IT was back to the prison , for another Friday night Bible study. We've been having as many as eight and nine men come to these; tonight there were four. Three have been regular attendees, but we had a new arrival--Rhodes--passing through on his way out of this way of life and back home in July.
We're reading our way through the book of Job--that ancient and timeless text with so much to offer and explore. I have wanted these men to stop and savor the language of the writing, its rich metaphors and poetry. "By day they meet with darkness, and grope at noon as in the night". Yeah, they nod. Been there, understand that.
There is something resonant about Job for men kept in prison for many years. "When I lie down I say, 'When shall I arise?' but the night continues, and I am continually tossing until dawn." "I will speak in the anguish of my spirit, I will complain in the bitterness of my soul."
Bildad, growing restless with the lukewarm words of his buddy Eliphaz and the spirited defense of the pathetic Job, uses words as needles to prick the oppressed man: "How long will you say these things, and the words of your mouth be a mighty wind?...If you were pure and upright, surely now He would rouse Himself for you..."
But in his zeal he errs: "Lo, God will not reject a man of integrity, Nor will He support the evildoers..."
Ah, says Job, speaking truth to error even from the pit of despair: "In truth I know that this is so, but how can a man be in the right before God? If one wished to dispute with Him, He could not answer Him once in a thousand times..." Bildad is mistaken in thinking he or Job or any man is righteous before God on the strength of who he is and what he has done. And Job proceeds to magnify the Lord, taking away from his friends their pet idea that God is their pal. "It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God," we reminded each other. And Job anticipates Christ when he laments at the end of chapter nine: "For He is not a man as I am that I may answer Him, that we may go to court together. There is no umpire between us, Who may lay a hand upon us both." Thus, Christ.
We'd read several verses, but I would make them stop to go over them again. "What is being said here?" I asked over and over. And much of the time, they didn't know. So we unpacked the metaphors and analogies, trying to grasp the meaning for such questions as: "Can the papyrus grow up without a marsh? " Yes, ah, the paths of those who forget God! I spoke of how much truth is spoken by Job's friends, and yet how in the end they conclude wrongly. False teaching is 90% accurate, sometimes more. Can we spot the heresies of Job's friends? And so we dig into it.
At some point, one of the men mentioned he had something on his mind he needed to talk about. We ended our study with enough time to hear him out. This is a white man, the scars of a hard life in his bearing. He began by saying he'd gotten a letter that day from his Dad, apologizing to him for raising him poorly. He didn't think his Dad had done that. He said, "I was the oldest kid. My Dad told me after he messed up with me, he just gave up on the other kids. I gotta write to him; tell him it isn't true."
The other thing on his mind was a growing conflict he'd had with other inmates. There is a cultural rule in this prison that, though the shower room has six stalls, guys shower alone. The only one who breaks this rule is this guy, who is slowly coming under the tutelage of the Holy Spirit but still maintains some old and powerful tendencies toward aggression that are what landed him in prison in the first place. So this guy breaks the rule and showers when he likes--"Hey! It's a stupid rule!"-- and it pisses off some of the other, more pugnacious inmates. Men bristle at him, and he bristles back.
So what to do? He has been having thoughts , since he's an ambassador of Christ, that he shouldn't really break a guy's nose, as he would naturally do. Actually, the tendency would be to try to kill the other guy. I mean, he frankly stated that if he went down that particular road with this particular dude, the dude would end up dead.
And, he remembers his daughter, living with a Baptist pastor awaiting his release. If he followed his instincts and the path he'd gone down throughout his life, he'd never be free to know her and help to raise her.
So we talked about it. The black guys were saying, "Hey, just walk away, dude. I'm just walking away from it." At one point I asked if the guy he wanted to kill was worth saving. I mean, we had to laugh. My guy chuckled and said frankly, "No, I want him to rot in Hell!" It was so pathetic, we all cracked up. Yeah. Know how you feel. Having confessed that, my guy was able to hear a little more clearly when I moved into the really hard-nosed words of Christ: "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.'
"But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."
Jesus takes the gloves off when it comes to the impossible expectations he has for us. My guy realizes this. I pointed out to him that even though his thought process during this latest confrontation was confusing to him, his actions were ultimately guided by the Holy Spirit, and attested to by his little thoughts about his witness, and his daughter. And we all agreed we would pray for him even as he--and this was the big thing--decided to pray for the jerk he wanted to kill. I also suggested maybe, just maybe, finding a different place, at the end of a long and wearying day, to take a shower.