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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Quit Striving: You Are Already Valuable

Quit Striving: You Are Already Valuable

For the past few semesters, I give something called ‘The Preference Test‘ as a way to lead into the Argument from Desire when speaking of God’s existence. This test gives a series of would-you-rather questions but proposed in a slightly different way. I understand why the students sometimes find it silly because it pits options like You are loved against You are not loved. It seems easy enough to be clear about what you would truly prefer, but so many times the students struggle to admit that they desire something when intellectually they are convinced it doesn’t exist or isn’t real.

One question asked if they would rather have their value be innate or dependent on their abilities. This one is always interesting, because the hard-working, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality comes out in full force even if it isn’t really what anyone would truly want. I asked what they preferred. Did they prefer to be worth something just because they exist or did they prefer to strive for worthiness?

So many of them argued that culturally our value is based on our net worth or the skills we’ve acquired or how gifted we are. I told them I understood that, but asked how do you want your value to be determined? Still some insisted that they would prefer that measuring rod of value.

Interestingly, some seemed to fear nobody would work hard if they just knew they were valuable. I wonder if it is because they work hard to be good and then they wonder what it would be like if everyone had value regardless of their skills. Perhaps it is because they feel validated by meeting certain expectations and don’t know what it would mean if those measuring rods were broken and thrown away. Who would they be without grades or athletic giftedness or money or determination?

And it just made my heart ache to see them striving so much. So many of our problems seem to stem from not knowing our true worth or identity. If we all fully understood it, perhaps we wouldn’t be compelled to step on other people or gossip or give up or lie or do whatever we do to get ahead. Or whatever we do to numb the feeling that we aren’t worth anything or can never amount to much. People suffer from not knowing their own true value more than being too full of their own giftedness. I’m quite confident that the ones who seem the most full of themselves are so because they recognize within themselves a radical insufficiency.

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The Fire of Drift-wood

The Fire of Drift-wood

As my sister can attest, I have been on a poetry purchasing kick. There is something so lovely about flipping through books of poems and entering into the world of another–or seeing how easily they enter into mine.

“The Daily Poem” podcast has born another poem into my life; this one by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. As said before, I’m a melancholic, and the theme of the poem fits that mood as it presents a tale of sitting and talking about times that have passed and things that have been altered by time. I present to you: The Fire of Drift-wood.

We sat within the farm-house old,
      Whose windows, looking o’er the bay,
Gave to the sea-breeze damp and cold,
      An easy entrance, night and day.

Not far away we saw the port,
      The strange, old-fashioned, silent town,
The lighthouse, the dismantled fort,
      The wooden houses, quaint and brown.

We sat and talked until the night,
      Descending, filled the little room;
Our faces faded from the sight,
      Our voices only broke the gloom.

We spake of many a vanished scene,
      Of what we once had thought and said,
Of what had been, and might have been,
      And who was changed, and who was dead;

And all that fills the hearts of friends,
      When first they feel, with secret pain,
Their lives thenceforth have separate ends,
      And never can be one again;

The first slight swerving of the heart,
      That words are powerless to express,
And leave it still unsaid in part,
      Or say it in too great excess.

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The Rich Man and Lazarus

The Rich Man and Lazarus

If you don’t often feel uncomfortable when reading the Gospel, you might be reading it wrong.

Between a Monday evening Bible Study and Friday classes, I have the great gift of looking at the upcoming Sunday’s Gospel at least six times during a typical week. Sometimes, I’m a little dense, though. It took until Friday afternoon or Saturday before I genuinely started applying it to me.

This past Sunday the Gospel was about the rich man and Lazarus from Luke’s Gospel. It is clearly a rebuke of the rich man’s lack of compassion for the suffering of Lazarus. Also, it emphasized the finality of death and the subsequent judgement.

At first glance, I felt pretty comfortable. I do not look at the suffering of my fellow man with zero compassion. Yet I was prompted to wonder: perhaps the rich man did see Lazarus, did see his suffering, did feel moved–just not enough. Maybe the idea of reaching out made him feel uncomfortable. Or he didn’t know what to do. Or he was nervous that the suffering of Lazarus would be too disturbing to experience up close.

The Gospel suddenly became something I could apply to my life as I remembered a situation where I saw someone suffering, felt bad for them, and then did nothing. There were about three times when I had witnessed a man sitting in a wheelchair in the middle of the sidewalk, well past a time when he should have been home or in a shelter. It was an arresting scene: the sun had set, it was a bit blustery, and there he sat in a wheelchair on the sidewalk with a blanket stretched over his entire body, from his feet to over his head. I saw it and I kept driving, every single time.

