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The Canary in the Coal Mine

by Greg Albrecht

Years ago, coal miners took a caged canary down into the mine with them, because canaries are extremely sensitive to carbon monoxide and methane. The earliest mines didn't have ventilation systems, so canaries helped detect toxic gases long before humans could.

The canaries served as a warning system, an audible and a visual cue as to the condition of the air the miners were breathing. As long as the miners could see that the canary was alive, and could hear the canary singing, the miners knew that the air was safe to breathe.

A silent, dead canary meant that the miners needed to evacuate immediately—their environment had turned toxic.

The phrase "canary in a coal mine" has come to refer to someone or something that provides an early warning of a potential crisis.

Each year PTM/CWR dedicates one week in March as a time when we can all join together, considering the plight of people who are trapped in religious coal mines. They are breathing toxic fumes—and of course anyone who finds themselves in such a place needs help in identifying how toxic their spiritual environment is.

We call it our Day of Prayer for Religious Captives. Ephesians 2:4-5 tells us that the only reason we are spiritually alive is because of the love of God—he has saved us from spiritually unhealthy places by his grace.

Like a spiritual coal miner, we must carefully monitor the degree to which God's grace is being seen and heard in any spiritual environment in which we find ourselves. The degree to which grace is absent, ignored or even maligned and made fun of is the degree to which any religious environment is spiritually unhealthy and toxic.

A man named George McLeod once wrote that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles, but on a cross between two thieves, on the town garbage dump where cynics talk smut, thieves curse and soldiers gamble. Jesus came into our world, as physically and spiritually corrupt and perverted that it is, to bring light and healing.

Christ-less religion threatens, like a noxious and somewhat hard- to-detect religious gas, to choke authentic Christianity.

Like so many coal mines, Christ-less religion is dark. Christ-less religion often does all that it can to appear holy—Christ-less religion may call its geographical place (its real estate and buildings) holy—it may call its candles, altars, stained glass and steeples holy but Christ-less religion forgets that God alone is holy.

Jesus, our grace canary, will help us identify, as he said in John 10, the false shepherds who are thieves and robbers, who only wish to use and abuse and profit from the sheep of God's pasture.

Today and this week at CWR we pray for religious captives who are enslaved by religious legalism and authoritarianism. They live in spiritual shadows—unable, because of the poison of religion, to experience the reality of God's grace.

We pray for them so that one day, in his mercy, God will make his grace fully and completely known to them, that they might come to see the light of Christ, to be comforted by the gospel, to experience rest in Christ and to come to know the peace of God.

God's grace frees us from the demands and control of institutionalized, big business religion—freeing us in Christ so that we might be a part of Christ, united with him, in him. John 15 tells us that we will, by God's grace, abide (live—remain) in Christ.

Because of Christ, we will not be worried about where to lay our heads. We will not be spiritual vagabonds.

By God's grace we have a home —an eternal home.

Don't settle for some run-down, decaying, decrepit religious slum— when God offers you the riches of his grace, the treasures of his kingdom. Look and listen for the grace canary.


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