The Blessings of a Bad Day

Are you having a bad day? The Apostle Paul has a surprising announcement for us:

“For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong”(2 Corinthians 12:10 ESV).

Frankly, that sounds a bit masochistic! How can illness, insult, distress, persecution, and trouble be occasions for celebration? Because Paul has realized when we rely on ourselves – our cleverness, power, intelligence, and resources – the result is desperation: weakness. We come up short. It’s easy to be overpowered.

Life is not fair. Bad things happen to good people. Like my grandmother used to say, “Where there is light, there are bugs.” In other words, when we live as Christians should, when we let our light shine, not everyone is going to be pleased! It is going to attract trouble, but what kinds of trouble can we expect? Look at the words Paul uses to describe what we will be up against:

Weakness (astheneia, ἀσθένεια) This word describes debilitating illness or feelings of inadequacy. It is the opposite of power (dynamis, δύναμις).

“Lord, I just don’t think I can do this anymore!”

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16).

“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).

“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 of my weaknesses so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Insults (hybris, ὕβρις) Can you imagine how seasick you would be after enduring two weeks on a storm-tossed sea? The word Paul chooses; next, hybris is found only three times in the New Testament: here and twice in Acts 27:10, 21 where it is translated “injury” and probably means debilitating seasickness. If that’s true, then the sickness we encounter in 2 Corinthians 12:10 could be called “insult sickness.” Taunts and ridicule can weigh us down and, if we worry about what other people are saying, it can destroy our confidence and joy. The NIV Reader’s Version translates hybris “when people say mean things about me.”

“Father, have you heard what they are saying about me?”

“If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you” (1 Peter 4:14).

“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11, 12). 

Distress (anagke, ἀνάγκη) This word describes great trouble, such as will occur in the last days (Luke 21:23). It can even mean torture! Most often, the term refers to overwhelming pressure and distress. Pressure can even come from good things, but it can still overpower us. The key to survival, Paul says, is patient endurance.

“Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation. We put no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance,” (2 Corinthians 6:2-4).

I love optimist/pessimist jokes. The optimist believes this is the best of all possible worlds … and the pessimist is afraid he’s right! It’s hard to be optimistic and upbeat when it seems like everything (and everyone) is working against you! The Apostle Paul has an important message for us when we are down:

“For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10 ESV).

“When I am weak, then I am strong.” That doesn’t sound very realistic, but consider what the apostle was up against:

Persecution (diogmos, διωγμός) Sometimes, our opposition is systematic. If so, you are in good company!

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:10).

“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them” (Romans 12:14).

“Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12).

Trouble (stenochoria, στενοχωρία) Do you ever feel like you are out of options? Do you feel like it is all closing in on you? This next word describes a set of stressful circumstances, distress, difficulty, anguish, trouble.

“Lord, I have nowhere to turn!”

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, 

“For your sake, we are being killed all the day long; 

we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” 

“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 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).

When I am weak, then I am strong

So, in this one remarkable passage, the apostle tells us that we need to embrace our weakness rather than worry about the challenges we face.

Once my wife Jan was swimming in the Sea of Cortez in Mexico. Jan is a good swimmer, but suddenly she found herself being carried out to sea by a riptide. She was helpless. No matter how hard Jan tried, she couldn’t fight against the tide. She feared she was being swept out to sea. Then she turned onto her back and prayed. It was a prayer of despair. She quit trusting in her strength and asked God to show her the way back. Then it came to her. Instead of swimming against the current, she swam across the current and escaped the tide.

As Christians, we don’t need to rely on ourselves, but we need to rely on the Lord. Give your troubles to God. He specializes in the impossible! Paul observed, “When I am weak, then I am strong!”

With a Flick of Your Tail

Every day, on my way to the study, I pass a pasture full of horses. Of course, I am a master rider of stick horses thanks to Saturday morning TV. I can stay on Silver as he rears, and I can ride Trigger with Roy Rogers as we chase the bad guys, but I have to say my experience with big horses with four legs is limited to the pony rides at the carnival. I don’t honestly know anything about horses except they are big and beautiful, and they seem to care for each other.

In August, thanks to the feedlots, Kansas is home to about two billion, gazillion flies. My duty, aided by my trusty flycatcher, Joey, the cat, is to hunt them down and rid the house of these pests. It can be maddening!

However, I’ve noticed something special about the horses in the pasture next to the church building. They line up, side-by-side, head to tail. “I’ll swish my tail to keep the flies away from your face, and you do the same for me.” Can you imagine a solitary horse trying to flick the flies away from its face? What a sight that would be!

On the other hand, without opposable thumbs or flyswatters, the paired-up horses make life bearable for one another, and there is our lesson for today. Let’s care for one another! Yes, the world is full of pests, but we can make this place a better pasture for all of us.

