I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.I can do all this through him who gives me strength. Philippians 4:12-13 (NIV)
We are all suckers for a Pinterest-worthy phrase. The Bible is full of them. The stuff of inspirational bookmarks, posters, desktop backgrounds, and cheap commercial trinkets sold at your local Christian bookstore.
As I’ve journeyed through God’s Message for almost 40 years, I’ve observed that it’s quite common for that inspirational, scriptural quote to be taken completely out of context. Text that is actually profound, mysterious, and/or challenging with eternal, Level Four spiritual meaning is screen printed, replicated and dragged down to self-centric, ego-pleasing, Level One interpretations. I’m not pointing fingers, by the way. I’m as guilty as anyone.
“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
I’m sure there are many young followers of Jesus who are receiving graduation gifts from well-meaning grandparents with that phrase printed on a greeting card, key-chain, or bookmark. On the surface, it seems to flow right along with all the pomp and circumstance of your boiler-plate commencement address:
“Chase after your dreams.”
“You can be anything you want to be.”
“Make your mark on this world.”
“The world is yours for the taking.”
“All your dreams can come true if you work hard enough.”
I noticed as I read the chapter this morning that preceding Paul’s inspirational statement is a rather sobering message:
“I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.”
Paul, who was stoned and left for dead outside the city of Lystra. Paul, who was shipwrecked three times in the Mediterranean and once spent twenty-four hours floating on debris in the open ocean hoping to make it to shore. Paul, who was bitten by a viper. Paul, who five times was given 39 lashes (because 40 was considered lethal). Paul, who traveled some 10,000 miles largely by foot. Paul, who was beaten with rods three times, went hungry and found himself cold, naked, and alone. Paul, who was writing those words from prison.
“I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”
The secret of being content in any circumstance is the “all things” Paul was referencing with his inspirational phrase. He wasn’t talking about grabbing the world by the tail, achieving his personal dreams, and moving up in the world. He was talking about being perfectly content being cold, naked, hungry, bloody, bruised and shackled in a first-century dungeon. Ironically, that is not the stuff of inspirational commencement addresses.
Along my life journey, I’ve observed that it is discontent that often fuels personal dreams, aspirations, ambition, economics, and the American dream. Paul’s faith taught him contentment in the midst of unimaginable suffering. I struggle to be content with my iPhone 8 when the iPhone X hits the market.
And there’s the disconnect.
This morning I find myself challenged to restore the meaning of the words “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” to its profound, mysterious, spiritual meaning in my own heart and life. Being content no matter my current situation and circumstances. I confess that it’s easier said than done for me, and I’ve got a long way to go in learning the secret Paul discovered. Which is why this is a journey.
For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles…. Ephesians 3:1 (NIV)
One’s perspective makes all the difference.
Having just journeyed through the season of Lent, I was reminded time and time again that Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, suffering and execution had been predicted. Jesus knew what was going to happen, and He made it clear to His followers. Despite this foreknowledge of what was to happen, Luke writes the Jesus “Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.” (9:51)
Jesus wasn’t the victim. He was driving the events that happened. He was on a mission.
As I’ve been studying the events surrounding Paul in the Book of Acts, there is a very clear parallel to Jesus’ story. Paul was a citizen of Rome. It was a rare status that afforded him all sorts of privileges. When Paul was arrested and put on trial, he could have easily gotten off. Instead he appealed his case to Caesar assuring that he would be taken prisoner to Rome. As he waited for his trial before the leader of the Roman Empire, he wrote letters. Ephesians is one of them.
