The Anointing

At the jail, we started “Journey to Resurrection” yesterday. Which was Valentine’s Day. And also Ash Wednesday. And also my youngest child’s birthday. So lots of reasons to celebrate.

This is a storyboard for “The Anointing” story from Mark 14:3-9. After I told it, one of the women mentioned a story she had heard about a woman pouring oil on Jesus’ feet. Good listening. I told them how this must have been a favorite story since all four gospels have versions of it.

Another woman asked if she had a name. Nope, not in Mark’s version. She remains nameless to history, just like all of us no doubt will. But her act of love for Jesus is still told 2,000 years later. That’s the way we can be remembered, too.

Note the gold star at the top right of the storyboard. That means this woman told the story to the whole circle. What else do you notice about this storyboard?

Candle of the Last Supper

At the prison, we started the “Journey to Resurrection” series of stories in late January. This theme will run more or less from Epiphany through Lent and into Easter Season. All but the last story are from Mark 14-16. So the first story was “The Anointing” at Bethany, and last Friday we engaged a piece of the Last Supper story: “Bread and Wine.”

The talking piece I brought for this story was a candle my youngest daughter gave me some 15 years ago. I think she was still in high school. It was such a special candle, I could not bring myself to light it. One time several years after she gave it to me she saw it and was quite distressed that I hadn’t burned it yet. Somehow that seemed a bit sacrilegious; on the other hand, that was it’s purpose, wasn’t it?

About the third time I led Circles focused on the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus I remembered that candle. What a perfect talking piece for the story of the last supper (or any portion thereof). Now I knew its true purpose. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way one of the disciples lost his head. I have glued it back, but it just keeps falling off.

So I told the women about my daughter’s gift to me, and how she was distressed when she saw it hadn’t been burned, and how I now use it as a talking piece, and how one of the heads broke off. I pointed out the headless disciple. Then one of them said, “That’s Judas!” and we all had a very good laugh.

Funny, even silly, as that was, there actually was a serious narrative connection between my damaged candle and the story. It was an important thing to notice that Judas was among those to whom Jesus gave bread and wine. Judas was included in the “all” when Jesus gave the cup to his disciples and “they ALL drank from it.” Judas was included in the “many” when Jesus says, “This is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for MANY.”

Jesus knew Judas was going to betray him. That’s been established already in the story of the last supper. And yet, Jesus offered grace to even this most terrible enemy—a close friend and student who would betray him.

It was good to have laughter during the learning of this story. It is a hard one to internalize–not because it’s hard to remember, but because it is loaded with difficult emotional connections. And the stories of Mark 14-16 only get harder from here on out, at least for the next few sessions.

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COW on the Outside: Not Just for Inmates Any More

Theme graphic for COW@Grace

I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. John 15:11

Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” John 20:19

Occasionally in my Sacred Stories class in the jail, which is what we call our Circle of the Word program there, I get asked, “Do you do this on the outside?” Until last month, the answer was a regretful, “No, but I’d like to.” In January we launched a monthly Circle on the “outside” (meaning not in a jail or prison) at Grace United Methodist Church in Dayton. Its purpose is twofold:

  • To provide “aftercare” for women who has participated in a Circle of the Word in the jail or a nearby women’s prison, so that they will be able to continue engagement with biblical stories in the same way, supporting their reentry into the community;
  • To make available a spiritual formation/Bible study opportunity for members of the congregation.

This year the selection of stories is inspired by a book about how to be joyful in the face of life’s troubles: The Book of Joy by his holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, with Douglas Abrams (a Buddhist, a Christian, and a Jew—not a joke). Copies of “joy practices” from the book are distributed as totally voluntary homework.

For an introduction to the theme of joy in the midst of troubles, in January we spent time with the resurrection story of Jesus’ appearance to his disciples behind locked doors (John 10:19-23). In February we will pick a story that relates to the first “pillar of joy”: perspective. I haven’t figured that out yet. Your suggestions are welcome!

