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Prison Break…

Eight months.  That’s how long it took to plan and execute a prison break.  Nine of us went over the wall, so to speak, of the maximum security prison here on the Central Coast of California.  After several failed attempts due to lock downs, delayed security clearances, and administrative red tape, we finally found ourselves greeting a chapel full of eager students to begin the long anticipated TUMI program for Prison Fellowship. 

I joked with the men that I was beginning to believe that it was harder to break into Salinas Valley State Prison than to break out

All kidding aside, the wait has been much more difficult for our students than for us.  And clearly there is powerful unseen opposition to what we are about to begin.  TUMI stands for The Urban Ministry Institute.  It represents a collaboration between World Impact, the creators of TUMI, and Prison Fellowship, to bring a four year seminary level education to men and women behind bars, into the darkest places in our world, spiritually speaking. 

As we invest in the leadership of the church behind these walls, we believe that the multiplier effect will impact the prisons, the communities these men and women will return to, and our entire nation. Here in Salinas, we know that much of the wickedness overtaking our streets today has its origin and sometimes its direction from places like Salinas Valley; and I believe that God is calling us to plant a different kind of seed, that will result in a different kind of harvest.

The stakes are high.  When the dust settled on our final roll call yesterday, one man was missing…. “Oh, he won’t be coming,” the Chaplain informed us with sadness in his voice, “He just committed suicide.”

 Pray for us, pray for TUMI, and pray for continuing prison breaks….prison break through that is.

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Waking Up TeenAge

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Ten, Eleven, Twelve….Thirteen

Yes, thirteen years ago today, we had our first snowfall of the season in Anchorage, Alaska in our home on Wendy’s Way.  We were all crowded around the bed—Zach, Solomon, Elijah, Moi-Moi (our cat), a small cock-a-poodle we were watching for a friend, and me–as my wonderful wife delivered our precious daughter Tirzah.  Happy Birthday, Tirzah, you absolutely are “Our Delight”.

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God Loves Richard…

Richard met us just inside the gate of the South Yard in the typical faded blue chambray of the California Department of Corrections.  He saw that Chaplain Aleman and I were burdened down with boxes of materials and he was waiting to help carry the load. I had been waiting a long time for this.  It seemed to be a never ending list of delays getting to the point of delivering my first program as a new employee of Prison Fellowship. I was conducting a fathering seminar that I have delivered many times in the past, and as I followed Richard to the little chapel in the prison in Soledad, I was grateful for his help.

Richard is the chaplain’s clerk, a coveted position among the 7-800 men of the South Yard.  I’ve learned to depend on men like him to help guide me and support me in accomplishing my mission behind the walls of these institutions.  They are generally the most gifted and dependable men to be found among a population that no longer surprises me with the level of education and maturity found there.  I regularly meet men inside with Masters Degrees, PhDs, and men proficient in many languages, including Greek and Hebrew.  I warn volunteers in my programs not to expect to be the smartest, nor the most Biblically literate person in the room.

I always love the buzz in the chapel at the beginning of a Great Dads Seminar when I invite men to introduce one another to their families; and yesterday was no exception.  Richard sat right in front and was eager to share about his oldest son who had just turned sixteen.

Over the next several hours, I shared the “Six Basics of Being a Great Dad” with Richard and 32 other men.  There was a lot of laughter and camaraderie as we discovered together how much alike we are in our struggles and challenges to be good fathers to our children and husbands to our wives.  At the end of the day, not much separates them from me, good fortune in being born into reasonable economic circumstances, a good education, an intact family, and NOT getting caught in my youthful transgressions.

At the end of the morning, after saying good bye to the men until next Thursday, when I return to complete the seminar, Richard brought me his Action Plan, the notebook that helps to keep the men focused and guides them in developing next steps on their journey as dads.  He had filled in most of the blanks, but he had left the space for reflection on the material empty.  “I’m saving this for later”, he told me, “When I can sit down and do it with my son”.

In my mind, I imagined the visiting area of the prison, and I asked when he would next get together with him.  “I go home in forty-five days,” he responded with a broad smile.

“Wow”, I thought, “God really must love you Richard.”  All the delays getting Great Dads started–all the problems with clearances and schedules and personnel changes–now made absolute sense.  God was working out the perfect timing for Richard and his son.  What a God we serve.


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Of Old Pick-up Trucks, Good Seeds, and the Color Purple….

“The Sower went out to sow.  To plant some seeds, in hopes that they would grow….”

Michael Tetrick is, in many ways, the most unlikely man to reach young offenders locked up in juvenile hall in Salinas, California.  He is a white country singer from the small town of Edinburg, Indiana.  His dress and tats speak more of outlaw bikers than the Hispanic gang culture of Salinas.  But his smile, good humor, and a heart as big as the mid-western sky, disarmed the young men and women who assembled in the gym to escape the monotony of a Saturday afternoon behind razor wire. 

