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”

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?”

Continue reading “For the Love”

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.

Continue reading “He Changes Things”

Holy Homesickness

Holy Homesickness

`My grandmother,’ I said in a low tone, `would have said that we were all in exile, and that no earthly house could cure the holy home-sickness that forbids us rest.’

Manalive, G.K. Chesterton

Sometimes, life feels a bit like a long exile. No place, regardless of how grand or beautiful, seems to work as a perfect home.

When I graduated from college (or maybe it was even before that point), I remember realizing that never again would all the people I love be in the same place. Friends scattered across the country in post-graduation searches for jobs. My heart had experienced profound beauty in multiple places around the world. It produced the aching reality that many places could be home and yet no one place or group of people were entirely home.

Walking the Camino a few years ago, I lived physically what I seem to live internally. I was a wandering pilgrim, looking for the end of the road and a consistent place to rest. So much of me aches and longs for Heaven because I desire a resting place, the place where there are no tears or separations or unfulfilled desires. A place of contentment, communion, and constancy–a home that can never pass away or be divided.

Holy homesickness.

In Chesterton’s Manalive, he speaks about a man who leaves his family in order to re-discover the joy of loving them again. He leaves home to discover home. It does seem to be the case that too often the familiar becomes overly ordinary or commonplace. When I was in Switzerland, I wondered who wouldn’t gape with awe at the majestic mountains that formed the backdrop to the hostel I stayed in for a couple days. Probably the Swiss.

Continue reading “Holy Homesickness”

The Church Showed Up Again

The Church Showed Up Again

Last fall, I saw the Church show up in a downtown bar to listen to a talk and grow in community. Last month, I saw the Church show up in an expected place (a church building) but in an unexpected way.

The Knights of Columbus organized a pilgrimage with the heart relic of St. John Vianney. I attended a crowded noon Mass and then waited to venerate the relic. Ever the romantic, I was waiting for the church to clear out and for the chance to approach the relic with ample time to pray. I imagined the crowds would soon dissipate and people would return to work.

That did not happen.

As time passed, the crowds did disperse, but people kept trickling in, causing the line to remain stretched down most of the center aisle. People came after work or on a break or once they picked their kids up from school. For nearly the entire afternoon, the line stretched down the aisle and about three-quarters of the way toward the back of the church.

The few hundred people who showed up at noon Mass surprised me, but the consistent flow of people throughout the afternoon surprised me more. It was a striking response to the distressing news that keeps being unearthed in diocese after diocese around the nation and world. The day before, our bishop released a letter listing priests who have abused minors in our diocese. Hours later, the Church showed up as hundreds of lay faithful and priests were falling on their knees before the incorrupt heart of a priest.

Our prayers were urgent and heartfelt. We need priests who have priestly hearts, mirrored after the heart of St. John Vianney but even more so after the High Priest Jesus Christ. Scandal within the Church simply highlights even more the great need that we have for holiness in the Body of Christ. Acknowledging the fragility of humanity, we interceded for the men whose consecrated hands confect the Eucharist, whose words extend absolution, and whose presence is sought from birth until death–and some of the most significant moments in between.

Continue reading “The Church Showed Up Again”

The Church Showed Up

The Church Showed Up

When I scroll through Facebook, it is difficult to not feel at least a little discouraged.  My mini-world of online Catholic life, neatly curated based on my interests, is overflowing with article after article of questions, deception, and Church hierarchy.  I haven’t joined the fray and posted yet another reflection on the duplicity found within some of the Church’s most elevated ordained men.  It didn’t seem necessary after millions of words have been spilled over it and it doesn’t seem to help the hurting.  Despite not posting about it, I feel the increasing weight of the problems and wonder what will happen next.

My faith isn’t shaken–it wasn’t rooted in bishops or the Holy Father to begin with.  I don’t feel compelled to even consider leaving the Church–She is my home and I would not want to be an orphan in this crazy world.  I do, however, ache for the hurting and I frequently consider how this must look from the perspective of my students.  When hypocrisy is so blatant, it is a struggle for them to see why one should belong to such a fragile, sinful institution.

Despite the fact that I am unshaken in my desire to remain in the Church, the Lord gave me a generous gift.  Yesterday, the Lord gave me what I didn’t know I needed.

 I attended a Theology on Tap.  

I know the coordinator pretty well (she is my sister, after all) and so I have known about the progress of the launch of this new program every step of the way.  Yet when I walked into the gathering space, I was surprised at the number of people already present.  And as the minutes continued to pass, I was soon blown away by the number of people who came streaming in.  An event that initially had aimed for fifty people and then optimistically raised its hopes to seventy or eighty, eventually rounded out at about 150 people.

