Video Transcript Below:
St. Paul offers this testimony. He bears this witness:
“I have learned in whatever situation to be content. I know how to be brought low and how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4.11-13)
Now, what’s so powerful about this is where Paul is writing from. He is not writing from the comfort of his own home. He is not writing from a beach resort in the Caribbean. He is not writing from a Chalet in the Swiss Alps. He is not writing from a family reunion. No, Paul is in prison when he is writing this.
When he says, “I have learned the secret to being content in all things,” he is writing that from jail, from an unwanted stay-at-home order, from an unwanted shelter-in-place, from an unchosen confinement. And, in his context, he has far fewer creature comforts than most of us have right now. Even if you are in a tiny apartment in Manhattan or Alexandria, VA, it might be about the same square footage that Paul had, but still it is a lot more comfortable than what he had. And certainly, what he had was far less than 17 acres of Corhaven in the Shenandoah Valley, or a family farm outside of Charlottesville, or at a lake house, or wherever most of will be when we’re reading this.
In prison, Paul says, “I am content… I don’t have any needs… I can do all things.” He writes this in spite not only being locked-down but– in his case– of being locked up. Paul had figured out how to encounter God in the confines of where he was, even if he did not choose those confines.
How many of us have chosen to be confined right now? None of us, and neither did Paul.
And yet, his confinement, which had far less than what we have, was still sweet, even though it wasn’t chosen, and even if there was some other reality he would have desired.
We are locked down. We feel confined, at least for a little while yet. Even though we might be coming to the end of this initial lock-down, things are being opened up at different times, the places where we are have different phases, all of us have different comfort levels about when we’ll start to get out and about. I don’t know where we are in this season of lock-down, but we’re still in it, and we still feel confined.
My brothers and sisters, there is a way of encountering God in this confinement even more powerfully precisely because of it. This is not something only to endure, it’s something to take advantage of.
There is a way to find a deep contentment even when confined, even when stir-crazy and locked down. We know this because Paul’s experience would be repeated throughout history. Other Christians have deeply encountered God in confinement, and perhaps precisely because they were confined.
On my mind is Brother Andrew in Eastern Europe in the Communist era, who kept on getting arrested by the secret police, and his testimony that whenever he was in jail he felt God was closer to him. I’m thinking about Walter Ciszek in Moscow in solitary confinement during World War II and then in the gulags in Siberia and how he deeply encountered God in those places. I’m thinking of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Nazi Germany. I’m thinking of James Mawdsley locked in solitary confinement in Burma. And so many more, when we read their accounts of being imprisoned, talk about a strange sort of encounter they had with God, a strange sense of God’s presence with them in lock-down. They all attested to a much deeper experience of God because of their confinement.
Who is really on my mind is Francis Nguyễn Văn Thuận. Văn Thuận was a Catholic priest and then bishop and then Archbishop in Vietnam. In 1975, he was appointed Archbishop of Saigon. At the end of the Vietnam War, things are still in tumult; the Viet Cong have gotten control of the country, and they don’t look too kindly on religious people because they are driven by a communist mindset.
Three months after being appointed Archbishop, Văn Thuận is arrested by the government and put in solitary confinement. From solitary confinement and the various other imprisonments he experienced over the next decade and more, he would write little messages to his flock, to the Christians and Catholics of Saigon, and they would be smuggled out, hand-copied, and distributed out across the city. Eventually, these messages were compiled into a wonderful book, The Road of Hope: A Gospel from Prison.
Shortly before his death in 2002, Văn Thuận gave a talk where he said the following:
“From the very first moment of my arrest, the words of Bishop John Walsh, who had been imprisoned in Communist China, came to mind. On the day of his liberation, Bishop Walsh said, ‘I have spent half of my life waiting.’ It’s true. All prisoners, including myself, constantly wait to be let go. Well, I decided then and there that my captivity would not simply be a time of resignation, but rather a turning point in my life. I decided I would not wait. I would live the present moment and fill it with love. For if I wait, the things I wait for will never happen. The only thing I can be sure of is that I am going to die. No, I will not spend time waiting. I will live in the present moment, and I will fill it with love.”
That is how he approached the earliest days of his confinement, his unchosen stay-at-home order. There are wonderful stories about the power of his ministry, even while he was in solitary, in prison, and under house arrest. I think his posture poses a question for you and for me, and it is this:
Can you take this time of confinement and fill it with love? Can I do that? Can we take this time of confinement and fill it with love with whatever is available for us to do so?
Or maybe a different question would be:
How are you filling your home/prison with love?
I would encourage us all to take advantage of the opportunity to learn how to do this now. This is a very unusual opportunity to actually be confined and to actually glean some of the lessons from those we admire who were actually confined in far harder circumstances than we will likely ever be.
Let’s take advantage of the opportunity to learn how to be confined and to fill every moment with love, because when we are over this, when this is done, we can take the lessons that we’ve learned now and then apply them in whatever situation we find ourselves. We are being given a profoundly unusual opportunity to learn the stuff that you only learn in jail without any of us actually being in jail.
We can thank God for the opportunity to learn these deep lessons without going to solitary confinement in a basement in Moscow, or in a jungle in Vietnam, or in the gulags in Siberia. What a gracious and comfortable way to actually learn some of the deep stuff we actually aspire to.
Now, this last little bit is some good news from Paul, and this comes from Philippians 4:12. He says, “I have learned the secret.” In other words, he had to learn it. This was not a switch that he flipped and all of a sudden he practiced it perfectly. No, he practiced, and he learned.
Most of us, I would imagine, don’t feel like we’re very good at this yet. And that’s OK, because this gives us an opportunity to learn and to practice. My offering would be to go through our days asking the question, “How can I take this moment that I find myself in and fill it with love somehow in the context God has given me?”
Brothers and sisters, let us use this time to learn how to encounter God in confinement. May we learn contentment in all things, and may we fill every moment God gives us with love, even if we would have chosen a different pedagogy.
On the Journey,