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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

prisons

My sermon last week was based on an "adventure story" about Paul and Silas, two missionary companions, as found in the Book of Acts. The story described Paul exorcizing a spirit from a young slave woman, which had given her the ability to tell fortunes. Her owners had exploited this girl, earning their living by charging people for conversations with her. When Paul cast out the spirit, he effectively ended the slave's usefulness to her owners. The story does not make it clear whether or not this led to her freedom.

The focus of the story remained on Paul and Silas. The owners of the slave girl were enraged, and beat up the missionaries, and hauled them before a local court on trumped up charges. Paul and Silas were beaten again, stripped, put in shackles, and locked in jail.

The story describes Paul and Silas sitting shackled in their cell, praising God and singing hymns. Their surprising joy attracted the attention of the other prisoners, and eventually, the jailer and his family. In the middle of the night there was an earthquake, which shook the jailhouse and threw open the cell doors. The jailer despaired that the prisoners would have fled, and was mystified to discover that they were all gathered around Paul and Silas, rapt in wonderment as the missionaries shared their faith.

The jailer and his family were baptized that very night. As a modern counter-point to this ancient adventure tale, I told the story of a friend who is a volunteer at the Don Jail. He works with violent offenders who are on the path towards sobriety.

I realized as I told these stories that all this talk of addictions and convictions and violence may have left the impression that the Good News of the Gospel is only for those who are actually in jail.

The truth is that there are many kinds of prisons. In February I spent a few days at Mepkin Abbey, which is a Cistercian monastery in South Carolina. There is a man named August Turak who regularly visits Mepkin for extended spiritual reteats. Mr.Turak is a very sucessful, incredibly wealthy business person, who works as a consultant to major corporations. He is quite open about how his life was transformed by faith.

On his website, Turak recently responded to a question from a participant in one of his conferences, who wondered about what kind of prisons he might have experienced in his former life:

No, I was not a drug addict nor was I ever arrested. But I don’t think transformation or brokenness depends on such radical ways of “going wrong.” While I had my share of pain (my mother’s early death in 1984), my path was based on MORAL, rather than physical suffering. I battled severe depression throughout most of my adult life. Again and again I rose to the “bait” of life, trying to find satisfaction through worldly success, only to be left with ashes in my mouth. I was looking for something in Mother Nature that she was incapable of providing. I was filled with profound spiritual longing yet tortured by doubts. I not only doubted my own spiritual potential but spirituality itself. I call this state being “trapped between heaven and earth.”...

...Transformation requires surrender and this is what I could not bring myself to do. The spiritual life is a process of disillusionment. The Christian mystics say we must lose all hope in the world before we will turn utterly to God. This is the painful process I endured for years.

Ironically, my putative “success” was crucial to my ultimate spiritual surrender. Many people imagine that if they just had money or fame or romantic love they would “have it all” and be at peace. Because I had experienced all these things and was STILL miserable I was finally forced to admit that what I sought could not be found in the world. This was a blessing.