that makes people strap bombs to themselves or march into theaters or temples with weapons. It won't come out of following Bin Laden or Hitler. The Kingdom of God comes out of forgiveness and healing and turning the other cheek and walking the second mile and disowning ourselves and taking up the cross and following Jesus. It comes out of divine, self-sacrificial love, imitated by beloved children, trying to be just like their heavenly Father.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

He's In the Jailhouse Now

When the elevator opens, you enter a long room with benches on the wall. The officer takes you into a smaller room and sits you at a table. Here they start filling out your paperwork and check your identity and see if you have a record or outstanding warrant. Then they take you back into the long room with benches where a nurse takes your vital signs and notes every scar, injury and anomaly on your body. The nurse then asks you pages of personal medical questions, with special emphasis on certain communicable diseases, addictions and whether you have in the past or are now contemplating hurting or killing yourself. If your injuries from crashing your motorcycle or from fighting with your drinking buddies and/or the officers are severe enough, the nurse will tell the officers to take you to the ER to get patched up or checked out further before they can bring you back. Depending on your behavior, your handcuffs would be removed either before or after the nurse's exam. All of your clothes will be taken and every one of your possessions catalogued, signed for and put in a large stapled shopping bag, and you will be given some very unattractive scrubs to wear. Unless you are taken directly to the sickbay for detox or psych observation, you will then be put in a holding cell, which is basically an empty well-lit room with the biggest windows you will see in this place. You will photographed and be allowed to make one phone call. You will be issued a change of uniform and taken to whatever unit you are assigned. Welcome to the county detention center.

The county jail doesn't look anything like that of Sheriff Andy Taylor's nor like the hellholes you see in films. It is a large concrete building painted in  those bland colors that institutions must get a discount on because no one would use them on a place they loved. There are no bars anywhere. All the doors are heavy metal with a narrow but thick window and every section seems to work like an airlock, with 2 doors separated by an antechamber. Certain officers have keys but most staff don't. They push a button under a speaker beside every door, wait until a voice says "Control," identify themselves by title and state where they are going and then wait till the door buzzes before they can open it. To get anywhere within the jail means stopping at a half dozen doors at least.

The bigger units are huge triangular concrete rooms with all the tables and stools bolted to the floors. The cells line the 2 longer walls of the triangle and are on 2 levels. Each cell is roughly the size of our church kitchen, with  2 metal shelves that serve as beds, a metal shelf that serves as a desk, also used by the prisoner on the top to climb to his bunk and a combination toilet/sink/drinking fountain. The only things not bolted down are the blue mattresses. The door is metal with a vertical slit of a window.

The whole place is loud, due to the total lack of soft surfaces. The main part of the unit has 2 moderate sized flat screen TVs bolted to a wall or pillar. People play cards or write letters at the various tables. There are long horizontal slits of windows high up on some walls. In one corner is the bath and shower room with a screen high enough to shield your torso from view but letting the guards at their desk observe legs and heads. You have lost, along with your freedom, any expectation of privacy. What you do have is time: time to read, time to scheme, time to reflect, if you can hear yourself think over the din of the Tvs, the inmates, the radios and shouted orders of the guards. You will be told when to get up, when to shower, when to eat and when to sleep. It's like a monastery in which the rule of silence is treated as heresy.
  
A few years ago I worked as a night nurse at the jail. Now I am serving as chaplain there. There is a contrast between the jobs but it is more than merely treating the body or the soul. The hardest thing for me to learn as a nurse there was to turn away patients. At the hospitals and nursing homes I've worked, you pretty much have to take anyone they send you. But the jail's infirmary is more about health maintenance and management. If someone was brought to intake with anything that required more than the most basic kind of first aid we were to send them to the ER. At intake once a gentleman with a very high blood pressure told me he had no such problems previously. And I believed him, putting it down to the shock of being plucked off his cruise ship vacation for an old but still outstanding warrant. Such things are often picked up during the authorities' routine check of the identity and records of  everyone entering the port of Key West. I was reprimanded about not sending him out to the hospital to be treated for his possible chronic hypertension, though when I rechecked his blood pressure later it had returned to normal limits. While they have crash carts and emergency protocols, in a serious medical crisis the jail infirmary is not really designed to do more than immediate intervention. We're kind of like school nurses, albeit ones who can test and treat you for pregnancy, STDs, TB, HIV and a scary alphabet of diseases.

