If you are looking for my blog titled, The Contemplative Catholic Convert, you are at the right spot.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

From Jail to Jesus

Calvin Nolan is dead. 

Heart attack. 

I had to read the news in a FaceBook post three times before my mind could absorb it. 

My family and I met Calvin 15 years ago. We attended the same church, until the military moved us across country. After talking with him on several occasions, I knew I had to tell his story. I published what you are about to read sometime around 2001. Now that Calvin is dead, I am urged to tell it again because it is the ageless story of how Christ really can change a person. It’s the story of what true conversion is all about.

From Jail to Jesus
By Richard Maffeo

As a young adult, Calvin never expected to find himself in a church. Jail, yes. But church? The thought never crossed his mind. In those early years the 6' 2", 350 pound human tank inspired little else than fear in others.

But things would become different for him. Much different.

Born in a gang and drug-riddled area of St Louis, Missouri, Nolan learned to live and prosper on the streets. Before his eleventh birthday he’d already earned a nice chunk of change selling drugs. He quit school at sixteen and filled his free time shooting dice, selling crack-cocaine, marijuana, PCP -- and anything else he could get his hands on.

It was only a matter of time before big trouble sunk its claws into him. In 1980, he and his buddies were shooting dice in the corner of the local school yard when a neighborhood thug robbed him at gun point. Calvin swore he’d get even.

He did the evening he stepped into a crowded tavern and found him. Both men pulled their guns, but Nolan was faster. When the screaming stopped, the other man lay in an expanding pool of blood oozing from five bullet holes.

“The police didn’t have no trouble findin’ me,” he said. “They found me the next morning smoking crack cocaine on my front stoop. They sent me to prison for three years for manslaughter.”

After serving his time, he moved to Los Angeles to get away from the streets of St. Louis. But that only changed one dead-end for another. When he ran out of money he turned to robbery and bought himself a second tour behind bars.

Two years later, he again walked free. But within days, he fell in with his old friends and started the same cycle of drugs, dice and women. It didn’t take long for his cash to dry up. Taking stock of his situation, he teetered on the brink of committing another robbery “because crime was the only thing I knew.”

At the pleading of his mother, Nolan packed his bags and moved to Wichita to live with an aunt. But within weeks, he met friends he’d known in prison. They set him up in an apartment, gave him drugs, a gun, and a car. He was back to his old lifestyle.

One evening, his friends left him alone in the house while they went to a gang-fight. “I had nothin’ to do, so I smoked their crack. Used up all they had, too.”

In his stupor he knew his friends would kill him when they discovered what he’d done.  Bone-chilling fear suddenly gripped him -- fear so real it nearly sobered him. For the first time in his memory, he prayed.

As a youngster, he had heard about God, but never paid much attention. “I knew God was not someone to play with,” he said, “and I didn’t have my life right. But I didn’t want to change.” 

But now, with terror wrapped around his gut, he looked toward heaven. “God, if you really exist,” Calvin prayed, “help me out of this mess.”

He stuffed a few clothes into a paper sack, bolted from the apartment and made his way to the bus depot and bought a ticket on the first bus that came along. It was going to San Diego. He boarded with two zip-lock bags of cocaine, a nine-millimeter handgun and $3,800 dollars. Once again, he changed his address . . . but didn’t know how to change inside.

Within a month of arriving in San Diego, he’d smoked all his crack, lost all his money and had no place to live. Then walking by a downtown storefront, he saw the sign in the window of a Rescue Mission. It read: “If you need help, come on in.”

He went in.

At the mission Calvin met the pastor of a local church who, week after week, invited him to Sunday worship. Finally, he agreed to attend, “just so he’d leave me alone” he said.  It was then that he heard the gospel in a way that revolutionized his life.

“I never heard someone speak about God with that kind of authority,” he said. “The pastor showed me the Scriptures about sin and salvation, and I wrote them all down. A few days later I said one of the pastor’s prayers the pastor had given me.”

Nolan became a permanent fixture at the Mission, working as their maintenance man and groundskeeper. As he involved himself in the Bible studies at the Mission and attended worship services at his new church, his faith and understanding of Christ grew.

Several months later two area churches joined forces to expand their work among those without a church home in the city. During a time of worship at the Mission, he shared his testimony -- the drugs, manslaughter, prison terms. He didn’t soften anything.

The men from one of the churches sensed the hand of God on Calvin’s life. After meeting with their pastor, they offered him a job as maintenance man at their church.

Part of his new responsibilities involved the upkeep of the church’s state-licensed preschool and, to comply with state law, he was fingerprinted.  

“I knew I’d be fired once the State got my prints,” he said. State law mandated that convicted felons could not work around children. As expected, a few weeks later the church received a call from the licensing bureau. “Do you know you have a twice-convicted felon working for you?”

