It is Well with My Body, Sermon on II Corinthians 12:7b-10

Those who know me might think the title of this sermon is a belated April fool’s joke. But it’s not. Our Lenten sermon series has been about spiritual wellness that comes not because of but in spite of the brokenness around us – broken systems, broken hearts, or broken bodies. And for some reason when we got to the theme of broken bodies everybody turned to look at me.

I am at the age where it seems the favorite pastime among my peers is to report on our aches and pains – even though we have all sworn we wouldn’t be like that when we got old. But if you are younger or fortunate to have fewer physical ailments than I do this sermon is still for you. When Paul says he asked God to remove the thorn in his flesh we think it must be some physical problem he had—arthritis, glaucoma, neuropathy? No wait that’s my medical chart. Seriously, biblical scholars have tried to figure out what Paul’s thorn was for 2000 years, and we still don’t know.

But it doesn’t matter because this text is not medical, it’s theological. It invites us to wrestle with the question of how we as Christians cope with the pains of life – physical, emotional, or relational, and we all have one or more of those. We even describe other frustrations as physical. We say “she/he’s a real pain in the neck” (or some other body part). A cartoonist depicts one such idea about Paul’s thorn like this.

One of my new year’s resolutions back in January was to be able to cope better with my chronic pain. Instead I learned again that it pays to be careful what one asks for. Less than a week into 2019 I was diagnosed with a torn rotator cuff. That wasn’t exactly what I had in mind, God! Now I’m sure I’ve asked God way more than three times to take away my aches and pains, but the answer I keep getting is the same one Paul got — which is “no.” Paul says God told him “my grace is sufficient for you.”

Today’s text also says, “Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh.” Other translations say “to keep me humble.” I don’t know how long it took but Paul came to understand that his problem served to keep him humble. I do know that when I stop focusing on my own problems and pay attention to people with more severe physical pain than I have that works for me too. I am in awe of those of you who come faithfully to church using a walker or a wheelchair, or wearing a knee brace, or in between chemo treatments–who keep a positive attitude in spite of the slings and arrows life has thrown at you.

What Paul learned from his thorn in the flesh is that we have to learn to deal with the hand we are dealt. It doesn’t have to be fair or even understandable – it just is what it is. God is not some supernatural magician who can pronounce a holy abracadabra and take away our pain. Our God is one who suffers with us and gives us the strength to carry on no matter what.

You’ve probably heard it said that we can’t control things that happen to us; all we can control is how we respond to the challenges of life. If that sounds like a cliché it’s because it is. But it’s also true. I had the privilege to witness that in action over the last few years as my father and mother-in-law both dealt with very similar end of life issues. Diana’s mother, Mary, was confined to a wheelchair and lived in assisted living for 9 years. She didn’t just have a thorn, she had a whole rosebush! She had plenty to be unhappy about, but she was always cheerful, content and pleasant in spite of all that. My dad was in similar physical condition in his final years, but his attitude was entirely different. He was angry and never satisfied with anything. He resented his circumstances and made life difficult for those caring for him and also for himself.

I don’t say that to be judgmental because I’m much more like my father than my mother-in-law. All too often I throw myself a pity party and catastrophize my problems even though I know better. I know that words matter especially how our self-talk shapes our attitude toward the challenges we face in life.

For example, I went to the thesaurus to find another word for “pain” while writing this sermon so I didn’t keep repeating myself. The first three choices my thesaurus gave me were: “discomfort, agony and aching.” What a difference a simple word choice makes in describing the same sensation. To be in “agony” is certainly a whole different ball game than having “discomfort” or “aching.” The good news is we get to choose how we want to label what we’re feeling.

Another way of saying that is that “pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.” Pain is part of the human condition. No matter how much we wish it wasn’t, it comes with the territory. I find the Buddhist explanation for suffering very helpful. Buddhism says that we suffer because we are too attached to the things of this world which are all temporary, including these mortal bodies we are privileged to inhabit for a while.

My physical limitations remind me constantly that aging is about learning to let go — letting go of stuff I don’t need, letting go of things I can no longer do while humbly asking for help when I need it. Letting go frees up energy to celebrate the things I can do, and to give thanks for more wisdom gained through life experience.

