Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Imprisonment and Prayer

"I can do all things through Him who strengthens me." (Philippians 4:13, NASB)

Imprisoned. Facing a room with stony walls like a caged animal, there is not much space to go anywhere, to do anything significant or to meet anybody. No missionary trips. No executive meetings. Not even a chance to personally gather people together to pray. After-all, what tangible things can a person do when in chains? Surely, the gospel must be proclaimed. The good news must be shared. The Word of God must be spread to all the Jewish community as well as the Gentile nations. There are so many things to do, but very little freedom to act on it. In times like these, the apostle Paul could have heard a voice screaming:
“God, it’s not fair. Here is a man who longs to give his all to advance the gospel, but you let him get caught and be jailed. What good can a man in prison do to further your cause?”
What do you do when you are totally helpless? How does one overcome the feeling of powerlessness especially when important matters need to be accomplished as soon as possible? One of the worst feelings of being locked up is to know that while the spirit is willing, the hands and legs are tied. Not only that, how does one deal with the thought of being held against one’s will unjustly?

If a man's sense of achievement is in terms of getting things done, an imprisoned man will be the least contented. Jens Soering under such conditions, spent 14 years contemplating taking his own life. Accused of murder, he has been imprisoned in a jail cell in Virginia since 1986. Attempts to free him have all but failed. Life in prison is likened to that of a little ‘guppy’ trying to fend off large ferocious hungry sharks. In 2004, his cellmate, ‘Keith’ committed suicide. Soering instead committed himself to do something more positive, namely writing and praying. While ‘Keith’ decided to end it all. Soering determined to start afresh. His first book, “The Way of the Prisoner” was published in 2004. In the book, Soering tells us profoundly that every person has their own kind of prison to contend with. People all over the world generally want external freedom, to be liberated from all kinds of chains. However, there is an inner prison that is much more formidable than the 'Alcatrazes' of the world. There is an inner penitentiary that cripples the heart through sin. Jesus teaches us that the things that comes out of such a heart make us unclean. Mark’s gospel details them as follow, namely; ‘evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly’ (Mark 7:21-22). How do we counter this inner dungeon of fearsome dragons? What do we do when we feel mistreated and unjustly accused? What hope is there for any prisoner? Soering teaches the beauty of centering prayer for such situations. This is pivotal to turning around from a life of misery toward a path of hope. He said true freedom is one that is focused on following Christ. In prayer, we ask God to forgive us of our sins and to nip any evil at the bud. Through this, we begin to learn that prayer is not simply an exercise in asking for material gains. There is a spiritual development aspect as well.

Breaking Out of Our Inner Prisons through Prayer
Prayer is something that nearly every Christian agree theologically, but fail to do enough of it practically. I suppose one’s desire to pray is a measure of how much they recognize the prisons they face, whether literally or metaphorically. Ask the last person without a key who fails to leave the shopping mall before the gates are locked. Ask a person trapped in the staircase corridors with all exits sealed. The emotions are remarkably alike. Fear. Distress. Helplessness. Next inquire into the thoughts of people hemmed in by expectations from all directions. Imagine a worker constantly berated by an unreasonable boss; unfairly accused on not being a good parent in the home by both spouse and children; isolated by friends and colleagues. Such barrage of cruel expectations can invariably imprison the poor soul.

For Soering, the ‘way of the prisoner’ is but a path to following Christ. Through the practice of centering prayer, he realizes that the very chains he wear help him maintain a focused attention to Christ, who offers freedom. For many Church fathers, prayer to God is the most wonderful time of the day amid the busyness and great expectations from all people. For the Apostle Paul, in prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, even when in chains, he is able to say that he can do all things through Christ, who gives him strength. The fact that a man in prison, can write such a positive and uplifting book of Philippians goes to show us that in Christ, there is nothing too difficult or impossible. In prison, or in prayer, may we deeply feel that in Christ, we can do all things through Christ, who strengthens us. Recognize whatever chains we have. Give it to Jesus, and watch him miraculously set us free.

Thought: Are you in prison right now? Are you constantly under a barrage of unfair or ridiculous expectations placed on you at work, at home or among your social circles? Or are you feeling that no one in this world truly understand what you are going through? Take it to the Lord in prayer, and learn in your heart: “What a friend we have in Jesus.”

“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” (Lewis Smedes)

“You can't undo anything you've already done, but you can face up to it. You can tell the truth. You can seek forgiveness. And then let God do the rest.” (Source unknown)


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