Friday, April 3, 2009

In The Jail

In the jail, it is quiet in the hallways. It is quiet in the attorney visitation room. But, sometimes as I wait for the visit to begin, I overhear conversations of others in the visitation area. As I wait today, I hear an attorney who's frustrated saying: "what do you want me to do?!" I hear a girlfriend telling her inmate boyfriend that she is still working on the letter she is writing him because he asked her to make it real long. I imagine a real long letter from someone you love is a very good thing to get in jail. The attorney-client conversation is getting a little volatile. The girlfriend is laughing as she talks about people they both know. Just human beings - that's all they are, all we are. And, our efforts to forge a bond or a lifeline through our speaking and listening.

When I first visited clients in jail about 15 years ago, I sat at a table in an open room with them. I shook hands with them. Now, the conversation and seeing of each other takes place through a thick metal screen. "No contact visits" they call them. But, our efforts to forge a bond or a lifeline through speaking and listening go on.

The attorney sticks his head out, knowing he is getting into my visitation time. I recognize him. He is a good attorney and someone I like. "Can I have two more minutes?" he asks. "Sure," I say. Truth is I have nothing to tell my client. I haven't been able to get anything done for him. I am visiting to tell him that in person. That doesn't seem worth much. But, when you're in jail, you take any little bit you're given. And, the "in person" part is all I have to give.

On My Way to the Jail

I'm on my way to visit two young men who are in jail. They both have very serious charges. One case, I have not "worked out" with the prosecuting attorney; the other case, an agreement has almost been reached. One young man is sitting in jail wondering whether he will get out some day soon, or whether he might spend the next decade in prison. Both young men are very polite and respectful and cooperative with me. They are both barely adults.

Both cases are tragic - no malevolent intent - no, none of that. But, lives out of control, a split second bad decision and tragic results.

Sometimes it almost makes me shudder to think how "the stars can seem to align" tragically against some people. So many of us have taken reckless chances, made stupid mistakes in life that could have hurt or killed ourselves or others. But, for some reason, no one got hurt, we walked right on, perhaps with a huge sigh of relief.

I am thinking about that as I get ready to visit two young men who are locked up because they weren't so lucky - and, those hurt surely weren't so lucky either. Deeds have consequences. That's a hard truth in life. Most of us are real lucky if we come to understand in time just how lucky we have been in life.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Experiencing the Absence and Presence of Others and The Other

Experiences of the absence of God. What does that mean? Can you experience the absence of someone or something? Surely, you can intensely experience the absence of food, because your body needs food, you are used to having it, and you know it very well. And, you can experience the absence of a loved one. You experience their presence, come to rely on it, know that presence, and then that person is not with you. Yes, you can certainly experience a person's absence.

In the Psalms, the writer regularly complains of the absence of God or, at least, the apparent indifference of God. But, in these same Psalms of complaint, the writer also recalls God's presence, even intimate presence and miraculous deliverance in the past. Examples of absence: In Psalm 22, verse 1 "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?!" and verse 2: "O God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest." And, then later in that same Psalm, examples of presence. In verse 9: "Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother's breast. On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God." And, in verses 21-22: "From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me. I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you."

Is the Psalmist unbalanced, by thinking well of God one minute and poorly of God the next minute? Is religious faith simply tied to the mood of the moment? It is probably best not to answer questions like these too quickly.

In a number of Psalms we see that the struggle of the writer's soul is manifest. It is the report of spiritual experience, and much of the struggle in a Psalm like the 22nd or the 73rd is a struggle with one's own sense of bitterness, suffering, and the feeling that God's help and comfort can not be found. In this struggle, the writer not only expresses the feeling of alienation from other humans and God, but also expresses a loyalty to God and God's people, often kept alive by the memory of past experiences and an enduring sense of identity.

Sometimes I have wondered about how important it is that we know how to carry on a relationship with those we love in their absence. As we experience their absence, we carry on in our imaginations and memories those relationships that are closest to our hearts. With someone you really love, there is a presence in their absence. Otherwise, you probably don't really love them or they you. And, if you don't really feel their absence, then I'm not sure you really know their presence. I think it may be like this with God as well.

Monday, March 30, 2009


Sanity is really a precious thing. Most all of us assume we are sane, but I am coming to doubt that. Sanity is a moment in the midst of a chaotic and crazy day when you treat another person like a human being, when you stop and feel that you are alive- allowing your self to be treated like a human being. No, sanity is not a very common experience. What we have day to day may not be insanity, but it is not quite sanity either. Sanity is being in touch with life, with reality. Sanity is being present and engaged in whatever it is you are doing and engaged with whoever it is you are with at any given time. We rarely do that.

Today, as I rushed away from work, I took my dog with me, and we went to see my mother. We visited for a while. I was thinking about what time it was when we were visiting at first. Then, my little dog and I took a walk, and I happened to sit down by a waterfall while he ran around. Some time went by, but very peacefully as I could hear the water falling. What time it was was no longer a thought. After a while, my dog started to bark at something. I got up. I don't know how much time had passed. My dog came to me, and we went back to see my mom. This time, I really got to be with my mom. My sense of time was gone. Sanity.