Sunday, May 20, 2007

May 20, 2007 - Prison

Acts 16:16-34
Psalm 97
Rev 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21
John 17:20-26

A little while ago, I got the chance to visit the famous prison of Alcatraz. For those of you who aren't familiar with it, Alcatraz used to be a maximum security military prison in the Bay of San Francisco that held a few of the most hardened criminals in the United States. The prison was literally a fortress, built on an island, which was surrounded by currents so strong and so cold that escape was impossible. The prison of Alcatraz was the home to criminals like the infamous Al Capone, "Whitey" Bulger - one of the FBI's Ten Most Wanted, and Alvin Karpis, an official "Public Enemy." Alcatraz is where the government sent prisoners who deserved the hardest and most isolating punishment.
It was an awful place for a prisoner to be. The Island itself was made of rock, with hardly any plants or greenery growing on it, and the prison, of course, was a prison. Each cell, of course, was a cell - tiny and cramped and facing more cells, while the ones that faced towards the outside of the building faced only exterior wall. There were tiny windows up near the top that let through fresh air and some light, but you couldn't see out of them. There was an outdoor courtyard where prisoners could walk about, but there was only one tiny square window, about one square foot, that you could look out of. Prisoners used to say that the worst part about the whole prison experience there was being able to hear the noise and bustle and liveliness of San Francisco across the Bay but not being able to see it, and worse, knowing how cut off from it they were.
And then, of course, there was solitary confinement. This was a cell about 5 feet x 7 feet,, and when the door was closed, it was absolutely pitch black inside. One of the prisoners told of how when he was restricted to solitary, he would go inside, and the door would close behind him, and in complete darkness, he would pull off a button, throw it up in the air, listen for where it had fallen on the ground, scrabble around until he had found it with his hands, and then repeat the process all over again just to pass the time. Another prisoner described how the intense blackness caused him to start hallucinating, seeing flashing lights where there were none. I got a chance to go in one of these cells, and even with the door open, it was claustrophobic. I can only imagine what it would have been like with the door closed - terrifying, is my guess. Alcatraz was designed to punish criminals by cutting them off entirely from the rest of the world, while simultaneously making them aware of the freedom that was experienced by everyone but denied to them. Like all prisons, it was a terrible place to be.

Most people have experienced imprisonment, and the terrifying loss of freedom that comes with it. Sometimes it comes from a literal prison, but more often, it's figurative. Illness, for instance, can become a prison. People who have become severely ill and restricted to their beds can feel like they are in a jail cell, cut off from everything and unable to go out. Friends, and even family, stop visiting. The outside world still exists, but it is completely out of reach. Like the prisoners of Alcatraz, those who are sick are usually alone, and since it is not by choice, it also means being terribly lonely.
Depression, too, without or without sickness, is also imprisoning. If you've ever been depressed, you know how confining and isolating it is. You feel as if you are trapped in your mind, you can hear the world's happiness, you can even maybe see it, but it's as if there are walls between you and it that can't be breached. And, again, you are alone - people may come to see you, but they can't share in your depression, or enter your mind, so, once again, there is intense loneliness. Martin Luther experienced depression, and described it as being curved in on one's self. He saw it as a prison, constructed by the devil, and he knew that it was awfully difficult to break out of.

But not impossible. Well, literally breaking out of prison is, of course, but it is possible to gain freedom from the emotional and mental prisons that hold us. The first step comes from realizing that these kinds of prison come from the devil. Sickness and depression aren't things that we bring on ourselves. They don't come from something we've done or not done, they come from outside of us, through the natural frailties of our bodies. And the mental anguish and loneliness that accompany them most often come from the devil, who takes advantage of our weakened state to try and separate us from God. It's my belief that when we are on the right path, doing something that will bring God's love to the world, it's then that the devil likes to step in and imprison us in loneliness and self-doubt and despair. It's when we are being Christ for others that the devil likes to lock us up in Alcatraz and throw away the keys.
So how can we be freed from the devil's isolating prison? Well, Paul and Silas, when they were thrown in jail for freeing the slave girl from her demon, prayed and sang hymns to God. Prayer and song are powerful gifts from God, given to us so that we can feel God's holy presence, and those first disciples used them to free their minds from the fear and loneliness that must have come from their imprisonment. Just as young David in the Old Testament used songs to calm King Saul when he was tormented, we, too, are encouraged to use music to escape our loneliness. Luther said that when we feel sadness and the devil about to overwhelm us, we should sing to the Lord and the devil will flee. "When we sing," he proclaimed, "we pray twice."

So what do we sing? Anything, really. Sing along to whatever's on the radio. Think of your favourite song as a teenager and sing it as loudly as you can. Hymns, especially, are a good choice for singing, because they speak of Christ and remind us of God's love. Paul and Silas, when they were in jail, might have sung some psalms. Or they might have sung a hymn from the early church like this one, called the Litany of the Deacon:
Litany of the Deacon - - Early Church Hymns translated by John Brownlie
God of all grace, Thy mercy send;
Let Thy protecting arm defend;
Save us, and keep us to the end:
Have mercy, Lord.
And through the coming hours of night,
Fill us, we pray, with holy light;
Keep us all sinless in Thy sight:
Grant this, O Lord.
May some bright messenger abide
For ever by Thy servants' side,
A faithful guardian and our guide:
Grant this, O Lord.
From every sin in mercy free,
Let heart and conscience stainless be,
That we may live henceforth for Thee:
Grant this, O Lord.
We would not be by care opprest,
But in Thy love and wisdom rest--
Give what Thou seest to be best:
Grant this, O Lord.
While we of every sin repent,
Let our remaining years be spent
In holiness and sweet content:
Grant this, O Lord.
And when the end of life is near,
May we, unshamed and void of fear,
Wait for the Judgment to appear:
Grant this, O Lord.

This hymn, sung by the early church, reminds us of God's faithful presence, guarding us from the dark and guiding us to the light. Now, obviously, we don't know the tune for it, which makes it kind of hard to sing when we're depressed, but there are other hymns. Luther wrote several, A Mighty Fortress is Our God, is the most famous, but another excellent one is Out of the Depths, I Cry to You. It's LBW 295, if you would please turn to it. I want us to sing it together, and as you do, see if you can sense God easing the bonds of whatever might be imprisoning you.
Out of the depths I cry to you; O Father, hear me calling.
Incline your ear to my distress In spite of my rebelling.
Do not regard my sinful deeds. Send me the grace my spirit needs;
Without it I am nothing.
All things you send are full of grace; You crown our lives with favour.
All our good works are done in vain Without our Lord and Saviour.
We praise the God who gives us faith And saves us from the grip of death;
Our lives are in his keeping.
It is in God that we shall hope, And not in our own merit.
We rest our fears in God's good Word And trust God's Holy Spirit.
God's promise keeps us strong and sure; We trust the holy signature
Inscribed upon our forehead.
My soul is waiting for the Lord As one who longs for morning;
No watcher waits with greater hope Than I for his returning.
I hope as Israel in the Lord; God sends redemption through the Word.
We praise God for God's mercy.

Alcatraz prison was shut down in 1963, and in 1972 became a US National Park. The doors to the prison have been flung open, and no one is kept in isolation there anymore. But prisons still exist around the world, especially those caused by sickness and depression. Happily, God has given the gift of hymns and singing to us, as keys that we can use to open whatever prisons we might be in. While these gifts might not change the actual situation that you are in, they can help you to feel the grace of God with you, breaking down the walls around you, and helping you to feel that you are not alone. So the next time you feel as if the walls are closing in on you, may you feel the presence of the Lord and the freedom God brings to you, in prayer and singing. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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