What if the answer is … prison?

Ministry: n.Late 14c., “function of a priest,” from Old French menistere “service, ministry; position, post, employment,” and directly from Latin ministerium “office, service, attendance, ministry,” from minister). Began to be used 1916 as name of certain departments in British government. see also: servant minister.

My parish is in the midst of a sort of jobs fair for the social outreach ministries in the church, and let me tell you there are many to choose from. In large and active congregations the group usually has more ministries and activities going on than you can possibly hit, all in one week. And if you are not in a congregation, you are surrounded by tons of local and global causes that would love your attention and action.

How do you choose?

This is where we step into those strange religious words like “calling,” that maybe non-religious people don’t use in quite the same way. Religious people are called by some greater vision to go into a particular field and plant the proverbial wheat.

People who do not practice a particular religious faith do this as a matter of some cause that they are magnetically attracted to. The cause speaks to them, or they have participated (like cancer patients who later do work for cancer support organizations.) Maybe it’s a topic that fascinates them. Or it’s a cause that is fun to work in support of because their friends are there, and it’s a group effort. Not to mention the new friends gained when anyone becomes involved in a ministry.

What if you’re not feeling called to do a certain kind of help? I have no answer for that one because the answer comes from inside you. Maybe it’s a cause that you can help with because you are there in the place where you are, in the time that you have, with the tools you carry. Even things like helping mow a neighbor’s lawn while they’re sick, or bringing over food and flowers to somebody down the street or in your building. That’s a calling, too, whether you hear it at the time or not.

None of the above includes simply writing a check to feel as if you have done your part.

Yes, there are many organizations which most need our money to be of immediate help. I’m thinking of Red Cross disaster relief when folks start sending thousands of toys for displaced children. That means the Red Cross has to pay more money to deal with those material donations. Cash – in the time of immediate disaster – is what those organizations most need to get the proverbial boots on the ground, lights, potable water, food, to the people who need it most.

A displaced family cannot – in good conscience – eat a Teddy bear.

One group in the parish that I have a passing contact with is our ministry to folks who are in prison, focusing on a couple of state correctional facilities within driving distance. I have been so busy over the years with my own list of helpful chores that I appreciated the prison ministry being there, and had to say “not my calling,” and keep working. (Of course it’s easier to say that when there’s a well-formed group of volunteers to keep a particular activity from floundering.)

One of the works I add my help to is the prayer chain. It’s a very simple thing to do and works especially well for those of us who are house bound and can’t get out and do physical, laborious work. The minister who leads the group sends out an email each month of the main points of remembrance (on Monday we pray for our ministers, on Tuesday for the Campus ministry, etc.) Those never change.

We get ongoing personal requests in that email and also individually throughout the month as new ones come in. The only information we have on personal prayer requests is a name and a situation. “Please pray for Mary who lost her mother this week,” etc. The people involved to not need to be members (we call them communicants) of our parish.

One doesn’t need to belong to any particular club to pray, or to be prayed for.

Earlier this year, we started getting weekly emails from a parishioner who works with our prison ministries, and she sends a list each week in the same format: an inmate’s first name, and a situation. That is all we need for prayer to happen.

I took these into account and did the same prayers I always have. Lately, the situations started speaking to me of the great job of humanity we have, even when facing inhuman situations. I’m speaking of the moral fight inside of “praying for” a thief or a murderer, or a drug dealer. It’s so easy for me to see the crime, and have a preconceived image of the criminal, and somehow forget that – in some of these cases – there is a person behind that facade of badness who is asking for our help, no matter how simple. Just a prayer.

I’m sharing the ones from this week’s list, but just the situations. I’ll give them all a fictitious name. Remember as you read these, all of the people on this list are for-real in prison. They cannot simply walk free and take any sort of action. Someone must walk for them:

  • Jesus – whose mother died.
  • Jesus – who hasn’t heard for some time how his children are doing.
  • Jesus – still in administrative segregation pending his disciplinary hearing.
  • Jesus – who will be released and reunited with his family on Monday.  His resolves are to get a job, take care of his family, and get into church. Please pray for him as he continues on his journey.
  • Jesus – who is facing the possibility that he will never be released.

 *Thank you so much for your prayers.*

Did you see what I did there? With the names?

The ones who grabbed my attention most and brought me deeper into these weekly lists are the “may never get out again” or “has found a relationship with God and needs help with that” or “wants to make amends.”