I couldn’t help but notice in today’s chapter that Paul doesn’t call himself a “prisoner of Rome,” but rather a “prisoner of Christ Jesus.” Paul, like Jesus whom he followed, does not see himself as a victim of circumstances, but a servant of Christ. He’s not a victim. He’s on a mission. There is no moaning about his imprisonment. He tells the believers in Ephesus not to be discouraged by his sufferings. The entire chapter is focused on God’s eternal, cosmic, Spirit-ual, Level 4 power:
“God’s grace given me through the working of his power” (vs. 7)
“boundless riches of Christ” (vs. 8)
“God, who created all things” (vs. 9)
“the manifold wisdom of God” (vs. 10)
“[God] from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name” (vs. 15)
“out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit” (vs. 16)
“how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ” (vs. 18)
“this love that surpasses knowledge” (vs. 19)
“him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us” (vs. 20)
This morning in the quiet I’m thinking about the perspective with which I approach my own circumstances. Am I walking this life journey as a person who happens to claim to be a follower of Jesus but then lives my life as if I’m a victim of random earthly circumstance? Or, am I on a mission, as well? Like Jesus, like Paul, is my faith-journey propelling me to a larger purpose and mission rooted in Level 4 power and purpose?
If, however, I am guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do not refuse to die. But if the charges brought against me by these Jews are not true, no one has the right to hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar!” Acts 25:11 (NIV)
Our daughter and her family recently moved to the United Kingdom along with some good friends who were scheduled to leave about the same time. On the the eve of their departure, their friends were still dealing with a snafu with their visas. As they explained it to me, the whole affair became maddening cluster of a situation involving frantic phone calls, an attorney, government bureaucracy, and university bureaucracy. The maddening situation ultimately delayed their departure for an indefinite period of time and kept them in hurry-up and wait limbo.
As we enter today’s chapter, Paul has been imprisoned in a similar “hurry up and wait” limbo in the regional Roman justice system. The Roman Procurator, Felix, had kept Paul in prison for two years as a favor to the powerful Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. Felix is replaced with a man named Festus to who begins his tenure in office with a diplomatic mission to Jerusalem where the Jewish religious leaders urge him to return Paul to Jerusalem (so they could assassinate him). Festus makes a political countermove by urging them to come to Caesarea and make their accusations.
In Part 2 of Paul’s trials the Jewish leaders make their accusations. Once again they have no evidence and accuse Paul of nothing that would be deserving of death. Festus, however, is a new Procurator playing a political game of chess with the political players of his region. He attempts to appease the Jewish religious leaders by asking Paul if he’d be willing to go to Jerusalem and let the case be heard there.
Paul knows that this is a mockery of Roman justice being suggested for political gain. To return to Jerusalem would only pander to his enemies and accusers. It’s essentially a step backwards and to agree would place him in a weaker position. Festus obviously wants to appease Paul’s accusers and Paul can smell a rat. If Festus is willing to try the case in Jerusalem, outside of Roman civil court, then he just might be willing to make Paul a sacrificial offering to shore up his political position.
Paul now makes a bold move and appeals to Caesar. This is a bold move because Festus has not actually tried Paul’s case and has not rendered a verdict. It was a risky move because Festus might have ultimately released Paul. The case against Paul was weak and executing a Roman Citizen for political gain with the Jews would not have been a good political move within the Empire. It was also risky because appealing to Caesar meant being sent to Rome and more languishing in the Roman justice system for an indefinite time. Paul also knew that his surprise appeal would give Festus a political out: “Sorry guys. I tried to bring him to Jerusalem to stand trial, but he appealed to Caesar. He’s a Roman Citizen. My hands are legally tied.”
As a read this morning I find myself, once again, trying to crawl into the mind of Paul. Paul clearly stated when he went to Jerusalem was that his motivation is to expand the Message of Jesus and to proclaim the Message across new boundaries. He wants to push the Message forward. The prospect of a return to Jerusalem would only put him back where he’s already been for years. The appeal to Caesar, while risky, offered the potential for his story and his witness to become a matter of official public record in the Roman Empire. In essence, Paul’s deft legal maneuver assured that he wouldn’t be the sacrificial lamb for Festus’ political gain, but he would willingly sacrifice himself for the sake of Jesus and taking the Message of Jesus to the very heart of the Roman Empire.
Being stuck in the limbo of bureaucracy can be maddening. Just ask Taylor’s friends about their experience. I find that Paul, however, is finding purpose in the pain of his situation. It comes down to motives. His ultimate motivation is not about his physical freedom, but freeing others by furthering the Message of Christ. With that in mind, he’ll use his circumstances to achieve his goal.