When Calvin learned of the call, he told the pastor he was quitting.  “I didn’t have the resources to fight the state,” he said.

But the church leaders would not give up so quickly. They appealed the State’s decision and requested a hearing. As both parties waited to go to court, the State ordered him to stay away from the preschool.

“It broke my heart,” he said, “when the little kids waved at me and I had to keep on walking.”

During the hearing the attorneys for the State repeatedly challenged the church, “Don’t you know what Mr. Nolan has done?”  And each time, the church leaders responded, “Yes, we know all about his past. But Christ has changed him. He’s a new man.”  The pastor added, “If a man, saved and changed by the power of God can’t work in a church, where can he work?”

Calvin's support did not come only from the church were he worked. More than sixty parents and community leaders flooded the chambers to defend their friend. A local attorney told the judge, “I would trust that man with my life . . . and with the lives of my family members.” 

The hearing lasted seven hours. Then came the waiting. Six weeks later the judge finally rendered his five-page decision. It concluded, in part:

“The list of witnesses who testified on behalf of (Calvin Nolan) is impressive both in number and in caliber. . . . The court has heard many licensing discipline cases, but has never encountered such as outpouring of support . . . .  (Therefore) there is substantial and convincing evidence to support a reasonable belief that (he) is of such good character as to justify an exemption to allow (him) to . . . retain his position at the church and all its related duties.”

Calvin and his friends could almost hear heaven rejoice.

Scripture promises, “If any man is in Christ, he is a new creature. Old things have passed away. Behold all things are new” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Calvin started life in the ghettos of St Louis and wended through the darkest corners of drugs, death, and prisons. But God reached from heaven and took a lawless man and gave him much more than a change of address. God gave him a new heart.

Before I concluded my interview, Nolan was quick to add, “If God did that for me, He’ll do it for anyone who asks for His help.” 

And to that, everyone who has met Christ can readily say, "Amen."

Friday, November 20, 2015

God is Pro-Choice

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants, by loving the Lord your God, by obeying His voice, and by holding fast to Him; for this is your life and the length of your days . . . (Deuteronomy 30:19-20).

It should surprise no one that God is pro-choice. He didn't create us to render robotic obedience to Him. If we couldn't disobey, then our obedience would be meaningless. Which is why, because He desires humanity to willingly return His love, He made a strategic, yet risky decision at our creation.

He let us choose whom we will serve, whom we will love, and whom we will obey.

Choices, of course, carry consequences. 

The consequence for a lifestyle of obedience to Him results in complete, through and through, forgiveness for the sins we bring Him in repentance. He offers us to intimately know Him in this life, and in the one which lasts forever.

The consequence for a lifestyle of disobedience results in inevitable and eternal judgment for the sins we have committed, and in painful and unending separation from Him in the life which lasts forever.

Which is why He pleads with us: 

Choose wisely.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Other Side of the Door

Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life (John 6:68). 

As our home Bible study wound to a close, a young mother ran out to her car for a package she’d forgotten. She left her two-year-old daughter with half a dozen adults and children in the living room. But when Berea saw Mommy leave, her face froze with panic. She raced as fast as her little legs could carry her and stretched in vain for the doorknob. Her screams were laden with terror, as if she believed Mommy would never to return.

One of the other women lifted the child into her arms and tried to calm her. But it was no use. The toddler wanted no one but Mommy. And mommy was gone.  

A few moments later mommy returned. She lifted Berea into her arms, rubbed her back and spoke softly into her ear. In moments, Berea quieted down. Mommy had returned. All was well.

The next morning as I spent time with the Lord in prayer, my thoughts drifted back to that pitiable image of Berea screaming for her mother. And this thought spread through my meditation: What must it be like for those who rejected Christ all their lives and then find themselves on the other side of death's door – knowing with horrifying certainty – Father has left and is never coming back?

Never coming back.

I cannot imagine the unending and inconsolable grief of those who know they will remain on the other side of the door.


The good news, of course, is it doesn’t have to be that way. Those who love Jesus, who serve Him and call Him their Savior can rest in Christ’s promise: "Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me. In my Father's house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be” (St. John 14:1-3). 

Forever is a good place if we’re on the right side of the door.

Sunday, November 8, 2015


So I’m reading again through Revelation, and I stopped at the first sentences in chapter three. “I know your deeds,” Jesus said to the church at Sardis, “that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die . . ..”

That’s when I thought of the ten virgins in Matthew’s gospel. Five were prudent. Five were foolish. When the Bridegroom arrived, the foolish said to the prudent, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” (Matthew 25:8)

The foolish were unprepared for their Master’s return.

I think it important that Matthew also includes two other stories closely related to the Ten Virgins: The Talents, and the Sheep and Goats. Chapter 25 then concludes with what ought to be for us a very sobering warning.

