Freedom in Confinement

December 16, 2013

The week’s news has been dominated by the death of Nelson Mandela and the celebrations of his life. His greatness is measured by the impact of his personal transformation on a nation sullied by apartheid. His vocal and powerful political advocacy prior to his incarceration was silenced by imprisonment, supposedly; but as we all know, his was a witness of presence in his absence. His body was in the dungeon, so to speak, but his will and his spirit escaped into the conscience of a country and the world.

The most remarkable feature of his life turned out to be what happened after he was released. He forgave his captors and reached across the great racial divide to unite a nation and form a new government. The trading in of his anger for reconciliation is the great work of personal transformation for which he will be known, and it took those decades in prison to accomplish.

His long walk to freedom reminds me of a devotional written by life-long Methodist missionary to India, E. Stanley Jones. He told the story of a man who had been imprisoned unjustly, who was finally released but embittered by the experience. Jones observed, “Sometimes it is easier to get a man out of the dungeon, than it is to get the dungeon out of the man.” What he was saying was, sometimes we confine ourselves in a dungeon of our own making, if we are unable or unwilling to let go of resentment or anger. Those and many other emotions can bind us more tightly than prison walls can!

In my case, I suppose the temptation would be to view my illness and fatigue as a prison preventing me from a carefree life doing what I love doing. For you, the prison might be a life in hyper-drive, leaving you no time for reflection or recreation. For someone else, the dungeon might be a dark hole of addiction. The point is, potentially we all have life circumstances or conditions that might, if we let them, imprison us. The challenge today is to look at those limitations in a different light.

We are helped in this endeavor by the observation in the biblical narrative of individuals who themselves were imprisoned.  In the Old Testament, we have Joseph locked up in Egypt (Genesis 37 and following). In the New Testament, Jesus himself is the finest illustration of one who simply could not be confined even to the grave! For the rest of us mere mortals, Paul and Silas offer a case in point. They were thrown into jail in Philippi because their preaching and the subsequent conversion of Philippian slaves and citizens ruffled enough feathers to induce the magistrates to arrest them for “disturbing the peace”:

The crowd joined in attacking [Paul and Silas], and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely.  Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them.  (Acts 16:22-25)

Notice that the two evangelists were beaten and chained, and yet there in the prison they were transported through worship into the presence of God. Their bodies were locked in the stocks, but their spirits soared because they were not confined. This beautifully illustrates the dynamic of “taking the dungeon out of the man.”

Paul and Silas inspire me to think differently about physical freedom and confinement, about the possibilities for meaningful “activity” even when limited to my chemo chair for more than five hours today. It helps, I acknowledge, that I have chosen this discipline of limited mobility for a time in order to be healed for full freedom later. I also recognize how easy it is for one’s essential identity to morph from “healthy and free” to “ill and limited,” so the challenge is to keep God’s vision for my life before me. At the very least, my heavenly citizenship allows me to enjoy full access to the throne of grace for the ministry of intercession, full reign in God’s Kingdom for the ministry of helping others with whom I have contact in this new context, full freedom to dream and imagine and write as God inspires me. This is dwelling in resurrection hope, following in the footsteps of our Savior and his saints. It is more than making lemonade out of life’s lemons, it is abiding in Jesus Christ and sharing his vision of “the joy set before him” (Hebrews 12:2) even as he suffered. I would like to live in this kind of joyful emancipation today.

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2 Responses to “Freedom in Confinement”

  1. Bruce Pope Says:

    Thanks..tweeted the Jones quote this morning! Loveya..Bruce

  2. Debi Murphy Says:

    Amen and amen. Was thinking about you and praying for you yesterday, Mary. Continued prayer for few side effects. Love to you and Andy. Debi

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