Your Escape from Prison Thinking

Ken Gurley

SERMON TITLE: Your Escape from Prison Thinking

TYPE: Faith/Veteran’s Day TEXT: Philippians 4:4

DATE ORIGINALLY PREACHED: Veterans Day: November 11, 2001

COMMENTS: In this post-September 11 Autumn, great honor is being justly paid to the men and women in uniform. I decided to pay tribute to the veterans on this particular Sunday morning. Regardless of the honor we pay, it can never be enough for those who’ve sacrificed so much for so little in return.

In retrospect, I should have given more thought to this message. An occasion like Veteran’s Day could have been used to bestow personal honor to the uniformed personnel of our community. I probably should have invited all of the officers and presented them with tokens of appreciation for what they’ve done in our behalf.

The primary illustration used throughout the message is Charlie Plumb, a former prisoner of war during the Vietnam crisis. Much of the information is derived from his book, I’m No Hero, as well as his famous
speech, Who is Packing Your Parachute?




Today is Veteran’s Day. Eighty years ago on this day, the remains of the first Unknown Soldier were solemnly interred at Arlington National Cemetery. This anniversary of that occasion is made all the more special when our armed forces are in conflict. Today, we pay tribute to and we pray for our men and women in uniform.

I want to speak of one of our nation’s honored veterans today. His name is Charlie Plumb. At 24 years of age, he was flying high, a top gun pilot during the Vietnam War. Already, he had flown 74 successful
missions and was five days shy of the completion of his tour. Something happened though that changed his life forever.

Roaring off the deck of the USS Kitty Hawk in the cockpit of his F-4 Phantom fighter jet, Plumb remembered thinking, “I’m the best of the best. I’m probably bulletproof.” Soaring into the bright blue sky dotted with puffy clouds, he anticipated the successful completion of his 75th mission.

Enemy fire ended those delusions. His plane was hit and soon began its plummet toward the earth. Plumb and his copilot just managed to eject from the cockpit. Their parachutes opened and ninety seconds later they fell into the outstretched hands of the North Vietnamese Army. In a minute and a half, Plumb had gone from being Top Gun to POW. He would be an unwilling guest at the Hanoi Hilton for the next six years. Sharing this dubious honor with him were two hundred other prisoners of war.

Charlie Plumb was a graduate of the Naval Academy in Annapolis. In his own words, he finished “in the half of the class that makes the top half possible.” What honors he didn’t earn at Annapolis, he earned the hard way: a Silver Star, two Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star, the Legion of Merit, and that most telling honor, the Prisoner of War medal.

In his first couple of days in Hanoi, he was tortured, interrogated, and humiliated. Tossed into an eight by eight cell, he paced and wept. Three steps. Pivot. Three steps. Pivot.

Days passed. More torture. Weeks passed. More torture. Down to 115 pounds. Three steps. Pivot. Three steps. Pivot.

Twenty-seven boils were on the front of his body; there were more than that on his back. Bleeding from four open wounds. Three steps. Pivot. Three steps. Pivot.

One day, in the midst of this painful monotony, he heard a chirping noise. Thinking it to be a cricket, he located the sound and found that it was a piece of wire protruding through a tiny opening near the floor
of his cell wall. As he watched, the wire moved, scratching the floor making the sound of a cricket. On the other end of the wire, he realized must be a fellow prisoner.

He tugged on the wire three times. Someone on the other end answered with three tugs. He tugged again, but the wire was pulled from his grasp and disappeared through the hole. For an hour Plumb waited, then, the wire returned with a note attached to the end.

“How you doing, buddy?” the note read. “You want to know your biggest problem?”

This shocked Charlie. Here he was 115 pounds, and no clothes except a piece of cloth wrapped around his waist. Bleeding, starving to death, humiliated; and his fellow prisoner had the gall to ask if he knew what
his problem was.

“Listening to you over there,” the note continued, “it sounds like you’re suffering from a fairly common disease that can kill you if you don’t catch it in time.”