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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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Perhaps the World Ends Here

Perhaps the World Ends Here

I found this poem through a podcast that has a “poem of the day” that they read and analyze a bit. While I often forget, reading and learning more poetry follows a desire I have to immerse my life in more beauty.

The poem is called “Perhaps the World Ends Here” by Joy Harjo.

The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.

The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.

We chase chickens or dogs away from it. Babies teethe at the corners. They scrape their knees under it.

It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.

At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers.

Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They laugh with us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table.

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A Scandalous Mercy

A Scandalous Mercy

“If Hitler repented before he died, after all he had done, would he be able to go to Heaven?”

You know, just some light, casual conversations on a Friday afternoon.

“Yes, if he repented….You don’t like that answer, do you?”
“No, I think he should be in Hell.”

“Let me ask you a question,” I said, knowing that sometimes asking questions is the only way to escort them to the doorstep of truth. “Where do you draw the line? How many people can someone kill or order killed and get to Heaven?”

“Ummm….none.”
“So nobody who has ever killed anyone could have a conversion and go to Heaven?”
“No.”
“Are there any other sins that you think God should be unable to forgive?”
“No.”
“But do you see the problem with choosing what is too much for God to forgive?” And he did, but he still wasn’t convinced that God should forgive Hitler if he repented.

This interaction prompted a much longer conversation than I expected. Our starting point was the Gospel for this upcoming Sunday and it bothered some that the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the wandering son were all received with joy and the ones that remained weren’t so celebrated. The father in Luke’s Gospel extending abundant mercy to the younger son was troublesome and annoying to them. Why does the one who wanders get a party and the one who stays gets nothing?

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He Disciplines the One He Loves

He Disciplines the One He Loves

I promise, I promise that I will not forever be talking about prison on here. At some point, the students will make an appearance again. It simply seems that the most striking things are happening in prison.

The other night, we were following a winding conversation that started from Sunday’s Gospel. We discussed being the one sheep that wanders away and how the generous love of the Father always seeks us out. One of the inmates reflected on how God’s love sometimes doesn’t seem gentle, as He protects us from worse things. He compared it to an experience he had as a father where he had to stop his child from running into traffic but that action made the child cry. Yet it was necessary in order to save the child from greater danger or even death. It was likened to prison, a place I’ve frequently heard them refer to as a place that saved them while also grumbling against it.

Another inmate listened to this and then quoted from memory, “The Father disciplines the one He loves.”

And that other inmate just nodded his head and said, “Thank God.”

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He Changes Things

He Changes Things

I like teaching and I like going into prison. Sometimes, they aren’t as different as one would think.

I’m not in charge of anything at the prison bible study, so I am able to just sit back and observe what is happening. One of my favorite takeaways from last time was how so many of them have experienced the difference Christ makes in their lives. When they follow Him, they live differently. But then they run into situations in life that shake their resolve and make them revert back to their old ways. It was a beautiful grace to watch them speak of how they are better when they follow Christ and His Scriptures but yet how hard it is to persevere in that life.

In part, it was beautiful because I could relate and I could tell by the numerous bobbing heads that so many of them did, too.

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Old Words, New Meaning

Old Words, New Meaning

Have you ever heard a passage in Scripture and been convinced that it was crafted specifically for you in that moment?

Or have you heard a story or verse again but you are really hearing it for the first time with new ears?

Who shall climb the mountain of the Lord?
Who shall stand in his holy place?

Psalm 24

After a college semester in Austria, I spent a week in Ireland with my aunt. One day, I climbed Croagh Patrick, the mountain said to be the place where St. Patrick drove the snakes from Ireland. I’m a plains girl, through and through, but I was excited to have a mini-retreat as I ascended the mountain on my own.

For several months after, I was reminded of this small pilgrimage when I would read Scripture passages that spoke of climbing mountains. Transported, the verses were enriched with the memory of my own mountain climbing experience. The view I had from the rocky summit was striking, reminding me why mountain-top experiences are so formative.

The Lord is king, let the earth rejoice,
Let all the coastlands be glad.

Psalm 97

In college, I went on a mission trip that brought the sacraments to people living along the Honduran coast. We hiked to towns that had no roads and met with people who had almost nothing. My Spanish was limited, but my heart overflowed when I encountered their simplicity and their joy. Returning to campus, I longed to be in Honduras, a place abundant in beauty and where I encountered the tangible presence of the Lord.

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