Relentless Pursuit: How Prison Ministry Causes Me to Stand in Awe Before the Mercy of God

Relentless Pursuit: How Prison Ministry Causes Me to Stand in Awe Before the Mercy of God

I don’t believe I ever had as much gratitude for the generous mercy of God as when I started volunteering at the prison.

Over the years, I have perhaps struggled with accepting that I cannot disappoint God or realizing the unplumbable depths of God’s particular love for me. But, in many ways, I never felt that I strayed too far from God. I never stopped going to Mass or turned away from the faith. In college, I was delving into my faith when many of my peers were shaking the Church’s dust from their feet. So I never really had to confront the question of “Can God forgive me for this?” and I say that without any pride knowing that I fail in many, many ways.

Standing before men in prison, though, I am encountering some men who have committed truly heinous crimes. There are men in for drug charges or robbery or embezzlement. And then I’m with men who committed crimes against women and children, in a variety of circumstances and situations. I also find myself with men who have murdered others or conspired to murder people or have attempted to murder others. Regardless their crimes, I am able to confidently extend the mercy of God to them.

There are times when I am in the disciplinary unit, talking with the men cell-front with a couple of other volunteers, and I find myself filled with profound awe over the gift of salvation. I don’t have to ask what sins they have committed to know if the Lord desires to be in relationship with them. If I find myself repelled by their sins or crimes, I know the Lord still yearns for their soul and to pour His love generously upon them. It causes me to experience again the immensity of the Lord’s love. There is no question about if He loves any person I meet in prison. That expansiveness causes me to stand there and just be awed by how the Lord never stops pursuing our hearts.

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Peace Not From the World

Peace Not From the World

Peace is my farewell to you, my peace is my gift to you; I do not give it to you as the world gives peace. Do not be distressed or fearful.

John 14:27

I feel obliged to keep somewhat informed about the spread of COVID-19 (the coronavirus) and as I was looking on a news website, I saw a link that said “Should I be panicking?” My students, naturally, are buzzing with news about the spreading virus and beneath the nervous excitement, some are truly concerned about getting sick. It is understand that fear should start to set in when it seems like very little time passes between various people mentioning something else about the coronavirus.

Apart from practical common sense attempts to not get sick, there isn’t much I can do. Yet similar to how listening endlessly to political news reports can fill me with unrest, countless stories and updates about the virus can begin to make me stressed. Jesus, despite showing concern for the poor and the suffering, doesn’t want us to be pools of despair, overcome with anxiety and worry about what may happen. We have an intellect that we ought to use, but He doesn’t want us to be frozen in isolating fear. Christ came to set us free, even from the slavery to fear.

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There Is Always Hope

There Is Always Hope

I don’t recall exactly what it was about. During parent teacher conferences, I spoke with a parent and it was either about the grade, the student’s faith, or something, but whatever it was, the parent ended with, “So there’s hope?” And I, filled with a conviction that stretched beyond the moment, replied, “Yes. There is always hope.”

I felt the weight of that truth in the moment after the parent left.

Always. Hope endures despite all difficulties.

For someone who often skews toward pessimism, it is helpful to remember that hope persists, even when it seems illogical. I mean, we worship a God who rose from the dead after three days. He chose the most unlikely people to pass on the faith, who continually misunderstood Jesus and ran away when scared. Yet this Church still lasts. In spite of corrupt popes, Church scandals, intense persecutions, harsh dictatorships, and every other difficulty, we see that life can still burst forth from death just as the frozen ground will one day again yield to the gentle strength of new flowers.

The other day in class, I found myself saying, “Death isn’t the worst thing.” For me, it was obvious that this was true. I spent much of my first year of teaching hoping for death. Not in a morbid or depressed way. Rather, I was thoroughly convinced of the glory of the Beatific Vision and I was also thoroughly convinced that I wasn’t yet experiencing it in a room filled with angsty, complaint-filled teens.

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Whatever God Chooses Should Be All the Same to Us

Whatever God Chooses Should Be All the Same to Us

I didn’t expect to feel sadness at a wedding.

Anything near tears, I assumed, would come from the overwhelming joy of seeing a good friend get married. And while I was definitely happy, I was startled by the profound loneliness that pervaded my heart, even as I sat in a pew with beloved friends and was surrounded by many people I knew. Grateful that my friend was receiving that for which she had long prayed, I discovered a sorrow that I didn’t want to find at that time or in that place. The human heart frequently seems inconvenient, but I’ve found that leaning into that is more helpful than ignoring it.

Near the beginning of the liturgy, I heard the priest proclaim a single word in the midst of a longer prayer. He said “home” and I was immediately asking the Lord where my home was. Looking over the priest’s head, I saw the crucifix, arms stretched wide and side pierced, and within myself I heard Him say that my home was there. In His side, opened so that mercy could pour out, was my home, my refuge, the only place I belonged on either side of Heaven.

