Ministry: A Gift I Give That Changes Me

Ministry: A Gift I Give That Changes Me

“You’re pretty comfortable here, Trish,” I was told Saturday night when I visited the prison for Mass.

“Yeah,” I said, “It is almost like I live here.”

This comment was coming from a prisoner who had poked fun at me weeks earlier for how shy I seemed while helping with the prison retreat. While I didn’t think I was quite as reserved as he claimed, I would definitely agree that I have grown more and more comfortable in prison as time has passed. In fact, the most nervous I felt all night was when I walked alone in the dark from the prison building to my car. And as it happened, I had to laugh. I had spent a couple hours in prison without a care and my biggest concern was about someone not in prison. It made sense and yet the oddness of the situation was not lost on me.

Recently, I was talking with a friend about prison ministry. I told him that it felt strange to tell people I was involved with it because I don’t really feel like I’m doing that much. I attend a Bible study in the prison one night a week and I try to visit both prisons for Mass on Saturdays. Sometimes good conversations happen and other times I seem to be just one of the crowd. He reminded me that often that is what ministry actually involves: just being present to others. But I realized in that conversation that while I am not convinced that I have impacted anyone in prison, I know that my heart has been moved through this ministry.

What if that is enough?

In ministry that so deeply concerns the conversion of the heart, there is an indifference one must have toward seeing the fruits displayed. Obviously, good ministry will bear fruit, but so often we fill the role of scattering seeds and someone else is the one who helps with the harvest. We want to see people respond and we want to frequently evaluate what we are doing or how we could be more effective. But conversion is quite often the slow work of God in the soul, something formed through various conversations with others or different experiences. I’m convinced that we will only know the impact the Lord has made through us once we are with Him in Heaven. Considering my overabundant human pride, that might not be a bad thing, even if it causes me to wonder if I’m doing anything productive in anyone’s life.

When I was involved in sidewalk counseling outside an abortion clinic during college, I never saw my words or my actions motivate someone to choose life. Instead, I was often fumbling for words as my heart overflowed with feelings but my mind struggled to form ideas to share. Yet being involved in that ministry radically transformed my heart. It gave me the experience of aching with Our Lord, of encountering the complete exercise of free will, of truly being persecuted by others for the first time in my life, and of growing in trust that prayer does something powerful even I don’t see it immediately.

I know without a doubt that hearts were transformed and lives changed through the prayer, suffering, and sacrifices made in that ministry, but I will never know the specifics on this side of eternity. If I had to point to one thing that changed my heart most in college, it would probably be the cold hours I spent begging the Lord for mercy on a street in Pittsburgh. Even if I didn’t see others change, I saw a change occur within myself.

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Communal Meals

There we were.  Gathered around a long table, laden with food and wine, surrounded by a small sampling of the globe.  Simple food was passed around, abundant and filling.  Joy was passed down the row of people, the seasoning that was added to the top of each bowl of stew that was consumed.  It was warm–or perhaps it was the wine and the intoxicating blend of languages and cultures, a beautiful spin on the Tower of Babel with English being a common reference point for many.

Some say this is what the Camino is–this is the ultimate Camino experience.  The communal meals shared in random albergues around Spain to an eclectic gathering of people.  We are from the US, Canada, Brazil, India, Germany, France, Spain, and beyond.  We speak a smattering of languages but we are sharing our stories and bonding, even though this may be the only moment we are ever together.  This part of the day was one of my favorites and the memories are poignant.

Despite the beauty of those moments, they simply made me feel like I was remembering something rather than experiencing it for the first time.  Of course this was my first time walking the Camino and sharing in those lovely communal dining experiences.  But I had shared a common meal with people of varying backgrounds and motivations.  I had felt the warm embrace of belonging to a community.  All of this was simply pointing to our membership in the Body of Christ.  I belong to Him and, through Him, am united to so many others.  Although we seem so different, we are very similar.  We are all searching for truth and goodness and beauty.  We all desire friendship and companionship and love.  We are longing for fulfillment and something to transcend this fragile life on earth.

The communal meals along the Camino were the physical nourishment for the road that stretched in front of us, the difficult, beautiful road leading to Santiago.  The Eucharist is the spiritual nourishment that prepares us for the road that stretched on, the road strewn with thistles and roses that meanders to the Wedding Banquet of the Lamb.  Both are shared with others and both point to something even more.

