President Biden has designated April 2021 as “Second Chance Month,” which is really good news for all Americans. In his proclamation, the president specifically refers to formerly incarcerated individuals, who benefit from a second chance to rejoin their community and contribute to society.
Over 600,000 people are released every year from state and federal prisons. They often face daunting barriers to securing employment, housing and health care. Other challenges can be reestablishing family relationships if they have been estranged and staying clean and sober if they have battled addiction.
The president’s proclamation calls on all of us to support meaningful opportunities for successful reentry to society for the formerly imprisoned, to “ensure that America is a land of second chances and opportunity for all people.”
I say amen to Second Chance Month, because practical programs that assist formerly incarcerated people can reduce recidivism and make us all safer. But I’m also pretty sure that even if we have never been in prison, we all need to be given a second chance at some point in our lives. We’ve all done stupid or thoughtless things that we regret. We’ve all sometimes had to make a new beginning. And if we are people of faith, we can be certain that God will accompany us on this journey, because we believe in the God of Second Chances.
Scripture offers us many instances of the God of Second Chances at work. One that resonates with me is the story of Jonah, who spent some time in the belly of a great fish after refusing to do God’s will. That watery cave of reflection gave Jonah a pause to reconsider his decision, and his second chance to do the right thing came after he was spewed back on dry land. (Jonah:1 and 2)
The God of Israel repeatedly offered chances for repentance to the chosen people wandering in the desert, like the time they were bitten by lethal snakes until God provided Moses the remedy of the bronze serpent held aloft on a pole. (Numbers 21:1-9)
“Repent,” urged John the Baptist, the voice in the wilderness, and what was baptism in the Jordan River if not a second chance from God? (Mark 1:3-6) Our own baptism is a call into a new life with God, a second chance to embrace a life of faith and service to others.
Jesus preached quite a lot about forgiveness, which must often precede a second chance. He showed that capacity himself, forgiving tax collectors and sinners, forgiving Peter who denied him three times, forgiving the soldiers who crucified him. Even as he suffered on the cross, Jesus extended a second chance to the criminal known as the good thief, traditionally called Dismas, who was executed that same day. (Luke 23:34-43)
A second chance comes from a place of love, as any parent of an addicted child well knows. Many a parent has bailed out and dusted off and fed and housed and loved a kid who needed a second — or third or fourth — chance at a clean life.
A story about President Biden himself exhibits that kind of love: His son Hunter, while in rehab for drug addiction, sent him a text that apologized for, in his son’s words, being an "(expletive) addict” and for possibly hurting his father’s political campaign. “Good morning, my beautiful son,” Mr. Biden wrote back, “I miss you and love you. Dad.”
If the God of Second Chances were to send a text, it might read something like that.
Second Chance Month may officially exist only for this April, but with God we will always be granted a second chance. We Catholics are graced with the sacrament of reconciliation to formalize a second chance, but any informal prayer we make can lead us to the gift of a second chance.
We may not experience the drama of bronze serpents or a whale’s belly or a madman shouting in the desert. God may speak to us in a smaller, softer voice. But if we give God a chance, we will know that God’s love for us is just as real, just as forgiving, and just as infinite.