How Long Will It Take?

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There are all kinds of prisons. We are all bound to live some part of our life trapped.  Sometimes it’s just because of terrible circumstances like illness or a tumbling economy. Some prisons are of our own making, consequences of bad choices and evil desires.

However you got there, how long do you have to stay in prison before something significant changes? If you look carefully at the story of Joseph from the Old Testament you see a man who let his prison experience transform him into someone remarkable.

When Joseph was seventeen years old, he often tended his father’s flocks….Joseph’s brothers pulled him out of the cistern and sold him to them for twenty pieces of silver. And the traders took him to Egypt. – Genesis 37:2, 28

He was thirty years old when he began serving in the court of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. And when Joseph left Pharaoh’s presence, he inspected the entire land of Egypt.  – Genesis 41:46

How long does it take to go from being a selfish punk to the most influential man in Egypt? He seems to have spent a good part of thirteen years as a slave to Potiphar and then in prison because of the false accusations of Potiphar’s wife. His physical imprisonment came to an end when he was able to interpret the dreams of Pharaoh. He told the king…

“It is beyond my power to do this, but God can tell you what it means and set you at ease.”  – Genesis 41:16

This is the same man who as a teenager spent too much time dancing around his brothers flaunting that “amazing technicolor dreamcoat” their father had given to only him. He was such a miserable person to be around, they felt like killing him, literally.

What happened to him during those years in slavery and prison that transformed him into a man who could calmly walk into the court of the most powerful king on earth and bear witness of the power of God?

As incredible as it reads, Joseph’s story is everyone’s story. We all face opportunities to either be transformed or remain in prison. There are all kinds of prisons that enslave people. Defeats can fall on us like a flood. No one is immune.

Wherever you are right now – whatever the prison might look like – it doesn’t matter how you got there. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how you are going to get out – often this is out of your control. Think about the ways that relationships evolve, long-term sickness, a career that’s changing. What always matters is what’s happening to you while you are in that prison. What is God going to do in your life, with your life, through your life because of this experience?

When people are in prison they always face a number of choices:

  • Prison can cripple people. Even when released people often carry within them, for too long, their imprisonment experience. It haunts them even as they walk in freedom. It is as if they remain in prison and die a little every single day. They relive their defeats like a never ending re-run of doom.
  • In prison, some people build a new life – a future self. This takes time, involves others and there are certainly mistakes along the way. When freedom comes, they are ready to start life anew, their thinking has changed and they see with a bigger vision. But they have to wait for freedom to arrive in order to start living their new life.
  • Others learn, over time, to differentiate between internal and external circumstances – they come to recognize what is passing and what is eternal. They can see beyond their chains and recognize what is temporary and what matters. The prison experience transforms their perspective and in so doing it provides an eternal freedom. No matter where they find themselves, these people discover true freedom.

What is prison doing for you? For Joseph it was a time to wait until just the right time. It was an experience that transformed him into a man ready to serve God, not his own wishes.

It seems strange to urge that you pray, not to be set loose from your chains, but instead to let your earthly chains set you truly free.

“How should we be able to forget those ancient myths that are at the beginning of all peoples, the myths about dragons that at the last moment turn into princesses; perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us. So you must not be frightened if a sadness rises up before you larger than any you have ever seen; if a restiveness, like light and cloudshadows, passes over your hands and over all you do. You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall. Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any miseries, or any depressions? For after all, you do not know what work these conditions are doing inside you.”

― Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet    

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Always True

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“Many a night I woke to the murmer of paper and knew (Dad) was up, sitting in the kitchen with frayed King James – oh, but he worked that book; he held to it like a rope ladder.”   – Leif Enger

You know we live in a world where we crave experience (as we sit and stare at our screens). As a society, we enjoy so much personal freedom. Over time, if we’re not careful, what can end up happening is that we start to think and believe that our individual experiences are the only truth that really matters.

The fire remains the same. Sometimes we approach it because we need its warmth. Sometimes we draw near because its light illuminates the darkness of our path. Other times we run to the fire seeking safety from the approaching night. We have different needs that drive us toward that fire. We have different experiences once we near the fire. But the fire never changes.

