Mercy Me! I've got work to do.

Mercy Me — I've got work to do! making the world a better place – starting with me.


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Heaven is for real; Earth is for miracles

You know that big spread in the high school yearbook where the senior superlatives tout the “most attractive,” “most athletic,” “best all around,” etc.?

Well, I didn’t get one.

Instead, I was on another page in our yearbook where there were more non-traditional, dubious superlatives assigned. Some were “Eddie Haskell Award,” “Biggest Flirt,” “Most Likely to Burn Down the School,” and “Could Give the Best Dirty Look.”

The one picked for me was “Most Gullible.”

I like to think it was a fancy way of calling me nice. Or, maybe someone just told me that is what it meant and I believed them.

In any case, I have not bought any swamp land, taken any wooden nickels or sent any money to Nigeria, so I think I am doing okay.

Still, when the book, Heaven is for Real came out and I learned the story of Todd Burpo’s son, Colton, who went to heaven during an emergency appendectomy, I believed it.

I believe in God, in miracles and in heaven, so to me none of it is too far-fetched.

Miracles are all around us. I think we just get kind of numb to them. We go to the beach and we forget to marvel at the vastness of the ocean teeming with exotic life. Someone has a baby and we may think to make a casserole, but we don’t stop and think how absolutely phenomenal it is that a man and a woman can create life.

But Colton went to heaven. Heaven.

The Burpo family gave a talk at a nearby church tonight and my family and I attended. I didn’t go as a skeptic, but as a believer.

Burpo talked about how angry he was with God when he thought he was going to lose his son. I loved that he went to God with his anger. I think our inclination is to turn away from God when we feel such rage.

As Burpo tells it, while he was raging on God, his son Colton was sitting in Jesus’s lap. I thought that was such a poignant image to think about. When we feel angry, ignored or betrayed by God, it rarely occurs to us that He is indeed with us, embracing us. We are always in His care.

Burpo, a pastor, spoke about his struggle with faith when he was confronted with his son’s account of heaven. Perhaps, that was what was hardest for me to grasp.

I had no trouble believing, why did he?

But then I think of what it is like before the book, the New York Times Best Seller’s lists, the movie, all of which validated the possibility of this miracle. I thought of the clarity of Colton’s claims, some of which go against traditional church teachings such as animals being in heaven. I thought of Burpo putting his career and reputation on the line to stand up to such an incredulous notion that a child that never even died went to heaven — not came from heaven, but went to heaven; sat on Jesus’s lap; saw the sister who was never born; hung out with some angels and then came back to this reality which is not nearly as pleasant, but that we are all more comfortable believing.

And, I understood his doubt and was left in awe of his faith to work past those doubts, to take the risks that he did and to share his miracle with the world.

One of my most favorite things that I heard Burpo say though was that his son was not special. I believe him. I listened to Colton speak and I listened to him sing. I think he is a great kid. But so are my kids and so are yours and so are the ones in Africa, China and Timbuktu.

I believe in an extraordinary God and I believe in the ordinariness of His people in the sense that none of us are without sin. I believe in equality and although it is lacking on earth, I believe that God loves us all passionately and individually – but not one more than the other. I do not believe that He has favorites. I do not believe He gives out superlatives.

Colton experienced a miracle, and I bet you have too. We need to remember to look for the miracles in our lives because they remind us of God’s enduring love. They strengthen our faith and help us get through times of doubt.

His miracles are never ordinary, but I dare say they are often. Whether they get shared with the world or not, whether you believe in them is up to you.

As for me, “Most Gullible, Class of 1990,” I choose to believe.

If you have experienced a miracle in your life, please share it in the comment section. If you believe in miracles, please share this post with someone. Praying for miracles today and the openness, the willingness to notice them.


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6 pack abs – I can’t stomach it

While at the beach this summer I indulged in one of my favorite guilty pleasures – reading magazines; only this time, I found the contents with their emphasis on losing weight hard to stomach.

Right on the cover, it teased of a Total Body Plan. At 41, I am still trying to piece together some semblance of a life plan. I had no idea my body needed a plan too. I wondered if they made special Day Planners for these kinds of plans with separate tabs for each of my limbs.

Under the name of the celebrity on the cover was another teaser Her Body & Career. While the career seemed valid enough, I couldn’t help but think it was just tacked on as extra appendage to what was really being showcased – her body.

