Put in Our Place

One of my goals for the New Year was to cope better with my chronic aches and pains. Now the phrase “be careful what you ask for” has new meaning for me. I injured my right shoulder a few months ago and was diagnosed with a torn rotator cuff, 50-50 chance that physical therapy would help me avoid surgery. I think those odds have gone down. I have reinjured it twice in last couple of weeks lifting things the wrong way. This is not the way I wanted to practice dealing better with pain.

My theologizing about pain seems to come around on a two year cycle. (cf. my post on 3/25/17 “Rejoicing When God says No,” and 5/19/15 “Encouraged and Inspired.”) As in both of those instances I keep coming back to St. Paul’s verses (II Corinthians 12:7-10) where he describes his repeated requests for God to remove an unidentified “thorn in the flesh.” I don’t know if this is an actual physical ailment, a metaphor for another kind of suffering, or both. Here’s what those verses say in the NRSV:

“Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”

If this was just about physical weakness I should be getting stronger by the minute, but of course it isn’t. The repetition of “not being too elated” indicates that’s important. The “slings and arrows” of life can serve to keep us humble, and when dealing with God’s power that’s the only realistic stance to take.

Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of these verses in “The Message” helps reinforce that point:
“So I wouldn’t get a big head, I was given the gift of a handicap to keep me in constant touch with my limitations. Satan’s angel did his best to get me down; what he in fact did was push me to my knees. No danger then of walking around high and mighty! At first I didn’t think of it as a gift, and begged God to remove it. Three times I did that, and then he told me, ‘My grace is enough; it’s all you need. My strength comes into its own in your weakness.’”

I don’t like the word choice of “handicap” by Peterson. In no way do I want to tell anyone with a disability or handicap that it is a gift from God. But we all have challenges to cope with be they physical, emotional, or relational, and accepting those humbly as just the way things are is much better than either being resentful or conceited.

God is not a super being that we can call upon to intervene and pull out our thorns. That’s like complaining that roses come with thorns instead of rejoicing that thorns come with roses. For reasons that are above our pay grade to understand the human condition comes with pain. I am inclined to agree with Buddhism’s diagnosis of that pain as being caused by our “attachment” to things that are temporary. My physical limitations remind me constantly that aging is about letting go – letting go of things I can no longer do and humbly finding and celebrating things I can do, I hope with more wisdom gained through experience. Letting go is important practice for that inevitable letting go that comes with mortality.

And ultimately the feeling of being at home in the universe, my favorite definition of “Faith,” comes from letting go of our need to control or understand everything. As mere beings our humility/weakness makes room for the true majesty and mystery of Being itself, which we call God.

I don’t claim to have achieved Paul’s contentment with “with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities,” and no, Lord, I am not asking for those so I can learn to deal better with them!! But I do recognize that state of “being content with whatever I have” which Paul describes in Philippians 4:11 as the goal of faith.

Paul describes that feeling in different words that are very familiar: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13) But I also like the way Peterson paraphrases that verse because it emphasizes the Creator/creature nature of our relationship with God which is the reason humility is our ultimate reality.

Peterson says, “Whatever I have, wherever I am, I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am.” That puts things in their proper perspective.

Peace that Passes All Understanding

So many competing emotions in Advent 2015! Consumerism has almost ruined the holiday season for me in a “normal” year, but the epidemic of fear fed by the recent wave of terrorist attacks makes it especially challenging and necessary for me to dig deep and find the bedrock of faith and gratitude in 2015.

I struggled for days with what, if anything, to say about the attacks in Paris on November 13, partly because so much has already been said, both wise and foolish, but mostly because I have been very depressed about the state of the world and not sure what to say that can make any contribution. I finally gave up and said nothing.

That Friday the 13th for me was a metaphor for the tug of war between hope and fear. One of our beautiful grandchildren spent that day at our house. I’m very biased, of course, but little things she did that day made my papa pride swell for what a sweet, caring, smart little girl she is.

Shortly after I took her home I heard the first reports about the attacks in Paris on a TV in a fast food restaurant. Unlike 9/11 when the world stopped to watch the horror unfold, I seemed to be the only one in the McDonald’s paying any attention to the news. Everyone else was chatting and carrying on as usual because these kinds of events have become chillingly commonplace.

