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Reverend Dr. William H. Curtis

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2 Corinthians 12:9-10

But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 

We’ve all had our setbacks in life. We’ve all had times when it seemed, no matter which way we turned, God was saying “no.” “No,” at such times, can be the scariest word in the world. When we have our hearts set on something, the possibility it might not come—or might not come right when we want or need it—is terrifying and disheartening. We begin to think that God has turned away from us, that somehow, this one defeat ensures our lives will be failures, lived away from grace and success. 

But defeat is not the end of a road, and God hasn’t gone anywhere. Christ is still right there with you, waiting for you to rely upon Him. This is the Christ who delights “in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.” This is the Christ who knows you, knows what you want, and more importantly, knows what He wants for you. If He puts defeat in your way, He means it to be a sign, not a condemnation. He might say take a right, take a left, or take a U-turn, but He is certainly not saying “stop.” If we take just a rudimentary look through history, we’ll find that God often uses failure in this way: not to break us but to redirect us to the place where our true conquest can take place. 

Just consider some of the greatest figures in the Bible. Peter fell short in his faith but still founded the church. David suffered setbacks, even as he continued to make progress towards his purpose. He was exiled and on the run for years, hunted simply for being favored by God, but it all ended with him as king. 

And what about Jonah, who constantly ran from responsibility, who seemed constantly to be running towards defeat? When he finally gave in to the will of the Lord, when he finally stopped to listen to what he was being told, he found himself a profound prophet to Nineveh. 

This is the key to finding the power in defeat, to rising higher than ever before just when we are knocked down. If, in our low moments, we turn to God, He will raise us up. “My power is made perfect in weakness,” He tells us. His healing is at its best when we are broken, His ability to lift us is more perfect when we have fallen. 

That’s why God has created defeat in this life. Not only is it inevitable because of free will, it also serves the purpose of turning us back towards Him. What is the first thought that runs through your mind when you run across a setback in life? That first thought is always toward God, a calling out for help. 

“In my distress I called to the LORD,” says Psalm 18 in verse 6, “I cried to my God for help. From his temple he heard my voice; my cry came before him, into his ears.”

If we give in to this impulse and return to God in our lowest moments, we set ourselves up to conquer any defeat we suffer. I’m not saying it will always be how we imagined it. Jonah wanted his life to go a different direction, but God had His heart set on making a prophet of this fearful man. David did not want to see the end of Saul and Jonathan, but that course was required to make David king. Peter did not want to see Christ die, but He had to so that Peter, and all of us, could be saved. 

Defeat shows us that the path we were taking up the mountain wasn’t quite right, that we needed more help from God to get up the steepest climbs. Defeat makes us prove we want the goal enough, and that we are humble enough to know Who is really allowing us to become conquerors. 

It is by defeat that we show we can regroup and return ourselves to God’s hands, to fulfill not just our purpose and ambitions, but His. No one has ever said it better than Paul: “For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

 

Exodus 15:2

The Lord is my strength and my defense;
    he has become my salvation.
He is my God, and I will praise him,
    my father’s God, and I will exalt him. (NIV)

115 years ago, Theodore Roosevelt said one of his most famous lines, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” While that may seem an odd quote to consider here, the message has a definite Christian purpose if we are willing to see it. 

The meaning, after all, is not to be boastful, no matter the power you have at your disposal. It’s hard to imagine a more Christian piece of advice. As Christians, after all, we know that pride is a sin, that God’s glory should speak for itself and shouldn’t be used to pad our egos. We know that “pride brings a person low, but the lowly in spirit gain honor” (Proverbs 29:23). We know that we are mighty, that we are conquerors (link to previous conqueror blog posts) in Christ, but that part of that might is in being humble. 

Exodus 15:2 above reinforces the idea that we should carry with us God’s strength, while always remembering that we should speak softly of this strength, that it is not ours to wield. We do best to let others observe the power God puts in us instead of drawing attention to it. We have to always remember that God deserves praise and exaltation, not us. Who are we to pump ourselves up? 