There were eight of us for our first COW at Grace, just the right number. And it went even better than I anticipated. It is amazing what meaningful spiritual insights people can have in a peace-filled setting when they spend quality time with a biblical story. The restorative justice practice of a “peacemaking circle” really works to create a safe, non-judgmental, egalitarian, covenant group where deep thinking and deep sharing are encouraged. All of us—those on the inside and those on the outside—can benefit from that.

Assessment Inspired by “The Visit”

Our last Circle of the Word for awhile at DCI (state women’s prison) focussed on the story of Mary visiting Elizabeth after Gabriel breaks the news that she will conceive a son, despite the fact that she is young, unmarried, and a virgin. Our first connection topic was to tell about a time we went on a journey to visit a relative, especially if we were facing a challenge. That generated some significant stories, mostly pretty hard.

I didn’t want to leave our series on “Good News” without a positive, hopeful note, so I reviewed the story in my mind looking for such a note. I landed on that word “blessing” which at least half the group had named in the “Word I Heard” exercise. In her greeting of Mary, Elizabeth exclaims, “Blessed is the mother of my Lord, and blessed is the fruit of her womb!”

So I invited us to think about how this story of Mary visiting Elizabeth from the Gospel of Luke might be a blessing for us during the holiday season–a time of the year which is so problematic for those in prison (that had been named very directly by several women during our Check-In).

As usual, I went first. I said that whenever I thought of this story in the coming days, I would remember our time with it in Circle. I would recall how much I enjoyed that time, of how we laughed about the prospect of me getting caught trying to take out contraband: the roll of toilet paper in my bag (another story for another day).

The women who spoke in Circle, including the other two Circlekeepers, then followed my lead in commenting about the class. Their comments, in contrast to mine, were more reflective and serious.

They were also astonishingly positive, affirming once again the value of this approach to Bible and Christian faith. They let me know in no uncertain terms, that this work must continue. Even if the Circle is small it is worth the effort. There were ten of us that day; the previous time there had been only six.

A recurring theme was the value of visual learning and more generally of how different approaches to engaging the story take advantage of different learning styles. The woman who first named this benefit, one of the most responsible and excellent participants, had an amusing way of introducing it. She said that when she was a child, she was told, “I had trouble with reading comprehension.” And as she got older she was told, “I had trouble with reading comprehension.” So she believed it.

But with the various approaches to learning we use in Circle of the Word, she found she was able to learn just fine. She identified herself as “a visual learner.” Others followed suit. They named the objects we use for talking pieces as well as the storyboard activity as visual learning approaches. It was very fulfilling to think I had a hand in improving their self images as learners. It was also important feedback about what makes Circle of the Word work so well.

On the Air, “On Point”

Who would have thought that a radio show on “The Divisions in Christianity Over Sex” would be an occasion to promote prison ministry, biblical storytelling, and Grace Church? A week before Christmas, a producer for NPR’s “On Point” show invited me to be part of a panel discussing how issues around human sexuality have divided the church.

Eleven o’clock the next morning we are live on the air, with guest host Tom Gjelten, who covers religion, faith, and belief for NPR News. About ten minutes into it I am introduced as “Deacon-in-Residence at Grace Church, a Methodist Church, there in Dayton.” After a commercial break, to my surprise, Mr. Gjelten asked, “tell us a little bit about your ministry and the Grace church. Who are the people you try to address in your own ministry?” I had expected questions about ordaining homosexuals, same-sex marriage, or the Commission on a Way Forward but not about my ministry at Grace.

I talked about Seeds of Grace, “a team of individuals at Grace Church who go with me into the jail, and into also the woman’s prison here in Dayton, to share the Word with them and to hear also the Word from them, as clearly the Spirit is present in all of these places. And as we work on learning the scriptures by heart we often encounter that Word.”

Pressed to elaborate on this I found myself saying, “God is present in all places with all people, and in all people, but so many folks don’t know God’s love, don’t know that they’re valued, and so one of the things we can do is to communicate that to them through the scriptures. We actually help them learn the scriptures by heart as a way of internalizing God’s kingdom and experiencing it.”

