Singing in Prison

Updated: Oct 11, 2021






At this hour, week after week, we’re making our way through Paul’s glorious little letter we know as Philippians. It’s a favorite among believers and for good reason. I hope you’re becoming deeper acquainted with this letter through these sermons. And I pray that your finding yourself plugging into the hope and the joy that Paul has on offer here for you.

Philippians isn’t a favorite among believers because it’s light and fluffy. This glorious letter tugs at our heartstrings because it is profoundly deep and rich, and it lays out before us the astounding call of God upon our lives. It’s capable of inspiring us to greater things, things that at times seem beyond us. It inspires us to lives of celebration and joy in Jesus, come what may! It urges us to the heights of faith and spurs us on along the way.

 

we find ourselves longing to plug into what Paul is plugged into

 

As Paul writes, he writes from a place of hope in the face of great opposition; and not just hope – celebration! Paul is firmly plugged into this this hope and joy. His circumstance as he writes is anything but pleasant, but somehow Paul is able to tap into a perspective that is capable of overthrowing even the darkest moments in life. And as we read, if anything happens to us, it is this: we find ourselves longing to plug into what Paul is plugged into. He writes from prison, facing the very real possibility of execution, and yet from that place he models this astounding faith that gives birth to joy. And on several occasions, Paul finds himself unable to keep from singing about it. Early, in the first chapter, we hear it, “And in this I rejoice! Yes, indeed I will rejoice!” What happened? Did he just win the 649? Did somebody just hand him his firstborn? No, he’s in prison! So, did he just get the news that he was going to be released?? No, no, it’s not that either. Paul sees something, something that at times can be very difficult to see as a Christian. He sees his sufferings as somehow profoundly significant in advancing the work of Christ. And so he celebrates. “Rejoice with me!”


One of the joys I experience week after week in my ministry is the time I spend with Sabra’s grandmother, Jean Stewart. She is in her mid-nineties and passes her days at Point’s West. Day after day she struggles with losing her memory. It’s either Dementia or Alzheimer’s – I don’t know the difference. But I do know it’s real, and it's painful to witness. And so I make it my mission to spend time with Grandma on Sunday afternoons. I know I encourage her and she certainly encourages me. As happens with memory issues they get worse with time. Thankfully she always remembers who I am and her faith remains very real to her. We sit together, pray a bit, sing a bit; I try to encourage her, and we take communion together. Many times during our conversations she is in tears.


Jean perpetually wants to go home, imagining that the old farm she grew up on in Wainwright still stands and that her mom and dad are there waiting for her. Her disease is her worst enemy – she is always ‘packing up’ to leave, consequently there isn’t a picture on the wall or a photo album in sight – she has them all packed away, ready to go home. There isn’t anything ‘homey’ in her room to remind her of what is most precious – who she is, who her family is, and where it is that she belongs. I try to choose carefully when it is appropriate to correct her memory. If she is enjoying dwelling in the past I tend to just go there with her and talk about it. But when something from the past is disturbing her I feel compelled to correct her. For the past two Sundays, she has been very distraught about her husband not coming home. In her mind Bob has gone on a fishing trip and simply hasn’t bothered to return, or is just ‘somewhere’, leaving her sitting there all alone, wondering where he is, week after week.


Two Sundays ago she just blurted it out in anger and we dealt with it. I reminded her that he had passed on (We had the funeral here, in this building, some 10 years ago); she cried for a while and then remembered a few of the pieces of the past. She was annoyed at first that her children hadn’t told her. But… we got past that and things were better. This past Sunday she seemed very present to me. I thought she was in a pretty good place. We visited and shared our faith. But then I could see something was bothering her – she was trying to hold back the tears. Then out it came, “Maybe this will be better if I talk about it…” and she expressed her frustration and sadness and anger over Bob not coming home. I took her by the hands and told her the truth; she cried for a while, then remembered a few pieces of the past and we moved on into a better space.


But this time something else happened too. She was very lucid in describing the struggles she faces day after day. She is aware that her memory is failing. She said, “It feels like there are two people inside me.” The thing she needs most is broke and it breaks my heart to see her struggle.

