Starting on Monday I'm going to be participating in a weekly bible study at a local prison. It has taken me forever to get the paperwork, clearance and training done, but it looks like I'm ready to go.
I'll be leading the class with two other men from my church who have way more experience than I do. They will do most of the teaching. But each week I'm to offer my own thoughts on a topic of my choice. There are about 30 men who attend the class.
So I've been thinking a lot about what I might say. Not just for this Monday but for the long haul. So I thought I'd ask for some help. If you have any experience with prison ministry what might be some good topics or themes to dwell on in a bible study? What messages have seemed most meaningful and impactful in your experience?
Here's a more specific question. In my first and only visit to the class I spoke about the lament psalms. Assuming that prison was a pretty horrible place and that a person could feel pretty god-forsaken, I wanted to recognize that god-forsakenness and suggest that if you put words to that feeling of god-forsakenness and directed it to God you'd be praying, even worshipping God. These thoughts seemed well received that night but I worried about if I might dwell too much on those topics. That is, might these men need more encouragement than permission to lament? Pushing the lament psalms in my church seems to be a healthy corrective to the praise-dominated triumphalism of American Christianity. But I don't know if prisoners need that corrective. They might need more praise psalms!
And yet, they still might need some honesty, the recognition that their lives are hard, violent, lonely, and monotonous. To give voice to the feelings of god-forsakenness. Because for many of these guys, there isn't going to be a happy ending.
So does that mean I start talking about heaven? Again, in my church I try to push against the escapism and other-worldliness that creeps into discussions about heaven. But is heaven more relevant to life-term prisoners?
And yet, I don't want them to avoid taking responsibility for their world. Even though they have very little control over it. So how do I help them pray into "Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven"?
In short, it seems, as I think about all this, that my theological tendencies outside of the prison might get flipped around once I'm on the inside. Things I de-emphasize on the outside I should emphasize on the inside. Would that be right? Or is there more consistency across those worlds than what I'm imagining?
Anyway, I'm thinking all this through. Any thoughts you might have would be appreciated. And if you can't help, no worries. Maybe say a prayer. I use this prayer from The Book of Common Prayer:
Lord Jesus, for our sake you were condemned as a criminal:
Visit our jails and prisons with your pity and judgment.
Remember all prisoners, and bring the guilty to repentance
and amendment of life according to your will, and give them
hope for their future. When any are held unjustly, bring them
release; forgive us, and teach us to improve our justice.
Remember those who work in these institutions; keep them
humane and compassionate; and save them from becoming
brutal or callous. And since what we do for those in prison,
O Lord, we do for you, constrain us to improve their lot. All
this we ask for your mercy's sake. Amen.