We might take this idea still further if we look more closely at what President Roosevelt meant by “big stick” in the context he used it. For him, the “big stick” was the U.S. military, a powerful force that everyone in the world recognized. He had no reason to shout and threaten, he thought, because the strength of the U.S. was so apparent. No one was going to come messing around here, because no one was in the mood to test that power, and his reminding everyone of that fact would only diminish it. It would make him and his country look petty and weaker than they actually were. 

For us, as Christians in our own daily battles, the Lord is our “big stick,” and His infinite strength allows us to speak softly when we look to walk through all of the challenges we face. There can be a tendency to be overbearing when sharing our faith. God is so incredible, so abundant in mercy and beauty, that we can be overzealous in our efforts. But Roosevelt reminds us to let God speak for Himself. We don’t need to “beat someone over the head” with His love. We simply need to speak softly and let God show the way Himself through the grace He puts in our lives. Be the quiet example of godliness; that is what wins the argument against evil and apathy.  And, always remember that our actions can speak much louder than our words.

When we speak to those who haven’t found God, speak politely. God doesn’t need a salesman; He needs a testimony of His love for people to see. People need to see your life as an example of the goodness of God, and see His grace working through you.

God doesn’t need you to throw a dozen pamphlets under someone’s door. Simply living the strength that God gives us and showing your praise and exaltation to Him will be enough.

 

As summer begins to wind down, kids not only have to begin thinking about towing the line during the day in class and preparing for the next day at school at night, they also have to prep for the challenges of their academic lives and the often monumental task of deciding their place in the world among friends, teachers, peers, and even bullies. Parents, too, feel the pressures of creating a solid and nurturing environment for their families and sometimes forget that, with each season of back-to-school, learning opportunities abound for them as well.

Beginnings bring a recurring sense of renewal and hope. Back-to-school is no different. For the adults packing the lunches and sending the kids off on the buses, the opportunity exists to remember and renew our own sense of learning. 

We can take what Proverbs 15:5 (NIV) tells us about being open to teaching opportunities: “A fool spurns a parent’s discipline, but whoever heeds correction shows prudence.” In reflection, we should remember what we learned from our own parents and take some of those lessons to our own children and families.

As we send our young adults off to their first year of college and new kindergartners off to their first classroom experiences, we can take moments to remember when our own lives were being shaped by others and when our biggest goals in life were to absorb what we were learning in school and in church. We can ask ourselves if we are teaching what we learned and imparting our wisdom and experience to those who need it.

As a young man, I knew coaches who required that their players accomplish certain things over the summer break: eat right, exercise every day and show up for pre-season training ready to work hard. The ability to receive direction while setting goals and following through on these directives at a young age is imperative to success in all things.  This brings me to the following verse that children and parents alike are familiar with. Colossians 3:20 says, “Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord” (NIV). We heard it so often in Sunday school and from grandparents and aunts and uncles who would scold us using this verse that we might not even actually truly hear it anymore for its true meaning. But, we must apply the positive lessons that we learned as children to teach the children that now depend on us for their growth and successful development.

This is a new year full of new opportunities.  We should all go into this back-to-school season with open hearts and minds, understanding that we all play a role in the development of future generations.

 

Proverbs 20:24

A person’s steps are directed by the Lord.

How then can anyone understand their own way? 

Last week, I wrote about how important it is for us to venture out of our comfortable lives and get to know the world.

This can be a very powerful experience if we open ourselves to it. Think of the sense of awe we get from going out to see some impressive natural sight like the Grand Canyon or a meteor shower or a starlit sky. Just witnessing such things can bring home, in an instant, the power of God. It’s God in that beautiful sunset we catch for the first time in months out of our car window as we sit in traffic. It’s God in the first big snow when the city goes all white and work is called off for a day. We can experience the awesomeness of God in so many ways when we take a moment to step away from our regular routines.

The point of adventure is not just to make God more apparent but to bring us closer to God. When we take on adventure, we are literally walking towards God with every new step. 

Adventure isn’t just about getting away or relaxing or even acting as that unifying force I mentioned last week. It is about consciously turning ourselves towards God and seeking Him out in a new place. 

As Proverbs tells us above, we don’t direct our steps, God does, and taking an opportunity to experience new things acknowledges that. It opens us up to allowing God to direct our steps, allowing us to further seek out God’s purpose for our lives. 