If a picture is worth a thousand words (or has that number gone up with inflation?) then this one is definitely worth that much.

Letting go is important practice for the ultimate letting go that comes with mortality. But I would hasten to add that letting go doesn’t mean surrender. It doesn’t mean quitting all the things that give life meaning. It means finding ways to still do what we enjoy. Remember, nowhere in the Bible is there any talk of letting go of serving God and our neighbors. In fact one sure way to not be turned in on myself and my problems is to find ways to help others.

Humility means letting go of our need to control things. God’s answer to Paul is that our weakness allows God to be our strength. It boils down to God saying, “I’m God and you’re not – so trust me.” Those are great words to remember if you’re heading into surgery or awaiting a birth of a baby. Letting go of our need to control, of having things our way can also free us of anxiety, worry and fear which are all stressors that only make our physical pains hurt more. As the 12 step programs put it, “Let go and let God.”

I realized this week that humility is so central to our faith that it serves as bookends to the season of Lent. Every year we begin the season of Lent on Ash Wednesday. We put the mark of the cross on our foreheads with ashes, and the traditional words that are said are from Genesis 3:19: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” We don’t say that to be morbid, but to remind us all of our place in creation. Yes, we will all die someday, and making our peace with mortality makes every day of life all that more precious.

And at the end of Lent we have the ultimate example of what humility looks like in Jesus. The night before he was crucified Jesus prays for his thorn to be taken from him. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus says, “Father, if it’s possible take this cup from me.” We’ve all prayed that prayer. I know I have many times. But what makes Jesus’ example so important are the words that a come next: “Not my will but yours be done.”

I don’t pretend to have that kind of faith. Paul says he’s achieved contentment with “weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities,” and no, Lord, I’m not asking for those so I can learn to deal better with them. But I do believe the secret to abundant life is what Paul describes elsewhere in Philippians 4:11 where he says he has learned to “be content with whatever I have” or as some translations put it “to be content in whatever state I’m in.”

A couple of years ago I chose Psalm 90 as the Scripture I read and meditated on during Lent. Mornings are the worst time for my discomfort; so I really identify with this part of that Psalm: “Turn, O Lord! How long? Have compassion on your servants! Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” (vs. 13-14).

Pity-party Steve gravitates to the first phrase “How long, O Lord? Have compassion on your servants. Satisfy us in the morning…” Yes, Lord, especially in the morning. But the compassion I’m asking for isn’t what I really need. I want to feel like a 30 year-old again. I want the pain, ache, discomfort, agony to all go away.

But the Psalmist has a much deeper request that works for every age and stage of life. “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” The pain meds modern science offers are never more than a temporary fix, and because of our overreliance on quick, easy remedies we have an opioid epidemic that can lead to horrific addiction and death. There’s a reason we don’t say “In Big Pharma We Trust.” God’s solution to pain is simply unconditional steadfast love, and it doesn’t just last for a morning. It enables us to rejoice all our days because unconditional love doesn’t say “I love you if you are faithful and brave or if you don’t complain.” Steadfast love says, “I love you, period.”

And that is exactly what Paul means when he says God’s grace is sufficient – it’s all we need, no matter what kind of pain we are dealing with.
I want to leave you with a story from Robert Fulghum about how we deal with pain and suffering. Fulghum is best known for writing “Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” In one of his other books he tells about an experience in his early twenties when he worked for a country resort. He had to do the night shift as a receptionist and mind the stables during the day. The owner was not the most likable or the kindest person on the planet and Robert was getting weary of eating the same lunch every day. In addition, the cost of the lunch would get deducted from his paycheck. It got on his nerves.

One night, he could hold it no longer, especially when he found out that the same lunch was going to be served for another couple of days. One of his colleagues, working as a night auditor, was Sigmund Wollman, a German Jew and a survivor of Auschwitz; Sigmund had spent three years at the concentration camp. He was happy and contented in the same hotel where Robert was mad and upset. Finding no one else around to share his frustration, Robert spoke to Sigmund and expressed his anger against the hotel owner.

Sigmund listened patiently before saying: “Lissen, Fulchum, Lissen me. You know what’s wrong with you? It’s not the food and it’s not the boss and it’s not this job.”