Also on the cover, there was the question that has undoubtedly been asked since the time of great philosophers such as Aristotle and Aquinos– the answer to the timeless quest of how to lose the last 5 pounds. Finally, in the July issue it would be revealed. And in case you were just a tiny bit skeptical about their claim, right underneath it assured readers they were indeed, for real.

For real?

I didn’t know whether to be angry or just bored. Either way, I am weary of our society’s obsession with weight.

Sitting on the beach I thought about how most of us out there (myself included) were more naked than not, giving me ample opportunity to study the different bodies. Some were sculpted, some sagging, others a combination of both. There were bulges and curves. I saw dimples and D-cups. I saw elderly bodies with lines and patches of gray, and the creaseless bodies of children who seemed oblivious to things like body plans.

And, I decided it really wasn’t that interesting. Any of it.

For real.

 What was kind of cool was watching the agility of the surfers as they balanced on their boards; the tenacity of youngsters as they got knocked over by the force of the waves and not only got back up but like warriors ran straight into the waves again undaunted by their tumble; the people riding bikes catching up with friends or taking leisurely strolls perhaps enjoying the solitude as much as the surf; and the uber-athletes running sprints in the soft sand to train for their next race.

I marveled at all the human bodies. Not what they looked like, but what they could do.

They are the vessel by which we experience the world.

Perhaps, they should have a Day Planner. After all, the things they allow us to do are phenomenal.

Still, it’s weird to think how our bodies become ways to define ourselves instead of simply the vehicle we use to define the world with our unique gifts.

For me, the cover of that magazine is just another reminder that most of us don’t get that things from this world will pass away.

Yes, even the last 5-pounds.

God doesn’t care if my abs look like a 6-pack or that I just drank a 6-pack. He really doesn’t.

He does care that I love my neighbor even if I really don’t want to. He cares that I allowed my body to stretch beyond the size of a giant beach ball to experience the miracle of life. He cares that I teach the lives I brought into the world to live a life according to His plan.

I don’t think washboard abs were on his mind when he died on the cross to wash away the inequities of sin.

And so I don’t sound like a Pharisee, let me be clear – I have been as guilty of this kind of vanity as anyone else. While I have always been thin, I have never been perfect physically or otherwise. I have obsessed over my imperfections.

I don’t know the totality of time wasted by humanity striving to weigh less so they can feel like their value is more. Nor can I fathom the dollars spent on this endeavor to conform our unique selves to the selves of a select few.

But it has all become tiresome to me, and for that I am grateful.

Eating healthy, exercising and otherwise respecting and caring for our bodies is to honor God. If in the process, we end up with 6-pack of abs, so be it. But Body Plans and articles on how to get a better-looking bum seem to make people feel bad not better.

Later that same evening, I was on the beach watching my kids play with their young cousins. I once again marveled at not only the magnitude of the ocean, which never tries to shirk from its wide girth, but the many people on the shore. Regardless of age or imperfections they seemed too enchanted with the sea to do anything other than feel happy.

It made me think of the cover of that magazine again and how it offered not only the answer to that timeless quest to lose the last 5 pounds, but 137 ways to feel happy all summer.

For real, 137 ways!

I watched my nephew, who is almost 2 years old, run with abandon, determination and wonderment right by this elderly woman, who was brown, wrinkled and worn. She was relying on her walker to navigate herself through the sand. As my nephew precariously balanced to stay upright while racing along, she did the same on her walker — all the while holding tight to the handle of her kite that swayed effortlessly above them.

With the gentleness of the wind and in their own unique way, they both flew.

So now I had reason 138 to be happy: no body plan would have ever strived for a moment so flawless – a moment that had nothing to do with looking perfect but everything to do with being beautiful.

And it was my dear friends, for real.

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Shine this Lenten Season

Do you remember that song by the band, Queen, Another One Bites the Dust?

Another one down,

another one down,

another one bites the dust…

another one bites the dust.

 YEAH! 

It doesn’t really have a YEAH in it, but I think that was just an oversight by the band because clearly the cadence of the words dictate a YEAH at the end.

The song reminds me of going to the skating rink and skating backwards by the pulse of the strobe light.

I am kidding about skating backwards.  I was never that coordinated.  Maybe I fell down once, got up facing the wrong direction and for a millisecond looked like a kid from the eighties who could effortlessly glide backwards.

But that was just a millisecond.

Mostly, I wobbled forward making sure the wall was within arms length.

Anyway, today I was thinking how when we receive ashes as part of the solemn start of Lent, known as Ash Wednesday, we are reminded that we will return to dust.