The attendees?  They were young college kids, adults in the first decade of “adult” work, middle-aged parents, and grandpas and grandmas.  A gentleman at my table graduated from high school in 1956.  A priest stood behind me.  A co-worker sat next to me.  My parents were nearby.  A couple sat on the floor near the bar, all available seats having long been snatched up.

The attendees?  The Church.   Continue reading “The Church Showed Up”

Writing: The Success is in the Offering

Writing: The Success is in the Offering

The first blog I started was in the early 2000s.  Way back then, I didn’t call it a blog and neither did anyone who read it.  It was a very short list of distinguished people who read it, but it was there, a precursor to what I would do here and now.

I was imitating my older sister.  She sent emails to her friends about life ponderings that she had during the day.  There were religious reflections, philosophical musings, and simply ideas she had as she went about her ordinary high school life.  Wanting to be like her, I started my own little email list.

While I don’t remember how many emails I sent out, I do recall one topic.  Blue toilet paper.  My mother purchased blue toilet paper and, for some reason, this was the thing I felt most compelled to write about.  I know that I sent at least two emails about it.  The first had an intriguing subject line of “Blue” and the second was titled “Still Blue.”  And then, for one reason or another, I stopped sending the emails.

My next foray into the world of writing was in eighth grade.  Apparently, my English teacher thought I had something to offer the world and contacted the local editor of the town newspaper.  The editor agreed to let me write occasionally for the paper about virtually whatever I wished.  I wrote about my sister entering the convent, the death of a classmate, summer church camps, dream jobs, my dad’s retirement, the holocaust of abortion, and my trip to Ireland and Scotland.  The writing continued sporadically until my graduation.

In college, I wrote a couple of times for a few different campus publications.  I was too busy writing papers to publish many articles just for the enjoyment of it.  College also had the knack of tempering my perceived self-importance.  I’d been told for years that I had a gift for writing, largely from family and friends who are supposed to say those kinds of things.  In college, however, I received authentic criticism from my Honors and English professors.

Admittedly, it took me by surprise. Continue reading “Writing: The Success is in the Offering”

The Grace of Lesson Plans That Get Overthrown by Questions

The Grace of Lesson Plans That Get Overthrown by Questions

The lesson plan for the day was to discuss the argument from efficient causality.  Yet they managed to completely derail that plan.  When students ask questions that are about the faith and yet truly interest them, it is nearly impossible for me to continue with class as planned.  Interiorly, I am torn between following a schedule or curriculum and the desire to answer questions that organically spring up in their hearts.

Nine times out of ten I go with the questions they present to me.  I don’t believe I’ve ever regretted it, I only wish that each class would then magically divert itself in the same way.  Genuine curiosity and ponderings aren’t things you can manufacture in other classes.

“So is this argument saying that all things are caused to be by other things?  Or it is saying not all things are caused to be by other things?” I asked.
“I have a question that kind of relates but is off topic.  If God is caused or even if He isn’t caused, what is the point of life?  Like why did God make us?  What is our purpose?”

Those questions, dear readers, will definitely sidetrack me.  When senior boys are curious about why they were created and the meaning of life, I will dropkick lesson plans to spend time answering some of the biggest questions of life.

This is the class that argued with me about gravity objectively existing.  The day before this class, instead of working on an assignment they chose to ask me a thousand inane questions about my car, my hometown, and where my parents live.  So hearing one student start a conversation about the purpose of their lives and why God made them, and then hearing several other students jump in with follow-up questions, was a pure delight.  The only problem was the lack of time before the bell would ring.

To begin to answer their questions, I went back to the beginning.  The Trinity.  I spoke of how the Father and Son pour out a love that is so strong that it is another person, the Holy Spirit.  Within this communion of love, there is nothing that is lacking.  God was perfectly satisfied within this exchange of love.  Therefore, we are not needed.  God didn’t need us. Continue reading “The Grace of Lesson Plans That Get Overthrown by Questions”

Sophie Scholl: The Power of the Written Word

Sophie Scholl: The Power of the Written Word

Sometimes I wonder why I take the time to write.

While I enjoy writing, it doesn’t seem to be changing or transforming the world.  In fact, “the pen is mightier than the sword” seems a bit lost when we are inundated with words upon words.  Blogging seems ridiculous in a cyber world overflowing with anyone and everyone’s thoughts and opinions.  Amidst the suffering and tragedies occurring daily, why do I post my thoughts, experiences, and reflections? Why add one more little voice to the cacophony?