After I spoke, the host addressed Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. He was said to represent the evangelical position, which I was identified as the progressive. Mr. Gjelten commented, “I’m going to guess that you don’t have a lot to disagree with, with the way she interprets her mission.” Prof. Moore answered, “No, I think what she’s said so far sounds really good. That’s exactly what Christians are called to do: to minister to all people, and to be present with those who are distressed, those who are imprisoned, those who are impoverished, those who are in vulnerable situations. I think we could agree on that.”

Such a moment of common ground was another surprise. On the other hand, I happen to think that what we do through biblical storytelling in the jail and prison is very evangelical. Nevertheless, finding common ground in unexpected places is fitting for the season of Christmas.

To access a page of info about the program, and a link to a recording, click here…

How to Be Appreciated

Certificate of Appreciation for Circle of the Word program led by Grace UMC, Dayton

Never in my life have I received so many words of appreciation as I have since starting to tell and teach biblical stories inside “correctional” institutions. This summer, three of us from Grace United Methodist Church of Dayton, Ohio started a Circle of the Word at the women’s prison here in our hometown. Each time we have gone has been an extraordinary experience and we always receive many thank-you’s from the women.

As if that weren’t enough, the prison had a volunteer appreciation event to recognize the contributions of various agencies that lead programs for the women of DCI (Dayton Correctional Institution). There were plenty of faith-based programs, but we seemed to be the only local church represented. Our certificate will be officially presented to the congregation on December 10 and Grace’s biblical storytelling ministry there highlighted.

For our part, we try to communicate to the women how much we appreciate their presence and participation. It’s difficult to convey how much we receive from their insights about the story, and their generous sharing of connections with it from their own life experience. The last time we went I was so caught up in their stories of connection to Mark 1:21-28 (Jesus Rebukes an Unclean Spirit) that I completely lost track of the time. The chaplain had to intervene to make sure the women got back in time for “count.”

So, to be appreciated AND appreciative, start a Circle of the Word in your local jail or a nearby prison. My book will tell you how as well as why—A Breath of Fresh Air: Biblical Storytelling with Prisoners. To learn more, visit my book’s page on the Wipf and Stock Publishers site.

Women with Nothing

They won’t care what you know unless they know that you care.

Chaplain Willie L. Templeton, Jr.
September 25, 2017

Most every month, Chaplain Templeton holds a meeting for those of us who volunteer at the jail. He always has some pearls of wisdom for us, gleaned from his 20 years experience working in the jail. Before becoming Chaplain and Program Coordinator, Willie, as he prefers to be called, was a Corrections Officer (AKA “C.O.”). So he is not naïve about the population he serves. Last month he told us, “Just because they’re coming to Bible class or to church, doesn’t mean their mind is in the right place.”

Willie regularly warns us to be vigilant and pay attention to guard against contraband, making sure that whatever we take in the jail, we take back out. So we count our pencils, crayons, and markers. Early on, I quit taking in pens after I discovered a number missing their insides. At one of these meetings I learned that the inside of pens is a common target. Another time one of the clipboards we use was found in a pod. So now we count those, too.

While he is not naïve, Willie is very compassionate. Last month he emphasized, “They really need our love and our prayer.” When he said this I gave thanks for the Monday Morning Prayer Group at Grace who faithfully pray for each woman who writes a “prayer card” at the end of Sacred Stories class, as most of the women do.

Willie told us that most of those in jail have abandonment issues, and stressed how important it is that we show up when we say we will, and if we can’t make it to let him know. He is concerned about what happens to people when they are released from jail and return to the community. He wants us to think about what he calls “aftercare” with resources that can point them in the right direction. Dayton Cooks is one such resource. In early October I told the group about the upcoming session and several women who were interested took brochures.

And he told us about the women who arrive in jail with nothing—with none of the basic toiletries that we take for granted: soap, shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste and toothbrush, etc. These things can be purchased in the jail commissary, but many of the women have no money.

When possible, Willie distributes sample size toiletries to those in need. He asks for our help getting them. When I travel I get as many hotel items as I can to bring back for the women in jail who have nothing. Willie says Walmart is a good place to get sample size.

One more thing. Willie says there is also a need for underpants. Like I said, the basics, for women with nothing.

