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Tuesday, 10 April 2012

What's your prison?

I once bought a wooden bracelet in the tiny market town of Chitakale from a Malawian called Nicholas. On the inside I carved the words ‘PLOD ON.’ I lost it whilst polishing the floor of a posh boarding school at a Christian holiday camp in a desperate attempt to remove the last traces of masking tape that remained from the fake police outline of a dead body!

I haven’t thought of that bracelet for about four years but was reminded of it last week when a dear friend challenged me to keep plodding. (Psalm 141:5) Are you going to be a flash in the pan Christian or are you going to persevere? An apt question. And a painful one. It’s much more tempting to soar and plummet on an emotional rollercoaster than to plod on. I have been doing a lot of plummeting recently. It’s been a tough few weeks for reasons that I don’t fully understand and I can only articulate it by saying that I haven’t felt very happy; I haven’t felt very joyful. I have done a lot of self-pitying. And ranting. And failing to see God’s face or understand his plan for us living here in Barnwell.

BUT (there always is one), I can’t give up. I was sharing my general feeling of despondency with another friend (the more I write this Blog – however infrequently – the more I realise that I am blessed by many incredibly good and challenging friends!) and she asked what the alternative was. The truth is I don’t have one. I don’t have anything else to invest my life in. I have been a Christian for nearly a decade. I don’t know another way. I don’t have different answers or an alternative meaning to life. I’m stuck.

In Zechariah 9, God calls his people “prisoners of hope” (v.13) and commands them to return to their fortress. I am a prisoner of hope. I think the main problem is that I haven’t been acting very much like it. Nor have I answered God’s call to return to himself, to the ultimate fortress. I have been far too stubborn for that. I’ve made a new kind of prison. A prison of introversion. A prison of me: “Set me free from my prison, that I may praise your name.” (Psalm 142:5). That verse really reminds me these song lyrics from Pink: “I’m a hazard to myself. Don’t let me get me. I’m my own worst enemy.” The problem is that I’m not very good at asking God to help me get out of the mess I’ve made. I get scared of Him. Not holy, reverential fear, but unbiblical God’s mad at me fear. And once that sets in, I’m in a pickle. It’s a pickle that can only be got out of by asking God but that’s the very thing I find hardest to do and so, like Pilgrim and Hopeful, I forget that I have the means to get out of my self-created prison and instead block myself into the darkest corner. And I do it time and time again. I seem to prefer staying in my own prison rather than submitting to be a prisoner of God instead.

Now a little before it was day, good Christian, as one half amazed, brake out in passionate speech: What a fool, quoth he, am I, thus to lie in a stinking Dungeon, when I may as well walk at liberty.I have a Key in my bosom called Promise, that will, I am persuaded, open any Lock in Doubting Castle. Then said Hopeful, That's good news; good Brother pluck it out of thy bosom and try.Then Christian pulled it out of his bosom, and began to try at the Dungeon door, whose bolt (as he turned the Key) gave back, and the door flew open with ease, and Christian and Hopeful both came out. Then he went to the outward door that leads into the Castle-yard, and with his Key opened that door also. After he went to the iron Gate, for that must be opened too, but that Lock went damnable hard, yet the Key did open it. Then they thrust open the Gate to make their escape with speed; but that Gate as it opened made such a creaking, that it waked Giant Despair, who hastily rising to pursue his Prisoners, felt his limbs to fail, for his Fits took him again, so that he could by no means go after them. Then they went on, and came to the King's High-way again, and so were safe, because they were out of his jurisdiction.” (John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress)

Pilgrim’s mechanism for escape is simple. He remembers that he has God’s promises stored up inside himself. He remembers that, thanks to the promises of God, he is a prisoner of hope and not of despair. He can be one who doles out hope and freedom and promise to others because he has claimed them for himself, bought for him with the blood of Christ. I just wish I could get that!

Sometimes I do get it. Sometimes I manage to talk to myself enough to remember that I am not a slave to sin and to despair but to righteousness. I am no longer controlled by the sinful nature (at least not totally anyway) but by the Spirit. My master, my jailer, is the Lord, not my own thought process. I need Him to remind me of this. My state of helplessness is such that I have no way for pulling myself out of the pit; I have no way of remembering that I have a Key called Promise unless God tells me so. I need to pray to him to change my will that I might long to be his captive instead of thinking that my own “mind-forged manacles” (William Blake, London) are somehow a better bondage. Oh, how blind we can be! And yet and yet (as ever) to get to a place of asking God, of praying, it is I who has to act. I who has to open my mouth and pray, open the bible and read (Kingdom Skank anyone?).

Today is the first day in a long time when I have made the commitment to do that. And God has honoured it. Aided by a Piper sermon, and accompanied by Taryn’s singing, I have been meditating on Psalm 43:

“Vindicate me, my God, 
   and plead my cause 
   against an unfaithful nation. 
Rescue me from those who are 
   deceitful and wicked. 
You are God my stronghold. 
   Why have you rejected me? 
Why must I go about mourning, 
   oppressed by the enemy? 
Send me your light and your faithful care, 
   let them lead me; 
let them bring me to your holy mountain, 
   to the place where you dwell. 
Then I will go to the altar of God, 
   to God, my joy and my delight. 
I will praise you with the lyre, 
   O God, my God.
(Verses 1-4)

To get to the place of the altar, the place of the cross, of realizing that my despair and my self-pity are sin, I need God to act. I need his light to shine that I might see the truth and know (know know) that I am loved and I am his and Jesus is the ‘yes’ to every single promise. I must pray with the great prayers and poets of the past (this has accidentally become a very literary post) that my heart would be undivided in its seeking of him (Psalm 86:11 “Give to me an undivided heart that I may fear your name.”), that I would be bound to him and safe within his fortress, a prisoner of hope, a captive of the King.

O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.
(Robert Robinson, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing”)

“Spirit of God, descend upon my heart;
Wean it from earth; through all its pulses move;
Stoop to my weakness, mighty as Thou art;
And make me love Thee as I ought to love.
(George Croly, “Spirit of God, Descend upon my Heart”)

And, finally, my favourite of favourite poems, and something I aspire to pray more often:

Batter my heart, three-personed God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurped town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but Oh, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betrothed unto your enemy:
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me. (John Donne, Sonnet 74)

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the blessing of this blog and the need to use the 'key' to escape the prison of work for the joy and security of dwelling in his fortress.