Charlie scribbled back an inquiry. “What’s the name of this dis-ease? Maybe I know something about it.”

The response came back. “Around here, we call the disease `prison thinking.’ It’s where you think you’re a prisoner.”

Charlie thought, “What kind of idiot have they put me next to? Of course, I’m a prisoner.” But, Charlie realized he would rather be talking to anyone, even an idiot than no one at all. So, he responded.
“Tell me about ‘prison thinking.'”

“Well,” the answer came back via the wire, “when a guy gets shot down, the normal red-blooded American thing for him to do is to start feeling sorry for himself and blaming everyone else. You go into this ‘woe is me’ mode of life. ‘Poor mama Plumb’s little boy Charlie is a long way from home in a communist prison camp.’ You get a bushel of pity then just wallow in it. Then, you start blaming everybody you can think of. The problem with this, of course, is that when you start blaming other
people for your misfortune, you suddenly give them control over your life. That’s prison thinking.”

I think of another famous prisoner who must have learned that lesson early on. For in his numerous encounters with prisons, he had a philosophy.

Rejoice in the Lord alway: and again I say, Rejoice.

On this Veteran’s Day, allow me to address this subject:




There are some fairly famous prisoners in the Bible. Consider Daniel, tucked away in a lion’s den or Jeremiah trapped in the bottom of a well. We find David in “a hold” on more than one occasion, hiding from Saul or captured by the Philistines. Simon Peter was in prison as well.

Not long ago, my wife and I stood in a confined space a couple of floors below the excavated ruins of the High Priest’s house, the site where Jesus awaited His trial. Yes, even Jesus was a prisoner.

But, I think the apostle Paul must earn the title, “The Most Famous Prisoner of the Bible.” He referred to himself as the “prisoner of the Lord.” He life was marked with imprisonments and trials. As the Lord had
told Ananias of the future apostle Paul, “I will shew him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake” (Acts 9:16).

This suffering prisoner of the Lord gives a brief excerpt of his experiences in his close-up and personal letter to Corinth:

Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as a fool) I am more; in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft. Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one.
Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own
countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst,
in fastings often, in cold and nakedness. Beside those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches.

He suffered much. He also gained much. From the crucible of his personal suffering emerged the fragrant letters to the Ephesians and the Colossians. Without Paul’s suffering, we wouldn’t have the tender story of Onesimus, the runaway slave, found in the tiny letter to Philemon. Most of all, we wouldn’t have the incredible, buoyant book of Philippians written from the heart of a Roman prison cell.

The recipients of this letter were the inhabitants of Philippi, a city in Greece named after King Philip, father of Alexander the Great. Paul had visited this city ten years prior in the company of young Silas.
There, the two men had been beaten severely and placed in jail. And, at midnight they gave all of us who suffer unjustly the “SHUSH” strategy of success: “Sing-Heartily-Until-Something-Happens.”

Paul wired the rest of his fellow prisoners the good news, “Jesus is alive and well!”

The apostle had a great aversion to that disease of prison thinking. Rather than self-pity, he opted for praise. Instead of “woe is me,” he chose “worthy is the Lamb.” To the same Philippians he shouted, “Rejoice in the Lord!” Then, in case they missed it, “Again I say rejoice!” We’re free! “He that the Son has set free is free indeed!” We might be chained in body, but our minds and spirits are loosed in praise.

Relatively few of us have suffered what the Apostle Paul did. Few will undergo torture similar to Charlie Plumb’s at the Hanoi Hilton. No, our bars are more mental than metal. We are held captive by mental habits, mindsets, and attitudes. And, like Paul and Plumb, we need to be loosed!


1. Faith looses us from Fear!

Just yesterday, I read that thirty percent of Americans suffer from a mental disease. Bound by phobias, disorders, and anxieties, many people live in fear’s dark prison.

The apostle John said it, “fear hath torment” (I John 4:18). There is great bondage in fear. Great bondage calls for a great deliverance.

