Is the Good News Good?

Is the Good News Good?

St. Peter says to “be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15) but sometimes it seems the hope can get lost in a parade of rules. I asked my students what is the cause of our hope and after throwing out several answers, someone finally said the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus was the source of our hope.

“Do you feel like the Good News is good?”

They paused for a moment, almost seeming to sense there was a trick question they needed to skirt.

“Yes,” one student said.

“Why?”

This simple question seemed difficult for them. Someone replied, “Because it seemed like the right answer.” In fact, when I asked a later question (“Why does the Good News not seem good?”) they were able to respond with more answers.

When I go into the prison, so many of the men that come to the Catholic bible study or Mass are able to clearly point to their lives and say, “When I do my own will, I am not free.” It is a profound gift that the men in prison have that I think so many outside prison lack. The doctor, the teacher, the student, the politician, the bus driver, the plumber, the painter, the whatever can look like they have it together because they have some worldly success and their struggles might not be so apparent. The reality, however, is that we are all in great need of being saved. This crashes into the truth that the Good News is profoundly good, but it does require an acknowledgement that I cannot do it on my own.

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I Had a Slow Childhood

I Had a Slow Childhood

School was called off for today before I even went to bed last night. It meant that my sister and I leisurely watched a movie and then talked for a while before curling up to fall asleep. This morning, the snow hadn’t started yet so I went out of the house for a couple of hours, returning as the snow began to lie thick on the roads. Ideally, though, I would have been still tucked away in my bed or perhaps snuggled on the couch with a cup of coffee as I turned through my latest book.

In high school, I was surprised when I heard that on snow days kids went to go hang out at the mall. For me, it was an unthinkable action. Why would I go out into the blustery weather when that was the exact reason I wasn’t at school? I also was gifted with a father who would have unquestionably smacked me with a hearty dose of common sense if I would have even asked to drive to town despite the weather. Being at home was actually what I wanted to do anyway. While I liked school, I didn’t mind a day of sleeping in and being home. The same still holds true as an adult.

I grew up slow.

By that, I mean, as I grew up, we moved slowly.

I look at the schedules my students have or the schedules of kids and it looks so different from my youth. In elementary school, I usually rode the bus home and I was there until the next day when I left for school. My mom made supper and we all ate together. Sometimes the older siblings were running off to practice or games, but we almost always ate supper around our dining room table.

My summers were quiet, too. Sometimes we explored the farm or watched too much TV or read book after book. But it was slow, with plenty of time and space for us to play in the hay loft or read through book lists with forty to fifty titles. It wasn’t perfection, although my memory tends to cast an overly rosy hue on the days of my childhood. However, it had the great beauty of not being rushed.

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The Gift of Self-Knowledge: The Good and The Bad

The Gift of Self-Knowledge: The Good and The Bad

Seeing a list of my strengths is a vastly different experience than seeing a list of my weaknesses. That being said, I am incredibly aware that I have a great many flaws. There are probably areas I overlook, but as a melancholic, I am pretty introspective alongside possessing a generally critical nature.

I had my seniors take a temperament quiz at the beginning of the semester, partly for fun and partly so I can get to know them better. As they read through the descriptions they gave for their temperament, I was surprised to hear many of the lamenting the list of weaknesses for their particular temperament. Some commented that they were pretty harsh in the assessment of weaknesses and others were a bit more defensive as they said they didn’t have a bad temperament or were a bad person. Nobody, however, complained that they had an excessive list of strengths.

It made me wonder why they were so bothered by an impersonal test telling them which weaknesses they might possess. I wasn’t bothered by it. It was easy enough to read through the list and admit that I lacked in that area or recognize that I didn’t struggle with that particular flaw. Had they never considered what weaknesses they had? Were they bothered even considering that they might have weaknesses? What moved them to pull back as though someone had specifically told them where they fell short?

I don’t know the answers to any of those questions. I’m not sure if the weaknesses rang a little too true or if they all felt wrong based on the person they knew. It seemed, however, that they needed to be reminded that we all have areas to work on, things that are just a little more difficult for us based on our personality. And so, having never made this connection before, I connected their temperament to the faculties of the human soul, to our intellect and our will.

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Trading Frustration for Affection

Trading Frustration for Affection

It was either annoying or endearing.

The student said “hi” at the end of class, as he looked over my podium to casually glance at my computer screen. Then, he went to a stack of books, picked them up and looked at them, despite the fact that it seemed like they were not in a place where students should peruse. It was either annoying because he clearly didn’t know boundaries, didn’t respect my space as a teacher, and appeared to not know what should be private.

Or it was endearing because his attitude indicated the great comfort he felt in my classroom. Something about the way he was performing these actions seemed innocent and naive. Like a child who glances at a parent’s phone with interest rather than intrigue. Or a teen who roots through the cupboard looking for food to consume.

“You seem at home,” I said after he placed the books back on the stack.

“Yeah, I feel pretty comfortable,” he replied, most likely oblivious to what his actions could have meant.

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It isn’t unpleasant

It isn’t unpleasant

I don’t usually watch the weather on TV. If I want to know what is headed my way, I check the weather app on my phone or I look up one of the local TV stations websites to see what is forecasted. But this past weekend, as I visited my parents at their house, we watched the beginning of the news to catch the weather report.

It is winter in South Dakota and so high temps and bright sunshine aren’t always in the forecast. Over Thanksgiving weekend, we had snow, rain, sleet, and the typical gusty wind on the prairie. Yet when the news announced the weather, they told us to brace for unpleasant weather. That ordinarily wouldn’t have seemed so striking, but for some reason, that word unpleasant struck a chord.

Already, before the weather has even hit, they are telling me how I ought to feel about it.

