Letters from Prison, VIII: What Life Expects of Us
I have learned whatsoever state I am, therein to be content. —Philippians 4:11
I’ll bet you dinner for four at Gibson’s that you will not see Donald Trump campaigning in Berkeley or Ann Arbor this year, and I think it’s probably a safe bet that Hillary Clinton will be skipping Kenilworth during her campaign, and Bernie Sanders will not stop on Wall Street.
I’m guessing that Columbus, Ohio, is not Jim Harbaugh’s favorite place to recruit, and when Joe Girardi visits Boston, they do not give him the key to the city. You will notice that Winston Churchill never visited Berlin until Adolf Hitler was thoroughly dispatched, and likewise, President Obama is unlikely to pay a diplomatic call to Pyongyang in North Korea.
Well, you get the point: stay out of enemy territory. If they don’t like you in a place, don’t go there. Especially if they have guns—or swords and chains. This wisdom is what makes Luke’s version of the Palm Sunday story so remarkable. Luke’s story of the last week in Jesus’ short life starts already in chapter nine, or about one-third of the way through Luke’s Gospel. Chapter 9:51: “When the days drew near for Jesus to be lifted up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”
So this is what’s going on: For the year prior to this verse, Jesus has been hanging out in the relatively friendly confines of his native Galilee, up there in northern Palestine near his hometown of Nazareth, but only a third of the way through the story Luke tells us that Jesus “sets his face” to go to the place where they HATE HIS GUTS.
I am not exaggerating. Jerusalem is where the Temple is. Jerusalem is where Pilate has his palace. Jerusalem is where Rome keeps its Palestinian legions. Jerusalem is headquarters to the religious establishment. Jerusalem is the capital city of that land called The Way We’ve Always Done Things. Jerusalem is the place where Jesus’ revolutionary ideas threaten many, many ancient, cushy jobs.
So this is like Bilbo Baggins in Smaug’s lair. This is Frodo taking his ring to Mount Doom in Mordor. This is Captain Kirk vacationing on Planet Klingon. This is Luke Skywalker skimming the surface of the Empire’s Death Star. Do you want me to go on? I thought not!
And Luke tells us that “Jesus sets his face to go precisely there.” “He sets his face”: that’s a vivid and picturesque way of saying that Jesus gets all stubborn on his disciples and refuses to change his mind.
“He set his face”: he clenched his jaw and leveled his gaze and squared his shoulders and starts striding south at a clip so brisk his buddies can’t keep up with him.
Why is he so insistent on doing something that he knows will get him killed? Well, it doesn’t take a Ph.D. in New Testament to figure that one out, does it? This is his destiny. It’s sad, and it’s tragic, but this is why he is here on this earth. This is his mission. He has a point to make and a church to create and billions of souls to save. Dying in Jerusalem is what life expects of him. This is what God expects of him.
I want to come back to that idea of What Life Expects of Us in a moment, but first, I want to finish this sermon series on Philippians. This is the eighth sermon in this series, which is a lot for two reasons; first, why eight sermons on four chapters from the Bible? Good question; I’ll answer it.
Also, why talk so much about prison to people who have never been there and never will be? Well, I’m glad you asked. Here’s why: prison can take many different forms, right? It is a symbol of every misfortune which can cage us into a narrow space and keep us from the fullness of life—the prison of ill health, or the prison of ungainful employment, or of unmet potential, or of unrequited love, or of heartbreaking grief.
A couple of weeks ago I told you about Walter McMillian, the black man convicted, in 1986, in Harper Lee’s hometown, of first-degree murder by an all-white jury and sentenced to die by a judge named Robert E. Lee Key even though 40 people were willing to testify that they were with Walter at a church party when the crime was committed.
It took Attorney Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative six years and hundreds and hundreds of hours and every trick they taught him at Harvard Law to spring Walter from death row in 1993. Attorney Stevenson stayed in touch with Walter McMillian for the next 20 years, until Walter died in 2013.
At the end of his life, Walter suffered from dementia, and eventually, it got so bad they had to put him in the memory unit of a nursing home. Walter was a jovial, outgoing guy, and everybody at the nursing home loved him, and the nurses treated him beautifully, but through the fog of his dementia, Walter could not understand why they’d locked him again. Again, he was under lock and key. Again, he was, in his mind, locked up in a prison cell. “You gotta get me outta here, Mr. Stevenson,” he’d say. “They done put me back on death row. Why they put me on death row again?”
It was the delusion of his dementia. Or was it? Walter was right about that, wasn’t he? It was death row. That’s where he died. And that’s the kind of prison many, many, many of us have suffered from.
My mom died on the death row of a memory unit. They were wonderful to her there; they couldn’t have cared for her any more beautifully, but still, it was her death row.
So though we may never see the wrong side of a prison door, we know what Walter’s talking about. We know what Paul’s talking about. We know what Martin Luther King is talking about. We know what Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Nelson Mandela are talking about. Prison may be of several kinds.
And Paul has some very good advice for people who are suffering prison of different kinds. “For I have learned,” writes St. Paul, “I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
None of the prisons that entrap us need rob us of meaning and joy in our lives, because Christian joy is not dependent upon external circumstance. Christian joy, or contentment, is not out there among the stuff of life, or in Fate or Fortune, which visits our home one day with benediction and then slanders it the next with curse. Joy is not out there but in here, because we belong to Christ, and we know that he means for us a greater glory than we are able to dream for ourselves.
