John 10:27-28 (NIV)
27 My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.
Sister Maurella Schlise, a Catholic nun from Fargo, South Dakota, was spending the holidays with her family in Florida, and planning a visit to a nearby maximum security prison. Sister Rosemary and her husband conduct a weekly prayer meeting there, and they invited me along," Sister says. Usually, no more than 35 men attended, but Rosemary and Pat refused to become discouraged. If, for just a little while, prayer lifted these prisoners out of despair and regret to focus on the One Who loved them despite it all, the hours Rosemary and Pat donated were well worth it.
Visitors were never allowed to bring anything to the prison, not even food. But when Sister Maurella arrived at the Ryans' home, she found food preparation in full swing-not just for the family but for the convicts too. "Because our regular meeting falls on Christmas Eve this year, the warden decided we could bring each man a few goodies," Rosemary explained. "We're going to make some Rice Krispies bars and homemade cookies for them. Enough to fill about fifty bags."
"Fifty bags! I thought you said the turnout was pretty low," Sister pointed out.
"It usually is. But maybe on Christmas Eve, some extra men will come. We wouldn't want to run out of food. Besides, for most of the inmates, this will be their only gift." Sister Maurella was glad she had arrived several days early to help with holiday preparations. Rosemary obviously had even more to do than usual.
The following morning, Sister Maurella attended mass. She thought about the inmates, wondering if they--if anyone--could actually experience the miracle of Christmas from behind bars. What would it be like? Then, "Although God is not in the habit of speaking directly to me," she says, smiling, "I distinctly heard a voice in my spirit. It specifically said, "Bring one hundred bags to the prison."
One hundred! That seemed far too many for Rosemary's small group. Had the message been Sister's imagination? Perhaps. But she decided to step out in faith, and tell Rosemary. Rosemary and Pat were skeptical. But they too had had experiences when God seemed to nudge them just a little, and they respected Sisters' insight. "It's a lot," Rosemary finally said, "but I'd rather have too many than not enough."
The women spent the day filling one hundred white bags with goodies. The men would be pleased, each happy to have a small gift of his own. As they came through the prison gates that evening, the chaplain flagged them down. "The chapel is packed!" he exclaimed. "There must be a hundred men inside!" One hundred. Rosemary and Sister Maurella smiled at each other. The little nudge from heaven had been real.
Instead of Rosemary and Pat leading the service, the men had prepared a program of their own. An inmate with a vibrant voice sang the poignant story of the Little Drummer Boy. Another did the Ave Maria, having somehow discovered that it was Rosemary's favorite. Everyone sang hymns, and one man read the Christmas story from the Bible. The chapel was hushed, small candles providing the only light. It was truly the most moving Christmas Eve service that Sister had ever attended.
Finally the program ended, and the men eagerly lined up. Sister Maurella and Rosemary handed each a white bag...until there were ten men left, and no more candy to give away. There had not been one hundred men in the chapel. There had been one hundred and ten.
Sister stood, dismayed. How could this have happened? If God had truly spoken to her that morning, why hadn't He told her to bring one hundred and ten bags? What should they do? "God, multiply the bags," Rosemary prayed silently.
But a young convict had also seen their dilemma. "Sister," he spoke quietly, "we others..we'll share our bags with them."
Sister looked at the faces surrounding her. Men of every color and nationality, murderers, thieves... But men who now, because of His birthday, were willing to reach out to one another in forgiveness and love. Healing sometimes came in tiny steps, Sister knew. But once begun, it could grow.
The young convict opened his bag, preparing to share his treats. Just then, a prison trustee entered the chapel, carrying a sack. "Rosemary, we had some leftovers from a group that came this morning," he said. "Can you use them?"
Rosemary took the sack. Inside were sweets--divided into ten white bags. She smiled. "You see?' she told the men. "God cares, even about the littlest things."
Everyone rejoiced as the remaining men received their bags, especially Sister Maurella. She had wondered if Christmas could come in a prison, but now she knew. Where love is, God is.
Dear Lord, we thank You for You special gift You gave at Christmas. Help us to listen to what You have for us to do so that Your love can be shown through our actions. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.