 

Grandma’s faith is very real, but it’s not easy

 

What do you say to a dear old lady who is going through such trials – suffering so? Her physical health is very good but her mind frequently leaves her troubled, worried and anxious. She (understandably) struggles with feeling like she has nothing to contribute anymore. Months back she told me that she feels like an old dried-up slough. And yet she has a rich faith and a huge heart. She feels compelled not to burden her children with her struggles, still seeing herself as their protector. I urged her to share her struggles with them too, but she worries how they will be able to handle it. She is right in some sense to do so – some of them aren’t handling it very well. No family breezes through crises like these.

Grandma’s faith is very real, but it’s not easy. It is, in fact, a tremendous struggle for her – when she’s packing up she packs her bible out of sight too. She struggles like many of you do with never quite believing that she’s measuring up. (You best deal with that now folks, it doesn’t get easier when you’re older.) Sometimes she worries about losing her faith in the midst of the trials of life. And my job, week after week is to show up at her door, bringing her hope. Grandma once took a long time to say it – not sure if she should – but she felt like when she saw me walk into her room that day that Jesus had arrived. I have a profound responsibility and privilege to walk out faith with this dear lady. This is holy ground to me – perhaps I should take off my shoes next time I enter. But what do you say to such a person? What message does she need to hear again, and again, and again?


Is Grandma Jean’s suffering in the same league as Paul’s? Or is it somehow of a different variety? She’s not in prison as a result of her proclaiming the gospel. Nobody beat her black and blue for Christ. But there she sits as one of Christ’s, suffering, fighting for faith, clinging to hope. I wouldn’t want to trade places with her. And I don’t think Paul would want to either. I’m sure he would think his time in Caesar’s jailhouse was a better deal than the prison grandma sits in.

 

We tend not to hear our mundane suffering as participating in the sufferings of Christ.

 

For whatever reason, the suffering that comes as a direct result of persecution (as was Paul’s in his situation) has been elevated in many believers' minds above the suffering that comes with disease, or divorce, or despair at the death of a loved one. Somehow we imagine that if we were suffering for Christ – under direct persecution – that we could plug directly into the zeal for Christ that Paul embraces in Philippians. We tend not to hear our mundane suffering as participating in the sufferings of Christ. It’s just… something to endure, and we don’t face it like we’re engaged in a battle for the cause of Christ. It doesn’t seem like we’re taking up our crosses and following him when depression has us by the throat or when we just got handed the divorce papers. I believe this thinking needs a major overhaul.


Do you connect with what I’m saying? What about your suffering? Is your suffering as a Christian somehow less than Paul’s suffering that we read about in Philippians? I know it’s different – he wound up in jail because he was preaching Christ, and odds are that your suffering doesn’t have that particular flavor to it. So would Paul say that you’re not suffering for Christ but he is? Would he imagine that the words he writes in Philippians from prison are only for those of us who end up in jail for preaching about Jesus? Or do his words mean to connect with all of us who, in all of our struggles, are somehow engaged in the same battle as he – suffering for Christ, suffering with Christ?


Listen to Eugene Peterson’s translation from the Message:


Philippians 1:12–26 (The Message)

12–14 I want to report to you, friends, that my imprisonment here has had the opposite of its intended effect. Instead of being squelched, the Message has actually prospered. All the soldiers here, and everyone else, too, found out that I’m in jail because of this Messiah. That piqued their curiosity, and now they’ve learned all about him. Not only that, but most of the followers of Jesus here have become far more sure of themselves in the faith than ever, speaking out fearlessly about God, about the Messiah.

15–17 It’s true that some here preach Christ because with me out of the way, they think they’ll step right into the spotlight. But the others do it with the best heart in the world. One group is motivated by pure love, knowing that I am here defending the Message, wanting to help. The others, now that I’m out of the picture, are merely greedy, hoping to get something out of it for themselves. Their motives are bad. They see me as their competition, and so the worse it goes for me, the better—they think—for them.

18–21 So how am I to respond? I’ve decided that I really don’t care about their motives, whether mixed, bad, or indifferent. Every time one of them opens his mouth, Christ is proclaimed, so I just cheer them on!

