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.

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

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?

Continue reading “A Scandalous Mercy”

When Small-Hearted Meets Magnanimous

When Small-Hearted Meets Magnanimous

Small talk isn’t really my thing.

In fact, I  have respect for people who have the gift of being able to chat about different things casually.  Some of the students I know better are easier to talk to, but I have to force myself to generate conversation with others.

The other day, I asked a student how his snow day was the previous day.  His lack of response prompted me to say semi-teasingly, “Come on!”  To which he responded with an annoyed, “No.”

Suddenly, frustration and anger filled me.  Here I was, making an effort and he couldn’t even give the common courtesy of responding to a non-invasive question.  I wasn’t asking him to share the depths of his soul, just to have him share about something from the previous day.

While small talk doesn’t come easily, quick retorts generally do.  So I struggled to keep back all of the sharp responses I wanted to give and I forced myself to continue to acknowledge him during the rest of class, even though I childishly wanted to ignore him.  I had the desire to demonstrate to him just how rude he was being…by being equally rude myself.  You have a question?  Too bad, I don’t want to answer you, just like you didn’t want to answer me.

I didn’t do those things, yet I am continually surprised how deeply small-heartedness is ingrained in me.  God is justice and mercy, but I naturally favor justice.  Old Testament eye-for-an-eye justice.  It isn’t what I want to receive, but it is definitely what I want to mete out. Continue reading “When Small-Hearted Meets Magnanimous”

Attractive Misery

Attractive Misery

We feel…shame at seeing our misery and our baseness exposed.  Yet this misery possesses the mysterious privilege of attracting our Lord.  This is difficult to understand, yet it is an incontestable truth.  Our nothingness and our misery constitute the force that attracts our Lord.

(Secrets of the Interior Life)

I’ve never really understood this idea of how our misery attracts the Lord to us.  Generally, when I see my own miserableness, it is repulsive or something I want to hide.  It isn’t something that is attractive or pleasant.  When it comes to seeing the miserableness of others, I’m not much better.  My personality is one that desires perfection.  The people around me (including me) are continually letting me down because they don’t live up to my image of perfection.

Yet the Lord uses all things for good.  The cheating incident I mentioned a couple posts back has really pushed my heart.  It made me move from anger to forgiveness.  A few days later when the individuals came back and we spoke, I found great freedom in being able to express how they had hurt me and to hear them apologize.  The relief on their faces was incredible.  It was though they walked into my room carrying a burden and then through the exchange of a few words, that burden was lifted.  My burden was lifted, too.

Strangely, over the last couple weeks, I have found a special tenderness in my hearts toward those individuals.  No longer angry, I am able to love them as they are: flawed human beings.  The Lord knows I have difficulty loving people in their humanity and so I am beginning to be grateful for this incident.  I don’t want to love them only when I think they are perfect, but for the beautiful complexity that is wrapped up within their hearts and souls.  I know myself and so I know I do not want to be loved merely for my seeming perfection but rather in my entirety.  In the midst of this, I experienced for the first time, at least consciously, the way that misery attracts my heart.   Continue reading “Attractive Misery”

The Price of Forgiveness

The Price of Forgiveness

“Oh, my God, I am heartily sorry…”

Generally, when I begin to pray the Act of Contrition in Confession, I close my eyes.  I prefer to go behind the screen and I like to close my eyes so I can focus on the words.  As I started the prayer, I realized that the confessional I was using had a crucifix hanging on the screen at about eye level.

“for having offended Thee…”

My eyes shifted and fastened on Jesus.  There He was, arms outstretched and pierced by nails.  His total gift stood in stark contradiction to my selfishness and inability to sacrifice.  Yet as I spoke the words directly to Him, I was struck by the rightness of it all.