It’s not my place to judge these folks in any way, or decide if they’re telling the truth, or to think anything about their ongoing or future punishments.

My job is simply to pray.

Sure, that’s the easy way out of social responsibility, yet I can be active and responsible in the other works I do. This calling to prayer is more simple, and more heart-and-soul focused.

My job is simply to pray.

Who knew that by doing one activity, I would become at least spiritually connected to another that was on the list of not my ministry? I still won’t be the first in line to sign up for prison ministry (it’s still not my calling, and I have tools and skills used elsewhere for other just as worthy causes.) I love and appreciate all who do this difficult and sometimes dangerous job. For them, and all other ministries, activities, outreaches, and missions of the universal  church,

from my simplicity, I simply pray.
Some days, prayer is enough.

Keep the faith!
 – Amen

 

 

 

This entry is dedicated to my great friend Rev. Martha who was so very involved in the prison ministries at our parish. We were great friends, and talked many hours about the things we are put here to do, and how to do it.

Fly big, and rest easy, dear friend.

 

 


 

*The feature image for this article is an icon called “Jesus of the Maryknoll” by br. Robert Lenz.

 

 

 

 

 

Lookin’ For Love – How The Church Will Survive Lame-brained politics, part 1

beliefs do not make you a better personWestern Christian churches in general have become too political. That is a good place to start. Some of them (not naming names or denominations here) have turned the sacred table of welcome into their own bully pulpit. They speak things to their congregants that go against all the positive teachings of any legitimate sacred text. And the sad part is that these fools tend to speak the loudest, and get the most attention in the media.

 

If you’re a real Christian, it’s embarrassing.

People who are not religious – and some who are flamingly not religious – point to these vapid talking heads and say “See! There! I told you!” about how a (Christian) spiritual belief is some sort of fantastic illusion, filled with fairy tales and hate and us vs. them. I will not argue the point: if spiritual folks don’t believe like I do then hooray for them. I will still stand for the things I believe in, and continue to act (I hope) as a nice person expressing love toward others. I do this in my own practice as my example – and my expectation – of a heavenly kingdom all around us.

And here I stop going into theological detail; this is not a debate.

What about the painful and embarrassing political stuff that gives “good, decent, church-going people” a bad rap? What to do? The answer is very simple:

The church will go on.

It might not look what “the church” that we visualize now. Christian community began in the catacombs and meeting in secret in folks’ houses. It’s had to go underground to exist in spite of ponderous political regimes. It’s been changed around and burnt out and bombed, and yet it somehow continues.

The same now.

The Church, as serious practicing folks of Western Christian religion know it, will outlive the sputum of hatred coming from some – but not all – pulpits today. Hate can only take you so far: like a fire, once the hatred eliminates everything that’s around it, there’s simply nothing left to hate, and the fire burns itself out.

Love goes on forever because it is a giving-out, and not a taking-away.

Side note: I’m not a huge fan of the Southern Baptists because of some of their beliefs particularly around not being a fully-welcoming church who will take in any soul off the street, allow them in, and feed them the refreshment of scripture.

(My apologies here to the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists who are the bright-shining exception.)

My mother sent me this video as an example of how good a group of people can be without preaching and proselytizing. A story of about how a group of so-called Christians can stand-up, show-up, and show their beliefs at work in the help of others. The “ministry” here is in the doing, and not in the preaching and arguing.

The North Carolina Baptist Men – wheels on the ground:

This is the face of a faith that will long outlast the political bullies.
On the other side of the country, in the Episcopal diocese of Los Angeles a volunteer group across many churches in the area use this easy to formulate project that is not based on going out and “saving the heathen.” Instead it is a means to get up, show up, and display their beliefs (and faith) through action. Laundry Love happens in many locations around the country, organized by many different groups. You won’t see any preaching or converting. You will see “what needs to get done here and now?” action.

Showing some Love in Huntington Beach, CA

These two examples are what the real Christians out there want to see: our faith (and personal beliefs) in action in our communities, all for the benefit of others. Any group that wishes to use the term Christian can not put down down and ridicule and exclude, while at the same time feel as if they are “building up the kingdom of Heaven.” 

They’re tearing it down.

The real Christians simply love. There’s many different flavors and variations of that, but the point of it all is to pay forward that greatest of all love to others.

Keep the faith!
– Amen