And I’m going to keep that celebration going because I know how it’s going to turn out. Through your faithful prayers and the generous response of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, everything he wants to do in and through me will be done. I can hardly wait to continue on my course. I don’t expect to be embarrassed in the least. On the contrary, everything happening to me in this jail only serves to make Christ more accurately known, regardless of whether I live or die. They didn’t shut me up; they gave me a pulpit! Alive, I’m Christ’s messenger; dead, I’m his bounty. Life versus even more life! I can’t lose.

22–26 As long as I’m alive in this body, there is good work for me to do. If I had to choose right now, I hardly know which I’d choose. Hard choice! The desire to break camp here and be with Christ is powerful. Some days I can think of nothing better. But most days, because of what you are going through, I am sure that it’s better for me to stick it out here. So I plan to be around awhile, companion to you as your growth and joy in this life of trusting God continues. You can start looking forward to a great reunion when I come visit you again. We’ll be praising Christ, enjoying each other.


Did you hear the old familiar lines as we read from this translation? Did you hear, “I rejoice! Yes, and I will continue to rejoice!” Or, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain!” Peterson didn’t say it just like that did he? But perhaps the way he did say it might help us plug into those old sayings a little deeper. Peterson used the word celebration instead of rejoicing. “Christ is proclaimed, so I just cheer them on! And I’m going to keep that celebration going!”


Listen once again with your ears tuned specifically to hear those old lines in new language:


15–17 It’s true that some here preach Christ because with me out of the way, they think they’ll step right into the spotlight. But the others do it with the best heart in the world. One group is motivated by pure love, knowing that I am here defending the Message, wanting to help. The others, now that I’m out of the picture, are merely greedy, hoping to get something out of it for themselves. Their motives are bad. They see me as their competition, and so the worse it goes for me, the better—they think—for them.

18–21 So how am I to respond? I’ve decided that I really don’t care about their motives, whether mixed, bad, or indifferent. Every time one of them opens his mouth, Christ is proclaimed, so I just cheer them on! (because of this I rejoice!)

And I’m going to keep that celebration going (Yes, and I will continue to rejoice!) because I know how it’s going to turn out. Through your faithful prayers and the generous response of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, everything he wants to do in and through me will be done. I can hardly wait to continue on my course. I don’t expect to be embarrassed in the least. On the contrary, everything happening to me in this jail only serves to make Christ more accurately known, regardless of whether I live or die. They didn’t shut me up; they gave me a pulpit! Alive, I’m Christ’s messenger; dead, I’m his bounty. Life versus even more life! I can’t lose. (For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.)


 

Paul had a perspective on his trials that made them

not only bearable but something worth celebrating!

 

Do you get a sense of what Paul was plugged into here? Paul had a perspective on his trials that made them not only bearable but something worth celebrating! Did you hear that? Is that possible? Is it possible that there is a perspective that you can take in your trials that makes them not only bearable but worth celebrating?


Does that mean that the first time Paul was in Philippi and he ended up taking a severe beating that he somehow enjoyed it? Never! But he did sing in prison on that occasion didn’t he? What permitted Paul to sing in the midst of the pain? It was a matter of perspective! He saw himself participating in the work of Christ and that changes everything. And so when he suffered in his service to Christ he didn’t see it as loss but gain! “You think you can beat the faith out of me? Have a go at it! It only drives it in deeper!” Somehow Paul saw that it was in the midst of his greatest trials that he bore the greatest testimony to the good news about Jesus.


How would you like that perspective in the midst of your trials? What would it be like for Grandma to embrace that view of things as she sits in her prison cell? Could it make her sing too? And how about you in your prison? In your prison of mourning, in your jailhouse of disease or divorce? What if you could somehow get your hands on that perspective the next time depression takes you by the throat, or your past sweeps into your present and overwhelms you? Is it true, brothers and sisters, that Paul would have us embrace this perspective in the midst of our trials as Christians, even if they’re not the direct result of somebody beating us because we’ve proclaimed the gospel? And let me ask this question. Does the gospel of Jesus Christ not have something to say to disease and death? Is it not true that the good news message of Jesus is at war with crumbling marriages and wayward children? Of course it’s true!! So when you find yourself at war with these things, if you find yourself as a Christian on the front lines doing battle with sin and all its fallout, and there you are bleeding and wounded, the scars of war all over you – get the right perspective and start to sing! For you have just as much to sing about in those moments as Paul had in his!!

