This year we’re welcoming advent with a series called Keeping Watch. As we read in Common Prayer, “God getting born in a barn reminds us that God shows up in the most forsaken corners of the earth.” The same holds true today. Many of the stories Nations tells take place in overlooked, unglamorous places. Yet that’s where God has chosen to reveal his kingdom. Every Friday leading up to Christmas, we’ll be posting a reflection about waiting, paying attention, and noticing glimpses of this new order. Join us in preparing to celebrate the incarnation—God with us!
Instructions for living a life:
Tell about it.
– “Sometimes” by Mary Oliver
And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good
news of great joy that will be for all the people.”
– Luke 2:10
Three men enter and settle into the gray plastic chairs that I arranged in the circle. I push back the ones we don’t need. I ask them how they are and I get responses across the board, as usual. Some guys have had a favorable court appearance that morning; others are in a downward spiral. This is our first group of the night for our weekly jail Bible study in the Skagit County Jail.
I have been a jail chaplain with Tierra Nueva here in Skagit County, Washington for five years. Most, if not all, of the men I get to be with have endured trauma. They possess a hypervigilance that is attuned to threat. As a result, they don’t expect anything positive back from the world. Many have an eroded capacity for “interoception”—the ability to perceive what’s going on inside them—since all their energy is spent looking for external threat.
On a recent Thursday in the jail I decided to share what’s been giving me life, with the hope that it may be life-giving for them as well. I invite them to stand in a circle and ask if they had ever done any improv before. I get quizzical looks. One person says, ”Oh yeah, I remember that show, ‘Whose Line somethin”’.
”Yes! That was a form of improv. So tonight we’re going to do an improv warm-up game. And the reason I want to do it is that it teaches us about what it feels like to be present. This game is called Clap Circle and I’ll start by turning to Jim on my left,” I explain as we do it. “And he and I will make eye contact and clap at the same time. Then Jim turns to Juan and they clap at the same time. Juan passes it to Mark. Then when it comes back to me, I can keep it going and send it to Jim or I can reverse it by clapping a second time with Mark. And then Mark keeps it going to Juan.”
Jim is smiling. And then I add, ”Okay, now after we go around a few times, we can send it anywhere in the circle. So what do we need?”
Juan says, “We need to be more ready. Like lean forward.”
“Exactly! We need to pay attention.” We begin and find a rhythm. It’s such a simple game, and Jim is absolutely loving it. All four of us are enjoying it, but he is howling with joy. As we play, we feel the connection with each other and the rhythm we are creating together. And I feel joy, because their joy is being unlocked—especially Jim’s.
After this we sit down and talk about how the game felt. From their responses I can tell that, as they played, none of them were thinking about the fact they were in jail or the accompanying script of shame. They were present in the moment, feeling connected, rhythmic, embodied, joyful, playful.
”I’m glad you liked that,” I said. “Now I want to share two prayer exercises that I’ve been doing regularly. They’ve changed my life and given me a new, fresh sense of being loved and at peace with Jesus. The presence we just now felt with each other in that game—that’s the kind of presence that Jesus can be to us.”
”The first prayer exercise is that every morning I sit with my coffee in my living room chair, look out my front window, and I recite Psalm 23….very… slowly.” I tell the guys that often my mind wanders, but I just bring myself gently back and repeat verses or phrases as often as I need to, being conscious of slowing down my breath and heart rate and settling into the good news of God leading us by still waters; God making us lie down in green pastures; God restoring our soul.
Some of these guys are not familiar with the Bible so we read Psalm 23 together first. And then I invite them to close their eyes. I slowly recite the Psalm: “The Lord is my Shepherd….” repeating phrases slowly so they can marinate in them, chew on them, let them soak in to their being.
I feel the peace of Jesus settling into the room. Afterwards they are still sitting there, eyes closed, still soaking it in. And then Jim opens his eyes and says, “I do meth and heroin. And I’m an anxious person. You back me into a corner, I’m gonna come out swingin’. My leg is always bouncin’ and shakin’…but look at it now.” He points to his leg that is completely at rest. ”Totally peaceful” he says. We smile at each other.
Then I take them through an Ignatian prayer exercise in which they picture a peaceful, beautiful place. I direct them through each of their five senses, so that they are more fully present to that place. I ask them to picture Jesus in there with them.
He comes to them, calls them by name, and says, “You are my son, whom I do so love. I am so pleased with you and that you are on the earth.” Again: the peace of Jesus settles in the room. They are in no rush to leave that place, and I’m not in a rush to bring them out.
In this season of Advent I’m reminded of the importance of cultivating awareness, of learning to pay attention. Indeed our attention is like a muscle—the more we use it, the more it strengthens. Advent also reminds me of the vitality of embodiment. What was Jim feeling in his body when he was laughing with joy? What did Mary’s skin and heartbeat feel like when the angel appeared before her telling her she was to bear God’s son? And Advent reminds me of slowing down to create a space for something new to be born in us. In our increasingly speedy world our attention muscles have atrophied, and we are becoming less aware of our embodiment. Slowing down is critical to paying attention and getting back into our bodies.
As the men are soaking in this moment of God’s pleasure, I look over at Juan. With quiet sounds, his shoulders are heaving, his hands over his face, as tears drop to the floor. I suppose it hasn’t been common for him to hear that someone is pleased with him.
The guards come and I shake hands with Jim, Mark, and Juan. I see the gratitude in their eyes. I hope they see the gratitude in mine.