By Melissa Stone - December 11, 2023
Picture with me an ancient prison cell: bland—and precious little—food, cold, dark, damp, and solitary. It seems days bleed into weeks, weeks into months, and months into years. This is your life. The only sounds are iron on iron and the scurry of rats. You’ve learned to ignore the rumbling of your stomach and are trying to quiet the noise in your head.
One day, the jailer gives you a solitary taper candle and matches. Although the candlelight illuminates the squalor you’re living in, it also brings a measure of peace. You want desperately to burn it evening and morning, but you don’t know if you’ll get another, so you light it only in the darkest hours of the night when you’re awake. This singular gift—for that’s how you see it—has provided an emotion you’ve not felt in forever: hope.
A week passes and just as the candle burns to nothing, the jailer brings the same food you’ve always been given with the inclusion of something you’ve not tasted in forever: salt. The spice doesn’t change the food, but it makes it more palatable. Where once you ate only to quell the hunger, you now eat to experience another foreign emotion: comfort. The bland meals resume after a time, but you’re left with the sweet memories of candlelight and comfort that sustain you when the nights are long, and the food is tasteless once again.
Just as the memory of those luxuries fades, the jailer gives you a new wool blanket to warm you, and you once again experience an emotion long since dead: security. The candle’s gone, the salt is no more, and the cold still rages outside; yet you feel safe. And you cherish that safety every second because you don’t know when the blanket will be gone. Sure enough, the blanket is taken away, but instead of feeling bereft, you feel anticipation because you know something good is coming; only, it doesn’t. Part of you wishes the gifts were never given because the disappointment is so great. But the greater part of you is thankful for those small graces for they make you feel an emotion even greater than hope, comfort, and security: you feel loved. Those simple gifts—a candle, salt, a blanket—made you feel cherished. They even made life more bearable and beautiful for a time. And even though the gifts didn’t last, you are more grateful because you never expected to have them.
One day, you’re startled by the realization that you were so focused on the gifts that you never asked who gave them. Was it the jailer? It had to be for who else would visit you? Suddenly, the jailer appears and gives you another gift: a Bible. He walks away and you notice two bookmarks. You turn to the first bookmark in Proverbs and see verse twelve of chapter thirteen underlined: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” You think back to when you didn’t receive anything for so long after the blanket was removed. You felt hopeless and heart sick. Turning to the second bookmark, you find 1 Peter 1:3 underlined: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” Written in the margin is a note: “See John 3:16.” You find it and read: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
Longing fulfilled, living hope, eternal life—these words imprint themselves upon your heart and you scour the book for more. “I am the way…believe in me…you will be free.” Night turns into day and day to night as the chains around your feet seem to fall away with each verse. You fall asleep with more peace than you’ve ever known, even beyond the bars. You awake with the Bible clutched against your chest, and you find the jailer standing outside your unlocked and open prison door. He doesn’t look detached like he used to. He still has authority, but it’s different now; it’s peaceful, loving, pure, and inclusive. Behind him are three people, and in a pile at their feet is a salt cellar, a candle, and a new, white blanket. You notice they know him well, but they’ve never met you before, although they seem to know you.
The man speaks. “I am not your jailer; I am Jesus. The prison cell you’ve been in has been of your own making. The shackles that were once around your feet, you put there yourself. But I’ve watched over you the whole time. These people,” He motions behind him, “are my followers. They are the ones who brought you the gifts of salt, and light, and warmth. And they gave them because they were once where you are, and others did the same for them.” He points to the Bible you’re still clutching. “And I gave you that.” He picks up the pile of gifts and hands them to you. “Now it’s your turn to find others who are prisoners of their own making and share with them My hope, My comfort, and My security. Go in My love and My peace for I am with you always.”