The Dark Sacraments in My Jail Cell

My dad had warned me that this might happen, but I don't suppose I fully believed him at the time. But sure enough, he was spot on. Here I was, in broad daylight, on a winding web of dirt roads I'd driven over a thousand times, and I was as lost as lost can be. For the past two years, when the sun had set, I’d head to work. Driving a truck on the night shift in the Texas oil field means (1) you're thrown out into no-man's land; (2) given hand-drawn maps with landmarks like windmills, pump jacks, and trees; and (3) expected to find a handful of gas wells. After a few godawful weeks, you begin to get a feel for the dark. You familiarize yourself with the black terrain, the serpentine ruts, the landmarks on which your headlights shine. The darkness becomes your home.

Which is why, on that sunny day in the summer of 2009, I sat in the cab of my truck utterly befuddled. I had switched from the night to the day shift. I did the same work, drove the same areas. But just like my dad had warned me, none of these roads looked the same in the daytime. I didn’t realize how accustomed I’d grown to the darkness until the day I was lost in the light.

Nor did I realize, at that time, that my life had taken on the form of a parable, that I had become (what Scripture calls) a child of darkness. You may think you know what I mean, but reflect with me for a moment. I don’t mean simply that I “loved the darkness rather than the light because my deeds were evil,” as Jesus says (John 3:19). While that is true, there was deeper magic at work. I loved the darkness because I feared all the good things in the light.

It’s easier to hunker down in darkness when you want to bite at old wounds. You may hate them, but those wounds are also precious to you. They take on almost sacramental value. “Take, bite, this old wound,” you tell yourself, “given for you for the retaining of pain.” To live and relive that loss, that shame, helps define you. You are the betrayed one, the hurt one, the lost one. If you go into the light, and Jesus licks that wound for you, it will truly begin to heal. But healing will mean you lose that evil by which you understood your existence. Who you are will no longer be defined by circumstances you think you control. You will, in fact, lose your self-created identity in the Christ who swallows you into himself, so that you become as he is. In the darkness, it’s easier to be the old you; in the light, you become a new you, a member of the body of Christ. As good as that is, to a son of darkness, nothing is more frightening.

jailcellIn the darkness, it was easier to make-believe that I exercised a sort of divine control over my life. In the light is freedom, but I preferred the narrowly defined, clearly articulated, walls of my lightless jail cell. Here I could conduct my rituals of wound-biting, skirt-chasing, revenge-plotting, alcohol-forgetting, porn-watching, hope-hating, and a host of other mental and physical forms of slavery. But those were better than living in the light, because in the light I would be free—free to hope again, love again, live again in the grace and forgiveness of the God who won’t let me be god.

I loved the darkness because I feared all the good things in the light. Like that day I sat in my truck cab, lost as I looked over a landscape illumined by the sun, the man who has grown accustomed to the darkness is frightened of freedom. Freedom means I am not shackled anymore to what hurt me, or how I hurt others, but live in unchained liberty in a landscape of grace. You cannot truly get lost in the light, yet this is a frightening thing to one who likes being lost. You cannot be unloved in the light, yet this is scary to one who believes himself unlovable, loved with qualifications, loved so long as he conforms. You are forgiven in the light, yet there is a certain twisted consolation in thinking I am unforgiven, because that sin to which I’m bound is a drug to which I’m addicted.

I will tell you the truth: living in the darkness is easier than living in the light, but it is an ease that slowly chokes every ounce of life away. I know, I know too well, for that darkness was my foul jail cell for years. I scratched my creeds onto the floor. I bit my wounds. I celebrated my profane mysteries within those blackened walls. And I feared the light and freedom and love and forgiveness of life in the light, of a life inextricably bound up in the life of Jesus Christ.

But he would not let the jail cell be my final resting place, nor will he let it be yours. He leaps into the darkness with his wild and reckless love. He enters our cells that reek of decomposing lives, and he pulls us up from the floors on which we crouch in fear. He pries open our fingers to take away the idols to which we cling. He pours over our heads a bucket of warm, soapy water, mixed with his crucifixion blood, and he washes away every smudge of sin and stink and death. And finally, he picks us up and carried us out into the light. At first, it hurts. It’s blinding. It’s too free. But he won’t let us go. He holds us there. To our trembling hearts, he whispers, “Listen, I love you. I have never stopped loving you. All is well now. You are forgiven. Your past no longer defines you. I define you, for you are mine. All I have is yours. My peace, my hope, my Father, my everything is yours. You are free.”

Yes, you are free. In Christ, our crucified Brother, we are liberated to be the children of our heavenly Father. To run and laugh on the playground of his grace. To see on his face nothing but a beaming smile of favor. To be blessedly lost in a love that knows no limitations. All this is yours, for you are of Christ, and Christ is of God, and God is all for you.

What we need in our fragmented world, full of hurting people, is the love of Jesus Christ, who welcomes home sinners with a grace that knows no bounds. My book Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons, is packed with reflections that go that extra mile of grace. Again and again, they present the Christ who is crucified and risen for you. Please take a moment to check it out here. You may also be interested in my collections of hymns and poetry entitled, The Infant Priest, which you can purchase here. Both books are also available on Amazon, as is my booklet Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing (also on Kindle). Thank you for your prayers and support!