I remember riding the bus to Goodman Middle School in Gig Harbor on Monday mornings at this time of year, gazing out the window in either giddy delight, or borderline despair. My view of the world then depended entirely upon whether the Seattle Seahawks had won or lost the day before. And the mood would last not just through the day, but the entire week. I so identified with Jim Zorn, Steve Largent and the rest of the boys that a win boosted my own self-esteem; but, I considered a loss a personal affront.
Based on the number of jerseys and other Seahawk swag sported in the Seattle area on any given weekend the “Hawks” are playing, I am not the only one who has such issues. In fact, I think there is a general human tendency to filter our worldview through lenses that reduce our perspective to a more regional view, maybe even a concentration on our own city or neighborhood. What happens to these places, in some measure, happens to us. I once worked in a lumber town that had lost its mill as an employer. Depression blanketed the whole area. And it’s not simply a matter of geography. For some of us, the lenses through which we evaluate our world may include our relationships, our income, our health. If our child is hurting, if we have lost our job, if the migraines just won’t go away, the world seems more cruel and bleak. It’s rare to come across people who aren’t effected almost exclusively by their immediate circumstances.
However, I recently came across a story about one such person that proved inspirational in its own right. Even better, it reminded me of another profound example that I hadn’t thought about in years. The story of the original person came from St. Paul’s letter to the church in Phillipi. Paul wrote the letter from a jail cell. He awaited a trial that left his future in this life completely uncertain. He had already received numerous, brutal beatings for preaching about Jesus; and he’d been run out of towns and threatened with death several other times. His message morally challenged the positions of power and privilege throughout the Mediterranean world and those who held them, especially the Roman Emperor, in whose jail Paul found himself chained. Adding a little salt to the wound, while Paul was imprisoned, various opportunists used his incarceration to undermine his authority over the new churches in the region (while promoting their own authority of course). In spite of all this, Paul writes the following words to the Phillipians:
Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear. It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. (1:12-18)
Somehow, Paul sees beyond his immediate circumstances to the much bigger picture of the salvation of the world through Jesus Christ.
As I wrote above, as encouraging as it was to read this story of Paul; even better, it reminded me of the story of another person whose ability to look beyond his immediate circumstances I find even more inspiring, significantly so. I first encountered this story as a play at the Intiman Theater in 2010. Created by a team of artistic director, Kate Whoriskey, associate producer / director, Andrew Russell and writer, Sonya Schneider, “The Thin Place” took the true stories of ten separate individuals first interviewed by KUOW reporter Marcie Stillman and wove them into a tapestry thematically held together by the impact a crisis in their lives had on their faith. Of all the stories that the actor, Gbenga Akinnagbe, revivified in his solo performance, the one that brought a lump to my throat was the story of a Cambodian man who became a POW in North Vietnam after the war that tore apart that entire region.
Imprisoned in a pitch-dark cell, 3’x3’x6′, the only time the man saw any light, or had contact with any other human beings, occurred once each day when the guards opened the cell door to put in a cup of water and a cup of rice gruel. That was it. Terms like “day” and “night” lost any meaning. Neither did he have any idea how long his living nightmare would go on.
Certainly the man had enmity toward his captors, however, he acknowledged that the person he hated most was God. The man had once believed that he had been called, by God, to be a minister. Yet, now his contact with any human beings had been virtually eliminated. He furiously questioned “Why?”
At some point, for some reason that I don’t know if I will ever be able to grasp, his vision of his life broadened to encompass the breadth of the kingdom of God that Jesus spoke of so often in the gospels. From that moment on, everything changed. Every time the guards opened the door to leave his water and gruel, the man would stand and smile at them.
After a number of times witnessing this bizarre behavior on the part of their prisoner, the guards finally asked him what the hell he thought he was doing. The man responded, “If I tell you, do you promise not to beat me?” The guards considered his request. They came back with a counter-offer, “If we like what you say, we will leave you alone. If we don’t, we will beat you.” The man decided to share the following explanation:
I stand and smile for three reasons. First, it’s dark in here, as dark as night. The only time I see light is when you open the door. That’s the first reason, I see light. Second, in my faith I believe that God made all human beings in the image of God. So, when you open the door, I see the image of God. That’s second. And third, I am an Asian man, like you. When you open the door, I see faces that look like mine; I see my brothers. That’s third. That’s why I smile.
They closed the door and walked away. The man in the cell thought, “At least they didn’t beat me! That’s good!” Later the door opened and the guards returned his glasses to him. They told him, “Ask us for whatever you need. We will try to make it happen for you.”
As I wrote earlier, I don’t know that I will ever understand, let alone have, the depth of faith that allowed this man to see the kingdom of God from the midst of his prison. Yet, knowing his story gives me hope that someday, somehow, my own vision might encompass more of God’s kingdom than I currently see.