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To Praise You For All Eternity

To Praise You For All Eternity

When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we first begun.

(Amazing Grace)

When we started singing Amazing Grace, I recalled that this was very moving for me during my first prison retreat. It didn’t seem like it would be the case this time as those gathered sang semi-enthusiastically.

Then we approached the final verse and I was overwhelmed with a fierce love for these men and a great desire to spend eternity with them. I gazed around the room and saw the guy who reminded me of some of my students and heard the obnoxious men behind me who were chatting or making noises during parts of the Mass. I thought about the men who struck me as a little creepy in how attentive they were to all the young female volunteers. And I thought of one of my favorite prisoners standing beside me who has grown deeper and more devout since I met him four months ago. Thinking about all of the men–the ones I like and the ones I am uncertain about—I felt a great desire to praise God with them for all of eternity.

My heart had a burning desire to turn to my prison friend next to me and say, “_____________, I want to spend eternity with you!” But it seemed like I’d be coming on a little strong. And although it would maybe weird him out, he would probably just laugh and say, “Okay. Calm down, Trish. But, yeah, I know what you mean.” I didn’t tell him that, but everything in me wanted to do so. Instead, I just looked at these men and imagined all of us in Heaven.

Lord, I want to spend eternity with these prisoners.

I imagined us praising God forever and chatting about past memories. “Remember when you came into the prison and met us for the first time, Trish?” And I would tell them I did. We would laugh—that we met in prison of all places but that God used each of us to help draw the other toward Heaven. “Remember the terrible prison food?” And we would all rejoice that we would never, ever again eat that food.

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I Find God Here

I Find God Here

“Why do you come in here to be with us and teach us about Jesus when you could do that outside?” one prisoner asked during a meal on the prison retreat.

“I do teach about Jesus to people out there.”

“Why do you come in here?”

A few months ago, I would have said it was because my sister started getting involved in prison ministry. Or that I became interested when a priest I had known for a long time became the prison chaplain. Yet neither of those things really answers the question of why I keep coming back.

“Because I find God in here,” I said. “I guess it is actually a selfish reason.”

He looked at me, a bit taken aback. “You find God in prison?”

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For the Love

For the Love

“The only part I didn’t really like was when she said that before she was a Christian she didn’t know what love was.”

After a recent talk at school, a few students were voicing their thoughts about the talk. The speaker had made a bold claim, one I hadn’t really thought about too deeply before my students offered their critique. Another student agreed and said he thought the speaker was being dramatic.

“Is it possible,” I questioned, “that being a Christian profoundly changes how she loved?”

“No,” said one student.
“Yes,” said another.

The one who said no came closer and continued with this question. The more I teach and the more I know about people, the more I realize that questions help answer better than arguments. Questions help clarify where exactly the person is, how much they know, and how much they have thought about the idea in the first place. So I posed another question, uncertain as I did so where exactly I was headed or what the next question would be.

“Is there anything different between how Hitler loves and Mother Teresa?”

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Living and Active

Living and Active

It continues to surprise me how extremely relevant Scripture is to the lives of prisoners. Whether I’m reading an Old Testament prophet or the epistles of St. Paul, the circumstances of the imprisoned are never far from any given page. Listening to the readings in prison, as Paul speaks about the chains he bears for the sake of the Gospel or how many times he found himself imprisoned, adds a whole new depth to the readings.

Earlier this week, as my sister and I drove to prison for a bible study, I read the Gospel passage aloud that we were going to discuss. It was something I’ve heard and read dozens of times and yet my eyes were opening in a new way, something that has happened innumerable times since I started going into the prison. The passage for the upcoming Solemnity of Jesus, King of the Universe, was about Jesus on the cross and the conversation He had with the good and bad thief.

The rulers sneered at Jesus and said, “He saved others, let him save himself if he is the chosen one, the Christ of God.” Even the soldiers jeered at him. As they approached to offer him wine they called out,
“If you are King of the Jews, save yourself.” Above him there was an inscription that read, “This is the King of the Jews.”

Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us.” The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.”

Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Luke 23: 35-43

I could hardly believe it when I read the passage to my sister. How striking. A passage about how Jesus, the sinless one, who enters into our lives and takes on our sin, dying amongst criminals who were sentenced justly for their crimes. What would it be like to hear this as a prisoner?

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Break Our Hearts of Stone

Break Our Hearts of Stone

It seems keeping the heart one of flesh, instead of being one of stone, is the continual work of a lifetime. Softening, rather than hardening, requires a strength and intentionality that doesn’t come naturally to me. In the wake of my defensiveness and desire for self-preservation, I repeatedly need to engage in the work of letting my heart be real. The simple act of believing in the goodness of others (and living in that truth) is one that requires me to be soft-hearted over and over again.

As I’ve gone into the prison, I have grown in seeing the goodness in people who have made many mistakes. Many of the men I interact with are easy to find goodness in because they are seeking the Lord, too. Their zeal for the Lord or their desire to love Him or find Him invites me to see how God is moving in their hearts. Others are a little more difficult since they make me feel uncomfortable or continually lie to me. But as a whole, I am able to look at men who have raped, murdered, and committed all sorts of crimes and proclaim their inherent goodness.

For whatever reason, we often look up what crimes the men are in for and how long of a sentence they received. At times, it helps to understand their position: are they in for life or a few years or simply back after breaking parole? We decided to look up one man I’ve talked with several times and see his crime. It was surprising because the kindness and gentleness I’ve experienced from him ran contrary to the crime he was sentenced to serve. Yet, despite the surprise, it didn’t really change how I felt toward him. The goodness and kindness I’ve experienced are real and he is far more than the crimes of his past.

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