While looking for a greeting card the other day, I came across a pile of old photographs. They were all taken at some point in the 1990’s and each showed one or more of our kids. All five of our kids were 90’s babies: 1990, 1991, 1993, 1994, (born into heaven) and 1995. Because they were all so close in age, many of the pictures include all four of them. I found pictures from a camping trip we took to southern Minnesota. There were pictures of the kids dressed up for Christmas concerts as well as pictures of them dressed in pajamas on Christmas morning. (In our house, staying in pajamas was only allowed to happen two days of the year—Thanksgiving and Christmas. Every other day, they had to put on regular clothes) There were pictures of picnics, vacations, soccer games, softball games, beach outings…the list could go on. One picture in particular though caught my eye. It included the oldest three standing in a prison-like cage. Their little hands gripped the bars of the cage and the look on their faces said, “Okay, Mom, get this over with.” I smile even as I type that sentence. I know exactly where and what day that picture was taken.
Like most families, we had certain traditions that stayed the same from year to year. One of those was an annual visit to our local aquarium on New Year’s Day. The aquarium opened early and since most people were still sleeping off the celebration from the previous evening’s festivities, we often had the entire place to ourselves. Near the shark exhibit was a yellow cage, representing what divers would use to safely photograph sharks in the wild. Each year, our kids would get in the cage, grip the yellow bars with their little hands, stick their faces in between bars, and pose for mom to take a picture of her “imprisoned” little darlings. Of course, we all knew that it wasn’t a real prison. Even used outside of the artificial setting of the Niagara Aquarium, it was not considered a prison. On the contrary, it was just the opposite. The bars were there to protect the inhabitants of the cage from harm, whereas a real prison contains bars to protect those outside of it from harm.
I began to think about the concept of prison.
A person sentenced to time in prison has usually done something to break the laws of society. Perhaps they have stolen something of value, or maybe they have taken the life of another person whether intentionally through murder or unintentionally through negligence with a vehicle. Regardless of the reason, being in prison is not supposed to be a reward. Now, I have never appeared in court before a judge and jury and given a sentence of any number of years in prison. I know people who have and their stories aren’t ones I would want to personally experience. I also know that not all prison sentences are fair. On more than one occasion, new technology has proven that someone was imprisoned unjustly. In other words, they didn’t commit the crime for which they are doing the time. This morning as I was spending some time with God and, once again, crying to Him to heal me or at least alleviate some of the difficult symptoms that have been present the last few weeks, I was reminded of a man who lived thousands of years ago who was put in prison unfairly.
Paul was once a man who persecuted Christians. He found joy in not only having followers of Jesus arrested, but also in watching them die. That all changed one day as Saul (his name before conversion) was struck by the very God he had been fighting against for so long. Not only did Saul stop his persecution of Christians after that encounter, he also went on to become one of the pillars of the New Testament church. Paul embarked on several missionary journeys to plant new churches and to disciple new leaders for those churches. Much of what is now our New Testament is actual letters written to these churches from the Apostle Paul. His service to God didn’t come without a price though. Paul suffered many hardships during those years of service—shipwrecks, illness, and imprisonment were frequent occurrences in Paul’s life. One instance, in particular, stands out to me as I think about Paul’s life and hardships.
Paul often traveled with a ministry partner. We read of travels of Paul and Barnabas, of Paul and Silas, or of Paul and John Mark. It is what happened at one point to Paul and Silas that got me thinking this week about prison. The story is found in Acts 16. We read that Paul and Silas were thrown into prison because of their testimony for Jesus. No prison, even a modern day facility, could be considered a desirable place. I have never heard anyone say that they would love to be a prisoner—that they would love to have their freedoms taken away and be forced to do things they normally wouldn’t do. Yet, that is exactly where Paul and Silas found themselves. Imprisoned unfairly, in shackles to limit their movement, and essentially being treated as dirt for something that should not have been considered a crime. The majority of people, if put in this situation, would most likely be angry, resentful, and bitter. Perhaps they would beg to plead their case before the authorities. They may even deliberately be belligerent toward the prison guards. Not Paul and Silas, though. Instead of becoming any of those things, they cooperated with those in charge and even sang praises to God in the midst of being treated unfairly. They praised God! They were suffering for no legal reason, yet they sat in their cell, their hands and feet shackled, being given minimal food to sustain them, and they sang!
As I looked at the picture of my children in the mock cage, I thought about the last month or so. In many ways, my body has become my prison. My hands and feet are not shackled, yet they do not always do what I need them to do. I find that simple tasks that once took little to no effort now take time and concentration. The simple and much needed visit with a friend often finds me stopping mid-sentence to find the words that once came so easily. Nerve connections are severed causing my train of thought to sometimes derail. Sometimes I am able to regroup and finish the thought; other times it is lost completely and I just need to let it go. And to be honest, I certainly don’t find myself singing praises a lot. When one is in prison, it is usually a lonely place. Paul and Silas were imprisoned together, a blessing that is rare. In my own “prison”, I often find myself quite lonely. I avoid, for the most part, making plans with others simply because I never know if I will actually be able to carry out the plans made. If the day starts out with my world spinning, it is usually not possible for me to fulfill a plan to get together with a friend. If I do manage a visit, I have to move so slowly that I feel like I am inconveniencing the friend I am with. I walk slower, I take more time to think to get words to coherently come together, I stumble and sometimes fall…all embarrassing things that make it easier to just stay home so no one has to bother with me. Of course, that just makes me lonelier and even less willing to praise in the midst of my prison sentence.
The truth, though, is God’s plan for me is not to hide myself away from others. In the last couple weeks, God has put people in my path that have shown me they care even if I can’t come up with words to say or I need help to get from point A to point B. I have been forced to humble myself to actually ask for help doing things I once did easily. For example, our church has a women’s Christmas brunch coming up. I have been to this brunch every year since attending this church. This year, I knew there was no way I could manage a buffet line. Having one hand tied up with a cane makes it hard enough. Add to that the fact that I often lose my balance and stumble or even fall, I didn’t see how I could attend. My husband suggested I ask someone to help. I debated a few days, leaning toward just skipping it this year. Eventually, though, I decided to be vulnerable and see if someone would be willing to help me if I went. I braced myself for rejection—I figured no one would respond. I was wrong. Within minutes of my requested post on Facebook, a friend offered her help and even said she would love to sit with me at the brunch. I’ll admit to tears as I read that response. Even in my prison, someone cares. In fact, my hunch is that several care. I just haven’t been willing to let them show it.
I know God is doing some big things in my life through this disease that is slowly taking away much of what I used to know and do. I can’t say that I’m singing praises in my prison yet, but I can say that my eyes are being opened to the fact that the church—the body of Christ—can come around me and help if I will allow it. As a friend said to me this week, baby steps. I took one baby step in asking for help. The next baby step will be actually allowing it to happen. Swallowing pride is not easy even without MS swallowing issues, but it is something I think I am going to need to learn to get better at if God decides to not heal me completely on this side of heaven.