There’s nothing quite like doing a short stretch in prison…to sharpen one’s desire to give thanks.
Regular readers will know, of course, that I did my time by choice this past weekend, as leader of the Kairos Prison Ministry event at Menard Correctional Center.
I find I’m thankful for many, many things…in connection with those four blessed days of Menard #15.
At the top of the list: They let me out! I got to go home on Sunday evening, into the loving arms of my wife…and back into the incredibly generous Christian community that had showered our retreat with prayers, financial support, and cookies. LOTS and lots of cookies…about 21,600 cookies in all!
I’m grateful, too, for the remarkably munificent men who served on team. Forty of us actually went in…but in total, 46 otherwise-busy guys invested significant amounts of time and energy in formation over the past four months…only to have an October lockdown prevent some of them from being able to serve on our originally scheduled dates.
I’m grateful for the “strange blessing” of a six-inch snowstorm on the day we were set to begin. It made travel a nightmare for most of us, who live an hour-and-a-half away (on a good day) from the prison. The snow disrupted our plans for Thursday: We got to set up for the retreat, but weren’t allowed to meet our Participants until the next morning.
That made for some frantic times for the leaders…as we dove in on Friday morning to wrestle with what seemed like hundreds of nerve-wracking adjustments and decisions. Among our challenges? Trying to squeeze an extra three hours of “Thursday” programming into our allotted time with the Participants on Friday.
Looking back, I’m thankful that somehow the Holy Spirit found a way to turn our “Kronos” problem into a remarkable experience of “Kairos” time. We did, in fact, manage to catch up by day’s end — every talk, meditation, prayer, and meal…accomplished as scheduled (revised)!
Menard’s Chaplains, security staff and administration also gave us many reasons to be grateful. They worked hard to keep us safe…and to keep the Kairos Weekend on track…despite rumblings and troubles elsewhere in the compound. The easy decision would have been to turn our team away at the front gate, but they chose “difficult” instead…and thereby contributed mightily to the blessing God provided for the residents we served on the Weekend.
Speaking of residents: I’m so grateful to have met them, and to have had a chance to hear their stories.
Every one of them has a story, I’ve learned. In some cases, you wind up thinking, “That story is BS!” Still, it costs me little to listen. “Listen-Listen-Love-Love.” It’s the theme of every Kairos Weekend. And I can’t help but wonder how much the outside world would change – how it could be transformed – if we each managed to apply this precept to our everyday discourse.
The stories that blessed me the most, however, were the ones that gave me perspective on just how rich I am. Richly loved. Always have been. Every moment of my life. I’ve always been awash in love…from my parents, my siblings, my extended family…my wife, and children (+spouses) and grandchildren…my friends…my Christian community…my clients and co-workers.
It’s not my intent to brag. It’s actually humbling to consider how much I am loved…because I am so very much inclined to take it all for granted.
Spend a little time with prison inmates, though, and you get to see the world through a different set of eyes. My cornucopia stands in stark contrast to the arid environment in which many of them grew up. One told me, this past Weekend, about the aunt (his last living relative) who wished he was dead. “The State should have killed you,” she said to him. “You’re a disgrace.”
Having met this man, Ron, I have come to see a different truth: He is not a disgrace. He’s actually somewhat charming and funny. He’s made some extremely bad choices. He’s wreaked havoc in other people’s lives. I see all that about Ron, too. But I am thankful that I had a chance to hear more of Ron’s story…because it changes my heart. As I began to see life through his eyes, I realized he’d never had access to the kind of love that I am able to take for granted.
Without love, his life hurtled (perhaps inevitably) toward destruction. I grieve for those he harmed along the way. I grieve for his aunt, who still holds Ron in unforgiveness.
And, on this day of Thanksgiving, I choose to light one small candle in my corner of the world – pleading for mercy to grow in our hearts.
Allow mercy to flow. Let it root out the spirit of vengeance and judgmentalism. Open your eyes, and see the love you have in your life. Be grateful for it.
Be grateful for the cornucopia…and we may just find that we have love enough to share.
Let us pause now…to recall that we are in the presence of the Holy & Merciful One.