And the angel of the Lord came again a second time, and touched him, and said, “Arise and eat, else the journey will be too great for you.”  And he arose, and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.                              -1 Kings 19:7-8

My Grandparent’s Simplicity

I gently tapped the bowl with my finger.  It was plastic, as I had expected, instead of glass.  The time had come for the grandkids to go through what had belonged to our grandparents and request our favorite things.  There were some things that I wanted, but not very many.  In my love for my grandparents, I looked at the material items and realized part of the sacrifices they willing endured for their family.

My grandparents grew up during the Depression.  They understood not having much and carried that mentality into the rest of their lives.  My grandpa said that his family never went hungry, but then he also told my dad, without complaint, that there were times when they ate potatoes for every meal of the day.

Some people lived through the Depression and then spent much of their lives trying to live in luxury so as to make up for their time of poverty.  My grandparents embraced the lifestyle of simplicity that was taught to them through the difficulties of the 1930s followed by the war of the 1940s.  By the time they both died (my grandma in 2004 and my grandpa in 2013), they had stored up for themselves what probably seemed like amazing wealth to the 1930s versions of themselves.

Yet they did not live as though they were wealthy.  My grandparents were generous with us but did not seek to spoil us.  The overall impression was that family, not money, would be the source of happiness.  As I got older, the number of family functions seemed only to increase.  We would gather for a long weekend at a lake, spend a weekend in a hotel in town as a family, and once a group of us took a trip to Ireland and Scotland for a couple weeks.

The simplicity of their lifestyle is something that is good for me to remember.  They turned off lights, used no air conditioning, ate simply, and did without many luxuries.  Without great wealth to begin with, they gave birth to ten children and ushered nine of them into adulthood.  My grandma would replace the elastic in her pants when it gave out and my grandpa would wear the same overalls for decades.  Their happiness did not rest in their bank accounts but in the family they were raising.  And if family is an indicator of wealth, they were abundantly wealthy.  Nine children lived to adulthood and between 30-40 grandchildren were born as a result of that.

This week my dad and his siblings are selling my grandparent’s land.  I’m sure that it is a difficult experience, something that seems to finalize things that one wants to pretend didn’t happen.  While my grandparents are no longer here on earth, their memory remains rooted in our hearts.  Yet far from wish they could remain here with us forever, I pray they are in Heaven.  In Heaven, there is no need to conserve money or live simply.  Heaven is an overflow of abundance, a rich banquet for all to join in, lavish goodness poured into the lap of each person there.  That is what I desire for them.  Not money or great material wealth, but the richness of belonging entirely to the family of God, to the Body of Christ.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  (Mt. 5:3)

Heaven is like a Symphony

I don’t quite recall how we got on the topic, but I was talking to my first period class about how we will experience Heaven differently.  My reference was to the idea that Heaven will be experienced as deeply as we allow Christ into our lives now.  To be sure, Heaven will be fantastic, beyond anything that I can imagine.  When we get there (if we get there) we won’t be comparing our Heaven and wanting somebody else’s Heaven.

One of the students didn’t understand what I was saying.  How could we experience Heaven differently?  Will we each have our own Heaven?  It was about this point in time that I wondered why I brought this topic up, since it didn’t have a lot of bearing on the subject at hand.

Then the Holy Spirit (He gets the credit/blame, anyhow) provided the perfect analogy for me in the situation.

“Heaven is like a symphony.”  I said it and I liked it, the richness of a symphony and the depth of Heaven.  I went on to briefly explain that we could all go to the same symphony but some of us would appreciate it more.  Perhaps someone knows more about music and they would be able to understand and love aspects of the symphony that others might not notice.  We are all at the same symphony, but we are able to experience it in different ways.

His face seemed to lighten in understanding.  I, on the other hand, was particularly pleased with this off the cuff analogy.  However, I know it had little to do with me…

The Lord provides.  Thank the Lord He provides!

