Tuesday, February 20, 2007

"A New Man" -- My new prison thing

Last night was the third week of my new thing at a near-by prison. I had to name it (in order to go in), so I call it "A New Man." It seems to be going well. But then usually the guys are so thankful to interact with outsiders that you could pretty much do anything and they'd tell you it's going well.

I wanted to start small, both because it allows me to get to know the men on a first-name basis, and to interact with them a bit personally, but also because I'm writing the material for the thing as we go along. (I'm not sure exactly what to call what I'm doing. Calling it a program or a class makes it sound more clinical than it is, calling it a "ministry" makes it sound more official than it is). Anyway, I figured it'd be wise to keep things small for the first go round. The guys say that they really like the material (but see above).

I go in with another guy from church. We meet with 22 guys on the inside. The thing should last around 15 weeks or so. We get to the prison a little before 6 p.m., get cleared through security and get to the classroom. The guard in the hallway then will call out the guys -- although last night some of the guys told me that they have to go up and tell the guards in their units that they have a layin, because the guards aren't calling them out. Once the tell them, though, they seem to be allowed to come to out, no problem. So I guess it's working.

As the men dribble in over the first 15 minutes or so, we chat about the past week and stuff. Then we pray, and have a study over the topic for that week. I've been grateful that the men have proven very willing to talk and interact with me and the material, and to ask questions. (More so than in most of my Sunday-morning classes.) So that's good. After the study, we spend 15 or so minutes taking prayer requests, which the men have also been very willing to share.

I'm pretty bad with names, but after last night I have about one-third of them down (assuming it sticks until next week). After next week, I think we'll have a "share night," devoted wholly to the men talking about whatever it is that they want to talk about. Usually they will talk about some aspect of their faith or what they've been learning, less often they talk about their background. Usually they're eager to talk, at least more so than in similar situations in the outside, where people often don't want to look too eager.

I'm writing my own material, not because I think everything out there sucks, but because I write my own studies for Sunday school anyway. Not that my stuff is original, it's just that I find it easier to teach material which I've put together in a way that makes sense to me. That, and I think that most teaching material aimed to be taught to laymen is too simple-minded.

More substantively, the materials I know from Prison Fellowship and The Association of Ex-Offenders tend to be somewhat more law-based than I think they should be. When I've worked with these groups (and I'm still working with TAX at another unit on Tuesday nights), I rewrite the individual studies so that I'm more comfortable with what I'm teaching.

And don't get me wrong, I'm very, very thankful to these groups for making it easy to become involved in prison ministry. I am almost positive that if it were a matter of me getting something like what I'm doing off the ground without prior experience with these groups, then I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing now. So they deserve the credit.

But I wanted to make the material I covered more "Lutheran." And not just the individual studies, but I wanted to hit some consistent themes throughout the series of studies we cover.

So here are the themes I wanted to emphasize a little more. (I stress that these themes aren't unique to "my" study. It's just that I have a very limited knowledge of what's available.)

First, I want to make each lesson Christocentric in the sense that it's not about us "becoming" better people by obeying God's law -- we are already 100 percent holy and righteous in Christ. So we can't get any better than that, at least not in God's eyes. Rather, it's about receiving Christ's grace and reflecting the new man that God's forgiveness creates in us; allowing the new man naturally to blossom and to bear fruit. Further, each study begins by looking how Christ expressed the the study's theme towards us. (That may sound obvious, but many of the studies I've seen for prisoners start and end only with the moral principle as applied to human behavior. As a result, the study basically boils down to, "this is what you have to do to make God happy," as opposed to, "expect Christ to reflect out of you in this way as a result of what he's done for us.")

A second overarching theme is that the world cannot comprehend the cross, and so it rejects the cross as foolishness. As a result, we can't be surprised when the world also rejects as fools the new people whom the cross creates. (Indeed, what our new nature in Christ desires to do will seem crazy to our "old man" as well. This often raises questions of suffering and affliction.)

Finally, this life is a daily struggle between the old man and the new man; we are simultaneously sinner and saint. We need to be vigilant to "drown the old man daily," continually receiving the grace that Christ provides to us. This sometimes becomes a bit touchy for the guys, since my experience has been that most of the strongest Christians among the guys inside are perfectionists (in the theological sense of the word).

The guys say they like the studies (but see above). And for some reason, they really, really like the fact that I hand out written outlines for the studies. This is just a habit of mine, mainly to help me keep on track, and to help people follow the lesson. But guys in the past go on and on about how useful the outlines are, and how they studied them in their cells, and how they were going to use them to teach the lessons when they were released. Same already with these lessons.

But in a real sense, my emphasis isn't really the Bible study, it's more on the fellowship "over" the Bible study, and before and after the study. These guys face a pretty tough time in prison (I'm not at all excusing them -- almost all of them committed the crimes for which they are being punished, and hurt other people doing so), and perhaps an even tougher time when they get out. I know I feel, well, refreshed when I get together with Christian friends and we talk about things related to the faith. So my hope with the guys is that, like me, they feel a little refreshed as well when we get together and talk about things related to the faith.


Blogger CPA said...

Thanks for doing this, Jim, and thanks for writing about it.

February 20, 2007 1:23 PM  

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