Shattered

There is a young woman in the jail Circle who is dealing with serious grief. I went to visit her, though she hadn’t requested a visit. She was very grateful and we talked for quite some time. There were tears of grief, regret, and loneliness, but there was also hope and new direction. She is new to all things religious, a former cynic. She is giving faith in God a try.

This week was her third time attending Circle. As soon as we got in our classroom she handed me a prayer song she had written. She said she had a tune but couldn’t remember it very well. I asked her if she would read it for us, which she did toward the end of our time. I also asked if I could share it with others and she readily agreed to that as well. I told her it would be anonymous; she said I could use her name. I told her when she got out, if she still wanted to, we would share her name as well.

Her prayer song was inspired by the stories we have been learning in Mark about John the Baptist and Jesus’ baptism and testing. One thing we focussed on was how God told Jesus, “I love you; I’m very pleased with you.” I said that I believe God feels that way about each of us and we should listen to hear the words addressed to us as well as to Jesus. This young woman is beginning to hear and to believe that good news.

Shattered

How could God forgive me again?
Will I ever learn? Probably not…
But Jesus knows where you’ve been
He knows every hurt we’ve got…

(chorus)
he says “I’ve been here all along,
Even when you pull away.
Through the right and wrong,
I stand by you every day.”

Tears flow as she cried
“my heart’s just too shattered”
Jesus said, “That’s why I died
Saving you is what mattered!”

She finally took his hand
Letting Jesus lead the way
He will always understand
His life he chose to pay…

(chorus)
he says “I’ve been here all along,
Even when you pull away.”
Through the right and wrong,
he stood by you every day.

The cause is never lost
It’ll never be too late
No matter what the cost,
Jesus turns your pathway straight…

September 27, 2017
Montgomery OH County Jail

Second Baptism

Last Friday at the prison we did two Connections rounds for the story of Jesus’ baptism and testing (Mark 1:9-13).

The first one was about baptism—our own or someone else’s. One of us who is a Circlekeeper started us off by telling how she requested and received a second baptism, done when she was old enough to remember and choose for herself.

Several of the women had also been baptized twice. They apparently had a course about baptism at the prison and then, if one chose, she would be baptized. It was clearly very meaningful for all of them, a spiritual experience so profound they found it difficult to describe, but that they felt changed their lives.

As I listened, I thought about my worship professor in seminary and how strongly he argued against more than one baptism. It made sense at the time, in the abstract, but not so much last Friday with these flesh and blood Christians. I wasn’t about to say their second baptisms were “theologically incorrect” or somehow didn’t count.

To tell the truth, I think those baptisms counted for a lot. I think they were fully sacramental, outward signs of inward grace. As I heard their stories I imagined God saying to each of them just as God said to Jesus, “I am very pleased with you!”

Storyboard for “Jesus Is Baptized and Tested” (Mark 1:9-13)

Memorable Moments

What we heard when we listened to the story about Jesus’ baptism and testing from Mark

Yesterday we engaged the story of “Jesus Is Baptized and Tested” (Mark 1:9-13). A couple of the “Word I Heard” responses were not words or phrases in the story, but had come to the women while listening to the story. That’s an option I give.

One response was “depressed descendants” and another was “second chances.” Another I recall, which was in the story, was “God said, ‘I love you.” The first person to get the talking piece shared these words.

In a follow-up round to naming our words/phrases, participants were invited to tell why they picked the words they picked. Several women shared their reasons. Their explanations were spoken “from the heart” as our Circle guidelines suggest.

I had initially passed since I couldn’t recall that any word or phrase had particularly caught my attention while I told the story. But as I listened to the women, I recalled words that did stand out for me. They were similar to those spoken by the first person to share. They were, “God tells us ‘I love you.'” I wanted each woman present, me included, to hear God saying “I love you.”

I always wish I could remember what is said In Circle rounds because there is often significant spiritual wisdom expressed. I am regularly impressed by how articulate and well spoken and thoughtful responses of the women can be. But it is usually just a blessing of the moment that leaves an impression rather than a concrete memory.

Almost on time our Circle was over and the chaplain arrived to escort the women back to their pod. The group started to file out the door. On her way out one woman new to Circle said, “That was fun!” I was glad to hear it.