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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A Thousand Deaths

A Thousand Deaths

When Jesus was confronted with untrue accusations, do you remember what He did? As the Sanhedrin gathered false testimony, as Pilate presented questions given by the chief priests, as Jesus struggled beneath the weight of the cross and the jeers of the people, as Jesus was maligned while on the cross, do you remember what He chose?


How hard it is to not rush to our own defense! When situations are misrepresented, when intentions are skewed, when honest questions are left unanswered, it is a tremendous act of the will to not attempt to set all things right. Sometimes, it is necessary to provide clarity and correctness and other times it is completely unnecessary. And sometimes it is necessary to try to show the misunderstandings, but to ultimately fail in convincing them of their skewed view.

We always feel the pains of injustice acutely when it offends our own sense of justice. I look at the lives of the saints and martyrs and I tend to think about how glorious and courageous were their deaths. Yet each of those martyrdoms was preceded by many, many small bloodless deaths. St. Paul didn’t only suffer beheading in Rome. Before that, he was imprisoned, he experienced riot after riot when preaching the Gospel, he was looked upon with distrust by the Jews and the Christians after his striking conversion, and he spent much time in chains for the sake of the Gospel. His final suffering, the death of a martyr, was simply the last death he experienced in a long line of dying to self.

Most of our stories won’t be quite that dramatic. We probably won’t sit unjustly condemned in terrible prisons awaiting our cruel deaths. We will, however, suffer in other ways. And it will be in ways that will be easy to want to reject or feel the need to correct. As Jesus heard false testimony, I am certain He had at least part of a desire to simply say, “I didn’t say that. That isn’t right. You weren’t there. You are intentionally misrepresenting me.” Instead, He suffered in silence with the Lord. He knew that the truth would be revealed and He rested with the Lord in the midst of being misunderstood. He invites us to do the same, in the small and the large sufferings of our daily life.

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Rome’s Concreteness

Rome’s Concreteness

The following night the Lord stood by him and said, ‘Take courage. For just as you have borne witness to my cause in Jerusalem, so you must also bear witness in Rome.’

Acts 23: 11

The readings for our pilgrimage to Rome were rather perfect. For a few days, they focused on Paul’s arrest and subsequent journey to Rome to stand trial. As we visited the Basilica of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls and walked old cobblestone roads, the Scripture readings came alive. Here was the place Paul had come in chains, insisted on preaching the Gospel, spoke to the Christian community, and later died for Christ. It felt more real, more alive when in the place where so many important things happened.

When he entered Rome, Paul was allowed to live by himself, with the soldier who was guarding him.

Three days later he called together the leaders of the Jews. When they had gathered he said to them, ‘My brothers, although I had done nothing against our people or our ancestral customs, I was handed over to the Romans as a prisoner from Jerusalem. After trying my case the Romans wanted to release me, because they found nothing against me deserving the death penalty. But when the Jews objected, I was obliged to appeal to Caesar, even though I had no accusation to make against my own nation. This is the reason, then, I have requested to see you and to speak with you, for it is on account of the hope of Israel that I wear these chains.’ 

He remained for two full years in his lodgings. He received all who came to him, and with complete assurance and without hindrance he proclaimed the Kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ.

Acts 28:16-20, 30-31

In excavated catacombs, in the ruins of the Roman Forum, and in the expanse of the Colosseum, the reality of what had transpired in this ancient city rang clear. We prayed before Paul’s chains, momentarily visited the area where he was believed to have been beheaded, and stood near where Peter was crucified. Traversing beneath the current basilica, we stood before the bones of St. Peter, our first pope, and experienced the feast of Pentecost in the square just above. Everywhere we turned we were encountering concrete reminders that the apostles had visited this place.

I love several particular verses in Romans, but I couldn’t help but be struck anew that this was a letter written to the Roman people. And as a girl from the plains of South Dakota, where anything from the early 1800s feels old, I couldn’t help but be a little jealous that little Roman girls and boys get to grow up reading a letter written to them by St. Paul. How loved that letter must be! How beautiful to read: To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Then to read at the end of Romans as Paul lists numerous people to greet for him, real people who were working in the vineyard of the Lord and who knew Paul.

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A Little More Like Ananias

A Little More Like Ananias

I want to respond to the Lord like Ananias did.

I know I have read this story before, but for some reason when I was reviewing this with my students, my heart got caught on a previously unnoticed section.

Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and inquire in the house of Judas for a man of Tarsus named Saul; for behold, he is praying, and he has seen a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to thy saints at Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call upon thy name.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came, has sent me that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”

(Acts 9: 10-17)

The Lord calls his name and he responds.

Ananias seems as though he is used to hearing the voice of the Lord.  

I was struck by this response as I spoke to my students about how differently the Lord spoke to Saul and Ananias.  Saul sees a light and falls to the ground, blinded.  A voice from the heavens speaks, telling him to go to Damascus.  Yet when Jesus speaks to Ananias, there seems to be nothing dramatic about it.  Ananias hears his name being called and responds simply, “Here I am, Lord.”  The Lord tells him to go encounter Saul, and Ananias asks a question to be certain this is what the Lord wants.  For the modern Christian, it might seem a bit humorous that Ananias is completely unfazed by the call to go lay his hands on someone so as to bring about their healing.  That is nothing compared to encountering a man who has been persecuting his Christian brethren.  Despite questions and concern, Ananias does as the Lord asks.

(Image source)

I want that ability to clearly hear the Lord’s voice and that willingness to do whatever He desires.  