“So what’s wrong with me?”

“Fulchum, you think you know everything but you don’t know the difference between an inconvenience and a problem. If you break your neck, if you have nothing to eat, if your house is on fire — then you’ve got a problem. Everything else is an inconvenience. Life is inconvenient. Life is lumpy.”

Fulghum says, “I think of this as the Wollman Test of Reality. Life is lumpy. And a lump in the porridge, a lump in the throat and a lump in the breast are not the same lump. One should learn the difference.”

When we are tempted to turn inconveniences into problems, God says, “Let go. I’ve got this.” And our best response is, “OK, not my will but yours be done.”

Preached on April 7, 2019, Northwest UMC, Columbus, Ohio

Peace and Contentment No Matter What

Being content in whatever state I am in, and that’s not a geography question by the way, has been getting more challenging for me for the last 6 years. I have been a glass-half-full kind of guy for most of my life, but the natural aging process seemed to kick into high gear for me in the fall of 2009, just before my 63rd birthday. Since then I’ve had two major surgeries and a laundry list of old people medical issues that aren’t life-threatening and not worth itemizing. But they are a pain, literally and figuratively.

I know the uselessness of going into victim mode, and I cringe when I catch myself and my peers devoting the lion’s share of our conversations to medical reports. But self-pity is an occupational hazard for later life, and I do fall into the thrall of its siren song far too frequently.

All of that provided a helpful existential and personal backdrop for a Bible Study I just led for my church. We studied an excellent book by Adam Hamilton entitled The Call: The Life and Message of The Apostle Paul. My theological bias has led me to focus most of my attention on Jesus and the Synoptic Gospels for most of my career; so this study of Paul was an excellent refresher course for me that helped me take a serious look at Paul’s life and what shaped his theological perspective.

I have quoted Paul in sermons, at weddings and funerals, and frequently used his dramatic conversion as an example of the unlimited power of God to transform and redeem any life. But not since seminary 40 plus years ago have I done a systematic study of the context and circumstances that inspired Paul’s writing and teaching and his absolutely unstoppable devotion to his call to share the Christian Gospel with the world at any and all personal cost and sacrifice.

I have been as guilty as most preachers of cherry picking and proof texting verses of Scripture out of context, and two of those verses I refer to often from Paul have taken on a deeper level of meaning for me as a result of studying Paul’s life again. One is the aforementioned verse about being content in whatever state I am in (Phil. 4:11), and the other is from Romans 8 where Paul assures us that “nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”

Those verses are powerful statements of faith even taken out of context, but when we realize that Paul wrote Philippians, a letter of joy and rejoicing, from one of the several prison cells where he spent 4-5 years of the last decade of his life they take on a deeper meaning. Earlier in Philippians 4 Paul says, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Those are strong words from a man who describes the trials of his life this way in II Corinthians: “Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. 28 And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.” (11:24-28)

Paul was a man of passion and perseverance. Someone has defined “passion” as something one is willing to suffer for. Paul was willing and determined to share the Gospel, and he experienced great hardship and pain for his efforts. But did he suffer? If he learned to be content with whatever he had and therefore found the peace that passes all understanding, I would argue he did not suffer. There is a popular self-help statement that says, “Pain is inevitable but suffering is optional” which is often attributed to Buddha. It is consistent with the Buddhist philosophy but no one knows for sure where it originated. Regardless of the source, that advice applies to Paul and to anyone who achieves the attitude of acceptance toward circumstances, tragedies, pain, and other problems that one cannot control.

Paul is able to rise above the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” when Hamlet cannot because of his faith and absolute trust in the goodness and mercy of eternal God. Given the hardship he endured and triumphed over to almost single-handedly spread the Gospel of Christ across the Roman Empire, the words of Romans 8 echo like a climactic crescendo to the symphony of his life.

“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35-39)

Paul has been there, done that. He’s not a bystander to the forces of opposition. He doesn’t just believe in the love of God, he’s felt it and been sustained by it in the most difficult and hopeless situations imaginable. If he’s content and at peace, who am I to be discouraged or undone by the minor difficulties and challenges life puts in my way?