When you are responsible, even within limits, for the physical and mental healthcare of over 500 inmates, the time you can spend with any one of them is extremely limited. I used to grumble about the fact that I could legally be assigned up to 40 patients in a nursing home. In the jail I routinely poured and passed meds for anywhere from 150 to 190 inmates in a shift. Like an assembly line, the emphasis was on speed, accuracy and quantity. Offering more than a basic level of human consideration was frankly impossible.

As a chaplain the reverse is true. I usually only have 2 or 3 requests to be seen on each of my visits and so I can take the time to listen. When I have no appointments and just tour the units and dorms, one or two inmates in each will ask me a question about the Bible, or about God, or ask for a Bible, a rosary or a prayer. And so comprehensive are the safety rules that listening to and praying with and for the inmates are about all I'm allowed to do. But in the cacophonous and regimented world of the inmate, having someone take the time simply to hear you out is precious.

It is my experience that those who send for me, for the most part, really need my attention. There was the young woman who was grieving for her grandmother, whose funeral she could not attend because she was in jail. There was the father weeping over the fact that he was most likely going to be shipped off to prison and worried if whoever got custody of his little girl would be willing to bring her to visit him. There was the woman who wasn't there when her sister gave birth. There was the inmate who could not be at the bedside of a friend who was in a bad car accident and the one who wished she could be with her sister as she underwent chemotherapy. The reality of being in jail, of being taken out of the everyday lives of your family and friends, hits these inmates hard. I do a lot of grief counseling at the jail, helping people deal with the loss of lives, relationships and dreams.

More than 55% of inmates are abandoned by their families while they are in prison. Jail time tends to be less but I still hear tales of boyfriends, roommates and even spouses throwing out the inmate's stuff and washing their hands of them. Often a prisoner will talk of the one family member still on speaking terms with him or her. A surprising number will admit their responsibility in destroying these relationships. One inmate said he has learned there are no rewards or punishments for his behavior, only consequences. I might quibble a bit with his thinking one set of terms excludes the other but the basic idea is true. You reap what you sow. 

No one has told me he or she is innocent. More often they feel their arrest or sentence is out of proportion to their offense. But for the most part they do admit they have screwed up their lives. Only a few try to feed me a line of B.S. and I can be a bit more direct with my questions and advice. After a while, illusions wither and die under the harsh light of prison life.

Faith is heartier and while some inmates may just be shining me on, others really look at their lives and decide they need God in their lives. And while the chaplain's office has enough New Testaments to last till Jesus returns (and, thanks to those who contributed, enough Spanish New Testaments and rosaries to last a while), I have a definite lack of books on living the Christian life. So I typed up a basic outline that covers the main spiritual disciplines of following Jesus on a 2-sided sheet. Then I followed it with another two-sided sheet of helpful Bible verses and prayers for addiction, anger, bitterness, depression, fear, grief, guilt and peace. These I use, not as a substitute for a visit from me, but as a supplement and follow up to a visit.

According to one source, 95% of inmates in this country are incarcerated on alcohol and/or drug related charges. Another source says as many as 85% of prisoners have mental health problems, with a large overlap of these being  addictions. After 30 years of nursing, I'm convinced that a lot of  substance abuse problems start as attempts to self-medicate. Alcohol and other drugs do not so much help you deal with emotional pain as avoid it. In jail, you either learn other methods of denial or you finally face the demons that drive you. Since I started out as a psych nurse, I can usually tell which people need to talk to the psychiatrist. But when it is not a disordered brain but broken spirit which bedevils an inmate, then I can be of help.

When I was a nurse, I had one inmate in Alpha, the heavy security unit, who used to verbally abuse me. He wasn't even one of my patients but for some reason, though we only saw each other's faces once, he would rail at me from behind his closed door and covered window the entire time I passed meds to those who were ill in Alpha. That has not happened to me as a chaplain. I even sat down with a shackled Alpha resident who told me that after a life of being someone who just went to church because his mother or his girlfriend or his wife did, he wanted to get more serious about following Jesus. He was my impetus to write up my two-sided sheets.

I'm not naïve. I know that 3 out of 4 inmates return to prison. I know many have a hard time staying out of jail because of several factors from their childhood: poverty, abuse, humiliation or neglect as a child, having a parent who is an addict, early use of alcohol or drugs as a child, and a single parent childhood, especially if the father was absent. I also know that to stay out of jail an inmate ideally needs 6 conditions. He or she needs good mental health. He needs a spouse. He needs higher education than the average 5th grade education most inmates have. He needs to be at least 28 years old. He needs a job. And finally, he needs to believe in something outside himself.