Do you see what the Lord does with this man’s “Yes”?  Ananias is the one who lays his hands on Saul’s head, causing his sight to be restored.  The Holy Spirit comes upon Saul and soon after he is baptized.  In a matter of days, Saul has completely changed his direction and Ananias played a significant role in helping Saul encounter the Lord.

I find it interesting that Jesus does not speak to Saul again and heal him of blindness.  Instead, He works through other people.  People, hopefully, like you and me who are striving to hear His voice.  Paul goes on to become one of the greatest missionaries and evangelizers in the early Church.  Thousands of miles are traveled by foot and boat in order to proclaim the Gospel.  Ananias laid his hands on this man and implored the Holy Spirit to come make His home in him.  That is a significant role for someone who is referenced briefly in Scripture.

Never underestimate how the Lord can use you to bring about healing and conversion in other people.  I challenged my students to encounter the Lord and then to let their lives be a living witness of that encounter.  Because our encounter with the Lord changes other people.  When my older sisters became more interested in their faith, it influenced the entire family.  As I have interacted with people on fire for the Lord, it has caused a deeper desire to burn within me.  The Lord seeks us out and encounters us personally, but He often does much of His work through other people.

And that is what blows my mind. Continue reading “A Little More Like Ananias”

Whoever Has Ears Ought To Hear

Whoever Has Ears Ought To Hear

What if St. Paul didn’t respond to God’s call in his life?

Too often, I assume that the saints would, naturally, follow God’s will in their lives.  I mistakenly believe that it was easy for them–of course they responded correctly, they are saints.

Now we hold them to be saints, but they were not always so.  They had free will and probably had many compelling reasons for not following God.  It probably seemed just as inconvenient to them as it does for us at times.

St. Paul is bound for Damascus and Jesus intervenes into his life in a very dramatic way.  The bright light, the physical blinding, and the clear voice all point to a powerful divine intervention.  “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”  What if, after this encounter, Saul instead returned to his original mission of hunting down the Christians?  In many ways, it might have appeared to be a better life decision.  Or he stops pursuing the Christians, but he doesn’t start to follow Christ.

Following his conversion, Paul goes off to immerse himself in the study of the Gospel.  Then, he presented himself to the Apostles and they were hesitant to accept him.  For a while, he is then considered a traitor by the Jews and someone not to be trusted by the Christians.  When he goes on his journeys to preach the Gospel, riots will frequently spring up as he evangelizes.  At one point, they pick up stones and hurl them at Paul, intent upon killing him.  Dragging him outside the city, they leave him for dead.  When his disciples surround him, he gets to his feet and continues preaching the next day.  In the end, he will be beheaded in Rome, a death he underwent since he was a Roman citizen.

The Lord gave St. Paul the grace of an indomitable spirit, but that doesn’t mean that each movement was filled with absolute certainty.  Perhaps some mornings, Paul woke up and was tired, not wanting to preach and be ridiculed yet again.  Maybe as his feet pounded over miles and miles of Roman roads, his heart was constantly uttering, “Lord, come again.  Lord, end this suffering.  Lord, take me home.”  In the spirit of St. Teresa of Avila, maybe St. Paul experienced the pain of being pummeled with rocks and as he pulled himself to his feet said, “Is this how you treat your friends, Lord?  It is no wonder you have so few.”  St. Paul was a dedicated and faithful evangelist, but that doesn’t mean the Lord surrounded him in constant reassurance or prevented any doubts from entering his mind.  The beauty is that Paul chose Christ daily, even when it seemed foolish in the eyes of his friends and family.

These thoughts about Paul came to mind when I started to watch a video about him in preparation for one of my classes.  The movie opened proclaiming what a great evangelist he was after encountering Jesus and the thought came to mind, “What if he didn’t answer that call?”  The realization was similar to when I realized that perhaps in Old Testament times, God called other people, but it isn’t recorded because they didn’t say “Yes.”  St. Paul had a free choice.  Although God revealed Himself in an undeniable way, it didn’t require St. Paul to choose to follow Him.

My students received the assignment to write an imaginative story about either being a traveling companion of Paul or being a villager in one of the places Paul preached the Gospel.  The goal of the writing was to consider how they would respond to his preaching and to think about what it would be like to experience those events first hand.  Scripture isn’t a nice storybook about events from hundreds of years ago, but rather it is alive and applies to us right now.  So the underlying question to consider is: how am I now responding to the compelling, radical message of the Gospel?

Familiarity with the message of Christianity makes it appear dull and commonplace.  Yet it is anything but that.  We preach of a God who loved so much that He entered into humanity so that He might pay the price to reconcile all of humanity with Himself.  All of salvation history is God reaching out to humanity and working with our “Yes” to bring about transformation.  God knows how we will respond but He never takes away our free will in order to get a “Yes.”  And even if He knows we will refuse, He still asks and offers us a chance to follow Him.

The beauty of the life of St. Paul is not so much that God called him.  God calls each of us to a unique mission that leads us closer to His heart.  The beauty of St. Paul’s life is that he heard the voice of God and he responded with zeal.  His fervent “Yes” opened the pathway for others to hear the Gospel and commit their lives to Jesus.  May we, in this world that is thirsting for the Gospel in all of its truth and radicality, present the beauty, truth, and goodness found in the message of Jesus Christ.  One that is compelling enough to sacrifice home, family, social status, and all worldly goods to pursue.

St. Paul responded wholeheartedly to God’s call in his life.  What if we didn’t?