I Desire a Heavenly Mindset

Last night, with the adventures of homecoming safely a week behind me, I found myself reminiscing about my own high school homecoming week.  It was quite easy to slip into romanticizing that time in my life because there is no risk that I will be caused to repeat it again.  My memories centered on the competition of the week, the class rivalries that emerged in full force, the class skits performed in which each teacher was fair game, and the exhilaration that filled the entire school for one precious week.  Throughout the week we would have games each day and the competition was fierce.  Seniors almost always won but it was the goal of each grade to produce an upset, one in which only obnoxious cheating would result in the triumph of the seniors.  My junior year was probably the most competitive.  The skits were hilarious and all of our favorite (and not-so-favorite) teachers were impersonated and analyzed.  (Note: As a teacher now, this is always a fear of mine when the students are given the chance to make fun of the teachers.  I sit in the gym, waiting anxiously, hoping that I wasn’t memorable enough or disliked enough to become the focus of students’ laughter.)  My junior year we won the “Olympics” and the triumph was palpable.  We gathered in our class sections in the gym bleachers and would chant our anthems. “J-U-N I-O-R…Junior, Junior, Junior!!!”  “0-8 0-8 0008”  The shouting echoed off the walls of the gym.  That memory is one of my favorites–the class anthems, the school spirit, the energy, the competition. 

I can almost trick myself into believing that that experience was high school.  It was not.  High school wasn’t traumatizing for me, but it wasn’t the best experience of my life.  I liked school and I was involved in numerous activities: choir, band, volleyball, track statistician, plays, oral interp, and TATU to name some.  It was a great time of development…but it wasn’t perfect.

That is one of my problems.  I am excellent at romanticizing the past and thinking of it in the best ways.  This doesn’t hold true for everything but for many things it does.  I think back (way back!) to college and I am able to make it free from any trials or difficulties.  I think, “Trish, do you remember that time that your job was to read theology books and write papers?  When you hung out with friends several times each week?  When you felt like you were changing the world by being in the pro-life movement?  Remember when you went to New Mexico and twice to Honduras for mission trips?  Remember traveling around Europe?  Wasn’t that the absolute best time of your life?”  And looking at all of those adventures and blessings, I am convinced that I should be there and not here.  What is very easy to overlook is the fatigue, the stress of completing two theses in one semester (even if that was my fault entirely), trying to finish the endless stream of homework, wanting to hang out with friends but not being able to, worrying that we wouldn’t fundraise enough for the mission trips, the excessive tiredness.  All of that is easy to forget in the quest to make college “the best years of my life.” 

The point is this: the past is easy to love because we don’t face its challenges in the present.  Of course there are difficulties in my present life but those are more keenly felt because they are the present.  In high school I was left with this feeling that nobody understood me.  The friendships I had weren’t rooted in Christ and therefore often seemed shallow.  In college I had the blessing of making those friendships and seeing how quickly they blossomed simply because we were rooted in the same soil.  Now I am able to see the beauty of those friendships even though I don’t find myself immediately surrounded by them anymore.  Instead I see from afar those friends continue to grow and impact the world.  They are getting married, they are having babies, they are continuing on with their lives.  As for myself, I am growing and changing, even if at a slower pace than I would like.  The past was necessary to make me who I am today, but now I need to live in today.  I need to live in today with all of its trials and difficulties–with the sophomores that won’t listen to me, with the seniors that are quick to roll their eyes at my statements, with the other teachers that don’t quite know how to take me, with the desire to live out my vocation yet being caught in a seemingly indefinite waiting place. 

Perhaps instead of gazing jealously at the past, I should look with anticipation to the future.  Imagine Heaven.  All of the beautiful people I know, all of the gorgeous places I’ve seen, and all of the lovely experiences I’ve been blessed with, all rolled into one and magnified greatly–this is Heaven.  When I focus on that goal, the end prize, the eternal life with God in Heaven, then the pains and irritations of today seem to pale in significance. 