Jean Stewart, Sabra’s grandmother had a daughter years ago named Marion. Some of you may have known her personally. Marion was just like you and me, a Christian, doing her best to follow her Lord and then the unthinkable happened. She ended up with a brain tumor. And she suffered. Her children were still in school and they suffered as a result. So did her husband Lowell. Everyone close to her suffered as she suffered. And Jean stood by helplessly as her daughter’s health declined. Prayers were prayed but the agony went on and in the end, the tumor had its way with her. Marion died – we were at the funeral.


But if you think that’s the whole story you’ve missed nearly all of it! For in the midst of all of her suffering – you can imagine the type of suffering she endured with a tumor growing inside her head – in the midst of all her suffering Marion did something profound. She saw her suffering from a perspective that permitted her to do something glorious there. Her family in Christ would come and see her to cheer her up and she would cheer them up! Brothers and sisters, she somehow saw what Paul saw! She plugged into it and she could be found celebrating right there in the middle of the horror of disease and death.


Marion spoke boldly of the deep and profound hope she had in Jesus in the midst of this severe trial. And I don’t doubt at all that some would say that these horrible moments of suffering that Marion endured were also the same moments of her most profound testimony for the good news of Jesus. Marion was in prison for Christ, her wounds were very real and she sang there. And not only did she sing there she urged everyone who came to visit her to sing along with her!!!

 

Paul didn’t think that he suffered alone for Christ.

 

The Philippians were strong supporters of Paul in his ministry. They sent him financial support more than once. We hear Paul gushing about their generosity late in the letter. He describes their support as a sharing in his troubles, a participation in his suffering, a fellowship they had entered into with him. And he thanks them sincerely for this. Paul didn’t think that he suffered alone for Christ. He understood that the Philippians had entered into it with him. He was writing to tell them how much they meant to him. And he was writing to tell them to celebrate with him in his chains.


They had sent Paul a gift in prison through a man named Epaphroditus. Epaphroditus would personally deliver their gift to Paul. But on the way something happened. Epaphroditus took sick – very sick – nearly dying on the way from Philippi to Rome.


Listen to how Paul describes that severe trial that Epaphroditus endured:

Philippians 2:25–30

25 But I think it is necessary to send back to you Epaphroditus, my brother, fellow worker and fellow soldier, who is also your messenger, whom you sent to take care of my needs. 26 For he longs for all of you and is distressed because you heard he was ill. 27 Indeed he was ill, and almost died. But God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me, to spare me sorrow upon sorrow. 28 Therefore I am all the more eager to send him, so that when you see him again you may be glad and I may have less anxiety. 29 Welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honor men like him, 30 because he almost died for the work of Christ, risking his life to make up for the help you could not give me.


Did you hear that? Paul describes Epaphroditus’ struggle with a sickness that almost killed him as almost dying for the work of Christ. Epaphroditus was taking a gift to Paul from the church in Philippi. He was walking out his faith and while doing so encountered a severe trial, a trial that almost killed him. What was this trial? Did he stop on the way to preach a sermon in Athens and was severely beaten for it? No, he contracted a disease, a sickness of some kind. And huddling, hold up in some place along the way, he suffered through it. There were no beat marks on his back, no public flogging, no time in the stocks, and no earthquake when he was set free. But he suffered, and Paul said that his suffering was for the work of Christ.


Perhaps you have almost died for the work of Christ yourself and haven’t even realized it! If you’re a Christian and you’re seeking to do God’s will and along the way life runs over you, you’re suffering for the work of Christ! We need this perspective brothers and sisters. We need to see things the way they are. For when we do we, like Paul in his prison, like Marion in hers, can find reason to sing.


And so what did I tell Grandma as she faced her trials? I told her that she was engaged in a cosmic struggle against evil, that Christ was there cheering her on, that her brave face in the midst of the trials was her gospelling, and that she should take every opportunity to show love even as she suffered.


And I believed every word I told her. It was true for Paul, it is true for her, and it’s true for you. Plug into this truth brothers and sisters. Do some singing in your prison for you are participating in the work of Christ.





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