I was delighted to serve recently as a guest preacher at Tree of Life Lutheran Church as part of their Lenten worship series. Instead of my typical sermon, I felt that the evening hour begged for a story...because story-telling is usually where I'm "at" around 7:15pm each night. Tree of Life Lutheran and Grace Lutheran Churches have been joining together this Lent with a "Prison Ministry" theme. I share with you here my contribution.
As the beloved Golden Girl, Estelle Getty, used to say, “Picture it…”
You’re in a prison cell. You have been there as long as you can remember, but all your life something has been nagging at you that there is more to life than these four walls. Three of them are solid stone; one is composed of bars from floor to ceiling. The floor is an earthen slab. The ceiling is no less than 20 feet above you. There is a window in one of the stone walls. There seems to be no door, or gate or any way out that you can perceive.
You don’t see a way to freedom, and yet, you feel compelled to find one, because you have this inherent sense that it is there.
You are not alone in your cell. You are sharing your imprisonment with two companions…Despair and Pride.
Pride usually stands with his back against the wall of bars, arms crossed, looking back into and around your cell, assessing the situation. Pride is convinced that if you guys focus on the problem long enough and work hard enough, you will come up with a way to bust out of this joint.
Despair, on the other hand, crouches on the floor up against the stone wall, holding his head in his hands. He offers running and unhelpful commentary, day and night, as he tries to convince you to accept your prison. This cell is all there is and all there will ever be. Despair tells you there is no way out.
But there is a way out.
You were born knowing this to be true and you are compelled to find The Way.
You try new ways every day.
Pride keeps insisting that freedom is found in hard work, so TODAY you decide to give that a try. It’s time to dig. Yes, dig. Don’t ask me how you found a shovel, but you did. And so you set to work. It is back-breaking labor, but you are focused. You know you can dig your way out of this cell if you just work hard and long enough.
With all this hard work, you begin to get hungry. It’s a good thing that someone drops off food in your cell at regular intervals. You get two different deliveries every day from vastly different “caterers”. You walk over to today’s delivery from your favorite caterer. You open the silk duffel, labeled “Sack of Lies”, and pull out a steaming to-go box and inhale its tantalizingly yummy contents. With each bite you hear a new message within your heart. It says things like,
“You can muscle your way out of this.”
“Freedom can be found in performance. Sacrifice everything to achieve excellence.”
“There is a different way out of every cell. You just have to find your way.”
The more lies you eat, the deeper you dig yourself into a hole. Unfortunately, your hole is getting too deep to handle and is beginning to collapse in on itself. You soon realize that if you keep up your digging, the whole foundation of your cell will become unstable and it may fall in on itself, taking you down with it. You hesitate. You already feel as though you are standing on shifting sand. All your work has gotten you nowhere.
So then, barely able to lift yourself out of the hole, you decide this escape route is not working. You become disheartened.
“Why isn’t my work amounting to anything?” You ask yourself.
You deserve some reprieve and an easier way out, you tell yourself.
You’ve always noticed that window in one of the stone walls. Unbelievably, there are no bars in the window – it is wide open…and certainly wide enough to climb through. This is your chance! Freedom is easier than you had originally thought. Now, if you could just reach the window….
It dawns on you then that Despair is crouched right below it. Despair is murmuring away, as usual. But just then, Pride pipes up. “Hey, if you climb onto the back of Despair, and I give you a boost, I bet between the two of us, we could get you up to that window.”
And that’s just what happens. And whoa! What a rush when the wind of that open window hits your face! The warmth of the sun delights your skin and you take in the landscape. You’ve never seen anything like it. It’s so beautiful, that part of you is almost convinced it is a hallucination.
Inside the sill of the window, you see, astonishingly, an iron handle. It is labeled “addiction”. It appears that you simply must grab a hold of it and you can pull yourself through. “Wow!” you think, as you begin to reach for your freedom…
Just then, without warning, Despair and Pride give you the last hoist. Your head and shoulders make it past the sill, when a voice from the hallway outside your cell startles you.
“Wait, friend! Stop! That isn’t the way out!”
Hanging half-way out the window, you look down and realize with a terrified gasp…you are HIGH.
The view had looked great from your cell, but your prison is farther off of the ground than you realized. With the assistance of Despair and Pride, this had looked like an easy escape plan.
If you don’t do something to stop the momentum of your helpers, you will find freedom, all right…but it will be temporary. After that, you’re going to hit rock bottom and it won’t end well.
You push back against Despair and Pride. Once your feet are back firmly on the shifting sand of your cell, you turn around to see who had called out to warn you.