In reading articles and remembrances of POW’s of the Vietnam War, I’m struck by the fear tactics employed against them and how those being tortured suffered with a mantra, “Never let them see you sweat.” An old sea captain quizzed a young Naval Academy student. “What steps would you take if a sudden storm came up on the starboard side,” the captain asked. “I’d throw out an anchor, sir,” came the quick reply. “What would you do if another storm sprang up aft,” questioned the captain. “I’d throw out another anchor, sir,” the student replied. “But, what if a third storm sprang up forward,” queried the captain. Again, the same reply, “I’d throw out another anchor, sir.” “Where in the world are you getting all of those anchors,” the captain wondered aloud. The student replied, “From the same place you’re getting all those storms, sir!”

For every storm, there is an anchor. For each wild fearful night, there is a ray of light. For every trial, there is a triumph. Remember the storm endured by our famous prisoner, the Apostle Paul?
After fourteen days before a driving wind when even the heartiest had given up hope, the weakened Paul stood up before his amazed comrades and said:

ACTS 27:23-25
there stood by me this night the angel of God, whose I am, and whom I serve, Saying, Fear not, Paul; thou must be brought before Caesar: and, lo, God bath given thee all them that sail with thee. Wherefore, sirs, be of good cheer: for I believe God, that it shall be even as it was told me.

We are loosed from fear by our faith in God! Faith caused Daniel to rest in a lion’s den. Faith brought slumber to Simon Peter in a prison cell. God knows how to deliver the righteous!

Charlie Plumb said it like this, “You have to have faith. Faith in God. Faith in your country. Faith in each other. Faith in yourself.” I like the order of that, don’t you?

Jesus asked a vital question about this:

MARK 4:38-40
And he was in the hinder part of the ship, asleep on a pillow: and they awake him, and say unto him, Master, carest thou not that we perish? And he arose, and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, Peace, be still. And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. And he said unto them, Why are ye so fearful? how is it that ye have no faith?

Before the storm, the disciples saw miracles of healing and pro-vision. What they had seen should have given them faith over the unseen. A prior testimony can loose present bondage.

Hear me carefully when I say: Your faith, not your circumstances, determines your happiness and well-being. Grow in faith and watch fear disappear.

2. Forgiveness looses us from Bitterness.

If anyone had the right to be bitter, Paul did. His ministry had been marked by one catastrophe after another. But, rather than growing bitter, he said, “Rejoice in the Lord.” When Charlie Plumb was released from Hanoi, he was trans-ported to Clark’s Air Force Base in the Philippines. There, he was allowed to call home. His wife didn’t answer. So, he called his parents. “Mom, Dad, it’s me, Charlie. I made it out!” They wept and they cried.

Finally, the dreaded question tumbled from Charlie’s lips, “Dad, where’s my wife?” His father answered, “Son, we will talk about it when you get home.” “Dad,” Charlie insisted, “I want to know now. I called home and she’s not there.” Charlie’s mother mustered the courage and responded, “Charlie, I’d give not have to tell you this. She got tired of waiting. She divorced you and she’s engaged to be married.”

When Charlie finally returned home, friends insisted that he hire a lawyer and take his ex-wife to the cleaners. Charlie surprised them by his laughter and his response, “You’re telling me that I have a right to be bitter? You’re telling me it’s okay to hate? You don’t understand. I’ve been through a six-year pro-gram at the University of Hanoi. I can’t afford to be bitter;  just forgive, forget it, and move on!”

Forgive. Forget it. Move on.Forgiveness is the way out of a prison called bitterness.

Paul had to learn that age-old lesson: forgive, forgive, and for-give. Maybe that’s why the letter to Philemon begins with these words, “Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ” (1:1). Absolutely nothing happens to the child of God that the Lord can’t take and work something good from it. Fall into His hands. Get lost in Him, not your problem.

