For the past 6 years, interrupted for two years by a mission abroad, I have taught Sunday School at my local county jail. I have felt compelled for a while now to share some of the lessons that I teach. This has been a unique and rewarding experience for me personally, and I have probably learned more than any of the students – hence the title of this series: “Lessons from the Jail”. I hope and pray that you, readers, will find in them a perspective and an honesty that will brighten your own understanding of the miracle of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
These lessons have evolved through recognition of the need to present the truth and joy of the Gospel of Jesus Christ without overwhelming my fellow learners with a lot of “thees and thous”. My students are often men whose authority figures (parents, older siblings, etc) abused their influence in a broad spectrum of ways – physically, sexually and emotionally. I have been inspired that if I teach them as a friend, as a fellow sinner whom the Lord has lifted mercifully from the pit that I dug for myself, they will be able to listen more honestly, and thus better understand the principles that Christ taught and the reasons behind them. I have learned that if I teach with love and without judgment (above all things without judgment), they somehow recognize it; and because my words are offered through this filter of the love in my heart, the pure love of Christ himself becomes more real, more believable, and more accessible to them.
These lessons are simple – lessons on faith, agency, repentance, forgiveness and the atonement. I don’t read a lot of scripture in these lessons, and I never rely on scripture to make a point – only to illustrate a point. Scriptures smack of unquestionable authority – something that these men need less of, not more of. When I do read scripture, we talk about what the scripture means and why it’s meaningful. I never claim something is true because it’s scripture, but because it’s wise, profound and it makes sense. I am careful to equate scripture to their lives and their experience. This approach to teaching the gospel would probably never work in church, but it works for them. I know I teach by the spirit, as commanded in D&C 42:14 – And the Spirit shall be given unto you by the prayer of faith; and if ye receive not the spirit, ye shall not teach. May you receive them in the same spirit.
Lesson 1, which I always teach as the opening lesson with a new group, is called, “I Am a Child of God”. I love teaching this lesson because it establishes the framework on which I build for all other lessons – that each of these men are good, that they have within them the seeds of Godhood, and that their Heavenly father loves them unconditionally.
I open the lesson by writing the words “Peace”, “Love”, “Joy” and “Happiness” on the four corners of the whiteboard. Then I ask someone to read 2 Nephi 2:25: Adam fell that men might be, and men are that they might have joy. I quickly sidestep any discussion of the fall of Adam – it’s far too easy to spiral into a pointless discussion of the Garden of Eden or original sin; what kind of fruit did they eat? Did Satan really appeared as a serpent? Was that serpent was really a snake? Or the ultimate…whether or not Adam and Eve really walked around naked together all day. Instead, I focus on the idea that “…men are that they might have joy.” Permit me now to switch to lecture mode rather than narrative mode.
“So, what does this mean? ‘…men are that they might have joy’? It means, gentlemen, that our sole reason for existence is that we might have joy. Do you ever think about why God created us? Why would He do that in the first place? I assume that you all believe in God, or at least you want to believe in God, right? If not, I don’t think you would be here. So, if God exists, and if He created us, why did he create us? I don’t believe for a second that He creates us just so 99% of us could spend eternity in Hell…in a state of misery with weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. What kind of God would do that, anyway? Certainly no God that I know! Nope, I find it much easier to believe in a God that created us so that we might have joy. Now that’s a good reason to create someone – so they might have joy for eternity.
“Oh, and by the way – do you ever think about eternity? I mean really think about eternity? (No – 6 months is not eternity). Eternity is a very, very, very long time. And you know what? If I’m miserable, I’m going to be miserable for a very, very, very long time. Doesn’t sound like much fun, does it? I decided a long time ago that I’m not going to be miserable for eternity; instead – I need to learn how to enjoy existing. And you…you really don’t have much choice, do you? None of us do. We are eternal beings. God created us that way. We can choose to be happy or not, but we don’t get to choose to cease existing. It’s just not one of our options. Guess what, guys…I’m going to choose to be happy.
“So – back on topic. If we’re supposed to have all this joy – if God created us for the sole purpose of having joy – why aren’t we having joy? You guys are in jail, for goodness sakes! I don’t know too many people who would consider that a joyful existence, and I doubt that you do either.” Most nod in agreement. Occasionally someone will feel the need to be contrary and say something like “I find joy wherever I’m at”. I usually reply, “Good for you – that’s wonderful” and move on. “So, if we’re not having joy, why not? I, of course, have a theory.” This line delivered with some sort of humorous exaggeration. At this point I ask for a volunteer, and someone always responds. I just ask the volunteer to stand there and look “angelic”. This is always good for a laugh and a few wisecracks. They’re always in good humor and the volunteer gets a few moments in a good light, an opportunity that is typically in short supply in their environment.
