First Sunday of Advent: On the Inside

By David Westerlund

Advent Devotional | December 2, 2018

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

—Psalm 23

Three men enter and settle into the gray plastic chairs that I arranged in the circle. 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 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.

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 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. 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.”

Jim is smiling. I add, “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. 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. He howls with laughter.

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 say. “Now I want to share a prayer exercise that I’ve been doing regularly. It’s 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.

“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. 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.

In this season of Advent, I’m reminded of the importance of cultivating awareness, of learning to pay attention. 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 going to bear God’s son?

Advent reminds me to slow down, to create a space for something new to be born in me.

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  are over his face, his tears are dropping to the floor. But our time is up.

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.

David Westerlund is founder and owner of BePresentDiscoverJoy, offering professional development opportunities and improv workshops. He is a CCO student and staff alumnus.