Father’s Day in the County Jail

On Father’s Day this year, I went with two other women from our Meeting’s jail ministry team to the county jail here in Cincinnati. Our arrival and entry followed the usual pattern. We waited, went through security, rode the elevator up, then walked toward the pod where the men were housed.

Hamilton County Justice Center

Hamilton County Justice Center

As we approached the pod, I felt a wave of anger and fear. It surprised me. I don’t usually sense others’ feelings, especially not without seeing the people first. I didn’t get anxious. My inward response resembled curiosity. It was like the Christ in me was saying, “I’m getting the sense that we’ve got some work to do here.”

When we entered the pod, I heard one of the corrections officers talking loudly and brusquely as he rounded up the men for worship. The tone of voice of most corrections officers has a hard edge to it, but this was more harsh than usual. This voice was reflecting and attempting to contain anger and fear.

About thirty men gathered for worship. We followed our program: Welcome, introduction to Quakers, reading, song, overview of Quaker-style worship, silence, joys and concerns, closing. During the service, the corrections officer paced then leaned against the railing of the catwalk.

I don’t know when it started, whether it was my saying that Quakers believe that there is “that of God in everyone” and so we have a deep respect for every person, or if it was when Evie read from one of Howard Thurman’s books, whether it was Mary Kay’s prayer, or if it was when one of men prayed that their families not be brought down by them that day. Whatever it was, whenever it was, by the end of the service, we were at peace. We lingered in a sense of community.

father-son-silhouetteThat morning, all of us, thought about fatherhood. We considered how we had been affected by our fathers. Some pondered what kind of father they were, how they were affecting their children even then by being in jail.

We also learned from the One who created fatherhood, created us. We came to see that the harm and the hurt, the shame and the guilt, arose not from God but from human error. God was there to teach us that we were loved beyond measure, beyond what we had known, beyond what we had done. We learned that our Father in Heaven was reliable and did not hurt you. He loved us and wanted to build us up.

We were changed that morning. Maybe the Presence of the Holy Spirit was there for only a short time, but we all shared in it for a while. Love, hope, even joy was present. I trust it remains in us in some portion even still.

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Naming for Spiritual Freedom and Greater Service

In the initial post in this series, I offered that the first step toward “naming the spiritual condition of the world” is to name our own spiritual condition. I argued that our spiritual condition is important as it affects our ability to help accomplish God’s purposes. In the second post, I used physical fitness as an analogy for spiritual condition and concluded the post suggesting that our “body composition” is the element that most affects the other aspects of our spiritual condition. In this post, I discuss naming as a tool for improving one’s spiritual condition, as it changes our “body composition.”

When I started writing these posts, I thought that we needed to be able to describe our spiritual condition. Now, I believe that what we need to do is discover a means rather than accomplish a particular end. I believe that we are being called to name our own spiritual condition so that we might continue to deepen our relationship with God and be further enabled to help accomplish God’s Divine purposes.

There are different types of naming. The first type that comes to mind is naming babies. When new people enter the world, we give them a name. We associate a special word with them as a way of recognizing their being and including them in our families. While the name connects them with us, the name is also unique. We name our babies with trepidation and care, as we hope that the name fits them and is one they will be happy with.

I also think about the naming of animals in the Bible. God made birds and animals and then showed them to Adam to see what he would call them (Genesis 2:19-20a). When I read that story, I get a sense of God’s delight. I imagine God enjoying the human response to God’s creations. The first cow, the first giraffe, then the platypus and shark…! What fun they must have had sharing with each other!

My focus here is a more difficult kind of naming, the type of naming required for improvement of our spiritual condition. Like the other two, this type of naming involves associating words with something that is new. But the difference in this case is that what we are naming is new to us only because it has been hidden. It was hidden so deeply that when we see it, it’s like seeing it for the first time. In this type of naming, we’re naming that which was previously too difficult to accept. We name it now so as to validate our experience, to accept it as our own, and move beyond it.

Through my experience, I have come to believe that a person’s spiritual body is very delicate. Many actions, events, situations and conditions, particularly those that are scary, can harm the spiritual body. When a person is scared beyond comprehension, the ego, as protector of this body, hides parts or all aspects of the experience from the person. The experience is pushed out of consciousness into unconscious reality through the creation of false but comforting beliefs. By keeping these experiences out of mind, the person is able to continue to function in the situations and relationships in which they find themselves.

As we mature, we become better able to process others’ actions and the events, situations and conditions around us, so the ego has less need to hide events and their meaning from us. However, the ego still keeps hidden from us what we could not understand or did not want to know when we were younger. While this keeps us comfortable, the harm is still there. The weight of this harm hinders us to greater and lesser extents, usually affecting our ability to manage the stresses of life and the challenges of relationship.

I believe that the weight of this harm also hinders our ability to be aware of, in communion with, and able to act in accordance with God’s desires for us. These false but comforting beliefs weigh us down spiritually. They are the fat in our spiritual body.

