Thanksgiving in Prison

November 24, 2016 at 12:41 pm

barbed-wire“I am disappointed that I am so weak. I feel at the point of failure”

The words repeated themselves several times throughout the letter, punctuated with additional confessions of panic attacks, depression, hopelessness, loneliness and fear.  

The letter was sent from a fellow colleague in ministry, and had I not been told otherwise prior to its reading, I would have assumed the author was grappling with a moral failure of epic proportion. The letter revealed pangs of regret, sleepless nights, and all consuming despair. The pastor begged for any sign of God- a vision, a dream, a single word- any gesture that would signal to him that God was present and alive. None came.

The letter was sent from a prison cell on the other side of the world. A dark and lonely space that housed a pastor who was falsely accused of crimes he never committed. Separated from his wife and children, this dear brother poured out his heart in a lengthy email he could send to his colleagues in what I suppose was an attempt by his captors to demonstrate “proof of life.”

We sat in heavy silence when the letter was finished. We were a simple bunch, void of any political power or government ties. And so we offered all that we had by bowing our heads and crying out to God on his behalf. We prayed prayers for hope and prayers for strength. We prayed for protection and we prayed for his release.

But long after our time of gathering had ended, one line of the letter has continued playing over and over again in my mind.

“let this cup pass from me – and even if it is your will, please release me, let me go back and be a normal person.” 

At first glance the words may sound very unlike the prayers of a man who has walked with God for a long season of his life. Are we not a people of faith who readily exhort one another that the safest place in the world is in the center of God’s will? Are we not taught to pray the prayer of Jesus from the Garden of Gethsemane “not my will, but yours be done.”

And yet, my heart had the opposite response. My brother’s prayer was a clear reflection of a man who knew God intimately in ways I have never yet experienced. A man who so trusted his Father, a man so deeply aware of his Savior’s compassionate and merciful bent towards his children, that he could “enter the throne of grace with confidence” and pray freely, boldly and honestly. Not only, “please let this cup pass” but even “if it is not your will, please pass it anyway.”

In the Christian community, we are often quick to pass along such trite sentiments as “God will never give you more than you can handle.” And yet our Bible is awash with tales of faithful brothers and sisters who constantly faced far more than they could ever handle – physically, emotionally and spiritually. I think of Paull wasting away in a prison cell of his own, confessing that it would be far better to simply die and be with Christ than to continue his life in chains. I think of Jeremiah, who accused God of deceiving him while cursing the day of his birth. I think of David running for his life, and of Moses wandering through the wilderness with a band of rebellious Israelites. I read the Psalms, and run my fingers across hundreds of passages penned by writers who repeatedly wonder out loud, “God, where are you?”

I think of a friend who emailed me last week to tell me the devastating news of his miscarriage, or the students I have counseled over the years who were abused by their parents. I think of couples whose marriages are crumbling under the weight of bitterness, anger, unfaithfulness, and addicts who can’t kick the habit. I visualize waiting rooms full of parents hearing the news that their child has cancer. I hear the cry of the countless victims or rape, injustice, ridicule and poverty.

I feel the weight of a world groaning under the curse and I pray too, “even if it is your will, please let it pass just the same.”     

As I sit in the quiet solitude of my office this Thanksgiving morning, I am struck anew with the revelation that the Christian faith is not for those searching for an escape from reality, but just the opposite. The promise of Heaven is not a mere opiate for the cruel realities of life, but a present reality that emboldens the human heart to face another day with a hope that will never disappoint. Far from offering an escape from pain, the Christian faith is a full embrace of the fact that the world is broken and in desperate need of redemption. Casting our lot with Christ is not a flight from suffering, but the guarantee that you are never alone in the room when the lights go out.

The God of the Universe has not forgotten you, nor is he silent amidst your cry for help. The One who looked upon His son being crushed by the sin of the world is the only God who has ever loved you enough to enter the heart of darkness to proclaim freedom to the prisoners. While we wait for our final release, we know we never wait alone.