On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Acts 8:1 (NIV)
In the past week the world has watched as the floodwaters caused by Hurricane Florence have forced thousands of people to flee their homes and communities to seek higher ground. The news has been dotted with interviews of individuals who have owned property along the beautiful Carolina coast for many years, but who now say they’ve had enough.
As a follower of Jesus, seeking to live with purpose, I have always determined that I want to be where God wants me to be doing what God wants me to be doing. This morning I find myself recounting three very distinct moments in my life when circumstances outside of my control put me in such uncomfortable predicaments that I was compelled to make vocational choices that moved me and my family to different places. In retrospect, I can see that each of those moves led me to where I was supposed to be.
Looking back along my Life journey and reading through the Great Story, I recognize that sometimes it takes an uncomfortable, sometimes explosive, change in circumstances to force a person to move. Joseph was sold into slavery by his own brothers and ended up in Egypt, where decades later he would save his entire family from dying of famine. David was forced into the wilderness to live as a mercenary, where he would learn the very leadership lessons that prepared him for the throne. Daniel was taken captive to Babylon where he was used by God in the life of Babylon’s king, Nebuchadnezzar. Jesus experienced the ultimate example of circumstance conspiring to lead Him to a gruesome yet purposeful death, making salvation available to us all. After the resurrection, Jesus tells his right-hand man, Peter, to expect the same:
“When you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” [emphasis added]
The resurrected Jesus went on to tell his followers to take His story, their story, to “Judea, Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the world.” As we approach today’s chapter we find Jesus’ followers still hangin’ with their homies in Jerusalem. The Temple’s religious authorities both tried and executed Stephen in yesterday’s chapter. Now the Sanhedrin decides to snuff out this pesky Jesus movement once and for all. As the persecution against Jesus’ followers breaks out the followers of Jesus scatter to…wait for it…Judea and Samaria! It was an explosion of persecution that forced Jesus followers to move to the very places Jesus had always purposed for them to be.
This morning in the quiet I’m preparing for a message I have to deliver to my local gathering of Jesus’ followers on Sunday. It so happens to be on this very topic from this very book. “Explosion Begets Expansion” is my theme, and today’s chapter could easily be Exhibit A. Sometimes explosive or uncomfortable circumstances flood our lives and force us to move where we would otherwise not have been, only to find out we end up exactly where we were supposed to be all along.
When I was a young man, Time was my constant enemy. I’m sure that being the youngest of four spurred the animosity with both clock and calendar. Being “too young” and “not old enough” drove me to quiet madness. I envied my older siblings and was convinced that I was perfectly capable of doing the same things they could do, but I was constantly rebuffed by being told “you’re not old enough.” I became increasingly anxious to press whatever fast forward buttons life afforded me, take whatever shortcuts were available (or I could create) to quickly reach whatever life’s road held for me over the next horizon. I attacked and advanced on my enemy, Time, whenever and wherever could.
Looking back across my life journey I see ways in which my eagerness to speed up Time afforded both blessing and tragedy into my story. However, it took a tremendous amount of tragedy before I began to appreciate the alliance between Time and Providence that God wove into the DNA of creation. I discovered that Time was not my enemy. Time is a fellow participant in the divine dance. Once I was given the grace to embrace this truth, I experienced a certain new flow in life.
Yesterday’s chapter ended in a dark, bloody period of political chaos, spiritual defeat, and national despair for the people of ancient Judah. As mentioned, there was a foreshadowing of hope in a child, a lone heir to David’s throne, being hidden away within Solomon’s Temple while his murderous grandmother solidified her hold on power. In today’s chapter we fast forward seven years. Seven years of Athaliah’s evil reign. Seven years of the ascendance of Baal worship in God’s city. Seven years of despair for God’s faithful followers.
In the Great Story, seven is the number of completion.
I’ve come to embrace that even dark chapters of life must work themselves out to completion. Time must be afforded room to perform her dance and move the appropriate people and events and circumstances into place for eucatastrophe to occur.
