OLD CHAINS AND BARBED-WIRE
READ: Acts 16:16-40
“The magistrates in the Roman city of Philippi ordered Paul and Silas to be whipped and then imprisoned. The jailer locked them up in chains and shackles securing them in deepest part of the prison. In the middle of the night, Paul and Silas were singing psalms and praying. The other prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly an earthquake shook the prison. The cell doors flew open and the chains and shackles fell off the prisoners. Fearing that the prisoners had escaped, the jailer was about to take his own life, but Paul and Silas called out, ‘Do yourself no harm, for we are still here!’ …Overwhelmed by both the prisoners’ faith and compassion, the jailer then asked Paul and Silas to baptize him into this Christian faith.” – Acts 16:23-28, 33 paraphrased
Paul and Silas … Paul is certainly well-known, our New Testament has many of the letters this early missionary sent to his churches; Silas, also an early missionary, is not as well-known. Yet, though we have few recorded words of Silas, he seemed to be ever-present in the building of the early church. Silas is sometimes called by his Roman name, Silvanus. And whenever Saint Sylvanus or Silas is portrayed in art he is usually portrayed with his broken chains – a reference to this dramatic moment in the Philippian jail that we have remembered today. Yet … as far as we know … Paul and Silas left their broken chains behind.
Awhile back, I came upon an abandoned fence on the Abbey farm. It had the look of being the final remnant of a one-time pen for the dairy herd’s bull. The wood was thick and sturdy, a rugged, heavy-duty fence. Biting into the weathered fence posts was the rusted remains of some mean-looking barbed-wire. And hanging on the post, a heavy, heavy chain with a bull-ring hook at the end. The bull was no more and the pen had been long abandoned, but that mean barbed-wire and that heavy chain were still there; they hadn’t gone away.
‘Tis an old and common way to talk about salvation, this idea of being “set free” from one’s chains and shackles. Listen to Afro-American spirituals and that image of breaking free of the chains is quite graphic, and its way, most poignant. My early years of country revivals often heard the testimonies, “I was bound in the shackles of my sins, but then Jesus came and set me free!” In the world of AA and NA, even Al-Anon, you will repeatedly hear this imagery of being set free from the shackles of addiction. Yet … sometimes, even after Christ sets us free … we walk through life carrying heavy, rusted chains and guarding our hearts with old barbed-wire.
In these slower and quieter years of my Christian walk, where the noise of pastoral busy-ness that too often drowned out the inner voice has subsided, I can finally hear the faint clanking of some broken chains, rattling within my soul. Those chains have the sound of bitterness, fear, regret, matters half-forgiven, issues half-settled. Oh, I thank the Lord that God set me free again and again from those imprisonments of years gone by … but looking back, I could have done a better job of leaving the broken chains behind. Now here in my come-lately quiet life here at Greyfriars’ Abbey, now and then, during my hours of contemplative prayer, the Lord will walk me back to some nearly forgotten episode of years ago … not to go back and relive those struggles all over again, but to go back and return … a measure of rusting chain. The Lord will walk me back and we will do some forgiving work with souls often now long gone on. The Lord will walk me back and we will do some “lightening” work, to finally let loose the weight of that which needed to be left behind, back then, back there. The Lord will walk me back and we will do some healing work, removing the rusty barbed-wire that was biting into that portion of my soul, that barbed-wire that protected old wounds from those who came too close … and then healing that festered wound with the balm of gentle grace.
It is a most joyful experience … this experience of ‘breaking free”, unbroken. But we must remember to leave the chains behind and the barbed-wire too.
Brother Anthony of the Cross
— Visit my poetry site, Willow Words, by clicking www.willowwordspoetry.wordpress.com .
Also visit my new Psalter site for a reading of the Psalms www.thepsalmsbybrotheranthony.wordpress.com