Saturday, October 25, 2014

God, Grace, and Second Chances

          In the last weeks, amidst midterm examinations, papers and projects, and community commitments, I've taken up writing with a penpal. But unlike what you are likely conjuring in your mind, I'm not writing to a child in a war-torn country, nor am I writing to an elderly widower seeking companionship.  My penpal lives in prison. 
          Joseph* is someone from a past life of mine, someone I hadn't communicated with in over a decade. I remember him as being a somewhat quiet but kind young man, which is why his arrest was surprising to me. I will not go into details regarding why Joseph is in prison, but I will share with you what an inspiration he is to me.  Joseph is serving a twenty-five year sentence, by the time he is eligible for parole he will be at best fifty years old.  He has a child whom he adores.  Joseph offers no excuses for the events in his life which brought him to where he is today; in fact, as he spelled out to me in a letter the events that precipitated his arrest, he made it very clear that he had made some mistakes. Because some of the problems contributing to his arrest are that both he and his wife were in the throes of addiction, I have a hard time seeing Joseph as a bad person.  I'm in no way excusing his actions or suggesting that he shouldn't be in prison for his crime, but I am sympathetic to the problems which led him to where he is today.
          Joseph is not allowing his time in prison to simply waste away; and this is why he is an inspiration to me.  Through various programs in the prison, Joseph has earned his G.E.D., headed an organization which delivered clothing to a local church for homeless Veterans and their families during Christmas time, completed a food safety program, completed a six-month substance abuse program, taken multiple violence prevention programs, and is heading a new organization of art therapy for other incarcerated individuals in the hopes that they might be able to stay out of trouble.  He works out regularly and eats healthy meals which he prepares for himself, writes poetry, draws in charcoal and paints in watercolor, reads, and is preparing for a college entry exam.  
         Luke 13:6-9 reads, 
          Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” 
A vineyard owner wants to cut down a fig tree that isn’t producing fruit and hasn’t in three years.  It’s had three opportunities, and three times it has failed.  The gardener asks for one more year, one more opportunity to help the tree flourish and bear its fruit.  He’ll give it Miracle Grow and special soil.  If it still doesn’t bear fruit, only then can it be cut down. God is that gardener, rooting for us, tending over us, carefully cultivating us.  Even when we hit our low points, when we fall short of the task, God doesn't give up on us.  When we’re down and out, God helps pull us up, dust us off, and walks hand in hand with us to the finish line.
          There are some who likely believe that Joseph deserved to be cut down and disregarded, forever a flame snuffed out. Some would say that Joseph's actions exclude him from the love and grace of God. Some might suggest that God has abandoned Joseph as further punishment for his crimes.  I think they're all wrong.  I believe so firmly that God is love and grace and forgiveness that I cannot in any way conjure an instance in which God would abandon her own children.  I can't.  And that includes Joseph as well.  Despite what actions Joseph took, he is still very much a beloved child of God.
          Joseph spent a time in his life under producing, it landed him in prison; and  it was there that someone served as miracle grow and helped Joseph flourish.  Once he found a solid root base in good soil, he was able to thrive and change his life.  Joseph is working his way through a second chance, a chance given by God who loves.  Rather than spending his days in a problematic manner, he is instead working to make a better life for himself so that, hopefully one day upon his release, he will continue the good work he has been able to accomplish. 
          I find Joseph inspiring because he could be downright miserable.  He sees his child infrequently, he will forever be marked as a felon for the crime he committed, and he will forever live with the guilt of his actions.  In his own words, "I can't believe what I did." Yet although it was his own actions which put him in the situation that he is in, he continues to find ways to occupy his time healthily.  Although I'm sure prison is at times unbearable, Joseph spent approximately 70% of his letter talking about his deep love for his child and the remaining 30% about the wonderful and awe-inspiring things he is doing.  His outlook is truly one of positivity.  I pray that Joseph continues to thrive in his environment, that his child knows Joseph's deep love, and that others can see the grace of God around them. 
          Joseph has helped to show me that no one is ever too far gone, that they don't deserve our best efforts.  I have to say, I wonder if we spent more time looking out for each other and ensuring we all had enough, some things in Joseph's life may have turned out vastly different. I wonder. and I pray.

*Name changed to protect privacy.  If you happen to connect the pieces and know who Joseph is, please respect his privacy by not divulging such information in any way.