It’s a rather unpleasant thought really.

If you think about it, turning as obsolete as dust runs counter to most everything we do in our daily lives. Mostly because so much of what we focus on is physical or tangible – appearances, finances, and status; when we return to a small speck of dust it won’t really matter what car we drove, what new restaurant we tried, where we vacationed, what we did for a living or any of those other things that consume our time on earth while we exist in ways far more dynamic than dust particles.

It makes me think about my children and all the time I invest to ensure they have straight teeth, straight A’s, play an instrument and sports, all while keeping their hair above the collar and their shirt tucked in.

I even keep a small amount of groceries in the car because we are on the road so much driving from appointments to practices to games to lessons, all so they can be so much grander than dust.

But what does it all matter when ultimately, like mine, that is their fate?

The truth is, I don’t really know.

All I know is that I am here for now and thankfully they are too.  I don’t know how much time any of us have, but I do know I want to use it to be the best version of myself.  I want the same for my boys.

I guess the whole dust thing reminds me of the evolution versus creation theory.  To me, it doesn’t really matter whose right.  What matters is that I am here now.  It doesn’t matter, at least to me, how that came to be or even that someday I will be dust.

I am here now, taking up space. One day I won’t be.

Because of my faith, I believe I will live on despite the inevitable disappearance of my mortality.  And, it probably won’t matter that I couldn’t remember the exact words to a song or that I could never rollerskate backwards.

But I am betting it will matter that I lived and loved in the name of God.  That I took opportunities like Lent to grow in my faith, to sacrifice not for the sake of self-deprivation but so others may feel the light of God through my kind deeds.

That light is from Him, it will remain long after I am dust – pulsing and powerful and with a steady beat that makes it almost impossible to think that our time on earth doesn’t really matter.

So, let your light shine this Lenten season in the good deeds that you do, the sacrifices you make and the solitude that you spend in prayer.

All of that glorious light makes me think of another song.

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. 

Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

YEAH!

Please share what you are doing this Lenten Season to let His light shine in you.  I love to hear all of the creative things people do to draw themselves closer to God and to show their love for Him by sharing it with others.  

I am giving up meat for Lent.  So while everyone else is dropping pounds by giving up sweets, I will be adding them with all the carbs!

I am also going to write down three things a day that I am thankful for since gratitude is something I feel like I need to cultivate in my life so I can better appreciate the good and perfect gifts He has given me.  

In addition to that, I am going to try and post more often during Lent.  Since my year of doing corporal and spiritual works of mercy ended, I have not been committed to writing on this site.  I miss taking the time to reflect that it affords and I miss the insight that you generously share in your comments.  So that’s part of my Lenten plan.

I look forward to hearing yours.  

Shine on.


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Christians practicing yoga- why get bent out of shape?

I got bent out of shape last week when I happened upon a blog post written by a priest regarding the controversy of Christians practicing yoga.

Maybe I have spent too much time in shavasana, the deep relaxation pose that means corpse in Sanskrit, but I had no idea of such a controversy.  So when I read his post explaining that yoga is more than physical, but leads practitioners toward non-religious spirituality and Buddhism, I was stunned.

Over the years I have tried many forms of yoga – Bikram , Vinyasa, Baptiste and Hatha. Regardless of how much I sweat, stood on one leg, wrapped my limbs like wet noodles, folded myself in half, balanced, breathed, backbend or stood upside down, never once did anyone bring up Buddhism or spirituality.

Not once.

So I was confused.

I reread his article. I read some of the comments of people who had enjoyed yoga practices, but gave it up to avoid being led away from Christ.

This controversy about contorting your body seems twisted.

I guess it’s plausible that one day a Christian spends too much time in downward dog and the next he is down with the devil. But really, evil, temptation and false gods are everywhere not just in the yoga studio.

It’s the value we assign things, including our relationship with God that is most significant.  If I saw that practicing yoga was interfering with that relationship, I would need to acknowledge it and deal with it in the same way I do the rest of my sins.

While I feel uncomfortable disagreeing with a priest, I am just as uncomfortable not speaking up about his misgivings, which seem far-fetched and alarmist.  I would not choose the practice of yoga over my faith. But why should I be asked to choose?

Yoga is an hour of my day that I don’t think, plan, fret, speak, work, check email, or take care of other people.  Do you have any idea what a blessing that is? Wouldn’t you stand on one leg to have an hour like that?