The other day, I stumbled upon a name that I knew little about yet was not entirely unknown to me.  Sophie Scholl.  Curious, I found a website with a story about the White Rose Resistance and the role of Sophie Scholl.  In a few moments, I felt as if I had discovered the reason I stumbled upon this article.

One day in 1942, copies of a leaflet entitled “The White Rose” suddenly appeared at the University of Munich. The leaflet contained an anonymous essay that said that the Nazi system had slowly imprisoned the German people and was now destroying them. The Nazi regime had turned evil. It was time, the essay said, for Germans to rise up and resist the tyranny of their own government. At the bottom of the essay, the following request appeared: “Please make as many copies of this leaflet as you can and distribute them.”

The leaflet caused a tremendous stir among the student body. It was the first time that internal dissent against the Nazi regime had surfaced in Germany. The essay had been secretly written and distributed by Hans Scholl and his friends.

Holocaust Resistance: The White Rose – A Lesson in Dissent, Jacob G. Hornberger

This young Sophie Scholl along with her brother and friends built a resistance through writing.  Speaking out against the Nazi regime was a sufficient reason to be executed by the state.  What was the reason they used mere words to fight Hitler?  Sophie told the courtroom during the “trial.”

Sophie Scholl shocked everyone in the courtroom when she remarked to [Judge] Freisler: “Somebody, after all, had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just don’t dare to express themselves as we did.”

Speaking the truth in a world filled with lies is a courageous undertaking.  The truth has a power to stir and ignite people.  It is a bold, troublesome thing that inflames hearts, encouraging them to risk all for the pursuit of truth.  Not everyone is courageous enough to speak this truth.  It makes others uncomfortable and it often costs us something.  I’ve had more than one occasion where questions in the classroom resulted in uncomfortable sessions of truth-telling.  When students ask questions about divorce, contraception, homosexuality, mortal sins, and so on, I try to tread lightly, but truthfully, as I attempt to explain the wisdom of the Church. Continue reading “Sophie Scholl: The Power of the Written Word”

The Gift of Good Men

The Gift of Good Men

Good men, the ones who know what it is like to fight the battle for virtue, are deeply hurt when other men don’t see the dignity in women.  I have found this to be true in personal experience and the glimpses of truth that entertainment sources can provide.  Real men value the unique role women have and they do not respect men who fail to protect women.

I was watching a TV show the other day and the plot centered on a woman who was found in a forest, badly beaten.  Uncertain of the ones who committed the crime, the people aiding her were able to find her husband and sent word to him of her location.  The woman revealed, however, that her husband was the one who had beaten her.  The central male character in the show was profoundly disturbed by this reality.  When given the chance to protect the recovering wife, the main character did so.  He was overly vehement in his defense, the protection spiralling into beating the man himself, but that beating I could understand, even if not condone.  Real men want to defend women, not manipulate or abuse them.

The numerous accounts of sexual harassment that have made the news over the past several weeks has been a bit disheartening.  Last week, my class was reviewing an informational quiz they had taken about tech safety.  One of the questions asked them to define objectification.  Many did so accurately, speaking about how it means you treat a person as though they are an object.  Then I asked a simple question, “Do you think men objectify women more or women objectify men more?”  There was no statistic I had in mind; I simply wanted to see what they thought.  Most people said men objectify women more, but some students argued it was equal.

In one class, however, the conversation continued and they began sharing how men objectify women in different ways than women do.  They spoke of unwanted physical contact, vile words in catcalls, and other scenarios.  Several of the young women in my class had situations or opinions they wanted to share.  After a few shared, I began noticing the faces of the young men in my classroom.  They seemed a bit defeated.  I asked the women to pause their sharing for a moment so that some of the men could chime in.  I didn’t want it to be a man-bashing session because good, virtuous men are as appalled by this behavior as women.

More than the words were the young men’s faces that produced an ache in my heart.  There seemed a vulnerability in their faces.  They couldn’t argue for what the men did because they knew it was wrong.  But hearing about man after man hurting women dampened the natural exuberance they exhibited in my classroom.  I was fine with the gravity of the situation, yet I didn’t want them to feel to blame simply because they are men.  Feminism often takes the unnecessary step from desiring to be seen as equal to bashing men.

In social media and in the world at large, young men are seeing many examples of what not to do.  I told them that men aren’t looking very good in the media right now and that it hurts because we know there are many, many good men.  I challenged them to be the virtuous young men that our culture needs.  A world that continues to tell us to “do what we feel” is now experiencing the results of doing what we feel.  Unsurprisingly, most don’t like the results.  I want my students to be the ones who change the cultural perception of what it means to be a man. Continue reading “The Gift of Good Men”