Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Holy Week in Jail

It’s Holy Week, but how many Americans know anymore what that is? For Christians, it’s the final week of the Lenten Season, but this year it coincides with the Final Four, the end of March Madness. Perhaps the latter is more recognized than the former in today’s America.

It’s been nearly two years since I volunteered for a weekly Bible study at Cumberland County Jail (CCJ) in Portland, Maine and it’s a challenge. When I taught history I’d have the same students every day and planned lessons each building on the other. At the jail, I never know who will come through the door or how many. Maybe two or three will have attended before. Maybe none. Sometimes it’s a completely new group. Some enter carrying donated Bibles which are supplied free but most arrive empty-handed. 

Windham Correctional Facility
Most CCJ inmates are there less than a year either awaiting trial or already sentenced. Those who get longer stretches go to Windham Correctional Center or Maine State Prison in Warren. Inmates at every prison were in a jail first and given high recidivism, all correctional facilities have revolving doors.

An average Bible Study has eight or ten guys, some with much biblical knowledge, some with none, others in between. I always have a plan but it seldom unfolds as intended. How can I impart a sense of what Holy Week means to inmates who don’t know what Christianity is? Those with knowledge are eager to expand it. Others have no idea of what the Bible contains and for their sake I most offer a broad context.

I tell them the Bible has two parts: the Old Testament and the New Testament. Last week I drew a timeline on a white board. Explaining that we don’t know when creation occurred, I began by writing:

Abraham — 2000 BC
Moses — 1500 BC
King David — 1000 BC.
Babylonian Exile — 500 BC
Jesus Christ — 0.
Muhammed — 600 AD.

Dates were approximate and the Bible doesn’t mention Muhammed, but most inmates have been exposed to Islam because it’s usually not their first experience behind bars. They’ve have done hard time in prisons where Islam has a significant presence and occasionally I’ll get Muslims from Somalia or converts.

After fixing the Bible in time, I fix it in space using a folder full of maps. Starting with a world map showing Maine and Israel highlighted in red, I then I hold up one of the Mediterranean Sea with Rome, Greece, and Israel highlighted. Then I’ll draw a crude map of the eastern Mediterranean across the Persian Gulf toward Iran on the white board. Often there are Iraq and Afghanistan veterans present who know the region. I trace Abraham’s migration from the Persian Gulf up through Syria and down to Israel. Then I trace Israel’s enslavement in Egypt, the exodus back to Israel under Moses, the rise of King David, the establishment of Jerusalem, Israel’s captivity in what’s now Iraq during the Babylonian exile, and finally back to Israel for the birth of Jesus.

If I ask how long ago Jesus lived there are lots of blank stares. “What year is this?” I say. “In the western world, we measure time from before Jesus and after Him because He was considered the most important figure in history and the Bible is divided the same way: The Old Testament is about events before Christ. The New Testament begins with His birth 2018 years ago. We get our seven-day week from the creation story in Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament.”

Wide eyes tell me most never realized this. Finally, I explain the four gospels which begin the New Testament, each of which ends with events of Holy Week — the Last Supper, Crucifixion, Resurrection — the crux of Christianity.

Questions are asked and answered. Then comes a review of original sin — Adam and Eve’s fall from grace in Genesis. Throughout the Old Testament Jews sacrificed lambs to atone for sin. The New Testament tells of Jesus Christ offering himself as the perfect sacrifice by His death on the cross, then rising from death. That’s why He’s called “The Lamb of God” — the final atonement.

This week I’ll offer a more detailed summary of Holy Week: Christ re-entered Jerusalem on Sunday. Thursday he held the Last Supper, was betrayed, put before Pontius Pilate, then beaten and scourged. On Friday he was crucified with two others. On the third day, Easter Sunday, he rose from the dead.

Recently a very young inmate with a cross crudely tattooed between his eyes came in early before anyone else. He asked me, “Is it ever too late to get into heaven?” I told him of the “good thief” crucified next to Jesus who said to Him, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

“Today you will be with me in Paradise,” Jesus said.

“No,” I said. “It’s never too late.”


Bradley said...

To have even one person accept Jesus as thier Lord and Saviour must be a wonderful experience.

Brian said...