It is place where I can just be.   I am not stoned on incense or in some meditative coma.  I am not thinking of Buddha and his big fat belly, and how he looks like he has not been to a single yoga class in any of his countless reincarnations.

I am just there physically strengthening my body that I was taught to respect as a temple – a teaching that comes from my Bible not Buddha.  I am there restoring my body with the oxygen that fuels each cell that God carefully selected to make me unique.  I am there relaxing not with alcohol, Xanax, oxycodone or any other chemical concoction, but with the same breath that God used to create me. And to the Christians who believe that yoga leads to paths divergent from God, you may find it hard to believe that while I am there, I often pray.

I do not do this at the encouragement of the instructor, because I have never heard it mentioned, nor because I have been told to meditate, as I have not.  I do it because somehow it occurs to me to pray, just as it does at other points in my day.  I even assign the prayers to people in my life or in this world that I think may need them –meaning I am consciously praying.

I don’t credit yoga for that, but it makes the argument about the practice turning people away from Christianity all the more baffling to me.

I guess what frustrated me most and made me feel that it was not a subject I should even acknowledge, is that this controversy has nothing to do with living out the Gospel.

Jesus spent His life, His whole being showing us the way to live, the way to love, the way to care for one another.  I see suffering in so many places regardless of wealth or poverty.  Suffering all over the place.   God sent His son to show us ways to comfort one another.  This is what we should spend our lives doing.  We should be bent over backwards trying to emulate the examples of service that Jesus gave us because the needs are tremendous and whether you choose to practice yoga or law is really insignificant in the whole scheme of life.

Maybe Jesus never stood on His head, but I think He is less concerned with our physical posturing and more so with where we stand in our relationship with Him and others.

Yoga is referred to as a practice because it has nothing to do with perfection. It’s a lot like life that way.

Some days are simply easier than others. Sometimes we wobble on an unsteady path.  Sometimes we are balanced; sometimes we fall.  On really great days we stand tall and strong like a mountain.  But the best day of all, at least for me, are the days when I feel the peace of God’s love and am successful at sharing it with others.

Like yoga, it’s something I have to practice, but when I get it right its pure bliss.   And that’s got nothing to do with Buddha.

As always, I love your comments.  There is still so much work to be done to ease the lives of others so if you have an experience to share, I welcome the inspiration! Peace xo ~ Lara


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Don’t Stop Believin’ — the Magic of Christmas

We all know Christmas is about an innocent baby born in a manger. But for me, what embodies the spirit of the season this year has to do with a 49-year-old man who will be getting out of prison this week.

I know that doesn’t make you all warm and fuzzy the way your footed pajamas and hot cocoa by the fire does.

I get that.

The birth of our Savior is the greatest story ever told, not to mention it has baby lambs in it too.  There’s no way I can compete with that.

Certainly, the man in prison is no Christ-child.

He is an addict.

He is an ordinary Joe.  Well, kind of anyway.

What I mean by ordinary is he made a mistake, and how much more ordinary can you get than making mistakes – it seems to be at the essence of our humanity.

I guess what is unique about his mistake, unlike so many of mine, is it landed him in prison.

Thirteen years ago Joe was arrested for buying cocaine for personal use, and was charged and sentenced as a trafficker.  His punishment was 20 years with no chance of parole.

Kind of harsh.

The world is full of addicts though. It seems everyone’s addicted to something — drugs, fame, possessions, power and oh, how I could go on.  So, Joe is kind of ordinary that way.

Joe is one of six boys whose family grew up next door to a dear friend of mine.  Their moms were best friends for 40 years.  Even the way my friend described her childhood, that Joe was so much a part of, was kind of ordinary.  They carpooled together, teased each other, and played with all the other kids until way past dark.

When he was arrested and given such a severe sentence, my friend said all she heard everyone say was “what a shame.” Two years later, when talking about their beloved friend Joe, old friends would still say “what a shame.” Six years later… “what a shame.”

I guess she got tired of the hopeless sentiment and decided to do something about it.

Joe had already made appeals all the way to the Florida Supreme Court.  Each one was denied.  The only hope he had was clemency from the Governor to commute the duration of the sentence, which was basically the equivalent of a snowball’s chance in hell.

My friend and his brothers took that chance.

So I guess that’s when the ordinary became extraordinary.

She had worked tirelessly on trying to get him out of prison since 2006.

When I say tirelessly, I assure you she was tired.

She has three kids and didn’t have time to dedicate driving six hours round trip in a day to meet with clemency aides.  But she did.

Several times.