Sensing the Lord

The Milky Way on a Summer’s Night

It was the darkest night I could remember. I pulled off a dirt road into a lonely field. For a long time, I had been trying to take a picture of the Milky Way. This seemed the perfect place. I sat in the car fiddling with my camera, and the darkness pressed in. When I turned off the doom light, it was if blackness seeped through the windows and threatened to suffocate me. I opened the door and set my tripod up by feel. As I did, my eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness.

Pinpricks of light began to shine in the sky above. Old friends – the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia – came into view. Red-tinged Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter marched above the horizon. Then I saw it. The billowing cloud of stars – the Milky Way – stretched from the edge of the earth to a point above my head. The longer I watched, the more I began to see, until, at last, I could see my feet by the light of the heavenly host. I took my pictures, but I didn’t want to leave. It was easy to pray and sense the presence of God.

Sensing the presence of God seems something rare these days. There are too many competing voices, too many distractions. It takes effort. The apostle told the Athenians:

And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us (Acts 17:26, 27).

If God “is actually not far from each one of us,” why don’t we sense His presence? Perhaps because we aren’t looking. Do you remember the lesson of Elijah in the cave (1 Kings ch. 19)? God wasn’t in the earthquake or the gale or the fire. God speaks in whispers. Tonight, take time to look up into the heavens and feel the presence of the Lord!

Harmony

Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind (1 Peter 3:8 ESV).
 
When my father died, we discovered some treasurers in his dresser drawer. No, there was nothing like a bag of uncut diamonds or gold doubloons. These were only precious to a grandfather. Here were hand-scrawled notes with backward letters and misspellings, but they were precious to dad because they came from his grandchildren. Among the papers were a pair of his glasses that were carefully wrapped and set aside. What made those glasses so valuable? The tiny fingerprints that smudged them!
 
You are special! Just like no one else has the same fingerprints as you do, you are a unique creation, and our differences make it almost impossible for us to agree on anything – especially in church. Just think about our music. Some people like the old stately hymns. Some like “hot acapella” with impressive solos and vocal sound effects. Some prefer chanting, while others love four-part harmony. Pity the congregation that is looking for a new minister! He should be young with forty-years of experience. Tall, short, thin, “jolly,” prophetic, a counselor, liberal, conservative, and the list is endless.
 
So how can the Apostle Peter tell us to “have unity of mind”? He uses a very rare word. It is only found here in the New Testament. It describes not only having the same goal but having the same feelings about it!
 
“Peter, that sounds impossible in my experience!” and so Peter wisely gives us the path to unity in the words that follow. First, we need to cultivate “sympathy.” That means learning to see the world through other people’s eyes.
 
I once worked with a congregation that was coming apart at the seams. The young people wanted to make changes to make the church more appealing to a new generation. The older members wanted to go back in time and do things the way they were done in the 60s “when we were the fastest-growing church in America!” It was nearly war until people began to see through each other’s eyes. They both wanted the same thing: for the church to grow.
 
“Brotherly love” describes friendship. We like each other. In order to become friends, we need to spend time with one another. That’s why hospitality is so important.
 
A “tender heart” opens the door to understanding, and finally, a “humble mind” is focused on others’ well-being. When we put these virtues together, suddenly unity and harmony don’t seem so impossible!

Be a Blessing,

Word Study
I know Greek word studies leave many people cold, but there are some of you who would like to know more. For you, I include the following:

The first term, which is translated “unity of mind,” is only found here in the New Testament. It is a compound word combining homos (ὁμός – think of the English word “homo-genized”) and phren, (φρήν – in English, like in Greek, the stem phren– refers to “the seat of the intellect, feelings, and will; the mind”). When we join them together using Peter’s special word, homophron, we have the meaning “like-minded, united in spirit, harmonious.” A quick look at the various translations reveals: “be ye all of one mind” (KJV). The Complete Jewish Bible takes it further: “be one in mind and feeling.” Many English Bibles stress the idea of Christians being in harmony with one another (NASB, LEB, NET). Of course, that is only possible if we cultivate the last virtue, humility, into our thinking.

Time for a Party

March. In March, our world was turned upside down by Covid-19. We began wearing masks. We started social distancing, and we began hiding in our homes. The news was bad, and now it seems to come in waves. In my hometown, St. John, Kansas, we’ve gone from one case to seven (including our first fatality). Now the county health department is mandating everyone must wear a mask in public, and groups larger than 30 people are prohibited from meeting. If we reach ten people sick with the virus, that number drops to groups no larger than 15.

On top of that, school is getting ready to begin, and that raises a whole host of other issues. It’s dark. People are worried. Couples trapped at home together are having trouble. The news is bad.

