2 Corinthians 12:7-9
Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 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.
1 Peter 4:19
So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.
When I talked about drawing back previously, I mentioned that some events just make it hard to see God. Perhaps it was the death of a relative or a moment of failure in a career when that promotion seemed a sure thing. Maybe it was a time when the bills came in and the money wasn’t in the bank to pay them, or maybe it was an injury, a moment of real pain, that threw everything into doubt. Just like everyone else, I’ve known loss, and I’ve felt lost because of it. I’ve felt my share of pain where I’ve “pleaded with the Lord to take it away.” As I said last time, there’s no shame in admitting it.
We’ve all experienced bruises and broken bones, scrapes and scratches—real and metaphorical—from childhood onward. These are the pains that have weighed us down. We’ve all been pushed down, and we’ve all struggled to get back up.
With the Olympic Games in Rio upon us, I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of overcoming pain and how athletes go through that process to reach their goals. Any of you who know me know I’m a big sports fan. Sports and exercise are part of my release, part of how I motivate myself to conquer the problems I have in my life. I know many of you are the same. We love the moments of triumph, the last second catch that wins the game, the home-run in the bottom of the ninth, the shot at the buzzer: all the incredible feats that snatch victory from an almost certain loss.
What we rarely think about is the pain these athletes—and we ourselves—go through to reach such incredible high moments. This is not just football, or the obvious physical games. When you watch our young gymnasts compete for gold in Brazil, think for a moment about how many hours of pain they have worked through in order to land that perfect dismount. Think of the strains and sprains they have endured. When you see one of our runners cross the finish line first or extend themselves to jump the farthest a person has ever jumped, think about all the times life knocked them down and they got back up.
If athletes suffer pain to reach Olympic glory, how much more does a Christian soul suffer to be fit and ready for heaven? I don’t mean to say God chooses to punish us or harm us to train us. But I do know that God is the balm that heals. But, all the same, life throws some hard lessons our way, and we’ve got to be tough to overcome them. When we get pushed from the godly path, it’s not God who did the pushing, but to reach His glory, we have got to be strong enough to get up and get back on it again.
Which brings us to Paul. The thorn in his side is so famous, I hardly need to explain the context. We know he suffered, and we know he overcame and continued to believe. But what we don’t linger on is that he pleaded to have it taken away. He begged to be free of the pain, and God didn’t take it away.
Why is that? Why wouldn’t God come down and simply remove that thorn, pluck it right out, and let Paul go on with his business? In fact, why doesn’t God come down right now and take away our sense of loss or our setbacks or our injured hearts and bodies? Why doesn’t God just make it easy?
God answered that for Paul, and for us. “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul’s pain showed him the truth before God’s greatest mystery: that He is perfect in weakness. It’s the reason our Lord had so much sympathy for the lepers and the blind and the poor. It’s the reason He came to many of you. God comes to us when we are broken, and He proves Himself in the process of healing.
Peter mentions in the verse above from his first epistle, that when we suffer, we have to recommit ourselves as Christians. Essentially, he’s telling us to keep pushing harder, to let the sprain heal and get back out on the mat or on the track, to keep pushing ourselves and our faith. We can’t just ignore pain, we’ve got to conquer pain, to turn pain into a motivator that brings us back all the stronger—all the more dedicated—to God. None of those athletes would be at the Olympics if they let pain keep them from their goals. They saw the glory waiting for them if they pushed a little harder through the tough moments; they could see the triumph that comes to a conqueror who won’t give up. And that made the victory sweeter in the end because it wasn’t easy.
Three verses earlier, Peter tell us, “If you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name” (4:16). That tells us that when we think of conquering, we have to remember to conquer shame first. There is a sense of failure that comes with struggle sometimes, that we aren’t good enough because we feel pain.
We’ve got to get our minds around the idea that pain is a part of progress. Building muscle requires we put stress upon those muscles to make them grow. At times, that can be painful, but the end result is more strength and more overall health. It’s the same with our spiritual muscles. We become stronger in our faith when we are challenged by life. Every time we conquer an obstacle, our spiritual muscles get stronger, even if we feel a little spiritually sore afterward.