Joy, you see, has almost nothing to do with the circumstances in which we find ourselves. St. Paul is Exhibit A: he’s in a Roman prison cell when he writes the letter that has become known as his Ode To Joy, his ninth and last and best symphony.
Paul tells his friends that they have multiplied his joy. Not his happiness, mind you, but his joy. What Paul says is not “Don’t worry; be happy!” But “Don’t worry; Rejoice! Again, I say, Rejoice!” Paul doesn’t crave happiness. The English word “happy” is related to the words “happen” and “happenstance,” and “perhaps.” The root is “hap,” which means “chance” or “fortune,” or “what befalls us,” what is accidental about our lives.
Happiness might happen and it might not. It is an accident, and dependent at least partly on external circumstance. What Paul craves is that deeper, profounder, more stable, resilient Christian quality called “joy.” Joy depends not on what’s outside us, but what’s inside, and in Paul’s case, what’s inside is the Spirit of the Lord.
I mean, think about it, would you? Have you ever noticed that joy and fortune are almost never directly proportional. Joy is almost always independent of circumstance. Our attitudes—good and bad, joyful or joyless—tend to follow us around from ghetto to mansion like a stray dog.
That word translated as “contentment” in the English New Testament really means self-sufficiency. That is, I am my own man—or, better, I am God’s man, God’s woman, I belong to God, and to no one else—and you can’t take away from me what I have secured deep inside. I am at home wherever I am. In poverty or in wealth, in laughter or in tears, in love or in grief, I am at home. My attitude does not depend on your behavior. I don’t need you. If I place my disposition at your disposal, I have sold what little freedom I have left, and I don’t own myself any longer.
Have you ever read Man’s Search for Meaning by Viennese psychiatrist Viktor Frankl? That is just a beautiful, beautiful book. It’ll take you half a day to read it. I read it for the third time last week; I almost never read books a third time.
It was originally published in 1946 and there is nothing dated or stale about it. Over the last 70 years ten million copies have been sold in 40 languages. Many times, it has been called one of the ten most influential books ever written. Before he died in 1997 at the age of 92, 29 different universities had granted Dr. Frankl an honorary Doctorate.
Man’s Search for Meaning was originally published in 1946 under the title Saying Yes to Life in Spite of Everything: A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp. Victor Frankl was Jewish and spent three years at Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps during World War II.
When he was sent to Theresienstadt in 1942, his wife Tilly was working in a German munitions factory. Because her work was crucial to the war effort, she did not have to go to the camp. She could have stayed at her work, but she chose to stay with her husband. Dr. Frankl survived Auschwitz; Tilly died at Bergen-Belsen. Dr. Frankl also lost his mother, father, and brother to the Holocaust.
He says, “We who lived in the camps all remember the men who walked through the huts giving away their last piece of bread. They are proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in a given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Dr. Frankl says that there were two types of prisoners in the camps. Some prisoners asked “What can I expect from life?” That’s a good question. We get to ask that question. But others asked, “What does life expect from me?” You see how that question turns everything upside down, how turning the subject into a predicate and vice-versa makes all the difference in the world?
What can I expect from life? What does life expect from me? Guess which folk survived the concentration camps.
Dr. Frankl says, “I tell my students, in Europe and in America, I tell my students ‘Don’t aim for success; the more you aim at it, the more you’re going to miss it.’ For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue. Success is like happiness, says Dr. Frankl. You can’t chase it; you can’t pursue it. Thomas Jefferson might have been right when he told the King of England that we all have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but Mr. Jefferson also probably knew that pursuing happiness is not the best way to get it. Happiness comes when you’re pursuing something else—a higher meaning and purpose, perhaps, or your neighbor’s greater good.
Happiness is like the cute brunette who sits next to you in History Class. If you pursue her, she will run away, but if you ignore her, she will be very intrigued. Happiness is like that clever conclusion I hope to slap onto my sermon for Sunday. If I pursue it—if I lock myself in my study with a blank legal pad or computer screen and focus on my own cleverness, that clever quote will never materialize. But if I go walk the dog, or visit a parishioner in the hospital, that clever quote might just turn up without warning.
Success and happiness ensue when you have given the right answer to the question “What does life expect from me?” Even if that answer is very hard, like it was for Jesus on his way to Jerusalem.
So if you have nothing to expect from life any longer, if for whatever reason life has turned to dust and ashes in your mouth, if your body is caged by disease or your soul by boredom, or your mind by despair, or your heart by the loss of one whose companionship meant life and health to you, if you have nothing to expect from life any longer, change the question. Ask instead, like Jesus, What is my destiny? What is my mission? Why am I here? What does life expect from me? What does God expect from me?
Maurice Boyd tells this wonderful story from years ago. A young woman whose legs were seriously crippled entered a college classroom, dragging her braces behind her. She sat next to a young man who was intrigued by her plight, and one day after a few days he finally summoned the courage to ask her what had happened to her, and she told him that her legs had been crippled in a bout with polio when she was very young, and she’d been like this ever since.
He said to her, “Well, that must color your attitude toward life.” And she said, “Aye, it colors my life, but I get to choose the color, and it will not be the black of despair, or the blue of depression, but the gold of opportunity.”
“I have learned,” says Paul. “I have learned whatsoever state I am, therein to be content.” Circumstance does color our existence, but we get to choose the color. That’s what life expects from us.
Bryan Stephenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2014), pp. 278-279.
Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, trans. Ilse Lasch (Boston: Beacon Press, 1959), p. 75.
Frankl, p. 85.
Maurice Boyd, in a sermon preached at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, New York, New York.