“For me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I should go on living in the flesh, this means productive work for me. Which I shall choose I do not know. I am torn between the two. I have the desire to ‘weigh anchor’ and be with Christ—for that is very much better; but I also desire to remain in the flesh—for that is more necessary on your account. Sure of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all for your advancement and joy in the faith in order that your boasting in Christ might overflow in me through my coming to you again.” (Philippians 1:21-26, my translation)
“I’d rather die,” he said.
Those words caught my attention. “Who in their right mind would say such a thing?” But before I could answer my own question, I remembered that I had often felt that way, too. Prison was no picnic. The heat. The ever-present stench of festering wounds, rotting flesh, body odor, and human excrement. The hunger pains of not having eaten in days. But mostly the shame. What would people think of me now? It was too much. Death. Freedom. After a while, they began to look the same. I would rather die.
Seeking solidarity with a fellow traveler to the grave, I moved to the bars of the door keeping me here. Through them I saw Paul, his back turned to me, dictating to a friend. I was just about to get his attention when he broke the pregnant silence hanging in the air. “But if I had a choice,” he continued, “between seeing Christ now”—Paul’s way of talking about death—“and staying here, I’d choose here.”
It was almost like Paul had a sixth sense about him, because, just as my face twisted in confusion and I recoiled in surprise, Paul turned around. And he was smiling.
I must have been quite a sight, as questions swung around in my mind like monkeys in a tree. “Are you serious?! Are you crazy?! Surely the heat is getting to him. He must be hallucinating.” But as a rare sea breeze blew through the jail, I realized Paul wasn’t hallucinating. It wasn’t the heat. He wasn’t crazy. And he was serious.
My puzzled look must have asked the question for me: “What do you know that I don’t?” because when he spoke next, it was like he was talking directly to me. “I can see it now: the look on your faces when I show back up, having beaten all the odds. I can hear you praising God for rescuing me from certain death. I can even feel the joy my return would inspire in you…” And I got it. Paul got joy from giving joy away, so much so that he’d even delay a reunion with his “anointed one” for a chance to put a smile on their faces.
“You look bothered, my friend.” Only, he was talking to me now. “Tell me: what troubles you?”
“I was just thinking,” I began, “about those people you can’t wait to see—about how they make you smile amidst this h…” but I couldn’t finish it. “I wish I had that. The only people I have want me dead. They’d nail me to a cross first chance they got. Nothing here. Nothing there. I feel like the eagle whose nest sits on top of a peak, looking out over a breathtaking vista. What good does it do to have the secret to joy if you can’t even use it?”
Paul then asked the question that changed everything: “How’d you like to soar—Mister ___? Well, I’m afraid I didn’t get your name.”
“I’d like that. And the name’s Onesimus.”
Matt Burleson is pastor Choctaw Church of Christ