Changing lives: reintegrating religion into life

At the age of thirty-eight, a series of unexpected events resulted in the rapid collapse of my life.

ShelleyI was living the busy but predictable existence of a single mother of three (two adopted) and grandmother of one. In a matter of days, everyone and everything I had ever known was gone, and I was cast into prison—a cold, comfortless world where I was surrounded by an endless parade of strangers. Today, more than four years later, I’m still in the same physical place, but my spirit is taking up a new residence.

Initially, my thinking was shallow as I struggled to do whatever I thought the Lord required in order to free myself. “If I believe enough, the Lord will get me out of prison,” I thought. When that didn’t happen, more serious issues surfaced. I was angry with Him, confused by His silence, and doubtful about any hope for the future or purpose to my time behind bars. I prayed, begged, and cried to Him, but the downward spiral seemed to continue, relentlessly tossing me around in an inward and outward storm. I could gain no sense of control; guilt, shame, fear, blame, denial, and anger were suffocating me.

Looking back, I can see how, even then, Divine Providence was at work on my behalf. I spent my first six months in prison in a faith-based program that reminded me a little of my days at the Academy of the New Church Girls School. I was given a sheltered place to adjust, pray, and spend time reading the Word. I began to sense choices still available to me, even when it appeared that any ability to do so had been removed. The most important choice I had was between defeat and a new way of seeing and believing.

I’ve been deprived of a great deal in prison¬—things I once took for granted—but each drought I’ve suffered has come with an unexpected blessing. A lack of financial resources has curbed snacking and helped me to focus on eating healthier, exercising, and losing unwanted weight. During the abundance of downtime, I discovered an ability to draw I never realized I possessed. Diminished communication with my family has resulted in meaningful new relationships and the rekindling of several old ones.

Someone I barely knew, whose son was in my class in high school, learned of my arrest and gave me much-needed support. He was the only person to show up for my court appearances. At a time when I had no outside connection at all, I received visits, letters, and New Church literature. To this day, I still enjoy his cherished guidance and dependability.

My friends Nancy and Marie, whom I met during my time at the Academy, have also reached out in ways too numerous to describe. Even though we live hundreds of miles apart and haven’t seen each other in more than 20 years, the special bond of the New Church continues to unite us in a unique alliance based on sincerity and compassion.

The book Rise Above It by Ray and Star Silverman has proven to be an invaluable resource, introducing me to the wisdom of being open to the beliefs of others and even learning more from them. It’s been tempting to isolate myself from the unknown, cutting myself off from other people because of our differences. As time passes, I’ve come to appreciate the value of each person I meet.

Incarcerated people desperately need guidance, and I’ve become increasingly appreciative of the strangers who’ve modeled strong moral character. The Lord has sent angels my way in surprising disguises. A particular warden, Dr. Laura B., managed to reach me even in my most hopeless state with her faith and fearless determination in the face of difficulty. Our kind nurse practitioner, Ms. Donna S., who could serve in any number of more rewarding places, demonstrates self-sacrifice by choosing to help down-trodden women deal with their neglected and abused bodies in what can be a very disheartening environment.

There’s still a long way to go on this unique journey, learning to live by the truth that, “The life leading to heaven is not one withdrawn from the world, but a life active in the world” (Way of Wisdom by the Revs. Grant Schnarr and Erik J. Buss based on Heaven and Hell 535). The compassion and selflessness I’ve seen in such a diverse group of people in my life have been enormously inspiring. They have provided me with life lessons in forgiveness and love to the neighbor.

Suffering seems to bring spiritual clarity. Having survived the worst, smaller hardships pale in comparison. There’s little left to fear once the darkest darkness has been faced. It also becomes clear Who’s in charge, for “Peace has in it a confidence in the Lord, that He directs all things, and provides all things, and that He leads to a good end” (Secrets of Heaven 8455).

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Daily Inspiration

"With all who are undergoing temptations, truth from the Lord is flowing in, and this truth rules and governs their thoughts, uplifting them every time they are given to doubt and also to feelings of despair."

Arcana Coelestia 5044