It’s your second food delivery-guy for the day. He looks relieved as he hands a burlap bag through the bars to you. The bag is simply labeled, “Bread”.
You get this bag every day, but it has always seemed like such a mystery to you. In contrast to your overflowing sack of lies, which is delivered pretty much anytime you want it, as often as you want it, full of tasty morsels, ….your daily bread delivery appears kind of small and bland. Though you almost never go to it when you are hungry, a fresh bag is delivered every morning. Even stranger still, the first time you felt compelled to try a bite of the bread, you opened the bag to find it filled with….words. How am I supposed to be fed by WORDS, you wondered?
You had asked your delivery guy that very question once. He had reached into the bag, pulled out a slip of paper and read it, “You shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
He seemed to think he was being helpful, reading you such a crazy phrase. And yet, here the guy stood again before you. You start to ask him how it is that he seems to know the way out of your cell, but Pride interrupts.
Pride, clearly annoyed with the bread guy, has assumed his position again, arms-crossed, up against the bars. “Look, I really think we can figure this out. Maybe we just need to coordinate. There are plenty of other cells around here. If we work together with the other prisoners, maybe we could organize a break.“
You sigh, exhausted. You close your eyes, grab your forehead and begin to rub your temples.
You take a deep breath, look up at Pride and say, “Pride, I’m tired. ….I actually want to know what the Bread guy has to say for once.”
You turn to the bread guy, who is still standing there patiently. “How is it that you think you know how to get out of this cell?”
The bread guy, brightening and eager to answer says, “Because I used to be in a cell just like this.”
You find his response doubtful, but you press him further. “Alright then, how did you get out?”
“I knocked on the door and it was opened for me.”
You moan and roll your eyes, exasperated. This guy must be a real idiot. “There IS no door!”
Incredulously, the bread guy reaches through the bars and into the burlap bread bag, pulls out another slip of paper, and begins to read: “I am the door. If anyone enters through me, he will be saved and will go out and find pasture.”
Pride, incensed, begins coming toward you, yelling and trying to get your attention away from the bread guy, “Why do you listen to this nonsense? This guy is nothing but a self-congratulatory slave. Look at him! Is he free? He delivers the bread. He’s a servant for crying out loud!”
It is a good thing Pride got so riled up, because in a rare move, he stopped trying to devise a way to escape long enough to leave his well-worn perch of supervision up against the bars.
As he approaches you with his protests…out of the corner of your eye, you spy…hinges.
You push Pride out of the way, and there it is. The door. It had been there the whole time. You stare at it blinking, and say, “I must have been blind!”
Pride sees what you’re thinking, and is hurt. “C’mon…why take the weak and easy way? We can still figure this thing out! Take control…do it our own way.”
You struggle with Pride for a moment or two, but you wonder, with a sense of peace you’ve never before experienced… “Could it be that easy?”
You approach. You notice the door has a sign…almost as if to introduce itself, it reads, “I Am the Way.”
And then, raise your hand, close your fist, hold your breath, and knock.
The door swings open.
The Bread Guy, whose name you now learn is Joe, screams HALLELUIAH!! And claps you on the back. “I thought you’d never come out of there! But Jesus said to keep bringing you the daily bread and he would do the rest. Wow. I tell you what, this never gets old!"
"What never gets old? Being a servant? I have to ask, aren’t you a little bitter that even though you’re free, you’re still working in the prison like some sort of slave?"
Joe smiles and says, “Take a walk with me…”
As you begin down the hallway, you pass cell after cell of prisoners, digging, chiseling, climbing towards windows, begging, collaborating…none of them trying their door. Most of them, like you, have a cell-mate blocking it. They haven’t even seen it!!
"This is crazy!", you say. "Someone should tell these people there’s a door RIGHT THERE!!"
I know, says Joe. Why do you think so many of us use our freedom to help others find theirs?
C’mon, there’s someone I want you to meet. You’ll be surprised, I think, to discover that you recognize his voice. You’ve been hearing him for awhile now….he’s started this whole prison ministry thing years and years ago.
You walk through a maze of hallways in the prison, and then through a set of doors and out into the sunlight. You feel something wash over you which cannot quite describe, but you are at peace and strengthened all at once. You see him….the train of his robe fills the pastures before you.
He smiles broadly, looks into your eyes…and sighs. “I’m so very glad to see you! I’ve been waiting on you awhile. This is what I’m here for, you see, to free the captives from prison, and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.”
Welcome to the Light my child. Come with me, let me show you what Life in freedom looks like.
Jesus wraps his arm around you and walks you into a whole new world.
Halleluiah! Amen. The End.
Copyright, 2012. Katie Pickard