That evening I went to a meeting to watch a film entitled “Climate Refugees,” which in painful detail describes how millions of people have been driven from their homes by storms, floods and draughts related to climate change. The whole film, which was made long before the current refugee crisis in Europe, was alarming, but one segment especially so given the chaos in Paris that very evening. That segment talked about how desperate, frightened refugees are easy prey for sex traffickers and terrorist organizations looking for new recruits. I was so overwhelmed by the scope of the problem that I couldn’t bring myself to stay for the discussion after the film.

The level and frequency of violence in our world since then has shaken the foundations of my faith. I am questioning my long-held belief in humans being created in the image of God. I am afraid for my family and for the future of the planet. And my first reaction to that fear and anger was to join the chorus of politicians who want to bomb our way out of the ISIS problem and arm ourselves and close our borders. I know better, but it scares me even more that some of our “leaders” or wannabes don’t. Instead they see these tragedies as an opportunity to sell more guns and generate more fear and fan the flames of their own political fortunes with abhorrent ideas borrowed from Hitler’s playbook.

On the bright side there have been wonderful statements of faith and hope from those with a greater understanding of human history and a better vision of human potential. One of those reminded me that love is ultimately the victor over hate. I believe that’s true in the long run, but for now hate has a big lead and the clock is ticking.

The paragraphs above were written during Thanksgiving week, and wisely, I believe, I chose not to share them then because they felt too hopeless and negative. Then yesterday came news of the biggest U.S. mass shooting since Sandy Hook. I was still wrestling with depression and feared this latest killing spree would only deepen my despair. Much to my surprise I am not as pessimistic 24 hours after San Bernardino as I have been for 2.5 weeks. I am very sad and determined to do more to be the solution to the dis-ease strangling our nation and world. But I am not depressed, and that feels very strange.

On the one hand I feel a bit guilty for not being discouraged, and on the other I am afraid to analyze my hopeful feeling for fear I will awaken from a dream and it will be gone. But unlike Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh in my favorite baseball movie “Bull Durham,” I am cursed with self-awareness. And most days that’s a good thing – and today is one of those.

I had noticed ironically yesterday that the last thing I posted in this blog was a piece about being “content in whatever state I am in” based on the words of St. Paul in Philippians 4. I posted that 4 days before the Paris terrorist attacks. How quickly I forgot those words to live by when the chips were down.

But tonight, several mass shootings later, some other words from that same 4th chapter popped into my awareness as I was pondering why I was not as depressed by these latest killings much closer to home. In particular verse 7 came to mind, and I had a warm feeling because what had been just words and ideas 3 weeks ago was actually a reality for me. I was experiencing the “peace that passes all understanding,” and it was very good.

So I revisited Philippians 4, and here’s the context for verse 7: “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. 8 Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”

How relevant and practical those old words are for this particular Advent. Rejoice, in spite of our fear. Be gentle to everyone, including ourselves. Know that Emmanuel (“God with Us”) is near. Replace worry with prayer and supplication and thanksgiving. Prayer is not enough in our struggle with death and destruction and violence, but it is the foundation, the source of strength that sustains us when “our arms are too weary” to be carriers of hope to a frightened world.

And Paul gives attitude adjustment advice better than the best self-help guru. He says to focus on what is good and true and excellent and worthy of praise. Because even in the dark days of Advent 2015 there is much goodness in the world. We may just have to work a little harder to find it, but it is more necessary than ever to find it and share it.

One such image for me that is stronger than the non-stop horrific news coverage from California is that of a simple gesture by my granddaughter that Friday the 13th. She came down to my office that morning with two juice boxes in her hands that she had gotten from the lunch box she brought with her. When I asked her if she was going to drink them both she said, “No, this one’s for you.” A simple pure act of caring and sharing, unprompted and natural. It was the best juice box I’ve tasted in a long time!

She was doing in her six-year-old way what the final advice is in that passage from Paul. It says, “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard in me, and the peace of God will be with you.” Don’t abandon the ways of love and peace. Don’t fall into the temptation to fight fire with fire. Be forgiving and compassionate, even when those things make no sense and seem impossible. There is no peace in following the ways of King Herod, another mass murderer. The peace of God came “not with swords loud clashing, nor roll of stirring drum, but with deeds of love and mercy” in a helpless refugee child born in a barn.

No matter how loud our leaders and our hearts want to shout fear and hate, the still small voice of God says, “Fear not, I am still bringing you good news of great joy.” Don’t miss it!

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?