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?

Encouraged and Inspired: Signs of Resurrection Living

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I’ve been thinking about this topic for a long time and ironically the reasons for my reflections are also the obstacles and excuses for not getting my thoughts and feelings written down. I am at that awkward age when most topics of conversation veer automatically to aches and pains. My list is not unique: arthritis, back pain, glaucoma, neuropathy—nothing noteworthy. Just this week I found a medicated pain patch that helped my nagging back, and I was feeling optimistic about tackling some yard work and playing some golf; and then in one innocent move I twisted my knee and the simplest of tasks became a new challenge.

So, as the final installment in this Eastertide series on the enemies of living resurrected lives I give you “discouragement.” God knows there are far more major issues to be concerned about in the world than a few minor aches and pains. Yes, I know they (whoever “they” are) say, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” St. Paul expresses that positive spin on suffering in Romans 5: “We also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope. “ (Vs. 3-4).

Maybe in Disney movies, but not always in real life. Sometimes suffering just beats us down. The 24/7 news cycle bombards us with such bad news around the clock that I hear many people saying they can’t bear to watch the news, especially before retiring for the night. I won’t add to the bad news by reciting the litany of CNN headlines, but you know them, from Nebraska to Nepal the very foundations of the earth and of our faith seem to be on shaky ground.

It’s almost impossible to turn off the news in the information age. Even when I want to watch a recorded sporting event I almost always get an alert or see a post on Facebook telling me the outcome before I want to know it. And even if we could unplug ourselves, the only way to escape tales of suffering would be to disengage from all personal relationships. Friends dealing with unexpected cancer diagnoses, families dealing with substance and physical abuse, mental health issues, and at the same time caring for a loved one wasting away with stage-4 cancer.

One definition of sin that I learned in seminary was “to be turned in on oneself,” and though it didn’t make the church’s top 7 list it is one of the deadliest sins. It is sneaky deadly because focusing on my own problems depletes me of energy needed to care about the personal needs of others and the larger systemic problems of the world. Most people would agree, at least in theory, that compassion is one of the unique and greatest of human virtues. The word “compassion” comes from the Greek words meaning “to suffer with,” and it is almost impossible to be concerned about the problems of others when I am wallowing in a pity party about my own pain.

There has been much wisdom written about human suffering. The first of the four noble truths of Buddhism is that “Life is suffering.” (The second by the way is that our suffering is caused by attachment to the temporary things of this world, but that’s a topic for another day.) Translated into the language of the human potential movement, those two truths are summed up in the catch phrase that “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” Simply put, pain is part of the human condition – physical, emotional, spiritual – they all go with the territory. None of us can control things that happen to us in life. Bad things do happen to good people. What we have a choice about is how we respond to the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” of life, as Shakespeare describes them in Hamlet’s famous soliloquy.

Here’s how St. Paul describes his own struggle with being turned in on his own problems. “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.” (II Corinthians 12:7-10).

We don’t know what Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was, and we don’t need to know. We all have personal problems, challenges, aggravations, misfortunes that we have no solution for. When it comes to physical ailments we are tempted to think that modern medicine should be able to fix any problem our bodies throw at us with just the right pill or procedure. The undeniable truth that becomes clearer as our mortal bodies age, however, is that we are all “dust and to dust we shall return.” (Genesis 3:19).

And that brings us full circle in the Lent to Pentecost cycle. Those words from Genesis are traditionally used as ashes are imposed on Christians on Ash Wednesday –not to be morbid, but to give us a wakeup call. When Paul says “Take this thorn from me,” or Jesus says in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Take this cup from me,” God’s reply is, “Sorry, this is the hand you’ve been dealt, deal with it.” Prayers are always answered, but sometimes the answer is not the one we are hoping for.

The best cure for being turned in on oneself is to be more aware of the needs and lives of our fellow human beings. And that won’t happen if we cut ourselves off completely from the bad news in the world. We need a healthy balance of reality and inspiration from others who truly live resurrection lives. Those people can encourage us so we can be encouragers for others, witnesses to the power of faith that overcomes every thorn, every tragedy and every temptation to give in to the suffering that the world throws at us.

To that end I offer two stories of inspiration that humble and encourage me to trust and believe in the Gospel of resurrection:
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The first was a simple post on Facebook from the Blue Street Journal. “Against all odds, both of these women survived gunshot wounds to the brain. One of them at the hands of the Taliban and one of them at the hands of a mentally ill mass-shooter. Malala Yousafzai and Gabrielle Giffords inspire and give me hope.”

The second is a great story from Robert Fulghum about a critical life lesson we don’t learn in kindergarten. During his early twenties Fulghum used to work for a countryside 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 Jewish guy. 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, he was mad because of eating the same food day-in-day-out and for having to pay for it. Worked up, he was really cross.

Sigmund, however, listened patiently before saying: “Lissen, Fulchum, Lissen me, 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.”

Robert Fulghum had a realization and he further wrote in his story, “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.”