The first three-month lockdown began with a clang as the heavy gates slammed shut behind him. It took a while for John’s eyes to adjust to the relative darkness of his new, unwelcome home. His sense of smell worked only too well reacting to the dank mustiness. His ears reminded him that the muddy waters of the Great Ouse were rushing by rather closer than he would have liked. But what else could he expect from this gaol that had once been an old chapel in the walls of Bedford Bridge?
At the end of his short sentence in 1660, the condition of his release was to never preach again. The judge implored him to ‘follow his calling’ as a tinker alone, since he had no Anglican license to preach. He knew that he could promise no such thing, and so back to lockdown he went, sadly, but content that his behaviour was above reproach. His integrity cost this godly pastor 12 years of liberty in his ministry and family life.
In his day, John Bunyan wasn’t tempted to spend his lockdown years scrolling through social media, binge-watching movies, or even doing PE. Imagine our loss if similar things had caused John to simply ‘fill’ his time rather than ‘use’ it for building up his congregation. He wrote prolifically in that prison cell, but could never have imagined that one book would become the world’s best-seller after the Bible, be translated into over 200 languages, and become a favourite for families around the world over the next 340 years. In the Lord’s providence, his enforced isolation kept him safe from a plague epidemic in 1665 which killed many of his neighbours. The following year he began The Pilgrim’s Progress.
Fast forward to Plague Year 2020. We all found ourselves in lockdowns of varying severity. As Volunteer Chaplains at the newest and largest prison in the UK, my husband and I were still allowed to go out for our ‘essential work’. Our personal lockdown was nowhere near as bad as many of our family and friends endured. Some shielded due to age or medical conditions. But even they had different rooms they could enjoy, and gardens to sit in as the warm days made lockdown more bearable. In prisons across the land, exercise sessions, education classes, skills workshops, non-essential jobs, and all religious meetings were suddenly stopped. Residents were locked in their rooms for over 23 hours a day, many with roommates they did not choose. Frustration led to fights injuring officers and prisoners. Mental health plummeted, self-harm increased. But a few men contacted the chaplaincy asking for spiritual counsel. During the past year, chaplains have been privileged to hand out hundreds of Bibles and Christian books to such men. Some have even studied Bunyan’s books and have begun to understand and experience true conversion. They’ve thanked God for using that man in prison centuries ago to bless their souls now.
Just before the March lockdown, we were finally getting straight after the nightmare of re-wiring our house. Carpet for stairs and landing was next on our list. But carpet shops suddenly became ‘non-essential’ and they closed. Over the next month we became used to walking on bare wooden steps. I had the quirky idea of painting them with pictures from Bunyan’s epic story. Our family all love it, and this might be a fun feature for visiting grandchildren.
I chose the most suitable 15 scenes to fit onto the narrow risers and treads. I’d never done anything like this before. It meant hours of researching, printing suitable pictures to give inspiration for the characters, scenery, layout, and perspective. Every nature walk we did yielded countless photos of yet more country lanes to help me produce some variety. There were days on end with me crouched into uncomfortable kneeling positions painting into the corners, edges, and flat surfaces of each step.
While I painted the House Beautiful with Christian approaching the lions, my grand-daughter needed open heart surgery. They came for a sleepover en route. I decided to turn ‘the Porter’ into my son in his Coastguard uniform, my grand-daughter on her climbing frame in their garden. Just as ‘he’ assured Christian that the lions couldn’t harm him, her Daddy would soon be comforting her in her fears too. When she sees it in future it will remind her of God’s gracious care over her.
Some steps didn’t look right at all and needed completely repainting. I’m still not happy with Vanity Fair, but that’s okay. I learned long ago that being a perfectionist is a futile pursuit in a fallen world. Just doing my best is fine. Three coats of hard varnish finally finished the project in October.
Many visitors come to our house; or used to, in another era! We teach English classes here. We host international students. Many are from non-Christian backgrounds, and we often have opportunity to share the gospel. Now our completed staircase serves as a visual sermon waiting for explanation to everyone who visits. Already, when tradesmen have called round, the first thing they wanted to talk about was the staircase. The next thing I need to do is to produce a leaflet explaining each picture, so they can take it away and consider where they are on the stairs.
Every night when David and I go to bed, we ascend to the Celestial City, knowing our future is secure in the hands of the Lord who brought us to the Cross for forgiveness through his blood. But every morning we descend again to the City of Destruction, knowing that we live in a world that still needs evangelists to point people to the narrow path that leads to Life.
And meanwhile, we just hope that lockdowns won’t keep our six grandchildren out of our house until they’re teenagers!
Colette Harding is married to David Harding, who retired at the end of 2017 from ministering at Milnrow Evangelical Church, Lancashire.