Love thy neighbor. Three simple words – but how often do we reject them?

I attended a faith-based conference some time ago where a woman who is a counselor spoke about her role in the healing process. She talked about a grandmother who had come to see her whose son was in prison. The grandmother felt that she had no one to turn to, and she felt isolated, shunned even by church members. The counselor commented on how so much as a small acknowledgement and offer to talk, or simply listen, would have meant so much to this woman.

Recently I had a conversation with a woman whose pastor, when told of the imminent release of the woman’s husband from prison, told her that he could no longer be her pastor!

For close to a year, another woman and I have been attempting to start a support group for families of incarcerated, formerly incarcerated, or friends thereof. We have had little success. We know there are people “out there” who struggle with the issue of someone close to them being in prison or jail. Why can we not get them to attend?

I grew up in a conservative, all-white, moderate income neighborhood. Prison, for me, was merely something I read about, or saw and heard about on television. When the son of some friends ended up in prison, it was simply not a topic up for discussion. It seems it may be the same way still.

I lived in the city, but I did not live in the inner city. Since a larger prison population comes from inner city neighborhoods, are things are the same way there? Do people still not speak about it? Are families and friends there ignored and rejected as well? How do people do it?

What are we, as a society, doing to change this? Is our faith community one that accepts everyone? What about the homeless? Or the mentally ill? Or the disabled?

I’m so very tired of the negativity of the political world where everyone has “an agenda.” I’m saddened by violence in our world.  I’m overwhelmed by all the strife. The world is a difficult enough place without having a place of safe haven, and the blessing of someone to be there through rough times. How much better a place this world would be if we heeded those three words and acted upon them! May it someday be so. Let us soon…very soon…learn what a blessing it can be if we truly do love our neighbor.

Do-Overs Accepted

“Help me to find my way, God.” That was my prayer recently. Moments later, I corrected it. “Help me, God, to find Your way.

I believe God has a plan for all of us. I also believe He gives us second, third, and fourth chances – even more, if we need them. God knows we mess up, but like the loving Father that He is, He is supportive and wants the best for us. He wants us – and He always welcomes us with open arms.

But nothing I do is ever going to make any difference! How often have we heard ourselves say that? We have all, at some point in our lives, been self-absorbed, discouraged, or hopeless, where every course of action seems to be a dead end.

Certainly, there will be days when we don’t know what the next step will be, but God finds ways for us to fulfill our purpose in life – in spite of our sometimes questionable choices. How good it is to be wanted, accepted, and loved – in spite of our imperfections! How reassuring to know that we can always come home to a Father who loves us!

We need only to take the next step…one day at a time…and believe that He will take care of the rest. (He certainly has so far!) My God is the God of never-ending chances…never-ending, like His love. Do-overs are always accepted.

God Must Dream in Color

I often listen to religious programming on Sunday morning television. Yesterday I was listening to Joel Osteen when he said, “God loves variety.” Indeed. How can He not?

When I look around, His creative work is everywhere – beautiful, intricate, different. From the simple tree (and don’t forget, so many varieties!) that turns buds into leaves, and lush spring green into magnificent bursts of fall color, to tiny organisms that procreate in spite of their simplicity, and so very many other wonders in between, how can one doubt the existence of a God who is so grand?

Yet…when I take that thought a bit further, how amazing that there are so many people in this world, yet none of them exactly alike. Yes, I believe Joel is right:  God loves variety – and I suspect He dreams in color!

It is my opinion that God loves every man and woman in prison. Does that shock you? How could God love someone who committed horrific deeds? I don’t believe God loves the crimes…or the illnesses that overtake certain personalities. But I do believe He readily welcomes all. He comforts the lonely, understands the angry, and gives hope to those who have lost hope. I have no trouble believing that a God who loves the challenges of diverse plant life, amazing organisms, and the intricate process of human development, is also a God who thrives on the diversity of human beings.

I recently heard from a prisoner who spoke about how he tries to help others from within. He said he was influenced by a man “on the outside.” If a life – even a life behind bars – can be changed by the actions of one man on the outside, we need to realize how powerful are our actions and words!

Today I honor the diversity of people – in prison and out. Today I honor the abilities we all possess to create change. It has been said that variety is the spice of life. Today I encourage every one of us to recognize our spice within and to take the power and use it. You never know…you might just become the catalyst for the next change you want to see!

Growing Pain

My friend’s son is in prison. He struggles with mental illness. Recently, attempting to cut himself, he cut an artery. This past week he attempted to hang himself. I can’t wrap my brain around what either of these individuals might be going through. What makes someone so desperate that suicide becomes the option of choice? What goes through a mother’s head as she is notified of yet one more attempt by this young man to give up? How desperate and alone they both must feel!

May is Mental Health Awareness month. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that statistics show one in every four families is affected by mental illness. Among many possibilities, mental illness includes obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, bipolar activity, social anxiety, phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), even depression. With that list alone, many of us probably know someone who has been affected by one of these illnesses.

The demons of depression are familiar to many. Left untreated, depression can wreak much havoc in more than one life. Depression alone can drive a person to acts of despair and loneliness.

The stigma of mental illness is akin to age-old reactions to leprosy. I’m certain that emotions brought about by all of these conditions (and more) are echoed in Psalm 31:11-12:  “To every one of my oppressors I am contemptible; loathsome to my neighbors, to my friends, a thing of fear. Those who see me in the street hurry past me; I am forgotten, as good as dead in their hearts, something discarded.”

God loves those of us who are imperfect. Don’t forget that Jesus was a friend to the poor, the possessed, adulterers, the lonely, the imprisoned, and more. If mental illness is too difficult an issue to wrap your head around, consider the depths to which addictions lead. Depression hurts. Loneliness and fear can make us desperate as well.

We must remember, though, that, while it may be painful to experience the present, pain can be tempered by a new conviction to live. If you never experienced the pain you are in, recognize it for what it is and for its power. BUT, think of what your new knowledge tells you. Your understanding of where YOU are at could just become the link for you with another person who needs your understanding in the midst of their desperation. Good can come from your pain. The God I know is a God who plants seeds for hope and meaning in this world. My God nourishes us in life. He gives us the ability to grow, and the chance to use what we learn. My prayer is that those who are in pain find treatment and a way to move forward. May they find healing, not only for themselves, but for someone else along the way.  And, may those who are not in pain, be sensitive to those who are.