To the goats, Jesus says: ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.’ Then they themselves also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?’ Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’

I wonder if the foolish virgins’ lights were about to go out because they had buried the gifts their Master had given them – gifts of time, of talent, and of treasure. Perhaps they were too busy using His gifts on themselves instead of for others. And now the Lord stood at the door. Their lamps were flickering.

And it was too late to fix it.

In another place in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus said to His disciples: You are the light of the world . . . . Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16)

The Christians at Sardis thought they were at the top of their spiritual game. But they were wrong. So Jesus commanded, “Wake up! Strengthen what yet remains.”

Can any of us fall into the same self-delusion as they? Of course we can. Which is why now – and often – it is good to pray: Oh, God. Examine my heart. Where have I been foolish with your gifts? Teach me to live in such a way as to present to you on that Great Day my light ablaze from worthy service. Amen.

Friday, November 6, 2015

It "is" a Big Deal

I wrote this nearly 18 years ago. The lesson remains timeless.

From the moment our 15 year-old son walked into the house after a weekend missions trip to Mexico, he rambled about his experience with an enthusiasm I thought he reserved only for computer programming. His excitement continued through dinner as he painted vivid word-pictures of homes he and other church members built for two impoverished families, the children they met, the food they ate, the bugs they chased. Then, as we left the dinner table, he added, “Oh, by the way, I cut my leg two days ago.”  He pulled at his pants leg to give me a look. “What do you think?”

I’d been a nurse a long time, but had never seen such a mass of angry, reddish-blue pustules like those covering his shin. It was hard to know where infection stopped and healthy skin began. A thin, yellow fluid seeped from an inch-wide blister and traced down into his sock. I bent closer and caught a faint whiff of foul odor.

“Put on your coat. We’re going to the emergency room.”

Shortly after we arrived, a physician examined Nathan’s leg. He prodded, poked and murmured an occasional, “that’s interesting” to no one in particular. Then he looked at us and announced the bad news. Nathan needed intravenous antibiotic therapy to prevent the infection from spreading to his bone or his blood. If it spread, he would require hospitalization. Nathan’s “by-the-way” nonchalance suddenly transformed to an “uh-oh” anxiety.

After the IV therapy, we drove home with a two-week supply of antibiotics and other medications to help his leg heal. The physician told me to keep him home from school for a few days.

When Nathan went to bed, I sat at my computer to unwind from the day’s events.  As I stared at the blank screen, I thought about the incident beginning with Nathan’s, “Oh, by the way.” I relived my gnawing fear as the doctor probed, prodded and attended to his infection. Under different circumstances, Nathan’s “Oh, by the way” could have ended in disaster.

It’s been many years since that evening, and I still wonder how Nathan could have been so casual about something so serious. Maybe it’s because he is so much like me -- and the rest of humankind. We often deny reality, hoping, for example, the chest pain is indigestion and not a heart attack, the persistent lump in our throat is phlegm, and not cancer, or that weeping sores will get better by morning. 

Yet, in an eerily similar way, how many of us also deny our spiritual wounds with a similar nonchalant: “It’s not that bad”?

When I share my faith in Christ with others, their oft common refrain, “I’m not that bad” makes me wonder if denial is subliminally scripted into our subconscious. What people most often mean by that is, “When I die, God will weigh my good deeds against my bad. I think I’ll do okay.”

Coming from the lips of men and women whose spiritual wounds sometimes defy description, I shake my head in bewilderment.  In the face of overwhelming spiritual injuries like life-wrenching substance abuse, murderous tempers, sexual addictions and perversions, lost hopes, shattered families, broken dreams, dark depression, recurring suicidal thoughts, and on and on . . . .  why do we persist in choosing to declare we need nothing more than a bandage?

Perhaps because we hear the message “God loves us” so often, the words lose their significance. But it’s His love that prompts His warning, “Get to the Emergency Room (Calvary).” And there, when the Great Physician prods, pokes and tells us, “You need a new heart; you need to be born again”  -- some still wonder, “What’s the big deal? It’s only a little sin.”

Nathan’s physical injury was a big deal. Skin infections such as his can invade the blood and become systemic infections overnight. Untreated, it could have killed him. And spiritual injuries are also a big deal. Untreated, they will spread through every hidden and not-so-hidden crevice of our lives – and will eventually separate us forever from God.

Nathan didn’t have a choice the evening he showed me his leg and said, “Oh, by the way.” If he had refused to come to the hospital I’d have dragged him there. But you and I have a choice about going to Calvary. God won’t drag us to the Cross. We can bring our wounds to the Great Physician or shrug our shoulders and, with “by the way” nonchalance, tell Him, “I’m okay.”

I'm here to tell you, “I’m okay" is a very bad choice. That’s why Scripture urges us, “Now is the time of God's favor, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2).

Waiting overnight might be too late.