But I like the words of Charlie Chaplin, “You’ll never see the rainbow if you don’t look up.” Isn’t there something to celebrate? (Do we really need a reason to throw a party?) I like the website https://nationaldaycalendar.com/. They keep records of all the celebrations. Today (Monday, August 17) is “National I Love My Feet Day.” Are you a fan of “Taco Tuesday”? Well, this week, it’s National Fajita Day. The 19th is “National Soft Ice Cream Day,” and Friday is “National Spumoni Day.”

The Bible talks about “fasting,” “feasting,” and “our daily bread.” Previously, we’ve spoken about fasting as a spiritual discipline, and how we should be satisfied with “our daily bread,” but let’s think about having a feast.

 When Jesus invited Matthew to become one of his disciples, Matthew/Levi called all of his friends together for a grand celebration:

And Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them. And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:29 – 32).

While we may not be able to invite “a large company” of our friends together, why not have a celebration tonight? It may only be baloney sandwiches, but get dressed up. Set out the good china. Pick a sunflower or two, and put them on the table. Then celebrate! God is good – even in the days of the pandemic.

Lefties

The Biblical Archaeology Society just sent me this interesting notice:

The Hebrew Bible mentions left-handed people on three occasions: the story of Ehud’s assassination of the Moabite king (Judges 3:12–30), the 700 Benjamites who could use the sling with deadly accuracy (Judges 20:16) and the two-dozen ambidextrous warriors who came to support David in Hebron (1 Chronicles 12:2). All of these stories of left-handed people in the Bible appear in military contexts, and, curiously, all involve members of the tribe of Benjamin.[1]

These facts have always been fascinating to me since I, too, am left-handed. My elementary school teachers were a step ahead of the previous generation, where lefties were forced to use their right hand. However, they still penalized me for smudging the ink as my hand rubbed over the letters of my compositions, and because my penmanship became squirrely as I contorted my hand to write around the rings of my three-ring binder.

It may just be a conjecture, but I would like to think the Apostle Paul was also left-handed. After all, he was from the tribe of Benjamin too.

It has often been pointed out, since scientists agree the left side of our brain controls the right side of our bodies and the right side of our brain controls the left side of our bodies, only left-handed people are in their right minds … 

Blessings! John

  [1] Downloaded August 13, 2020 from https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-topics/hebrew-bible/left-handed-people-in-the-bible/?mqsc=E4118479&dk=ZE0480ZF0&utm_source=WhatCountsEmail&utm_medium=BHDDaily%20Newsletter&utm_campaign=8-13-2020_Bedouin_Culture_in_the_Bible

What Shall We Sing?

She was upset, and I can’t blame her. The song leader changed the words to a grand old hymn. (“When we all get to heaven” became “When the saved get to heaven.” Apparently, he believed some of the singers were vile sinners, but that is a story for another day.) This sweet, upset sister raised an interesting question: “When should we change the words of a hymn?”

Obviously, the meanings of words change over time. So, it seems reasonable to change the text to make the hymn understood. Did you know the original lyrics to “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” were “Hark How All the Welkin Rings”? Likewise, the beautiful hymns “Night with Ebon Pinon” and “Here I raise my Ebenezer” are rarely understood by moderns. Perhaps it is time to modernize them. I am especially worried about children and new Christians misunderstanding our songs. I remember one young man asking why we were singing about “Gladly the Cross-eyed Bear” and “Bringing in the Cheese.”

Likewise, we don’t use words like thee and thou in our prayers or in worship anymore. Why should they continue to hold a place in our hymnals?

But change can be dangerous. My friends at the Methodist Church are struggling to update their hymns by using gender-neutral words. (As they sing, some are changing “God Our Father” to “God Our Mother.”) The poor Presbyterians are wrestling with hymns that celebrate substitutionary atonement. (The hymn “In Christ Alone” has a line “the wrath of God was satisfied.” Some believe that reflects a vision of an angry God, and so it was left out of their latest hymnal.) Even worse, the Canadian Anglican church just released Songs for the Holy Other: Hymns Affirming the LGBTQIA2S+ Community, which has been warmly received by many Episcopalians here in the states. The Lord isn’t even mentioned in some of the hymns.

Please excuse my curmudgeonly attitude as I sit in my rocker. The church was born in song – just consider Mary and Elizabeth in the opening chapters of Luke. Music is an essential part of our worship, but it has always been controversial. (Should the congregation sing or just the minister? Should women be allowed to sing? Can we sing “contrived hymns” or should we only use the words of Scripture like the Psalms?)

For me, though, the greatest tragedy during this pandemic has been the loss of our voices as we worship in song. Lord, when can we take these masks off and sit together again?