It takes seven years before “the time is right.” The priest Jehoiada seizes the opportunity. He organizes a coup, ensures the protection and safety of the young heir, Joash, and plots the end of Athaliah’s reign. It works.
This morning in the quiet I’m thinking about my enemy turned dance partner: Time. I confess that I’ve not become perfect in my contentment. I still have a tendency to step on her toes when I want her to move things along, but I’ve definitely learned a step or two. There is a choreographed flow and Time’s dance requires that certain chapters of the journey must work themselves out to completion no matter how badly I want to skip to the end. The harder I fight against that fact the more my life’s dance resembles the drunk, idiot cousin at a wedding reception.
“Slow down,” I’ve learned to tell myself. “Listen to the music. Feel the flow. This is not a race. It’s a dance.”
…yet you have not returned to me,” declares the Lord. Amos 4:11c
Along life’s journey I’ve noticed that we as humans think most about God when times are tough. When life is easy and things are humming along pretty well in our lives, we tend to shove spiritual matters to the back burner. There’s a certain spiritual sobriety that occurs when tragedy strikes and things suddenly get tough. It’s when we’re anxious and afraid that the spiritual becomes important to us.
In today’s chapter, the ancient prophet Amos recounts a whole string of tragedies and difficulties that God’s people had experienced in recent years. He names them one by one. It’s a top ten list of fear and anxiety producing events, yet with each recounting Amos ends with the same refrain:
…yet you have not returned to me,” vs. 6
…yet you have not returned to me,” vs. 8
…yet you have not returned to me,” vs. 9
…yet you have not returned to me,” vs. 10
…yet you have not returned to me,” vs. 11
This morning I’m recalling a friend back in college whose friendship waxed and waned with the on-again-off-again relationship with his girlfriend. If they broke up and he was feeling lonely then he was my best friend in the world and wanted to hang out all the time. If he and his girlfriend got back together again I wouldn’t hear from him or see him until the next break-up. It only took a few cycles of this before I got really tired of the hot-cold treatment I received as a friend.
I wonder sometimes if that’s the way God feels with us. This morning I’m pondering the spiritual ebb and flow that often accompanies the ebb and flow of life circumstances. If I fall into the pattern of being spiritually connected when times are hard, but ignoring God when times are good, then I’m not really any different from my friend in college.
I want my relationship with God to be rock steady, no matter what I’m going through in life. If times are good then I want to be connected to share my gratitude and share the blessings. If times are bad then I want to be connected to share my fears and anxieties.
God doesn’t have to worry about me returning if I never leave.
The other night Wendy and I were sitting on the couch watching television and working.
“When they market a movie as ‘inspirational’ it makes me not want to see it,” Wendy mused. “If Hollywood would make movies in which things don’t turn out the way you want and call it ‘inspirational’ then I might want to see it.”
I can think of a movie or two that fit the description of what m’love is talking about, but there are precious few. I get where she’s coming from. Life is regularly messy, and it is more often unfair. Things don’t always work out as we had hoped and planned, and at times the cards are stacked against us before life even begins by people whose decisions we did not control.
In 1998 I was given a great gift when a friend offered to fly me and some other guys to Dublin for a long “guys” weekend. Something awoke in my soul that weekend. Something that had lain dormant sprung to life and my life has never been quite the same. I had long been told by my mother that this little Dutch boy had Scotch-Irish genes, but I didn’t really know how or from whom. It turns out to be quite a story that began with a sixteen year old girl named Malinda Jane Helmick, known as Lenna.
The year was 1881 and Lenna’s father had died four years earlier. Her widowed mother had worked desperately to keep the family farm going. Older siblings had married and moved on. There was just Lenna and her younger sister, Maggie, left at home. Times were hard. Lenna’s mother surprised the teen one day, and it was not a pleasant surprise. She told Lenna that she had hired her out to a family who lived miles away on a farm near Melrose, Iowa. Feeling like an unwanted burden to her mother, Lenna was forced to move what seemed in impossibly long distance to be a servant on the farm of John and Elizabeth McCoy.