Perhaps as remarkable, she had another friend who had no ties to this family working just as diligently on the case.

As the years passed I saw how much time, effort and prayer, that she and the others involved put into the effort to get Joe out of prison.

Finally after six years, Joe was granted a clemency hearing.  Sadly, Joe’s mom passed away less than a month before it would be held.  After learning of her death from a prison guard, Joe was not allowed to attend her funeral.

The tragedies of it all, hardly made me think of the word believe.

Yet when his hearing was finally held, I was visiting New York City where over the Macy’s on 34th Street was a huge sign in brilliant white lights that said just that word.

Believe.

believe2

Earlier that morning, I was rushing to get dressed.  We were going to meet another couple that traveled with us for breakfast, and then a day of…well, everything.  We were in New York City, after all.

At 7:39 a.m.  I received a text from my friend back in Florida with the novena prayer to Our Lady of Guadalupe.   I was just one of the many prayer warriors she had commissioned to pray on behalf of Joe.  His clemency hearing happened to be on the feast day of our Lady of Guadalupe, and it was the last day of our novena.

I told my husband that I wanted to go by St. Patrick’s Cathedral and light a candle for Joe, his family, my friend, and all of the other people who worked so hard to get to this point and yes, for his mama too.

altar

While I was putting on my umpteenth layer of clothing for the clearly we-are-not-in-Florida-anymore cold, my husband pulls out his Ipad.

The clemency hearing was going to be broadcast on one of those boring government channels that no one watches, and my husband (who is clearly not boring) knew where to find it!

Suddenly, I was nervous.

The night before I left for New York, I saw my friend and she was anxious about the upcoming hearing.  I told her she had to have faith – she had to believe. I told her that this was about so many more people than Joe.  God had a plan for each person that had been affected.  However it ended up would be just another part of His plan.

We all talk about letting go and trusting God, but it’s scary as hell when you have to do it.  She had done her diligence.  I had no doubts about that.  Truly, it was time to let it go.

Still, I was scared for her.  I knew the chances were slim.  This Governor had never commuted a sentence before.

As the clemency hearing played out in real time, I intermittently watched and walked away. I was anxious.  I couldn’t imagine the pressure they were all feeling.  For the first time ever, I thought how hope is a terrible thing.

I didn’t want to believe.  Believing was causing me to pace and cry and fix my eye make up all over again.  Believing caused a pit in my stomach that wouldn’t have been there if I could just walk away.

I listened to Joe’s good friend tell the Clemency Board and the Governor about how he visited him in prison and brought his children along on many of those visits.  He spoke of the time his daughter was asked to choose the catholic she admired most and she chose Joe – the prisoner.

Apparently she saw Joe embody Christ, not a cocaine addict.

One of Joe’s brothers spoke of how his parents never regretted the time they spent visiting him in prison, sometimes driving as long as 10 hours to see him.  He also read a letter from Joe accepting responsibility for his crime and its consequences.  He asked for mercy.

Mercy.  That is the word Joe used, if you can believe.

My eyes pooled again when my friend’s 80-year-old mother spoke, after her 8-hour commute to the Florida Capital, about the little boy of her best friend.  I couldn’t think of a more beautiful way to honor the legacy of their friendship than speaking with a mother’s love on behalf of the friend she had just buried.

She said Joe was a good man who gave in to the temptation of drugs.  She testified that indeed he has a good network of friends and family who will support his transition out of prison, but that his mother has an even greater network of friends both on earth and in heaven that would make sure he stays on the right path.

I didn’t think there was much that the Governor could say about that.

The last speaker on Joe’s behalf was the woman who became familiar with the case through my friend.  I am just going to quote her because there is no way I could say it better.

“As I understand it, clemency is mercy or favor or grace, and a relief from a just penalty.  I am reminded of that definition during Advent as we approach the commemoration of the birth of Christ.”

manger

So, I thought some about the birth of the baby in the manger and all the years and generations of believers who have come and gone since then; all those who brought petitions, pleas and pardon before Him since that momentous night in the stable – THIS was just one more in a flurry of billions which He has heard.

But He heard.

The Governor did what he had never done before.  He granted clemency to this man who made a bad a choice, and paid the price for 13 years for that choice. This man, who had lost so much more than his freedom behind bars, will be set free

Joe will be given a second chance – just in time for Christmas.

Extraordinary.

