Poetry from Prison: Lifting Up the Lowly

By Liz Milner

Over the four weeks of Advent, we are featuring writing by the inmates of the Santa Clara County jail. Chaplain Liz Milner, who has previously written for Journey with Jesus, works with both men and women inmates there. Over the past month, she and other volunteers have worked with the inmates in writing workshops, to reflect on themes of hope, waiting, and freedom. These are all issues that the inmates have a lot to say about, and a lot to teach us about. As Mary sings in the Magnificat, “he has lifted up the lowly.” This Advent we lift their words up to you, to illuminate and reflect on this beautiful season. Liz works for the non-profit www.cicministries.org that provides chaplaincy services in Santa Clara County, and can be reached at staffchaplain@cicministries.org.

From this week’s lectionary:

Luke 1:51–53

He has shown strength with his arm;

he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

and lifted up the lowly;

He has filled the hungry with good things,

and sent the rich away empty.

Liz: Over the last three weeks we have looked at Advent themes of Hope, Waiting, and Freedom from the perspective of incarcerated inmates. My experience of these men and women is that they possess deep wisdom and perspective that speak prophetically to those of us whose lives are relatively comfortable.

Jesus’s teachings seem to indicate that this will be the case:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

“Many who are first will be last, and the last shall be first.”

Even Paul seems to agree, “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.”

All this was prophesied by Mary in her song of praise to God, as she bore the coming Christ within her: “He has lifted up the lowly.” As we come to this fourth week of Advent, and Christmas Eve, I lift up to you some final words from the inmates, remembering that our Lord and Savior chose to enter this world as one of the lowly, whom many disregarded, assuming he had nothing to offer.

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By E:

The Light in the Mirror

When I look into the mirror

I see brokenness, I see dark spots

Nothing looks clear

It is so heavy, it is so dark

Even myself, I can not see behind

It is really painful, it’s not who I am

I don’t see the goodness

I don’t see the happiness

The happy, I was.


I desired to change my life

I go back to the mirror

To see one more time

I saw a tiny light

Behind all the dark

The tiny light was writing on the mirror

“You have one more chance

What are you waiting for?

Try one more time

Don’t look at the past.


I am ready to shine through you the rest of your life…..”

Thank you my LORD

Jesu Cristo

By O:

If I lie to myself, who can I trust?

By E:

Lord, keep looking at me, with your loving eyes

When I feel your presence, I feel free.

By A:

I feel like screaming, yelling, crying, banging, and I know God is there. He knows how I feel. I feel he is opening his arms with love and peace.

By D:

I want to be free from pain

I want to be free from loneliness

I want to be free to run

I want to be free to love

I want to be free to cry

I want to be free to live

By J:

Joy is thanking God I’m alive.

From Liz: As we move towards celebrating the birth of Christ, remembering His lowliness and His promise to lift up the lowly, what parts of you feel most lowly today? What needs “lifting up” in you? Maybe some issue or part of you that you simply can’t fix for yourself no matter how hard you try? One gift the inmates give us is their humility in acknowledging their powerlessness and need for God. I pray that will be a reality for you and a gift you receive from the newborn King.

The picture this week was drawn by M, a woman who has been through much trauma and suffering. I asked her to represent the themes of Advent, Hope, Waiting, and Freedom, and how it feels when Jesus comes to us. She chose this representation of Jesus lifting up Peter as he sank beneath the waves when he took his eyes off Jesus. She described how she sometimes felt like Peter — a somewhat outspoken man who no-one imagined would become one of Jesus’s most famous followers. She spoke about how she feels she is sinking sometimes, especially when she takes her eyes off God onto what is going on around her. And how the outstretched hand of Jesus is always there to lift her up, to “lift up the lowly.”

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