Remember that lesson as you watch our men and women take to the podium in Brazil this year. These young people have conquered a great deal to get there. And as you climb the stairs towards the Kingdom of Heaven, you will have done so too.
God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. (NIV)
A couple weeks ago, I compared our journey through faith to the superhero sagas we see on the big screen every summer. There, I mentioned the moment when the hero inevitably draws back and considers giving up before plunging into the final battle. They become lost at the worst moment, with the whole world on the line, and only they know how to find their way back. In our own lives, we often struggle not with monsters like we see in the movies, but with understanding our limitations and how to proceed in life.
We’ve all lost faith at one moment or another. We’ve lost faith in ourselves and in those around us, in family and friends and coworkers, and even, for a time, in God Himself.
There’s nothing shameful in admitting that. Many of the greatest Christians in history have had such moments of despair and drawing back. They become great because they rose to the challenge and conquered that moment, not because they had it. We are not perfect, and we are all going to struggle to see God’s plan sometimes, particularly in the difficult moments in life. We draw back before the holy triumph, just as heroes on the screen do, struggling with a moment of doubt before returning to our mission.
Just like the heroes on our screens, we always do come back to faith. Why is that? What is it that drives us to return to the battle for our soul every single time?
In Acts 17, we find Paul explaining the true God to a group of Athenians, who “are ignorant of the very thing they worship” (17:23). He’s speaking with a mixture of pagans and Jews in the marketplace, the busy intersection of life, and he has caught everyone’s attention by explaining exactly why God created us. As we see in the passage at the top of this post, the reason was so we would “seek” Him, so we would “reach out for Him and find Him.”
Any person of faith knows that seeking is central to the identity of Christians. We seek God in all our actions, and beyond that, in all the actions around us. We seek God in the news and in our communities. We seek God in our families and in our personal decisions. Faith, in essence, is the seeking of God.
“Faith is the only internal guarantee that we have that helps us through a life of constant change. We are who
we are, no matter what, through good and bad–because of faith.”
–Excerpt from my book, Faith: Learning to Live Without Fear
Of course, like anyone seeking, we sometimes struggle to find what we’re looking for. Our eyes are imperfect, our vision of events is limited. In seeking, sometimes we look into tragedy or failure or poverty or death, and we simply can’t see God in it.
In such moments, we doubt. Like our superheroes on the screen, we have a moment of crisis. But, Paul has already told us how this ends. He’s already laid out the reason we can’t stay away, the reason we pick ourselves back up and start looking all over again: “He is not far from any one of us.” This is why we always come back to faith. God does not expect us to understand all His actions, nor to see Him in all His complex designs.
But He has made Himself so common in everything around us, we cannot help but return to Him eventually. If we can’t see Him in the lightning, we see Him in the rain, and if we can’t see Him in the rain, we see Him in the rainbow afterward. This is just another way of saying He is in everything. It’s our poor eyes that can’t always see Him, but He’s still there.
That’s how we keep coming back to God. Though we may fall short in one moment, it is in the very next that we find the answer. Just beyond a tragedy is another holy triumph.
This is why, when we see our heroes on screen, we never worry too much over their stumbles. We know the victory is just around the corner. We’ve seen this movie before. We know they will find belief again, and with belief will come the answer that solves it all, no matter how scary those villains look and how certain those villains are of their own victory.
So it is with God. Though we might draw back today, we know we will be witness to more of His glory again tomorrow. To conquer our need to draw back, all we have to do is seek, because God is never far away.
With last week’s tragic events of the shooting deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and Houston Law Enforcement, many people continue to turn to discussing the importance of unity, patience, understanding and justice... and these are critical conversations to have. These things have escaped some of us for far too long. I understand the human need to put an explanation or a directive to such shocking events that have tragically continued to occur, let alone understand or justify, and I can’t bring myself to simply look the other way. We all need to explore what to do to bring peace and restoration to our communities and into the hearts of all the good people who live, work, teach, love, pray, and simply exist within them daily.
