Dispatch from Prison Ministry: on Life Sentences

skypennscaveIt’s hard for me to think about being anywhere for more than a few years.

Do you like staying in one spot? Or do you like the idea of finding a new place to live, or at least getting away for a vacation destination?

When I was growing up we moved about every 3-4 years.

Then, for about 7 years we lived in a rural area just outside Murrysville, PA (east of Pittsburgh). Though I lived the same house that whole time, my parents marriage blew apart and my dad got his own place. At that point I was sort of “moving” every other weekend when I went to see him.

Then at 16, I began to bounce around again. Two years living with my dad and his wife, then college (continual moving every few months), then a newlywed apartment, and then our first home purchased. But, since 2001 Tim and I have lived in one spot and raised two children.

They can’t possibly appreciate the stability this has given them, but I’m happy it’s worked out this way for them. I didn’t think we’d settle down here in the boonies or for this long. There isn’t much civilization…not even a Starbucks closer than 27.7 miles away. (Yes, I just checked.)

I’ve been itchy to go and find some new place to live for about a decade.

That’s one reason the concept of a life sentence is so hard to really grasp. It’s a revolting thought.

More than a few of the men I work with in prison ministry will die in jail. Some of them have 30, 40, and 50 year + sentences. A few have a official life or life + sentences.

This situation can make incarcerated men (and women) do crazy, bitter things. “What do I have to lose?” they think.

Penitentiaries are for inmates who commit violent crimes or for inmates who hurt or kill other inmates. They are places where the most violent, disturbed, and sick criminals go.

Where I minister is not a penitentiary. It’s a prison. Most of the inmates are “non violent” offenders. Some of them have done violent things, but they got away with them and were imprisoned for other sorts of crimes. Many have had drug addictions or they did gang or drug-related crime, like stealing, scamming, or running money or drugs for dealer higher- on the food chain. They don’t tend rapists and killers, etc.

Some of the guys did do awful things, but they behaved themselves for 10-20 years and got moved into the prison setting as a reward.

These men understand the privilege it is to be there, and they don’t want to be sent back to the pen.

Still, many struggle with lack of purpose, regret, sadness, boredom, dealing annoying or difficult cell mates, and missing family and friends.

Some lifers find it hard to stay positive. Not surprising, of course.

But here’s the real miracle:

Some lifers try to make the world a better place–their small world. They are (mostly) peaceful and transformed.

Really, you meet all types in prison. You see every mood and attitude. You see all levels of education. All colors of skin. All kinds of hair dos. All shapes and sizes. All economic and social class backgrounds…from guys who lived on the streets to ivy league college graduates, the prison has them.

But the thing that really makes the biggest impact for me lately is getting to know the guys that are grateful and joyful even though they know and everyone else knows they will die behind bars. They will never be freed no matter what good they do or how changed they become. They try to be good and do good because it’s the right thing, not because their situation will improve.

I find that inspirational.

This means that in prison ministry you get the chance to question your own (sometimes) poor attitudes because you can see people in these “lifer situations” go out of their way to be kind, thoughtful, and pleasant; or helpful, generous, and happy.

You ask yourself:

“What’s so bad about my life, really?”

You find some inspiration to say:

“I have my freedom, and for that I should and will be grateful.”

No, not everything is just how we want it to be, but we can take a lesson from these sorts of prisoners.

Besides, our attitudes can be a prison, can’t they?

We may have our freedom, but we may chose a cell of our own making.

On Camping and “The Chatter of the Mind”


For the last 10 years in a row, we’ve gone to Camp Swatara to…almost rough it as a family.

We just got back yesterday afternoon and began the de-camping process. 6 loads of laundry and putting things away for 3 hours. It’s more tiring than camping, and camping includes foraging for firewood to sustain your life.

For the first time, I didn’t take a single picture of our time away. (The photo above is from the camp website. It’s nondescript enough to resemble us.) It seems strange that I didn’t take any now that it’s done.

It’s an interruption to take photos sometimes, so honestly, I didn’t even think about it. My mind was chattering and I was more “in the moment”.

Later, off course, the photos come in handy to help you remember what happened. Right now, I think I remember something about killing 30 flies with the swatter and the surge of gratification that gave me–and something about S’mores.


My least favorite things about camping:

1. Too much humidity (Towels dry outside on the clothesline….never.)

2. Feeling covered in dirt and sweat 95% of the time

3. Feeling covered in sunscreen and bug spray over the layers of dirt and sweat

4. Bugs and all sort of biting and buzzing insects

5. Walking outdoors to use the indoor bathroom facilities

6. Thin mattresses that cause aches and pains

7. The hyper-vilgilengce about poison ivy and occasionally getting it.

(It all sounds like a dream-come-true, right?)


(some of) My most favorite things about camp

1. Having friends visit

2. The hospitality inherent in the camping community (sharing, chatting by the fire, friendly greetings as you walk around)

3. Family togetherness. Yes, it’s forced on you, but you can really start to enjoy it, usually.

4. The way things smell when the dew evaporates off the leaves in the morning.

5. How the day eases into the night and the darkness that comes to ease you into sleeping

6. Overcoming crisis together. Yes, it’s pretty awful at the time, but great memories and bonding come later.

7. Making fire and cooking with it, or using the firepit as a homing device. It’s hypnotic and primal and warm.

8. The refinement that happens when you realize what you truly need, compare to what you think you need. It turns out that you want things you don’t need.

