Tuesday, November 16, 2010

In a cell

After I took J to the doctor to have his bandage changed--a daily exercise in torture for him right now--we went to Costco to pick up more meds at the pharmacy there. I'm not kidding, I should put all this on my resume and try to get a job as a nurse.  If only I actually liked such occupations.  Anyway, as is the way of things at these big box stores, we were told to come back in half an hour to pick up the perscription, so I headed to the books.  And by the time we walked out of there, I was carrying two rather juicy books I can hardly wait to sink my teeth into, books bought by my son, thank you very much.  A new biography about Dietrich Bonhoeffer and a book of writings by Nelson Mandela called Conversations With Myself.

It didn't strike me until I began Mandela's book that these men have much in common.  Their struggle against the unjust--read that as abhorrent--state, their personal integrity and uncommon valor in the face of great trial.  Yes, there are similarities to these men whose stories I was drawn to today.

And even more striking to me is the similarity to the man who wrote the bulk of the New Testament.  The letter to the Philippians, for example, is part of what are called, "The prison epistles', those letters that Paul wrote while imprisoned.  His being imprisoned when he wrote this letter is clear through-out --"whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel..." "As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ."  "And because of my chains..."  "...supposing they that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains." And these are just from chapter 1.
What isn't clear is where exactly that prison was.  Historically, Rome was the only location considered for the prison epistles, though Paul was imprisoned for at least two years in Caesarea earlier in his life, and in Ephesus. 

But what we know for certain is that Paul wrote this letter from within a prison.  "In chains."  And somehow, that makes this letter even more amazing.  Because this letter is a love letter.  Well, it's considered in scholarly circles a 'friendship' letter, but I find that anemic.  The thing is, most of Paul's letters were written because there was a problem in a church.  People were fighting about whether they should follow Paul or someone else, or they had taken a left turn away from the Gospel and were worshipping their old gods.  In fact, all those churches, the Corinthians, the Galatians, the Thessalonians--they sound a whole lot like our churches here and now.  God knew this going in.  He was way ahead (think Ecclesiates, where it says "there's nothing new under the sun.") so He knew you put a bunch of folks together, even re-generated ones, and you're going to have issues.  It will take work to keep the church one.

But every now and then, we simply need a love-letter.  We just need to know what it means to be loved by Him.  And we get this from the pen of a man who was in prison at the time.  Paul's words of love, and his understanding of his own apostle-ship and our discipleship come directly out of captivity.  Directly out of suffering.

I know I sometimes sound like a broken record when I talk about how intricately entwined suffering and discipleship are.  How important suffering IS to our lives as disciples.  I get this understanding from many places in scripture, but could make the argument from Philippians alone.  Captivity taught it to Paul and Paul has taught it to us.

And I think that those who are most pliant to the Spirit--like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for example--always learn this lesson in those hardest of times, that, like Paul, "For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain."
So let's sit in Paul's cell with him for a while and see what he has to say.  What God has to say through him.

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