In Matthew 5, verse 9 (NIV), Jesus tells us, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” We all know this as part of the Beatitudes, directives from God to help guide us in our understanding of others. As part of His Sermon on the Mount, we are told that Jesus arrived to find crowds waiting. When He went up the mountain, His disciples followed Him and, there, He directly and plainly told them what He expected of them and how they should treat and view others – in times of need, in times of strife, and in times of confusion. We know, from the Beatitudes, that the meek will inherit the earth and that those who mourn will be comforted, and these are things to which we can apply logic and understanding. Of course, those in pain will be comforted and, of course, sweet, chaste, and faithful people will be rewarded. When the world doesn’t seem to reflect this, however, we question what’s happening and we wonder how to fix it or, at least, how to understand it.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5, verse 6 NIV).
We hear this – that we will know peace and understanding–but do we feel it? If we are instruments of God’s love and we are supposed to absorb, reflect, and spread His message, then why do we have such trouble knowing what to do, what to say, or even how to feel in times of division, violence, and confusion?
There is a prayer that we don’t hear often in our church. It reflects the words of St. Francis of Assisi, who penned the sentiment in the 12th century when, presumably, the times seemed as tenuous as they do now. In it, he says:
“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy;” (Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, St. Joseph Institute as translated from text in La Clochette, France 1912)
No matter what our faith, our socioeconomic status, our race, or our ethnicity, we can pray for peace and pray for hope. In our introspection, we will find the right path for our own feelings and actions.
Every Sunday at 7:20am EST, I lead a prayer call along with Bishop John Guns and Dr. Victor Couzens. I encourage you to join us as we go before God to seek direction for all areas of our lives, together. To join the prayer, call simply call 712-432-0370 and enter code 262425#.
As we leave behind the month of June and bask in the aftermath of a long July 4th weekend, we find ourselves scrambling to get work and personal schedules back on track. After all, the long weekend often affords us the opportunity to rest and relax – to barbeque, swim, enjoy Fourth of July fireworks, and reconnect with family - but the recovery is where the challenge lies. We always feel the need to get right back on work projects, on workout schedules, and into our regular routines, and we don’t use the downtime to our advantage or to our benefit in the long run.
I like to take time off to reflect, and I encourage others in my church to do the same. When we take the time to reflect and focus, we can accomplish so much more than when we’re scrambling day to day, project to project or paycheck to paycheck.
Certainly, our creature comforts ARE important as are the daily rituals that make us who we are, but without time to think on what we have accomplished and what we CAN accomplish, we are not living up to our true potential. William Shakespeare once said, “We know what we are, but not what we may be.” And this holds true for most of us. After all, it’s when we are relaxed and at peace that we have clarity of thought, and in those moments, we can project what we need to do and what we see for ourselves in life.
I talk a lot about achieving success. And, of course, I mean success in every way – not just in the traditional big car, big house, big job sense. I mean that we all need to determine what makes us happy, what makes God happy, and what serves our families and communities well and go for it!
Proverbs 2: 7 – 9 (NIV) says:
7 He holds success in store for the upright,
he is a shield to those whose walk is blameless,
8 for he guards the course of the just
and protects the way of his faithful ones.
9 Then you will understand what is right and just
and fair—every good path.
The scripture tells us here to be faithful and to walk with God in a Christian and charitable way and that, in doing so, our walk to success will be protected and supported by the Almighty God himself. IF we reflect on occasion, we can check ourselves and we can make sure that our priorities and our lives are in line with that faithful walk that God wants us to take.
Over the long holiday July 4th weekend, we may have spent extended time with family, and had a lot of conversational journeys with friends. In these moments, we had clarity of thought, knowing that this time spent in fellowship and family felt right. If we take this philosophy into our daily lives, we can feel right about all the initiatives to which we put some vigor and some effort. We can walk, talk, relax, and reflect knowing that our introspection is healthy and necessary to personal success as well as success as a Christian in God’s eyes.