After turning off the live broadcast, we went to a crowded bagel joint for breakfast and I kept crying tears of joy, gratitude and humility from the goodness of it all.  And, the beautiful thing about crying in New York, is no one tries to hug you or ask if you are okay.  They just leave you alone to cry salty tears over your toasted bagel with salmon spread.

This just made me love New York all the more.

I went to St. Patrick’s Cathedral and like an eager child, I lit a candle at the first altar I could, just besotted with gratitude.  Afterward, I visited the many altars at the beautiful cathedral including the one to our Lady of Guadalupe which was covered in flowers and surrounded by people who had come to honor her feast day.

Guadalupe

It was a beautiful sight and how grateful I was to have prayed for her intercession on behalf of this man.  The power of prayer is as strong as ever, reminding me that even though I may just be a speck on this universe, I am a speck who God thinks is quite special.

That night I had yet another religious experience – rock and roll.

No, not the Elvis kind –the eighties kind.  You know Guns N’ Roses, Whitesnake and  Quiet Riot.

We went to see Rock of Ages, the musical where they glorify 80s rock music.

It was almost impossible for me to sit in my seat as the talented cast belted out songs from the decade of my youth.  It was both hilarious and irreverent.  I enjoyed every single minute of it.

rockofages

The final song of the production embodied not only the spirit of Christmas, but that of faith.

It was the song by Journey – Don’t stop believin’.

As it filled the theater, with its pleas to hold on to that feeling, I was on my feet and celebrating that feeling of faith that had been renewed in me.

It’s easy to stop believing.

One day you realize there is no Santa Claus.  There are no talking snowmen or elves or reindeer.

That magic is gone, and we think that it is okay because it’s childish and silly and there is no room for that in our grown up, real world lives.

But it’s in our adult lives that faith is paramount.

We have to keep believing even when the odds are against us.  We have to stay soft and open to the gifts that await.  Gifts that have nothing to do with Macy’s, despite the brilliant sign it boasts this time of year.

This Christmas, for the first in such long time, I can say that I believe.

While I have never lost faith in that baby boy born in a manger with the sweet lambs nearby, I did somehow lose the magic of this time of year which has nothing to do with lists and everything to do with faith in the people in my life.

The people who stand by you at your darkest hour, who petition for you, who forgive you, who believe you are worth a second try, who get what it’s like to emulate the life of Christ no matter the time of year, those are the people who make the season magic, merry and bright.

So if you have not found that magic yet, don’t stop believing.  I promise it’s out there.

And if you are fortunate to already believe, find a way, no matter what life throws at you, to hold on to that feeling.

Each of you who have taken the time to read, comment and share have added to the magic of my year. May your faith in God, goodness and mankind spread with each kindness you share, so that others may believe.  Merry Christmas to you!


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Florida State Prison

An eye for an eye has been realized.

Every horror that has ever been wished on convicted felons by those of us in civilized society reveals itself in prison.

I saw it for myself on my visit to Florida State Prison in Raiford.  I heard it in the stories told by the Deacon who goes several times a week to minister to the imprisoned.

They have committed horrible crimes, and for that they are punished in a way that seems inhumane and unfathomable.

This may please you. This may comfort you.  This may somehow validate your righteousness or your sense of justice.

It did none of those things for me.003

I entered into a concrete world of razor wire, metal bars, shackles, bolts and locks.  There is a tower guard with a gun perched high at the entrance.  There are gates that open and close intuitively and imposingly.  I didn’t go very far without encountering another gate, making me ever aware that I am going farther and farther from the life I know into the cavernous depth of depravity.

In the vast oversized hallway, I felt conspicuous walking under the fluorescent lights, my dark clothes meant to make me look drab and androgynous popped like a gun against the monochromatic beige walls and floors.

I thought of how much time I had spent putting together that outfit.  My mom even went shopping to find me something appropriate.  Ah, but the tables had turned, what she picked showed a thin horizontal line of flesh that I refused to reveal.  Instead, I chose a gray linen shirt in the shape of a box from her closet. I wore another shirt under it and a sweater on top.photo

I thought, irrationally, of how those soft layers of cotton were designed to shield me like armor from prying eyes.  I tied my hair haphazardly in a bun.  I wore no jewelry, except my wedding band and no makeup.  I looked perfectly hideous, like some homely girl living in a commune, the dubious choice of her polygamous husband.

On the hour-long drive that morning, the Deacon told stories of redemption, forgiveness, and God’s love that he had witnessed ministering to inmates.

He also shared horrors that made me lurch in my seat and grab his arm, surprising us both with my grip — my desperate attempt to stop the cruel reality of his words.

