Praising God in your Prisons
by Anne Linington
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Women's World Day of Prayer 2010 Colwell Baptist 5th March
Reading: Acts 16
Our worship today has been prepared by the women of Cameroon, and our New Testament reading concerns a place named Philippi.
I would like to draw some parallels between these two places, one current and the other almost 2000 years ago.
Cameroon is described as “Africa in miniature”
In the north, it is dry, with so little rain, land is becoming desert. Men and older children leave to find work, leaving a village like Ngouma comprising 80% women.
The centre is mountainous, and to the south rain forest. International logging whilst profitable threatens the plants and animals on which local people depend.
If Cameroon is “Africa in miniature”, it is interesting to note that:
Philippi is described as “Rome in miniature”
At the time of Paul, Philippi was occupied by the Romans, with Roman governors and soldiers protecting the empire at its frontiers.
Despite many setbacks, Paul with Silas, Timothy and Luke are led by the Holy Spirit to
Paul was a Roman citizen, and bringing the gospel to Philippi would further his goal of getting to Rome. From there the gospel would spread out to the rest of the empire, ultimately including our country.
Paul would normally head for the synagogue on the Sabbath, but in this place there were evidently less than ten Jewish men. Instead, he found an established place of prayer beside the river (recalling exile in Babylon ..Psalm 137 “By the rivers of Babylon..we sat and wept when we remembered Zion). Here Paul met godly women- Jews or proselytes.
One of the features of the Cameroon economy is the traders, exchanging goods sometimes at the roadside for things they need. They are called “Buyam-sellum” a term that hangs over from the time of British occupation.
Cameroon law protects women's rights to business and ownership of land, and for girls to be educated, but tradition and economic necessity still make this difficult today.
In Philippi there was a woman called Lydia- a “buyam-sellum”if you like:
She was a native of Thyatira where trade-guilds existed; for instance for coppersmiths
and dyers. However these guilds were often linked with worship of temple deities.
Lydia traded in purple- the dye for the cloth used by people of high rank- especially Roman citizens: remember the mocking Purple robe for a king placed on Christ by Roman soldiers.
Lydia's move to Philippi may have been for commercial reasons, but it also placed her in a better spiritual position.
She is among the women at the riverside place of prayer on the Sabbath.
She may have been a Jew by birth, or a proselyte:
where she hears from Paul the Apostle to the Gentiles
the Gospel of Christ...
And “the Lord opened her heart”.
Conversion is always like this: someone spiritually searching.. hears the Gospel.. and God opens their heart”
Lydia is the first convert on European soil, and her response is to offer hospitality to Paul and his party in her home- she is evidently mistress of the household.
Here in Lydia's home is the first Church in Europe;
It is the place to which the newly-converted Philippian Jailor later comes.
this Church which would support Paul on his journeys;
it is the Church to which Paul would later write his epistle from prison/ house arrest in Rome.. the letter to the Philippians.. with its theme of Joy:
“Rejoice in the Lord always, I will say it again, rejoice” (Phil 4:4)
Paul describes this Church as his “chief joy and crown..” thanking God for their fellowship in the Gospel“from the first day (ie Lydia's conversion) until now. (Phils. 1:3)
There is no reference to Lydia in the book of Philippians, and Paul would not have omitted this founder member: either she has died, or possibly moved to another place.
God brings this apostle and this businesswoman together, and the European Church is born.
The next encounter Paul has in Philippi is with a “slave-girl”...
As Paul and the others passed by en-route to the place of prayer, the spirit within the girl cried out “These men are slaves of the Most High God”
Through her oracles/ sayings she is exploited into making money for her owners:
She did this for several days.. annoying Paul.. who finally addressed the spirit within her.
Like his master, even though this girl appeared to be telling the truth, the source was evil, and was commanded to come out in the name of Christ.
G. Campbell-Morgan commentating on this passage in 1924 refers to the “Spiritualism” that existed in London, and which still occurs to day in the form of horoscopes and palmistry, tarot cards and “readings” by mediums .
Some, even Christians, see it as a harmless bit of nonsense; others speak of being told a fact that “no-one could possibly have known”.
Even when it seems to be the truth, if the source is evil, non-Christian, then it must be dealt with accordingly.
Slavery in Cameroon
One of the saddest features of learning about Cameroon is that slavery and exploitation continues today: For more information “Google” Cameroon and Amnesty International for evidence.
It may be economic slavery where boys and girls are forced to work in sweat-shops, as nannies or domestic help or on farms and plantations.
But it can also be much worse where girls and women are trafficked for sex and abuse. Some Cameroon women are said to be among the most beautiful in Africa, but they are trafficked to parts of Europe; children have ended up in the Middle-East- in Saudi-Arabia.
Children from other countries.. Ghana, Tonga, Mali and Burkina Faso are also trafficked through Cameroon, despite laws prohibiting it.
One couple from Cameroon were jailed and fined for bringing a girl to the US as a domestic slave where she was also sexually abused by the husband.
Paul's exorcism of the slave-girl in Philippi, meant that her owners lost their means of exploitation and making money.
Angered by this, Paul and Silas were dragged off to the market place, where accusations were made, resulting in them being stripped, flogged and placed in the inner prison with their feet in stocks.
Amazingly Paul and Silas are heard praying and singing praise to God- heard by the other prisoners.
There is an earthquake, prison doors thrown open, shackles released and they are free to leave, and this is what the Jailor expects to find- but no, they are all there, says Paul.
“What must I do to be saved?” asks the Jailor, and he receives the same message that Paul gave to the women at the river- “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved- you and all your household”.
So here we have another whole family, believed, baptised and joining the church meeting at Lydia's home.
When Paul was imprisoned in Philippi, and later in Rome, he used the opportunity to pray.. to praise God.. to witness to his guards.. to write to the young churches he had established.
Others have followed this example over the years:
John Bunyan(17th Century) writing Pilgrim's Progress (second only in popularity to the Bible)
Madame Guyon (17th Century France)
Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Germany (1940's)
Nelson Mandela in South Africa.... (20th Century)
The women and girls of Cameroon face many prisons: education; poverty; domestic and sexual enslavement, yet somehow they manage to praise God despite them.
Here on the Isle of Wight we have several prisons- Parkhurst, Albany and Camphill detaining people for varying lengths of time depending on their crimes. Christians are busy ministering through Chaplains and charities such as "Changing tunes" with their music ministry.
But what of us? What “prisons” may we have in our own lives?
Long-term caring for a dependent spouse or child
A time of illness or convalescence?
Decreasing mobility with age?
no longer able to drive?
Bereavement- relatives, life partner, close friend?
Living here on the island with family at a distance?
How can we best use this time to glorify God?
Can we write letters? Make phone calls? Invite someone for a cup of tea or a simple meal? Pray .. Praise God
My own personal prison occurred during a mental breakdown following a miscarriage and complications: It involved admission to a secure ward of a mental hospital, and felt very prison-like. The following poem describes some situations in which we need Christ
to bring us release:
All Kinds of Prisons
There are all kinds of prisons
All sorts of cells
All types of torments
The prison of marriage
Where love long-since died
The cell of a room
Where you sit and hide
A body that’s broken
A bed that holds fast
A mind that’s in torment
A life that seems past
The chains of disappointment
The shackles of fear
The doubts and the hopelessness
The non-ceasing tears
In such cells as these
Jesus longs to reach
Bringing His light,
His love and His peace
Bringing you freedom
Release, broken chains
Again and again
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Excellent - I bet the ladies were encouraged and challenged - love this the 2nd time around!