 

August is American Adventure Month, which makes it the perfect time to start thinking about injecting a little adventure into our lives. Now is the time to take that road trip you’ve been putting off or to fly off to some exotic land for a little thrill and some new experiences.

As any of us who have spent too many long months working without a break can tell you, life needs variety. When we fall too long into routine, we often forget to challenge ourselves. We forget to learn more about ourselves and our neighbors. And, we forget to place God first in our lives.

This is the real meaning of adventure. Although we associate the word with Indiana Jones or James Bond, or maybe Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, those Hollywood-style movies really have nothing to do with adventure as we see it in our everyday lives. Adventure doesn’t have to be chasing down long-lost ancient treasures or flying off to outer space. Adventure, for a Christian, doesn’t need to be anything more than finding a means to disrupt that routine in our lives that is keeping us from seeing ourselves clearly. That kind of adventure can be as simple as driving home by a different route, stopping by a new restaurant or shop, or taking on a new hobby.

Try that just once this week and see what you come across when you do it. God loves to put a sign right in front of us but just out of view from our daily experience. Taking the long way home can put you in the way of all sorts of adventures: new relationships, new purpose, new opportunities. There may be someone just waiting for you to turn right instead of left when you leave work next Monday, a person who is waiting to connect, to get some help, to find Christ with you.

I’m not making this up. The meaning of adventure is, in fact, just that humble. It is nothing more than an “exciting or unusual experience,” according to dictionary.com. Adventure starts small, but the results skyrocket from there.

As summer winds down and we head into the fall season, we need this kind of shaking up in our everyday actions. When we don’t break our habits, we can get addicted to living by routine, and we can get very crafty at avoiding the exciting and unusual in life. It just feels easier to come straight home from work, to stay in on a lazy Sunday morning, to take in a movie on the weekend with the family instead of reaching out for something that will challenge us.

Those choices can be a real comfort when life is stressful, but they take away much that is fulfilling and enriching in our experience, and they remove the chance to connect to our world as we are meant to. Because of modern technology, our world is increasingly becoming isolated and divided. People are starting to look at their neighbors as complete strangers, and worse sometimes, as enemies. People aren’t interested in “love your neighbor” these days (Mark 12:31), they are interested in telling them to knock off the noise so they can hear the TV better.

This stuff isn’t idle talk. There are consequences to our fear of adventure. Recently, I wrote about how critical it was for us to act as the peacemakers in these tense times. And part of our duty as emissaries of peace is to go out into the world and extend ourselves in the search for unity. Essentially, if we want to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation” (Mark 16:15), we have to adventure out into that world, taking on new situations, in order to spread God’s message to everyone.

I’m sure you get along well with the people in your house and in your church. I’m sure you also get along well with the people at work and in your neighborhood. But, as Christians seeking peace in the world, we have to do better than that. We need to venture further, taking in what is “unusual” to us, what is “uncomfortable” and new. 

We need to “go into all the world,” just like Paul and the other apostles did, so we can teach and learn peace with all those around us.

In 2 Corinthians 11:26, Paul says, “I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers.”

Paul knew something about adventure. We’ll never know all the trials he survived to act as an emissary for Christ. In our time, we don’t have to live up to that incredible standard, but we have to be willing to follow its spirit. We simply need to fill ourselves with a sense of adventure for that which is a little farther than our comfort reaches. We need to go into the world, even if it is just a few blocks farther than we normally walk, and try to make a connection with the adventures we find. 

Modern life, with all its conveniences, has left us detached, left us on islands to ourselves. This leads to the sort of ugliness we see on the television these days, where our own countrymen and countrywomen don’t understand our perspective, where no one can seem to agree, even on simple solutions.

We have to remember what English cleric and metaphysical poet, John Donne, said several hundred years ago:

    No man is an island,

    Entire of itself,

    Every man is a piece of the continent,

    A part of the main.

We have to be brave and sail out a bit from our safe harbors, adventure out at sea, until we can see where we connect with the mainland. We don’t have to live dangerously like Paul, but bravely enough to face whatever challenges are in the city or in the country, in the rivers or on the sea. 

It is only by such effort that we can heal and find comfort with the world. Because if we don’t, if we continue to let our tectonic plates shift away, well, to paraphrase Donne again, America will be very much the less for it.