The Deacon told me of one prison fight with a head rolling into the prison hallway.

He told me about one inmate who had surgery for a brain tumor and was back in his cell the following day.   The prisoner was in extraordinary pain, and wasn’t given any painkillers until he intervened with officials.

Oh, and all those jokes about prison rapes, I think maybe it’s not funny to the prisoner who is now HIV positive from the repeated brutality of forced sex.

Men exist in 6 by 9 foot cells.   They shower every other day and only go outside a few times a week.  When they do, they remain completely fenced in a sort of dog run.

These are adult men sustained on 1,500 calories of food, which is justified by their sedentary existence.

These are men who can’t flush their own toilets.

These are men who are at the mercy of the guards who decide if and when the lights will turn on or turn off within their individual cell.

These are men who live without air-conditioning or heat.

I can’t compare it to anything because I’ve never seen anything like it. After all, these are humans seemingly no different from us, but living in cages.

Intellectually, I knew that going in.  Conversely seeing it made it somehow unbelievable.

Maybe it’s not as bad in jails or other correctional facilities, but prison and my walk on death row were sobering.

I never aspired to go to death row either – that wasn’t part of my plan.  Yet there I was trying to be inconspicuous, when the Deacon suddenly shouted FEMALE WALKING, down the quiet hall.  I snapped in a whisper, “why did you do that?” The Deacon explained it was to make sure the prisoners were all decent.  Perhaps, I am not the only with a sense of modesty, as I assumed.

Most of the inmates were sleeping or otherwise in the dark except for the broken light the jalousie windows mercifully permitted.  They were snug in their cell and we were separated by another row of bars more than an arms-length beyond that.  I walked face-forward with my eyes straining sideways to catch glimpses.  Most of them seemed disinterested in being part of the freak show and ignored us.

At the very end of the row, the last two cells had their lights on and we stopped to talk.  The Deacon introduced them as his friends.  One of them had been in prison 32 years, the other 20 years.  I had to wonder if they were completely different people now that a generation had passed.

I hoped so.

The inmate spoke about the letters he writes to pen pals and the marriage proposals they initiate.  He told us how his oldest son has disowned him.  We talked briefly about God.  The guard stood behind us looking a little impatient with all our do-gooding and niceties.

Mostly, I liked the prisoner.  He was socially appropriate, engaging, and seemed sincere.

Later, I learned he drowned a 10-year-old girl.

So began my vacillating between feeling incredibly compassionate for their incomprehensible lack of freedom and dignity, to conflicting and valid justifications for their punishment.

No doubt, these life-takers have to be restrained from society.  Even within the confines of prison, there occasionally was need for further constraints.

We visited a wing referred to by the letter Q.  In it prisoners were held in a cell inside of another cell, an extra layer of concrete insulation between them and the other inmates.

A large dry erase board hung on the wall with prisoner names and the corresponding reasons for their relegation to such extreme confines.  It was a checkerboard of violations that zigzagged between attacks on guards, to murdering other inmates.

Clearly, these people needed caging. That’s not a judgment. That is a brutal reality.

I don’t forget for a second what got them in there either.  To be sure, when I went home I went on-line and looked up some of the death row inmates that are warehoused at Florida State Prison.  I read news articles about their senseless crimes.  I sat quietly and thought about their victims and their families.

I compared it to the misery I saw in prison.  There was no mercy on either side, no matter how many ways I looked.

The injustice of murder, the depravity of torture, the senseless disregard for life, the endless grieving of victims’ families, these were not things I could forget.

Undoubtedly, these people don’t deserve to live in our society.  They made that choice through their actions.  I can’t own that for them.  That can’t be risked for everyone else.

Yet as someone who values life, dignity and decency, as someone who spoke with these men, shared the Eucharist with them, prayed with them, shook their hands, listened and laughed with them, I can’t celebrate the fact that they live in a state-manifested hell.

Why would a Christian celebrate hell?

Maybe prison can be best described as purgatory – a holding place suspended between the choices of good and evil.  The incarcerated are the only ones who can choose the salvation that God offers all of us.

The experience forces me to acknowledge that evil exists and as badly as I want to have hope for every single person incarcerated, as much as I want to believe that when given the choice of forgiveness that God offers, which even the state cannot take away, they would pick the generous gift of redemption every time.

But even I am not that naïve.

By far, the saddest part of my experience was seeing an elderly lady waiting in the prison foyer who best emulated God’s unconditional love.