What you really need: water, food, dry shelter and clothing, each other. What you think you need: a faster laptop.


In the end, you have kids that look forward very happily to the time away, and two parents (me and Tim, obviously) who are happy it’s part of our summertime, even though the whole process is challenging.

It’s actually the challenge that creates the satisfaction later, but you don’t know that unless you try it the whole way through.

If you aren’t psychologically ready to endure, you can get bitter or regretful (…um…so I’ve heard). Plus, it’s a dry camp, so there’s no wine to easy you into it.


The other thing is that intact families tend to camp together. I didn’t have this growing up and it’s a gift I give my children and myself now.

Yes, sometimes “split-up” families camp, too. But, mine didn’t.

Usually broken up families have a lot more scheduling issues and conflicts. Camping as an activity gets pushed to the side, unless you are very dedicated about it and keep it up.


And then there’s the Chatter of the Mind

And sometimes, though not this time, I get to hear less from the planning and inner monologue part of my “chattering mind”.

In general, this chatter may be telling you that you forgot ziplock bags at home or that, or that despite your efforts, you really aren’t worth much in the world, or that you should have cleaned out the vacuum filter more thoroughly, or that you made a mistake in explaining something, or that the people you were just talking to think poorly of you, or that you have to cook something that requires 14 steps… and how will be working out anyway, or the plans for the afternoon and where and how to apply sunscreen properly for it, or any number of things.

There isn’t much quiet in and about our minds, and not for very long. 

It’s called thinking. It can be incessant. It’s not just me, right?

If you finally reach that place in time and space where the chatter dies down, it’s almost deafening, actually. At first.

It tends to happen, not on family camping trips, but when I retreat away from home and I go alone. After 2-3 hours of intensional quietness–dialing down everything things improve. But that’s only when I’m being disciplined about getting away and pushing every nuisance thought back, or submitting it to paper, each time one surfaces. If not, it can take days, and too often never happens at all.

And after you tamp down or divert each thought pelting your brain you realize you’ve been breathing all wrong for much too long. You haven’t been able to separate the planning from the enjoying and looking around. You’ve forgotten the things you love or you have not noticed the things you should.

It doesn’t happen all at once that the chatter starts bullying you, but it happens.

(To come to my next retreat trip, click here.)

The chatter is an adversary that comes in pretending to be helpful and careful, as if it has your best interests in mind. But really, it’s just making you weary by using up too much valuable “mental RAM”, like (foolishly) running windows on top of a Mac Operating System.

How’s your mental RAM these days, anyway? Up to snuff?

Can you remember the last time you didn’t experience “the chatter of your mind” for some length of time?

(If you’re thinking about that now, or much of anything, then now is not one of those times.)

And if settling it all down sounds too close to death, then it’s been too long.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.


A Season of Returning : 2014

This is Ash Wednesday, 2014.



It wasn’t a special day or season as I was growing up in my particular Christian faith tradition, but with the new connections and resources I found through graduate school and the kindred spirits I found on the internet over the last ten years, I have been able to tap in and reconnect with this very ancient, rich, and reflective seasonal observance, each year.


This time of year, and especially during this particularly harsh winter, we can feel isolated, burned out, discouraged, troubled, or restless. It’s not just a state of mind, it’s a spiritual thirst.

Lent is a whole season that specifically helps us work through the darker, profound things that reside in the deepest recesses of our hearts, and prepare us for Spring (in every sense of the word).


This year, my husband and I are using a YouVersion Bible App reading plan called Lent for Everyone which includes a daily commentary by N.T. (Tom) Wright. Each day, the Lenten scripture reading and commentary brings the season into a richer light.

(Click to see all the Lenten plans.)

Why not do a reading plan this season?


Here’s another resources you might like.

It’s from Ruth Haley Barton’s Transforming Center.

(Click it to read the whole thing.)

Scripture for Ash Wednesday: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 or Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 51:1-17; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

“‘And yet even now,’ says the Lord, ‘return to me with all your heart . . .’” —Joel 2:12 

Advent Reflection

Advent candles

In past years I’ve focused on Advent here at the blog during this time of year.

Celebrating the season this way has been a recent addition. It’s something I didn’t know about when I was growing up and have found it a rich inclusion for not just me but from my family also. It has added to my spiritual awareness and created a way to better prepare the manger of my heart for the gift of Grace personified.

To find some other previous reflections that may interest you further, please do a search in the sidebar search field for “Advent”.

Although I will not be writing too many public reflections here related to Advent this year, I will be doing a personal Advent retreat and gathering up those things in my heart.

For now, I want to share a quote I found that seemed to have significance for me and I hope that you will too.

This is the perfect time to awaken.

Be blessed and may gratitude sustain your joy all through this season.

“Our spiritual life depends on [God’s] perpetual coming to us, far more than on our going to him. Every time a channel is made for him he comes; every time our hearts are open to him he enters, bringing a fresh gift of his very life, and on that life we depend. We should think of the whole power and splendor of God as always pressing in upon our small souls.”

–Evelyn Underhill

Is there something specific you can do to make this time of year more spiritually rich? If you can think of something, please share it in the comments.

Here’s a surprise for you.

Soul Care for Creators and Communicators is on special for just a tiny bit longer. Get the download. (It features Inspiration, Soul Care, and guidance if you making a habit of creating and communicating as a way of life. It will  fill up your tank.)

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Enrollment is now OPEN for the Mini-Course in May! Dismiss