That's where I can help. The inmates know a lot about Christianity but have trouble with the practical parts. And by that I mean faith, hope and love.

Faith is trust and a lot of these men and women grew up in unstable and chaotic homes. It's hard to learn trust when your parents are untrustworthy, when they may use any cash they get to buy drugs for themselves rather than food for you. Or when you come home to find you've been evicted again. Or when your parent's partner changes every few months or years. If you don't have a good father or any father, how can you learn to trust God as Father?

I try to teach trust by being trustworthy myself. I don't make many promises and those I do I keep. Trust was seldom modeled for these men and women in their families. I do what I can to put a face on trust.

More importantly, I teach trust by trusting God. I never know what I'm facing when I enter the jail. Will I be answering a technical question about the Bible or listening to a tale of horror while trying to maintain an expression of non-judgmental understanding? How do I broach the subject that when a man pulls a gun on his family it's going take a lot of hard work over a long time before he can expect them to want to see him again? How do I tell a woman to look for God's hand at work in her life when her life has gone downhill from the time her aunt's boyfriend raped her as a child? I have to trust God that his Spirit will give me the wisdom to not only say the right words at the right time but also to know when to say nothing.

Hope is the future tense of faith. We trust God not only with the present but we hope that he will lead us into a better future. However, if your past has left you bitter and your current reality isn't much better, your future is apt to look dark. I see those whose outlook is wry at best and grim at worst.    

How do you keep hope alive in a place where you only see the sky through the chainlink fencing that covers the top of the exercise courtyard? I point out how many of God's people spent time in prison: Joseph, Peter, John, James and Paul. I point out that they were able to serve God even in jail and that for Joseph his time in prison actually led to a better life and greater service to God after he was released. If you let God work in your life, your past, no matter how bad, need not determine your future.

Love is the hardest thing to communicate. I'm forbidden to pass messages from inmates to family and friends outside, or vice versa, or from one inmate to another. I'm forbidden to give inmates any gifts or money or do them any favors. I'm forbidden to give them my phone number or address. I'm forbidden to touch them except by handshake. All I have are words: my words, the words of prayer, the Word of God. With those I have to convincingly communicate God's love to people who chiefly know humanity's hate and neglect.

Love is basically wanting the best for another person. So I listen to their needs, desires and fears. I jot down their names and the names of their loved ones. I offer to pray for them and their families. I tell them that 2 churches will pray for them but will only have their first names because God knows who they are. I give whatever wisdom, psychological or theological, that seems appropriate. I ask them to tell me how things work out.

As a nurse there, I could give a pill or an ointment or a bandaid, something tangible, to help an inmate. Here I have only words. But the right word, rightly received, meditated on and applied, will last longer than any pill, cream or bandage. The right word will encourage the dispirited, enlighten the confused, comfort the bereft, redirect the lost, strengthen the faltering, and inspire the enduring. The same word, passed on, can even help others.

A jail or prison ministry is largely a ministry of presence. At times all you can do is be there for them. But I am not alone. There are more than a dozen volunteers who minister at our jail. They provide worship, Bible studies, uplifting movies. They are Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist, Pentecostal, Jewish, Seventh Day Adventist, Jehovah's Witness, and non-denominational. We are there to serve those who have been wronged and who have done wrong. We are there, sinners helping sinners, because we believe in a God of mercy and redemption.

In Matthew 25, in his parable of the last judgment, Jesus says, "I was in prison and you visited me." And when the righteous ask when this happened, Jesus says, "And the king will answer them, "I tell you the truth, just as you did it for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did it for me." When my friend, the Rev. Don Roberts, said he was retiring as chaplain at the detention center and asked if I would succeed him, I thought of this verse. Jesus did spend time imprisoned, on the night before he was crucified. When I was in Israel, I went to a Catholic church that was built over what archeologists think was the house of Caiaphas the high priest who condemned Jesus. I saw the excavated room they think was the cell where Jesus was held after his interrogation by Caiaphas. The Son of God wouldn't have been there if it weren't for us and our sins. I am in the jail because of him. He is the God who is always there for us. How can I do less for those who really need to know in a concrete way that though society has quarantined them and separated them from those they love, God has not given up on them? We serve a God whose faith, hope and love never quits. And neither should we.