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FIRST-PERSON: Spiritual claustrophobia

WAKE FOREST, N.C. (BP) — I’ve always enjoyed the country. I grew up in a fairly small town in South Carolina that had three stoplights within the city limits. My grandparents owned 100 acres of farmland in Middle Tennessee with a few cattle. We used to visit there every summer. I loved riding the tractor, walking up and down the hills. Open spaces give my mind room to think and my soul room to breathe.

I remember a time when I was very young, maybe 5 or 6 when I was playing in the front room of my childhood home. We had a couple of formal sitting chairs that were just high enough off the floor for a young boy to crawl under. Up until that age, I could fit under them easily, but this one time, I got stuck. I was wedged between the floor and the chair with my head and upper body directly beneath the chair and my legs sticking out. I remember feeling trapped, and I got very nervous. I began to panic and wriggled and squirmed until my head was finally free and I squeezed my way out. I never crawled under any furniture after that. Since then, I’ve been just slightly claustrophobic.

In Iraq, where I worked more than a year with a Christian organization, I lived in the same building where I worked. I was confined to the area close to my house/office most days. If I wanted to leave, I had to schedule it with my local colleagues and they had to approve of the location. I lived in what some have called a “golden prison.” It’s golden because all of my meals were prepared for me. If I needed something from the market, I put it on a list and my Iraqi colleagues got it for me. Yet it was a prison because I didn’t leave the house unless it was necessary or very safe for me to do so. These occasions were rare.

I was totally stuck.

Even if I had the chance to go out, I couldn’t speak English while I was out. I stuck out like a sore thumb, and if the wrong people had seen me, I might never have come back. Some days I felt like I was under house arrest, especially spiritually. I love meeting new people and I got to do this quite a bit, but I also love deep conversation, and I didn’t get enough of it. I like to engage people’s minds and steer them toward truth. As a matter of fact, this is my life’s calling.

In Iraq, however, I didn’t get to do this enough to sustain my spiritual need. I didn’t have space to think. I was in constant tension because of all of the things going on in my city that I needed to be aware of. I had very little “room” of my own and some days it felt suffocating.

I think there’s a correlation between my physical claustrophobia and my spiritual well being. Most days, I felt like I was trapped in a spiritual prison, with nowhere to go. I didn’t get the chance to do ministry like I did in the States. I didn’t have the chance to go to my church and fellowship with others on a regular basis. If I was going to have an influence on people, I had to do it between 9 and 5 among the people who came to me.

The Apostle Paul was in a situation not unlike mine, and I’ve noticed something spectacular about his life while under house arrest: He never stopped doing God’s work. I know Paul may have had sleepless nights, because I had them. He may have cried out to God and asked him to deliver him from his situation, because I’ve done it. I am hardly the man that Paul was, and if I was struggling in my prison, Paul may have struggled in his. Yet, Paul remained faithful to his calling, and he continued the work he was called to.

It’s been 16 years since I committed to following Jesus wherever He called me, even if that means staying in one place and having to get creative as to how I carry out His work. This was the case for Paul. He knew he was going to be confined, and he may not have known how long it would last. Yet, his commitment to Christ didn’t stop. He had to find new ways of fulfilling his calling and doing God’s work. I’ve learned to accept the fact that, sometimes, this is exactly where God has me. I’ve had to learn it the hard way this past year, but I’ve learned it nonetheless. A few years ago while participating in the IMPACT 360 gap-year program for college-age students, God opened my eyes to the world He created. I never dreamt that He would put me under house arrest. If I can learn anything from the life of the Apostle Paul, it’s to remember my commitment to Jesus and find ways of keeping it.
Mark Heath is a former Christian worker in Iraq and current student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C. IMPACT 360 is on the Web at www.impact360.net. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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  • Mark Heath