She looked far prettier than I did.

She had carefully applied bright pink lips and a rosy shade of blush dusting both sides of her cheeks as if she was somehow applying the dew of happiness to her face instead of merely drugstore makeup.  She wore dainty jeweled barrettes, which held back parts of her soft grey hair.

Even though I looked as asexual as an amoeba that day, I recognized the effort she put into her appearance for her visit.

The Deacon knew her and began talking to her about her incarcerated son, and remarked kindly that he was a good boy.  As I watched her face twist in uncertainty and gratitude, all those shades of pink contorting until tears filled her eyes, my heart sank as the message of the Deacon’s words contrasted sharply with the reality of his imprisonment.

She nodded affirmatively despite the circumstances. Of course, her son was good because she knew him with a mother’s love.  How crushing it must be for her to know how different the world sees him, to know the child she gave life unmercifully took it from someone else.

Later when we were in the visiting area, I saw her with her son. He seemed like a shell of a person.  His eyes were gray and glossed over.  I wasn’t quite sure if they ever focused.

When we talked to them, I learned that she drives 300 miles each way every week just to visit him.

Whatever he did, she still loves him.

In one of the news articles about the death row inmates that I read, another mother had just learned her daughter’s killer was sentenced to death.  She commented that her daughter would be dancing in heaven at the verdict.

While I would never begrudge anyone the joy of a dance, when I think of these two mothers and the loss they both endure, I feel nothing but sorrow.

004I remind myself though that as impenetrable as all those prison bars, locks and razor wires are, the hope of God’s love can always find a way in.

Maybe they won’t all be saved, but the same can be said of people on the outside.

So, I remember the old lady and her pink cheeks.  I picture her in a matching pink dress, cocooned in layers of tulle dancing in heaven with her son not as the world knew him, but as she did — not as a murderer, but a child of God redeemed by salvation.

May their dance last for eternity.


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Going to Prison ~ Gulp.

Today I learned I am going to prison.  I was kind of caught off guard because I have been immersed in work this week, and didn’t really expect it to happen so soon.

I got an email a few days ago from Bill, who is involved in prison ministry.  He said he heard from the Deacon that I had finally been approved.  The plan was for Bill to go with me.  But you know God can’t stick to the plan.

Sometimes, I wish He would just humor me.

While I was still letting it sink in that I wasn’t going to get to go with Bill, the Deacon tells me matter-of-factly to meet him on the west side of town behind a bar-b-que joint at 7 a.m. this Sunday so we can go to Florida State Prison in Raiford.

Um, okay. 

He said it would take an hour to get there and we could stop for a biscuit.

Um, hopefully, I won’t be too nervous to keep my biscuit down.  But, yeah, okay.

He said he wasn’t going to sugarcoat it.  This isn’t jail.  This is “the belly of the beast.”

Oh yeah, there is no way I am keeping that biscuit down.

The Deacon told me to wear a dress below my knee or some pants.  No high heels and no open toe shoes.  He didn’t want anyone to have impure thoughts.

Oh my.  I really don’t either. 

I asked him if it was safe.  He said I was safer there than anywhere because of all the security.  He said the only place there are no guards is where we have the service.

This did not ease my concern.

He said only the prisoners with the most privileges can go to service, and they don’t want to jeopardize their privileges.  So no worries there, he encouraged.

Um, well actually, there is a tiny bit of worry. 

Then, he asked me if I felt called to join a prison ministry for women that work at the P Farm.  I told him that I had no idea.  I just want to go to prison.  I don’t have plans beyond prison.  Who does?

He ministers to people on death row and said he would take me over there too.

I thought of the biscuit again.

Then he asked me if I had laid hands on anyone before.  I told him I didn’t understand what he was talking about.  He said, “you know, lay your hands on their heads and pray for them.”

I didn’t know how to tell him, I was taught to keep my hands to myself.  I feebly answered no.

He said they do some laying of hands, but I wouldn’t have to if it makes me uncomfortable.

I am pretty sure everything about this makes me uncomfortable, so what’s a little hand-laying among prisoners and scared girl in closed toe shoes with regurgitated biscuit on her frock.

The Deacon has ministered to prisoners for 14 years.  He said he isn’t any better than they are – he’s just in a better place.

He said the expectation is that God will touch us all.

So, off I go this Sunday with this man I’ve never met to the place no one ever wants to go — to touch and be touched.

At the end of our conversation, he said, “Well, I can tell you are excited.”

Um, excited is not quite the word I would use.