Paul could have grown bitter, but he chose rather to go deeper. Listen to a few paraphrased verses in his letter to the Philippians:

– For to me to live is Christ.
– My sole purpose is to glorify Christ.
– I must abound in the love of Christ. Oh, that I may lay hold on the mind of Christ.
– That I may know Him in His sufferings.
– Or, could I say, that I may enroll in the University of Calvary.

Yes, Jesus is the Only answer for bitterness. He is the One who prayed, “Father, forgive them.”

Life provokes us. And sometimes, our response to life’s provocations is disproportionate. I watched someone the other day get cut off on the highway as several lanes merged. The driver went berserk, flashing his lights, honking his horn, waving his fist out the window. Probably, this was just the final straw on an already loaded camel. Unresolved issues get carried around until some-one or something provokes us one too many times.

That’s the way bitterness begins. It starts so small and eventually it enshrouds our entire life. Procrastination doesn’t help bitterness, immediate forgiveness does.

Robert E. Lee, commanding General of the Army of North Virginia, once owned a beautiful estate. Visit Arlington Cemetery today and you will see the remnants of this defeated general’s property. His lovely home was once filled with the memorabilia of his wife’s famous relative, another general named George Washington. But, at war’s end, he was penniless. Broken in health and spirit and exiled to Richmond, the
general paid a dear price for his involvement in an ill-fated war.

Shortly after the war’s end, Robert E. Lee was worshipping in Richmond’s Episcopal church. A black man came to the altar to be served communion. The communicants were aghast and none would go to the altar. Finally, the haggard, white-haired former general of the Confederate forces made his way down the aisle and knelt beside the black man. At Calvary, where Christ’s body was broken and His blood was shed, there is simply no room for bitterness. Forgiveness reigns there.

It is impossible to enjoy today until you quit living in yesterday.

Forgive. Forget it. Move on. Let it go. The bonds of bitterness will leave you if you will only let them.

3. Humility looses us from Pride.

Pride is such bondage. Wrapped in chains of ego and selfishness, incarcerated in the shackles of affluence and prisons of prestige, we stumble like Jacob Marley’s driven spirit in Dickens’ Christmas Carol. Locked in jailhouses of self-importance, we for-sake the freedom that only the Christian life can bring.

Hear Paul’s pedigree: a Pharisee of the Pharisees, of the inaugural, kingly tribe of Benjamin, a student of the famed Gamaliel, possibly a member of the Sanhedrin and a prisoner. Yes, Paul had some coming down to do.

Charlie Plumb dined with his second wife, Cathy, in a restaurant when he noticed a man staring at him from a few tables away. A few minutes into the meal, the stranger came over to his table and pointed a finger in Charlie’s face, “You’re Plumb,” he said simply. Charlie looked up and said, “Yes, sir. I’m Plumb.”

The man then recited a miniature biography of Plumb’s life. He said, “You flew jet fighters in Vietnam. You were on the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk. You were shot down. You parachuted into enemy hands and
spent six years as a prisoner of war.”

Plumb was astonished. “How do you know that,” he asked. The response was four words that would forever change Charlie’s life. The man standing at his table said, “I packed your parachute.”

Charlie was speechless. He thought back to the young, brash, cocky fighter pilot strutting across the carrier’s deck oblivious to the enlisted sailors scurrying around him. It had been one of those men, the man standing in front of him, who had packed the parachute that saved his life. I wonder, who is busy at this very moment packing your parachute? Others contribute to your success. We stand atop the shoulders of many people. A mighty cloud of witnesses brought us to this place. If we make it, it will be with a lot of help.

Jesus showed us the way. He humbled himself even to the death of the cross.

Pride’s boastful bonds melt before a humble spirit.


Paul gives us the cure for all that binds us; Rejoice in the Lord. Learn the power of joy and contentment.

The above article, “Your Escape from Prison Thinking,” is written by Ken Gurley. It was excerpted from the twenty-third chapter of Gurley’s book, Preaching for a New Millennium.

The material is most likely copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.