I’ve talked a lot about conquering lately, and I do feel that taking the spirit of our holiday weekend into our daily lives will help us to conquer stagnation and fear of what we CAN accomplish in life. It’s been a little while since I’ve done this, but I’d like to highlight a few community events coming up that might provide us all with a little joy, faith, and direction as we take time to enjoy life and experience new opportunities for fellowship and personal direction:
Bike the Burgh Historical Bike Tour is a reoccurring event every Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday that meets at 10 am at 500 First Avenue downtown. Time to reflect is ample as you’ll explore familiar haunts in Pittsburgh, and Mount Ararat’s community of East Liberty is coming up on the tour. Check it out between now and 30 November 2016. More information here: http://www.visitpittsburgh.com/includes/calendar-of-events/Bike-the-Burgh-Historical-Bike-Tour/23409/
The August Wilson Center / African American Cultural Center has a number of events coming up throughout the summer and into the fall. Visit their website here for information on upcoming events to restore, enlighten, and rejuvenate the most stagnate of routines throughout the year: https://culturaldistrict.org/pages/aacc
Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (NIV)
As we all know, summers have become the time of the superhero. Now, I don’t know if you enjoy these movies about Spiderman and X-Men and Batman like I do, but I do know they have something to teach us in these hot summer months.
Most of us treat these movies as a place of escape. We escape the summer heat, the summer responsibilities with the children at home, the difficulties of our lives. For a couple hours, we are entertained by a fantasy about strong men and women who can conquer anything that is holding them back, who are strong enough to live by what is right at all times.
Now, in those superhero stories—in all great hero stories in fact—there is always a moment near the end of the journey when the hero draws back because the struggle seems too much. The hero throws away the mask and promises himself or herself never to pick it up again or the team threatens to disband. It’s all too much, even for these super-powered people.
We see this in summer blockbusters, and we see it all the way back to ancient hero stories. In fact, we see it even in the story of the greatest hero of them all, our Lord Jesus Christ, who in Gethsemane had a moment of drawing back, when He asked God to “take this cup from me” (Luke 22:42).
This moment is so common in stories and history precisely because it is so true. To reach greatness, we have to conquer many things, and among those is the desire to draw back just before we can grasp our glory.
In our own lives, we also experience these moments when we look for a quick exit just before reaching a moment of triumph. For many of us, it is not a mythological monster or an alien invasion that makes us want to turn back, nor is it something so potent and real as the cross. It is the truth that we want to run from.
To live as God wants us to live, we have to understand the truth and live by it. God wants us to have “truthful lips” (Proverbs 12:19) and to “speak the truth to each other” (Zechariah 8:16). Before we can conquer any great task, we have to move past the reticence to hide.
Of course, a pastor never gets tired of talking about truth. That’s the center of our trade. When my daughter Houston was a child, I used to marvel at the joy she seemed to carry within her. Her joys were true joys—intense joys that made her whole being light up. There was no discontent mixed in like we have when we’re grown. Likewise, when she was sad, it was the dull light of cloudy days. She simply wasn’t able to hide the truth of how she felt or what she thought. She was simply, completely honest.
There’s a reason our Lord compares truth with light. The obvious and well-explored reason is because we can see in light and truth lets us see. If we want to conquer our problems in life, we have to be able to see them first.
If you have children, you know what a child lying about taking a cookie from the cookie jar actually looks like. They can’t do it. They say all the lying words but everything about them betrays their lie. They can’t look you in your eye, they can’t keep still. They want to giggle at the joke of it all. All the skill we pick up over time isn’t there weighing them down. They are just naturally truthful beings.
That’s the kind of truth God wants in all of us. He wants that complete honesty that exists under all that heavy guilt that we’ve built up over the years while we created mountains of small and large falsehoods.
And yet, whenever we approach that level of truthfulness, we draw back. Like the heroes before their big battle, we suddenly stop being sure of ourselves. We are afraid. We’ve learned to fear all those heavy consequences of honesty in our long years. What will people say? What will people think? Will I be judged? What will it cost me to say the truth?
We’ve got to learn the lesson of these superhero movies and learn to accept the urge to draw back but to march on anyway. For a superhero, it is into a grand, cosmic battle; for Christ, it was towards the cross. And for us, it is a motion towards complete openness and truth.
Because when we admit our hands were in the cookie jar, when we share our true selves, we won’t find the harsh punishments and judgments we feared; we’ll find God Himself.