Whatever it takes to make somebody feel at peace and strive to be good. If that means telling biblical stories to a convict, or telling Santa stories to a child, I'm OK with it. But I've never heard of anybody killing in the name of Santa.

Anonymous said...

I find it incredibly bizarre that so many Christians believe that a person who lives an exemplary life, helping others and harming no one, would burn in eternal hell fire for not accepting Christ, but a person like Jeffrey Dahmer would go to heaven if he was "saved" in prison before he died. How twisted is that?


Anonymous said...

By all accounts Jesus was a wonderful, awe-inspiring human, one who deserves to be remembered and respected throughout history, like Ghandi and only a handful of others. I just don't see any evidence of the returning from the dead and most of the far-fetched tall-tales from the bible. They are very creative, but so are the stories of Scientology. And Harry Potter. No book has ever had such successful mass-marketing though!

Rick said...

I agree with Bradley about it being a wonderful experience to get somebody to believe and accept Christ, just as it must be a wonderful experience for David Copperfield to get somebody to believe he cut a lady in half and made her whole again!

Anonymous said...

For Anonymous: There is an interesting book, “The Case for Christ”, by Lee Strobel that you might find worth reading. Strobel was an investigative journalist at The Chicago Tribune who set out to prove that Christ was a hoax. He’s now a pastor in Texas. There’s also a free movie based on the book that you could download if you don’t have time to read it.

I was raised a Catholic but let’s just say I’m not happy with the Pope or Catholic Charities. I’ve also been studying Islamic doctrine since 9/11. Let’s also say that there is NO moral equivalence between Christ and Muhammad. The reason I began re-acquainting myself with Christianity and reading the Bible along with guides to it, is to draw the comparison. Most religions provide a moral compass even if one doesn’t get caught up in the symbols. However, that’s not true of Islam; it’s a supremacist totalitarian political ideology cloaked as a religion.

I admire Tom for what he does. It’s not easy. Also, at my age I could care less about March Madness and that Holy Week is much more important.

Anonymous said...

Nobody here tried to claim that Jesus was a hoax. I actually said he was a man to be respected in the highest regard. Also, nobody here made a any comments about Islam or Muhammad. I mentioned Ghandi. I'm not going to argue with you tit for tat, citing horrific Old Testament passages, or examples where the Koran preaches doing good. I think all religions are silly and unnecessary, though I admit that for some people religion can be beneficial. As can Yoga, or meditating, or thinking things through for yourself without the weight of others dogmas.

I was not raised a Catholic but I am happy with the Pope. Seems to be a good guy. I am also a big Dalai Lama fan, who says of kindness: "This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness." Simple. Beautiful. No money grabbing evangelists or child raping priests. No fighting with other religions.

What Tom does is not hard, it is very easy. Pointing out differences and creating rifts is the simplest of things to do. Claiming your beliefs are better than others is a piece of cake. It is much harder to do some deep thinking and make efforts to create harmony.

To me, March Madness and Holy Week are equally (un)important, but I find the basketball games a bit more exciting.

Anonymous said...

The nice thing about being a heathen is I don't HAVE to remember all the special
recognition rituals and events.
Shocks folks that I know as much as I DO concerning the historical, and
well, trivial (to me) stuff. Admittedly weak in the Koran area,but, well, you know.....

Anonymous said...

How fitting that Easter is falling on April Fool's Day!

"What, you actually fell for that rising from the dead thing? April Fool's!!"

Anonymous said...

For Anonymous who is a self-proclaimed "deep thinker" again: There are 2.2 billion Christians worldwide today who believe in the Resurrection even if it does fall on April 1st this year. No need to respond.

Anonymous said...

Charles, you believe in the resurrection because 2.2 billion other people do?? (and for the record, all Christians in the world certainly do not literally believe in the resurrection)

So, are you a sheep? Almost the entire population at one point believed that the earth was flat. Which meant what? That the world was flat?

No need to respond.

Anonymous said...

Hardly am I a sheep. That's reserved for progressives who voted for Obama and Clinton. I've been an agnostic most of my life but like Lee Strobel, the more I research Judaism and Christianity the more I'm convinced of their value to civilizationSee this short video, for example: https://www.prageru.com/videos/eye-eye-one-greatest-ideas-history