It remains the same.

You wouldn’t know this living here in America. We have over 3,800 Protestant denominations, all pointing to the same Scripture as their guide for doing church their way, the right way. We’ve always had trouble with Scripture. It has liberated us and then divided us. We search within it poorly and then find only what we were looking for (not necessarily what it means to say).

Scripture isn’t a magic book. It’s not just a subjective experience that seems to change itself for each new reader. It remains the same. It teaches us the same truth, generation after generation. It points toward the unchanging magnificent love of God.

Doesn’t it?

We sometimes search it for secret formulas and pull words and phrases out of their context all trying to find some sort of experience all our own. The Scripture is the whole fire, the entire story. It has a context, a history, a purpose and most of all, a message. It is worth our study. We ought to be its students for the rest of our lives. Its pages tattered and frayed because of constant use not misuse.

Because of the world that we’ve made for ourselves we are always in danger of making our experience all that really matters. Sure, it’s all we really know (what we experience), but we must believe that there is an objective truth outside of ourselves that doesn’t change. What matters is what’s eternal.

The fire remains the same.

They said to each other, “Didn’t our hearts burn within us as he talked with us on the road and explained the Scriptures to us?”   – Luke 24:32

 

Who Am I?

Sometimes you have days, weeks, months (even years?) when you feel like an outsider, as if you woke up in a strange place and didn’t belong anymore. It passes. But when those periods of time last too long, doubts start to creep in. You wonder if you’re on the right road, if you’re making the right decisions, if your life is turning out as it should. As I think about all of this, I am reminded of some “handles” that I often  grab hold of to keep me steady when I’m feeling so uncertain about everything.

Do you remember the book, play and then film, Les Miserables? There’s a great song in the play sung by the lead character who has been redeemed to start a brand new life. But he’s dogged by shadows from his past who want to remind him of his guilt and drag him back.

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Who am I?
Can I condemn this man to slavery
Pretend I do not feel his agony
This innocent who bears my face
Who goes to judgement in my place
Who am I?
Can I conceal myself for evermore?
Pretend I’m not the man I was before?
And must my name until I die
Be no more than an alibi?
Must I lie?
How can I ever face my fellow men?
How can I ever face myself again?
My soul belongs to God, I know
I made that bargain long ago
He gave me hope when hope was gone
He gave me strength to journey on

Who am I? Who am I?
I am Jean Valjean!

 I had a great friend who used to remind me of this scripture: So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death. – Romans 8:1-2

What a wonderful truth to repeat over and over again. Especially when the road is lonely, dark and you begin to doubt. One thing that I don’t have to fear is any punishment from God because of all my mistakes. I’m not on the outside of God’s forgiveness.

Remind yourself again and again that you’re free. Forever free.

Nouwen

Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection. Success, popularity, and power can indeed present a great temptation, but their seductive quality often comes from the way they are part of the much larger temptation to self-rejection. When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions. The real trap, however, is self-rejection. As soon as someone accuses me or criticizes me, as soon as I am rejected, left alone, or abandoned, I find myself thinking, “Well, that proves once again that I am a nobody.” … [My dark side says,] I am no good… I deserve to be pushed aside, forgotten, rejected, and abandoned. Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the “Beloved.” Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.
Henri J.M. Nouwen

I’m always inspired when I read Henri Nouwen. He keeps my mind and spirit from wandering off into the brush. When you feel like an outsider within your world, and sometimes it’s not your imagination you really are on the outside, it always helps to keep this truth clearly in front of you: See how very much our Father loves us, for he calls us his children, and that is what we are!  – I John 3:1

No matter how much rejection you feel (real or imagined), you’re never going to be rejected by your Heavenly Father. You’re his child forever.

Today you may be on a dark and lonely part of your journey. It may last a long time. But what’s also true is that you are free and you are God’s child. These truths are a part of your identity now and no one can steal them from you. Another great friend gave me a third great handle, endure