KAMPALA, UGANDA – So it’s that time of year when all of our New Year resolutions aren’t yet broken. Among mine is to get into jail more often.
Not literal prison with iron and cement and those naked toilets – although a bare cell can also bring new dimensions to life. It was Alexander Solzhenitsyn who, after years in a Soviet Gulag, said, “Bless you, prison, for having been a part of my life.” And if Charles Colson hadn’t been behind bars after Watergate, we might not be reading his ruminations on Christian life and culture today.
Or take Chris Rwakasisi, a former security minister in Uganda’s Obote II government, just released on a presidential pardon after sitting on death row for 24 years for a murder he maintains he never committed. On the day of his release he shared in a church how he got “expensive salvation” while in prison.
Rwakasisi says he’ll now preach across Uganda this message of expensive salvation—the opposite of so-called “cheap grace,” a phrase popularized by Dietrich Bonhoeffer but actually coined previously by Afro-American preacher-activist Clayton Powell when he battled racist ideologies in the fundamentalist Church during the early 20th century.
We applaud these things: the sacredness of life and human freedom. But yes, it’s that other kind of prison I think of, that solitude that all of us—not just our prophets or poets—are called to wander into routinely, that quiet prayer closet that Jesus spoke of where we can find the headspace to listen to our lives. Because if there’s one way that God wants to speak to us, it’s through our everyday experiences.
In life’s daily rush, whether in Africa or the more hurried West, it’s easy to miss God’s divine alphabet and what He may be spelling out for each of us. This is because, unlike a dictionary word, a divine word can mean something just for you or me or the drunkard wandering down the street. And this message needs to be ferreted out with patience.
Today even a politician like Barack Obama is reflecting on this. In his younger days, searching for his own identity and calling, Obama often sought solitude. Now pick up a copy of Newsweek or Time and read of a world leader who isn’t shy on the Bible, daily prayer or “carv[ing] out time to think.” How refreshing.
We know that this “jail time” gives us great confidence. Intuitively we sense it helps us fall into that mysterious union with God’s ways. In my own experience, seeking things like a meaningful vocation and a strong marriage drove me to my own prayer closet (often late-night walks) regularly, deliberately and sometimes desperately.
The challenge is retreating and shutting that cell door when we don’t feel it’s really needed, when times are good, when there’s nothing critical on our personal agenda. But we must, because life always has a way of bringing us to places of need. One lost hope or another is part of anyone’s story. Certainly lost work and money is a growing reality in today’s global fabric.
In a sense, we have little choice in all this. Listening to our lives is as important as the air that we breathe. I’ve been reminded of this anew. And so, in 2009 I, for one, will be fasting from the clatter and clutter, going with intent into my local precinct—that quiet cell with a solid deadbolt. I know I won’t be the only one. I hope you also have some good reading along.