In all, sixty four youngsters filed into the concrete box of a gym dressed in colors to segregate by gang affiliation, age and gender.  All colors it seemed except red and blue, the colors of choice of the Northern and Southern gangs that war in our town.  They feigned boredom as Michael sang songs about the love of country, his family, and God; but their body language changed as he shared in raw language his story of growing up in an abusive home with no father and an alcoholic mother. 

The slouch of disrespect and inattention transformed to the edge of the seats.  A song about four wheeling in a big old truck changed the atmosphere somehow.   It spoke of the thrill of living life on the edge, sometimes finding yourself in a ditch in need of a little help from someone with more horsepower and a chain.  They leaned in to catch words that landed like seeds in hearts softened by the gentle rain of God’s grace and love. 

We don’t really know what the outcome of encounters like that are in an eternal sense. Sometimes we’re just sowing seeds and praying that they find good soil and get tended to and watered. And we pray that in due season there will be a harvest.  All I know is that sixteen young people responded to the offer of some help from someone with more horsepower and a chain; and when I had the honor of leading them in a prayer to receive that help, I saw the red of the northern gangsImage and the blue of the southern gangs blending to make purple, the color of royalty.

Lord, let the rains come! Let the seed find fertile soil.  May the workers come in season to tend and weed so that in the fullness of time, the harvest will be brought to the storehouse…Amen and Amen!

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promise ring for Tirzah

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Growing up Tirzah

Growing up Tirzah

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Growing Up Tirzah…

I had an interesting conversation with Tirzah the other day.  She had spent a couple of hours playing with a dance buddy and I asked her how it went.  “Oh”, she replied, “She struggled to carry a good story line.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked.

“Well, when my friends grow up too quickly, they can’t carry a good story when we play Barbies.”

Apparently, she has made the correlation that as her friends “mature”, something happens to their imagination.  Or perhaps they become too preoccupied with “reality”.  At any rate, their willingness or ability to fantasy play deteriorates, much to Tirzah’s disappointment. 

I pray that her imagination will survive puberty and continue to thrive….

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Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here….

I rarely agree with the editorial position of our local newspaper, The Monterey Herald, but it does keep me current on the local mayhem that occurs almost daily here in our new home town of Salinas, California.  The rare exception was Friday morning’s thoughts on BLACK FRIDAY.  The author spoke of Thanksgiving as the last of the BIG national holidays to go commercial.  Until relatively recently– Macy’s parade aside—the focus of Thanksgiving has been pretty basic: family, friends, food and of course giving thanks.  With the invention of the “launch” of the Christmas shopping season, Black Friday is rapidly overtaking Thanksgiving in the national eye. Maybe we should rename the holiday Lust-taking, as the turkey is rapidly being replaced by another variety of “bird”.   

Those of you who know me know that shopping has never been my preferred activity of leisure.  As a matter of fact, I detest it under the best of circumstances.  So why was I cruising the Wal-Mart store at 10PM on Thanksgiving Day?  Simple….I could save a hundred bucks on items that we were already committed to purchasing.  And I couldn’t seem to sell Renee on the suggestion that she take Elijah along while I stayed home with Tirzah (the future recipient of one of our planned purchases). Did you notice that virtually all the “incidents” that were reported on the news the next day took place at Wal-Mart Stores?

Things went pretty smoothly at first. Of course, navigating around the store was a challenge.  Abandoned carts littered all the side aisles as shoppers realized that speed was of the essence to capture the high end deals.  And the sale items were randomly piled around the store: bicycles in Garden, printers in Ladies Wear, TV’s in groceries, and sale DVD’s hidden around the store everywhere.  As we had early loaded our cart with some large items, we were stuck with it.  We found a little used aisle in hardware and one of us camped out while the other took forays into the wild world of competitive shopping.  Have you noticed that Roller Derby is making a comeback?  I just wished that I had my skates, pads and helmet with me.

Anyway, the other crazy part about this was that some items went on sale at 10PM, and most of the electronics were not marked down till midnight.  Pallets of tarped electronics clogged aisles randomly around the store with no indication of what was underneath.  Many of them were pillaged early on by enthusiastic shoppers before Wal-Mart marshaled defenders to stand guard at either end of each pile.  As we were stuck till midnight waiting for our printer price to drop, I left Renee in a checkout line and joined a mob around one of the mysterious bargain mounds. 

In a scene right out of Jingle All the Way, one of our favorite holiday movies– yeah I know Arnold has lost some of his luster lately–  when the tarp was peeled away, pandemonium and sharp elbows broke out.  Even when the mystery items were revealed to be mp3 players and GPS Navigators, like sharks around a hemorrhaging fish, the feeding frenzy was on.  It was one of the few times since my college days heading back to our flat off campus in West Philly that I thought…. “I could get seriously hurt here.”  I backed my way out of the surging crowd and rejoined Renee at checkout.

Just when we were beginning to ring out, a young boy in the next line brought up one of the mp3 players to price check.  Apparently, the price wasn’t low enough for him, so he left it on counter and headed back into the fray.  Without even hesitating, I reached over and plucked the device out from under the nose of the cashier, “I’ll buy that,” I cried. It wasn’t even my color.

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