“Gentlemen, ‘Jack’ here is a child of God. I want you to help me make a list of attributes and virtues that we would naturally associate with a ‘child of God’. Let me start us off so you understand why I’m after.” I will then write something on the board such as “Honesty”. That usually starts them off and in no time at all we have a nice list of the greatest virtues of mankind; virtues such as loyalty, compassion, forgiveness, kindness, gentleness, generosity, etc. As soon as we’re done, I thank the volunteer, at which point he returns to his seat. I will often make a comment about his “halo”, which of course draws more laughter.
“Gentlemen, this is you. You are each a child of God, and these attributes are a part of your nature. You cannot deny them – they are there. If you do deny them, you are denying part of yourself. You are good, and this proves it! Now there’s another aspect to your nature that just as real. We call that the ‘natural man’. As the natural man, you have needs.” I write the list on the board:
– Shelter and clothing
– Food and drink
– Love and acceptance
“So, if we put these two lists together, we get a pretty good picture of who we are, right? We get a pretty good picture of our true nature, wouldn’t you say? So what happens when we deny one side or the other? We’re not happy, are we? We’re either cold or hungry or lonely, or we’re frustrated inside. We’ve denied part of our nature! As a result, we don’t like ourselves very much because we’ve compromised the things that are really dear to us; the things that make us men; the things that define the person we dreamed of becoming when we were 7 years old. Yes – that’s right. Think back to when you were 7, 8, 9 years old. You had an image in your mind of the kind of man you wanted to be when you grew up. You were innocent and vulnerable and that man was strong and honest and loving and compassionate, wasn’t he? What happened to that man? Well he’s still there. He’s right here (pointing to the virtue list), and he’s right there (pointing at them); only we’ve covered him up – and why?
“Well, we’ve smothered that man – that idol, our hero – out of fear. We’ve beaten him down because we fear that we’re not going to have our natural needs met. We’ve cast him aside because we’re afraid we’re going to be cold and hungry, or even worse, alone and rejected. We may have been beaten or insulted or otherwise abused – or simply neglected – by our parents or loved ones, so we seek that acceptance elsewhere – and that’s usually among others who have been rejected. Fear is Satan’s greatest tool, and we all fall for it. Pretty soon — and before we even realize what’s happening — that ideal hero, the one with all these God-like virtues, is a forgotten dream; and we’re sitting there in a spiritual daze wondering what happened to us.
“This all sounds pretty grim doesn’t it; but it doesn’t have to be. It’s not too late!. We can wake up to the things that make us good. We can choose (we’ll talk about agency, or free will, next week) to honor those virtues that make us great every day. We can tell ourselves that these things are priceless, and that if we will honor them, we can feel good about ourselves again. We can be real men again. We can become that knight in shining armor that we all wanted to be when we were boys.
“Now, the most important thing about this resolve is – don’t be overwhelmed. Nobody expects this change overnight. I’ve been working on it for the last 20 years. One of the things I discovered after I sobered up was how good it felt when I did the right thing. Something clicked inside me, and I found the void left from not drinking being filled by doing things that made me feel good. I remember realizing one day that there were these things in my life that made me feel good, and there were also things that caused me fear and anxiety. I figured I had already stared down the biggest demon I would ever face in the ‘demon rum’, so what did I have to fear now? I resolved to embrace the things that made me feel good – and to do them over and over again. And I likewise resolved to ‘embrace’ the things that I feared; to embrace them so that I could understand them – understand why I feared them – and thus understand myself. Gentlemen, I guess I ‘chose’ courage.
“And you can, too, but, as I said, you don’t have to change overnight. All you need to do is make one more ‘good’ choice today than you made yesterday. And if you mess up, it’s ok. Well, not ok, but if you keep this list of virtues in mind, and every time you make a choice that makes you feel bad – that you know is wrong — just resolve to do better next time. This is the process of becoming, and before you know it, you will find yourself ‘becoming’ your own hero.
“So, here’s an assignment. Go write down your own list of virtues – the ones that were possessed by that man you dreamed of becoming when you were a boy. Then go out and become that man – one choice at a time. This, my friends, is the essence of the gospel. This is a large part of the message of the scriptures. Many people don’t see the simplicity of it. They get caught up in ‘thou shalt’ and ‘thou shalt not’. They don’t see that this is really what your Heavenly Father wants for you and from you – He wants you to become like Him. He wants you to honor all those virtues that make us great, because they are the same virtues that make Him God.
“I love you, Gentlemen. I want nothing more than for you to feel the love of your Heavenly Father the way I do. I want you to become the man you always wanted to be, so that you in turn can be somebody else’s hero – somebody else’s example of strength and honest and virtue. I want you to feel good. I want you to have joy. I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.”