As my blog slowly moves from being thoroughly unread to something that people I know and don’t know read, I find myself hesitant to ever speak of being single. Some of my former students occasionally look at my blog as do co-workers, and it feels odd to share this particularly deep desire, even if it seems obvious or assumed or commonplace. Yet it also feels odd to share so many other parts of my heart and then withhold speaking of the vocation I feel called to, simply because God hasn’t fully answered that prayer.

I’m a melancholic and as such I am accustomed to longing. One of the most enduring longings has been for marriage and a family. It isn’t my only desire, but it is the one that seems the most fervent. This newly married friend is one I often spoke of this longing with, as we questioned when it would be fulfilled and wondered how it would happen. So I understand to a degree why this wedding also filled my heart with a bit of sadness. It was because my compatriot had what she longed for and I was still waiting, still hoping, still wondering when and if it would happen.

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Childlike Trust

Childlike Trust

Kids can get away with so much.

Whether it is because they are adorable or because we can chalk it up to their innocence, they are able to do things that are unthinkable to adults.  The small child that escapes the proper place in the church pew and scampers toward the front of the church is often met with smiles, even if the bishop is offering Mass.  A few weeks ago, a child at an audience with Pope Francis ran to the front and when the Swiss Guards tried to block him, the pope welcomed him forward.

They also seem to have the freedom to just ask for things.  My nephew once saw some money sitting on my parents’ counter and, after clarifying that it was indeed money, asked if he could have $40.  Children are quick to ask for food (even if it is the food you are eating), a drink from your water bottle, and anything else that might be slightly weird for an adult to request.

Yet there is such freedom in their general disposition.  A freedom that is nearly enviable when one considers how they present their needs and desires to those capable of actualizing them.  It made me consider how freeing it would be to approach God the Father in that way.  What would it be like to truly be His child, with all of the fidelity and trust found in the hearts of the little ones? Continue reading “Childlike Trust”

Sometimes God Procrastinates

Sometimes God procrastinates.  He has had all of time knowing what will happen and yet He still waits until the last minute to pull things together.  Yet the sudden perfection of everything falling together comes off as far more dazzling then if it was revealed in advance.

For the past couple weeks I’ve been thinking about a Bioethics Certification course.  The reading and assignments are done online and then participants attend a seminar this fall and a case studies day next May.  The problem?  The cost.  The certification program is $2900 and then travel, lodging, food, and transportation for Bismarck and Philadelphia would need to be arranged.  It seemed an impossible amount for a Catholic school teacher with a remarkable amount of debt.

The beginning of this week I talked to my department head at school.  Sister thought it sounded like a great idea and encouraged me to talk to the principal about funding.  The conversation with the principal the next day was a little less uplifting.  He told me an amount that would cover the trip to Bismarck, which left me questioning if I could financially pull off the rest of the tuition and trips.

In desperation, I sent an email to the Bioethics center asking if they had any scholarships, donations, or funds for those who wanted to do the certification but couldn’t afford it.  I wasn’t extremely hopeful, even though I told them I was in the e-mail.  It seemed this dream wouldn’t be fulfilled.

The next day my parents called and left me a message.  We filed taxes incredibly late and so they were letting me know what my tax refund would be.  I was a bit surprised at the amount and my first thought was that it would definitely help pay for the certification program if I ended up doing it.

My mom and I went out for supper the next night and I talked about it with her.  I wanted to do the program but I didn’t want the cost to spiral out of control.  It would be stressful to realize part way through the program that it would cost more than I anticipated.  My biggest concern was how much the trip to Philadelphia would cost.

That night I talked to my housemates about the program.  It is obvious that I want to do it, but I was still conflicted.  In bed that night, I asked Jesus to make it clear to me if He wanted me to do the program or not.  Time was running short to register for the program but I wasn’t entirely convinced.

The next morning I was giving a couple quizzes in my classroom and I checked my e-mail.  There was an e-mail from the priest in charge of the bioethics program.  He said they tried to find someone to help me out financially and a donor offered $1000 for a student who needed tuition assistance.  He was wondering if I would accept the money and he hoped it would enable me to take part in the program this year.

I sat there in shock looking at my computer screen.

It had all fallen together.

Everything.

Between the tuition assistance and my tax refund, I would only need to cover a few hundred dollars.  The school was offering to pay for the trip to Bismarck but I could maybe stretch that a little more.  All that was needed was me to cover Philadelphia.

It was a beautiful feeling that morning.  The Lord had pulled it all together and just in time.  I grabbed another faculty member to watch my students take their quiz and I called my mom.  Speaking the words that I had only read so far was incredible.  She was not surprised but said she expected something to come up.  The joy began to overflow and I started to cry a little.

There was a deep-seated peace within me.  I wasn’t wondering anymore about if the Lord wanted me to be in this program or if it was my own desires.  He pulled everything into place in the perfect time.

So perhaps God wasn’t just procrastinating this entire time.  Maybe He was teaching me to wait patiently and to trust in Him.