“The Glory of the Lord, therefore, is the super eminently luminous beauty of divinity beyond all experience and all descriptions, all categories, a beauty before which all earthly splendors, marvelous as they are, pale into insignificance.”  The Evidential Power of Beauty

Thy Will Be Done

Perhaps I am not alone in feeling this way, but I desire a great mission for my life.  I want to do big things and transform society.  When I look at the different passions in my life, I wonder how I will ever be able to use them all, how will God be the fulfillment of all of my desires.  Taking a look at where I am at the present moment can cause me to feel impatient and claustrophobic.  I want to travel, to live life, to have adventures, to be incandescently happy.  There are moments, like on Thursday, when I look at my life as a teacher and I wonder what in the world I am doing.  Some people are able to say that every day they go to work they are filled with a desire to go to work and that because of that, they never feel like it is work.  Unfortunately, I cannot say that the same is always true with me.  There have been several times over the past few months that I didn’t want to go to work, that the thing I wanted most was to extend the weekend.  My heart desires something grand and beautiful.  Yet when I look at where I am in my life, I begin to wonder if it is ever possible to attain that.  Am I simply missing God’s will in my life?  Will I be my own worst enemy?  Everyone desires a great love and a great adventure and too quickly I begin to wonder where mine is.  I’ve spent half of the past semester longing to live life fully and the other half praying to enter into eternal life.  At times I am filled with a passion for teaching and with gratitude that I am able to do what I wanted to do right out of college.  Nevertheless, I wonder what else there is for me and how the plan will unfold. 

Maybe much of this is natural–the transition years after college, the quest to find stable footing, the desire to be a saint, the longings to be fulfilled.  Yet some of this is perhaps the temptation of the evil one.  If he can make God’s will for me now seem to be unimportant or too little, then he is winning in a sense.  God could have a grand mission for me next year but His will for me is to be a teacher now.  If I focus on the future grandeur and fail to do my duty in the present moment, then I am effectively not doing God’s will out of a misappropriated desire to do His will in the future.  I need to learn patience without succumbing to passivity.  How will I know if God is asking me to step out in faith or if it is my own desire for the grand that will cause me to run contrary to the will of God.  I have this desire to be a saint and although I know there are many saints of the ordinary, I don’t want to be ordinary.  While I don’t want to stand out especially, I long for a great mission, something where all of my desires are fulfilled.  Maybe this is just my melancholic nature coming out and longing for the ideals that can only truly be found in Heaven.  All I know is that I long for a beautiful adventure that will be personally transforming and will transform others.  A little daisy wants to be a bouquet of roses.

What a different view of me my students would have if they read this blog.  I know they don’t think I’m perfect but I like to think I look generally put together and collected.  At times I wish I could tell them how ridiculous and confused I truly am.  The facade would be destroyed.  What does God want me to do now?  He has placed me here for a reason.  I forget that reason, though, in moments of frantic worry and a desire for my will to be done.  So, Lord, if Your desire is for me to be here now, please teach me how to do Your will in the present moment–and to love doing it.  

What is the main idea?

After spending hours working on a semester final for my sophomores with a fellow teacher, I was drained and ready for sleep.  We had spent all of this time trying to create the perfect final–the perfect blend of justice and mercy.  Our administration had instructed us to create higher level thinking questions and steer away from simple memorization.  The intention of the test was not to fail them all or make them have a heart attack but to help them wrap their arms around the semester.  And by writing the final, it helped me do the same.  We were constantly asking the question, “What is the main idea of this section?  If they forget everything else, what should they know about this?”  It was difficult to figure it out at times as we balanced desiring them to know the whole Bible and then honing in on what we saw as the main points.  In the end, it helped us to focus on what is more important.  The details seemed to matter less, some random Babylonian king’s name didn’t need to be recalled, and the class was, hopefully, boiled down to what they should absolutely know.  Was it more important for them to know what each of the Egyptian gods symbolized or that the plagues were a judgment on the gods themselves?  Was it crucial to know who the first king of Israel was or would it be better to know which king God made a covenant with?  The task was difficult because we kept desiring to hold onto these little details, sometimes at the expense of the larger idea.

On the drive home, I had an epiphany.  So often I get caught up in the little details of life, the mistakes and the missteps and forget about the main idea.  How much easier I could make my life if I went through it trying to remember, “What is the main idea?”  If instead of agonizing over the little aspects and focused on the main idea, the goal behind my life (to go to Heaven and be with God for eternity), how much simpler everything would seem.  It will be a struggle to wrap my mind around that and I will be need to be constantly made away of what really matters.  But it seems to me a good practice to develop, if I have but the stamina to do so.  Embrace the little details of life, wrap my mind around it all, and then surrendering it all to the Lord asking Him, “What is the main idea?”