“I detest all my sins because I dread the loss of Heaven and the pains of Hell…”

My sin crucified Him.  And though there was nothing new that I was learning, I was seeing in a deeper way what my sin brought about.  Here I was, staring at the very reality that made the words I was saying efficacious.  Without His death, my words were a vain pleading for reconciliation without paying the debt. Continue reading “The Price of Forgiveness”

Bold Claims

Bold Claims

The Lord is the goal of human history, the focal point of the longings of history and of civilization, the center of the human race, the joy of every heart and the answer to all its yearnings. (Gaudium et Spes, 45)

Christianity makes shockingly bold claims.  It does this because Christ made bold claims.  If the Gospel message that you have heard doesn’t ruffle feathers or irk people, then it isn’t the same Gospel that Jesus Christ proclaimed.

Think about how people responded to Jesus Christ.  Numerous times we hear about Jesus being driven to the brow of the cliff, or people picking up stones as He spoke, or people simply becoming angry at His words.  This wasn’t because He told people that they just needed to be nice people.  His words challenged.  His words provoked.  His words called people to look inside themselves and to realize that they could not save themselves.

Though we may accept the Gospel and profess to believe it, if we are honest with ourselves, each must continue to wrestle with the call of Jesus in our lives.  There are still teachings of Jesus that have yet to be fully accepted in our hearts.

And there are bound to be things in his teachings that each of us finds offensive if we look at the totality of those teachings rather than confining ourselves to comfortable and familiar ones. (The Pocket Handbook of Christian Apologetics, p. 60)

For example, Jesus tells us that we are to forgive.  The love of Christ compels us to love and forgive all.  That means the survivors of the Holocaust are to forgive the very people who imprisoned them and took the lives of their friends and family members.  It means the families of those who died in 9/11 are to forgive those who applauded themselves for being the masterminds of the attack.  No, neither of those situations have impacted me in a directly personal way.  But it is the message of Jesus Christ and it is not a message meant simply for forgiving the person who cut you off in traffic or the store clerk who is annoyed that you need her assistance.  The Gospel message is precisely for those moments that seem unforgivable.  It is then that we can recognize that it must be Christ working through us, that grace must be received in order to live out this bold life.

Christianity is not calling us to a life of ease and comfort.  The King of this kingdom was crucified and the Queen watched it all unfold.  Christianity, in its truest sense, is calling us to such a death.  But it is a death that must be experienced so that we may embrace a fullness of new life.  Once we experience that death and new life, the next death doesn’t really matter anymore.  It will be a mere parting of the veil, a stepping into the throne room of the King, entering into the Holy of Holies.  From life we will pass into Life.

With such a reward, it is no wonder that the early Christians were willing to lay down their lives for the sake of Jesus Christ.  They looked upon death with no fear, but rather with joyful anticipation.  Because, in that moment, they recognized that the Gospel of Jesus Christ was for those particularly difficult times.

We cannot accuse Christ of shielding the disciples or us from the realities of what following Him would require.  He is direct and His voice is clear: if we love anything above Him, we will need to re-order our heart, even if the beloved is our family or our own selves.  For Christ, we give all up and we received it back one hundred fold.  I do not claim to have perfected this, but I know there is a tremendous freedom that is found in giving all to Christ.  When my sisters entered the convent, the bitterness I felt was a result of not letting them go or surrendering them to the Lord.  I’m a slow learner and so years later, when I actually began to sincerely let them go, I felt a tremendous freedom in my relationships with them.  Problems may still arise in my heart regarding my sisters’ vocations, but I think God’s grace has pretty much vanquished that demon as of this past summer: but it took me eleven years.  That freedom, though, is tremendous.

The Lord seeks to answer the deepest longings of our hearts.  He boldly declares that He not only has the answer but that He is the answer.  The fulfillment of all our desires is Him.  The longings we experience are for relationship with Him.  The joy we yearn to have fill our hearts is found in none other than He who fashioned our hearts.  It isn’t Titanic-style love.  It is rugged cross, pierced with beauty and sacrifice, blood pouring out that transforms hearts of stone to hearts of flesh-style love.  And it asks for a great price.  It asks for all we have.  The return, though, is worth the investment.

Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.” (Mark 10:29-30)