Blessings,

John

The Storm

Last night a thunderstorm broke over my house. It woke me up. The flashing lightning and the booming thunder led me out of bed. Although it was about 2:00 in the morning, I slipped into my jeans, pulled on a t-shirt, and walked out onto the porch. The rain came down in sheets – a Kansas “toad strangler.” The wind mussed my hair, and the rain wet my feet. The spectacle was just beginning. Stabs of lightning cracked between the clouds. Thunder shook the house. I took a sheltered seat and watched.

In the midst of it all, one defiant lightning bug struggled against the storm. His little light burned bright, flashing on and off as he dodged left and right. The harder it rained, the brighter he glowed. Behind him, in the sky, ragged daggers of blazing light flashed. Below, dodging the raindrops, his tiny glow burned bright.

Of course, it was hopeless. None of his kin were to be found. They had either been washed away or had sensibly taken shelter under the leaves of the tree in my front yard. Still, my little friend pressed on. Suddenly he was dashed to the sidewalk. Still, he tried to flash his light. His glow grew dark, and I would have sworn he was finished, but then he defiantly blazed again.

It was hopeless. The winds pinned him to the ground, and it was only a matter of time before he would drown. Why didn’t he just give up? Why did he continue to struggle? Then his tail blazed in glory again. He couldn’t move. He certainly couldn’t fly, but he let his light shine brighter than ever. My tiny friend embodied courage and perseverance. Glow bug glow! On. Off. On. Off. Brighter, then fading away. The inevitable moment came. After a heroic struggle, sadly, he was gone. The soaking wet sidewalk sank back into darkness. I sat back in my chair, and the steam from a mug of hot coffee swirled before me.

“Lord, is there a lesson to be learned from this drama?” I sat for a long time in silence. The booming thunder punctuated my thoughts. Then I began to sing a song from my childhood.

“This little light of mine.

I’m gonna let it shine!”

Lord, I would like to believe you gave my little friend a new life. Perhaps in glory, his tiny bioluminescent tail has been replaced with lightning bolts of glory in the heavens. Meanwhile, that childhood song has a new meaning for me. Big or small, let your light shine!

Hospitality & Entertaining

Have you thought about Christian qualifications? In 1 Timothy, Paul told his protégé “an overseer” that is an elder, “must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money” (1 Timothy 3:2 – 3). 

This is a surprising list. Where is “He must be a good communicator,” or, “He must be organized.” You could argue, Paul’s list doesn’t include skills. It focuses on virtues. For me, an essential attribute is “hospitable.” It’s often overlooked, and a good case can be made it is a dying virtue in our society. I believe hospitality is a significant key to church growth, but we need to understand the difference between hospitality and entertaining.

The following differentiation between “hospitality” and “entertaining” was made by Karen Mains in Open Heart, Open Home (Elgin, Ill.: Cook, 1976):

Entertaining says, “I want to impress you with my home, my clever decorating, my cooking.” Hospitality, seeking to minister, says, “This home is a gift from my Master. I use it as He desires.” Hospitality aims to serve.

Entertaining puts things before people. “As soon as I get the house finished, the living room decorated, my housecleaning done—then I will start inviting people. Hospitality puts people first. “No furniture—we’ll eat on the floor.” “The decorating may never get done—you come anyway.” “The house is a mess—but you are friends—come home with us.”

Entertaining subtly declares, “This home is mine, an expression of my personality. Look, please, and admire.” Hospitality whispers, “What is mine is yours.”[1]

  [1] Quoted in Green, M. P. (Ed.). (1989). Illustrations for Biblical Preaching: Over 1500 sermon illustrations arranged by topic and indexed exhaustively (Revised edition of: The expositor’s illustration file). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

Contentment

My wife Jan and I are starting to plan our vacation for this fall. With the pandemic, our choices are limited, but fortunately, we love to hike and camp, so I believe we’re heading west to Colorado for some backpacking.

When I was younger, I didn’t need much – a tiny tent, a small stove, a light sleeping bag, and a few odds and ends were all it took for a week in the woods. Now I’m not so sure. These old bones need some kind of pad to sleep on and a few more clothes to stay warm. A nice mug and some good coffee don’t seem like “extras,” but how much do we really need to be happy? If you were going on a two-week backpacking trip and had to carry everything you needed on your back for miles, what would you take? I remember taking a group of teens on just such a trip. One poor girl was surprised to learn there were no “current bushes” to plug her hot curlers into that first night on the trail.

The Apostle Paul shared this thought with his beloved Philippians:

I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me (Philippians 4:10 – 13).

To be with and in hunger and still be happy? To be full and not want even more? What is the secret to contentment? How is it possible to be satisfied in spite of desires? Perhaps if we understood this one promise – “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” – we would be content. What does that mean to you? I’d love to hear your thoughts! Now hand me that camping catalog. I’m sure I’m forgetting something I can’t do without!