“…We are Abraham’s descendants and have never yet been enslaved to anyone…” John 8:33 NASB.
If only that were so.
When we are controlled or controlling, we are imprisoned or imprisoning. Prisons come in many forms. Some obvious with 4 walls, guards and bars, others are unseen to the naked eye. Some self-created, some imposed. They can be cultural, societal, spiritual, economical, and/or political. Prisons always take freedom; either ours or others. They separate us from our true self and from others and their true selves. Sometimes we are the prisoner, sometimes we are the guard. Let us ponder the prisons we have done time in, those we have constructed for ourselves, and those we have built to house our brothers and sisters.
Drawing from the world around us, do we build prisons of expectations that we place on ourselves and or on others? Do we impose on others to live from our belief system, conforming to our way of thinking and living instead of trying to find common ground? (1 Corinthians 9:20-22). Do we ignore injustice because it doesn’t affect us directly and thus allow imprisonment of others by our passivity or non-involvement? (Acts 18:17). Do we turn away from someone we don’t understand or who isn’t like us? Do we put a yoke onto others that God does not put onto us? (Acts 15:10). Do we even know we are in prison or realize we might be imprisoning others? (John 8:33-34). Is it possible for the communion we long for with others to occur if our hearts are not truly open to receive what a person has to offer? Could any of this be how we create prisons for ourselves and how we imprison others?
In Acts Chapter 16, Paul is imprisoned because he threatened the cultural, economic, societal, and religious norms of the people “…proclaiming customs which it is not lawful for us to accept or to observe…” (Acts 16:21 NASB). How often have we dismissed someone’s idea before even giving it some thought? How often have our ideas been the only ideas we will consider? Or how often have we found our ideas dismissed without consideration only to feel unheard, disrespected, dishonored or simply hurt leading us to build walls around ourselves or around them in defense of our egos or our “truth”?
In Acts Chapter 12, Peter is imprisoned. The story starts when Herod puts James the brother of John to death. Evil has support. This pleased the Jews so he imprisoned Peter. Have we ever thrown another into prison because it brought accolades to ourselves? How often have we joined in a group gossiping about another? How often have we told an off color joke to pad our ego?
In Acts 16:37 & Acts 22:27-29, Paul is imprisoned but in each time his Roman citizenship is either undisclosed or exposed resulting in different outcomes and treatment. How often do we judge (or not respect) someone but then when we hear they are a “somebody” by the world’s standards we suddenly change our minds about them?
My prison walls were built by culture, religion and individuals. (I am speaking of that which is beyond loving discipline and guidance). The expectations to conform to the image of who I should be – how I should act and feel, what I should eat and wear, what course of lifestyle I should adopt, and which religious institution I should be a part of and believe in. Conformity to other’s opinions, desires, beliefs, lifestyle, thoughts, feelings, patterns, rituals, and traditions – a life imposed onto me – trapped me in a cell without windows and sun. Like a beautiful wildflower plucked from the earth, I was put in a vase and displayed on a shelf only to die a slow death that no one could see until all my petals fell to the ground.
We are brought to prison by the guards of cultural/political/religious/economic expectations, insecurity or fear, or need for control/power. But it is in this prison where we build our own walls around our souls to survive the pain of enslavement. These walls become the guards that keep us there. They are the disciplined rituals that keep us focused on that which enslaves us, insecurity of ourselves that oppresses our courage to take steps outside the prison walls and an ego that traps us in a success/failure mentality. For example, economic expectations have us locking ourselves away striving for success based on how much money we make. Cultural expectations lock us away striving for beauty and honor.
Why do we keep ourselves in prison and why do we keep guard over others?
Sometimes we sit in our prisons for a long time because we feel secure there. Other times we wait for God to deliver us or circumstances or opportunities to change. (Acts 12:4-5). Either way, we sit. Perhaps the key to getting out is in the way we use this time (Acts 16:25). Could it be an opportunity to understand what really we are needing and seeking? If it is approval or worth, which really boils down to wanting to be loved and to love, it can only permanently be found in the freedom that exists in union with God. (Galatians 4:4-7)
Often we stay in our prisons bound to the guards simply because we refuse to bow down to the sacredness, the image of God, in ourselves. We cry out in self-pity, “Oh I will be trapped in these chains forever, poor me”, instead of honoring that which God has made in us and in others. We become lost, unyoked from our Source and all that we draw nourishment from to thrive and bloom. Like a flower without water, we wither. But Life is still in us. (Acts 20:10) If we are to love one another as ourselves, we must first honor who we are, Who made us, Who lives in us and in Whom we live. Turning back to our Source, we find our freedom renewed. This is where our strength and hope come from so that we can sing praises while bound by chains.
After years in prison (living up to the expectations of the world), my true self was starved and my ego grew to feed that hunger. I needed to find an identity that would be acceptable to this captivity so that I could bare it. This is where I became lost. Detached from my Source, growing from a branch attached to a vine that produced only ornamental fruit – worthless, tasteless, even poisonous – my self-made prison locked me in a box that allowed no one access. Unable to grow and bloom and change, imprisoned by a false identity, controlled by opinions and standards, I wore the hats of both a prisoner and a guard. The expectations placed on me became the expectations I place on others.
The longer we are imprisoned, the bigger the prison cell grows. The cell holds more and more prisoners. As with any group, its nature grows and expands and sucks in more and more before long we are all imprisoned by the very same things. The world is like a giant zoo. We keep trapping each other and ourselves in cages for protection or glory.
Thankfully, God is always there to set us free!
It is in the presence of God that we find release for ourselves and for others. When we begin to seek and worship God, the prison of our egos loses its hold. (Acts 17:26-30). God opens our minds and hearts to His making of all creation unique and beautiful to fit perfectly into His kingdom. He frees us to be that which He created. When we allow ourselves to be, we allow others to be also.
This is the transformation presence, God’s grace and love for us. Being freed from these prisons to love unconditionally ourselves and others – returning to the Father, our Source, our trueness – is the Good News.
Julian of Norwich says we are the Father’s gift to His Son. We are Jesus’ crown. I ask, “What is it that Jesus sees that He desires?” He sees the Father, whom He loves, in the heart of each of us. We are drawn to each other – to be in community, in connection – because deep down, we see the Divine in each of us and want to be a part of that wholeness. This is that yearning…the emptiness. And it is precisely why God directs us outward – to be with others, to take care of one another – for it is in the caring for another, we experience that wholeness. “You complete me”. But when the other’s heart is not opened, this is when the emptiness grows even more. It is the sadness of awareness that another’s heart is closed and we have no access. God must feel the same way when people ignore or reject Him and all His goodness…closing Him off, keeping Him at a distance. It is our egos that keep our hearts locked shut – not permitting things unknown/unfamiliar in. Can we surrender our egos for the wholeness and unity of others and thus ourselves?
Let our hearts be truly open so we may join in communion. May the love and grace of God bring us into wholeness in community and freedom from our prisons.
And the journey continues….
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