That’s where naming comes in. Through prayer, reflection and sharing with others, we can pull up then name the harm that has been hidden from us. Through this process, we reveal the truth to ourselves and become more free to act in God’s service!

For me, naming has been part of a difficult psycho-spiritual process. This process, while scary, painful and sometimes disorienting, has also been liberating. Early Friends called this process “the Refiner’s Fire.” Early Friends would have known fire, likely much more intimately than ourselves. Being close to a large fire causes fear, being touched by it causes intense pain, and, if its effects are devastating, disorientation. Through this metaphor, I believe early Friends were describing what it’s like for a person who contains unrealized harm to be touched by Spirit.

The metaphor also contains hope. Early Friends would have understood the refinement process – the process through which coarser material is separated from fine metals such as gold. This metaphor would have helped them endure the Spirit-driven process of becoming aware of the harm that had been hidden from them so that they could become free.

To some extent, we already know the refinement process that helps the harm to come to the surface. It’s what we do in Meeting for Worship. We sit in silence turning ourselves over to God, again and again, coming to rest in that Center of Peace.

Outside of group worship, many people find they need more structure to find their Center. This structure can be found through a variety of spiritual practices. I will name a couple that I’ve found helpful. Centering Prayer, a contemplative prayer practice that comes out of the Catholic Church’s mystical tradition, encourages letting go. Experiment with Light, recently developed by Rex Ambler based on the George Fox’s journal, is a more direct process for hearing or seeing what one needs to know. Dream interpretation and journaling are helpful complementary tools. While some of us can grow spiritually on our own, I’ve found other people, professional and otherwise, to be important aides as well.

If we engage in a spiritual practice, we encourage and support our healing and growth. Routinely and continually returning to our Center allows the ego to let go of its hold on our painful memories and helps us to connect with God. Feelings associated with the harm begin to rise up. If one is able to stand still in (to stay with) those feelings, memories may also rise.

I believe that our task to find the truth embedded in those memories and then name it. What could we not face or know in the past that we can handle now? What do we need to know now about those people and situations that harmed us? When we find, recognize and name the truth about our beliefs, the people and the associated situations, we become free to move beyond our fear.

Alone and together, through the One, the Lord of All, let’s name our spiritual condition so that we may become more free to be who we are meant to be and to be of service to our neighbor.

Christ Cannot be Caged

Then the LORD said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey….” (Exodus 3:7-8a)

Here in Cincinnati, God is observing the misery of God’s people, particularly those who suffer for others’ gain. God bears this suffering as He brings His sons and daughters into freedom. God will not rest until all Her children know they are loved, beyond measure, and that earth’s treasures are theirs.

After hearing that God was calling us to “name the spiritual condition of the world,” I wrote a blog post called “Becoming a Wilderness People.” In that post, I said:

I believe Friends are called to listen spiritually to those who are the most destitute in this country, primarily American Indians but also African Americans and other people who are marginalized and/or living in poverty, and to witness to the presence of the Holy Spirit within and among them. Then, through holding in the Light and reflecting upon what we see and hear, we will discern the spiritual condition of the world. Also, periodically, I believe we are to gather with each other, so that we might share what is revealed to us and together name the world’s condition. Finally, through speaking and writing about our experiences and insights, we will reveal the Truth to the Powers (see Colossians 1:16) so that they might find kinship with those who have been marginalized, thus breaking down the internal barriers that sustain the external forms of domination.

Since then, I have discerned that God is urging me, through and along with my Meeting, to set up a means through which we can live out this leading. I believe we are being called to create a mechanism through which we can befriend the people who have been harmed by the criminal justice system. God is encouraging us to see the criminal justice system for what it is and to create an alternative, a restorative justice system. Through the development of a restorative justice program, we will be enabled to listen to the people who have been harmed by the criminal justice system and to witness to what God is doing for them.

Currently, our criminal justice system ignores victims, discourages offenders, leaves families feeling powerless, and alienates the communities it intends to serve. It relies on argument, deceit, manipulation, and punishment to accomplish its ends. It’s a principality that cannot engender justice or propagate peace, as justice associates with truth, not deceit and manipulation, and peace is a state that arises through mercy rather than punishment.

God, through Christ, is redeeming this system that’s riddled with holes and tottering on stilts. He’s already put Christ in place as its cornerstone. We are being asked to come stand with Christ as He rebuilds it. May we find our place there and sing….

I will sing to the Lord, since he is highly exalted;
The Horses and Horsemen has he thrown down in the sea.
Of the Lord is my Power and Praise,
and of him is Preservation to me:
this is my God, and I will make him a Habitation;
the God of my Father, and I will extol him. (Exodus 15:1-2, NRSV)

Have you observed how God is leading you and/or your meeting to participate in this leading to “name the spiritual condition of the world?” If so, please post a comment.

Also, please pray for us as we attempt to follow our Guide.