I’m thinking prisons come in different forms. I visited a maximum security prison once. I went there to meet with the prison chaplain to learn more about the kind of ministry he did on the inside. It was a daunting experience! This was an old prison, located in Laval, Quebec, and it looked more like some kind of medieval castle than anything else. There were high concrete walls with a tiny little door. Once you got inside you went through a series of locked gates as you moved deeper into the prison. We got to a classroom inside somewhere and then they brought the prisoners to us for the chapel service. I never saw where they came from. My only impression was that I was locked in a little room deep inside a structure that I was not going to be able to exit of my own free will. The only way out was if someone let me out.
I thought of that the other day as I was reading Acts 16. In this chapter, Paul and Silas are stripped, flogged and thrown into prison after exercising a demon from a girl at the expense of her traffickers. After the beating, the magistrates tell the jailer to guard them carefully, so he takes them even deeper into the jail and locks them up in the “inner cell” – shackling their feet in the stocks (verse 24). I tried to imagine what that must have been like for the apostles.
In his book, Finding God in Unexpected Places, Philip Yancey describes a time Chuck Colson and Ron Nikkel of Prison Fellowship visited a prison in Zambia. They had heard of a secret inner prison there where condemned offenders were kept in solitary confinement under the worst of conditions. They described it as utterly foul and inhumane: cramped and over crowded, without any sanitation system – these prisoners were crammed into steel cells 23 hours a day under the blazing African sun. Yet, when the prisoners learned who their visitors were, without any instruction, 80 of them lined up together in the inner court and began to sing hymns of praise. Behind them, scratched on the concrete wall in charcoal, was a drawing of Jesus hanging on the cross. At one with them in their suffering, they had formed a choir. Yancey writes that Nikkel and Colson, who had visited in order to share some encouragement, could not bring themselves to speak. They could only listen.
There is something inspiring and freeing, about singing the praises of the Lord from the depths of an inner prison. That’s what Paul and Silas did too. Just before they were miraculously freed by the power of the Spirit, they were overheard by everyone in the jail singing praises and praying to God (verse 25).
I don’t know anybody who is currently incarcerated in a penitentiary, but I know a lot of people who are trapped in inner prisons of other kinds. A prison is a place that you can’t get yourself out of – you have to be set free by someone else. As I thought about that I thought of some of the folks I know who struggle with personal circumstances that are incredibly debilitating. Physical disabilities, mental health issues, addictions, loneliness. These are conditions that my friends can do very little about. They endure them as best they can. They wait for God’s healing and deliverance – believing that one day they will be completely free.
Yet they sing His praises. Even from the midst of their personal dungeons, songs of love, hope, praise and power ring out. And heaven hears, and bows. The darkness is shamed and scattered like night insects who are suddenly exposed by the turning on of a light. And when they sing, the rest of us should listen. I doubt there is a more holy sound in all creation.