The McCoy farm was run by the aging John and his bachelor son, David Thomas McCoy who, at the time, was 34. There were four other sons and a daughter who had all grown and moved on. Lenna’s life with the McCoys was hard. She was up early to cook the family breakfast. She cooked and cleaned throughout the day. She emptied, daily, the family’s commodes and chamber pots. She cleaned up after the evening meal and wasn’t finished with her work until late each evening. Lenna was given one day off every two weeks, and a few hours each Sunday morning to attend church.
On top of the long hours and hard work, Lenna’s life was made miserable by Mrs. McCoy. Elizabeth McCoy was an angry, cantankerous woman, partially invalid, and impossible to please. Lenna had the daily burden of trying to make Mrs. McCoy comfortable and to wait on her hand and foot amidst her regular chores. If Mrs. McCoy was hot Lenna was asked to open all the windows in the house. A short time later Mrs. McCoy would be cold and Lenna would have to close the windows and heat up a water bottle to warm the woman back up.
Lenna’s days off and occasional breaks from work afforded her little pleasure. She was stuck on the farm with no transportation and no place to go. She spent her free time walking in the woods near the McCoy farm. It was during these walks that she began to meet with and enjoy conversation with the McCoy’s bachelor son, David, who was almost 20 years her senior. Over time the man pledged his love to Lenna, promising to marry her and, together, take over the family farm. He simply had to get his mother’s blessing, he said. That blessing would never come. Elizabeth McCoy hated Lenna, looked down on her, and would never allow her son to marry a lowly servant.
Life is messy, and it happened that after one of Lenna and David’s dates in the woods near the farm that Lenna became pregnant. She thought that this would force David to stand up to his mother and claim her has his bride, but instead Elizabeth McCoy flatly forbade her son from marrying Lenna and dismissed the teen from her service before she began to show. David promised to take care of Lenna and the baby, but he would not marry her over his mother’s objections.
Lenna had few options and begged her married sister, Lou, to take her in. Lou and her husband lived in the town of Tracy, Iowa. They took Lenna in out of “Christian charity” but she would no longer be considered a sister. Lenna would, in her fallen state, simply be a household servant relegated to waiting on her sister’s family just as she had waited on the McCoys. Fearing that the community would discover the truth, Lou and her husband forbade Lenna from being seen in public. When guests came to their house they demanded Lenna stay out of sight. It was in that home that Lenna gave birth to a son, and named him David, after his father.
Lenna continued to correspond with David McCoy and he continued to make promises. He pledged to marry her one day and make everything right. The promises, however, remained hollow. McCoy moved from Iowa to Nebraska, then to Missouri, and then back to Iowa. Lenna soon owned up to the realization of just how empty McCoy’s promises had always been and would always be. She met a local farmer of German descent named Jacob Miller Yeater and the two were married. Yeater understood Lenna’s circumstances and agreed to raise Lenna’s son as his own. No legal papers were filed. Lenna simply began to call her son Oscar William Yeater, and the boy grew up completely ignorant of the real story of his birth.
It was many years later that Will, now an adult and newly married, discovered his parents marriage certificate as he was going through some papers. He did the math and saw that they were married two years after his birth. Despite nagging misgivings about his true identity, Will chose to deny the dates as a simple typographical error. Years later it was his father, Jacob Yeater, in a temperamental rage because Will’s young wife rebuffed his sexual advances, who revealed to Will the scandalous story of his illegitimate birth.
Will would eventually meet and confront David McCoy about being his father. McCoy did not deny it, but told Will that he would never confess to it in public and he would never accept Will as his son. McCoy’s brothers, however, knowing the true story, showed kindness to the young man. When David McCoy passed away as a confirmed bachelor, he left his estate to two of his siblings. Will sued for his rightful share of the estate, publicly revealing that he had been the illegitimate son of David Thomas McCoy. The scandalous story was front page news in the Chariton, Iowa newspapers, and Will’s family was humiliated. In the end, the paternity was established when the court forced an aging Lenna Yeater to travel to Chariton from Missouri and confess the truth of her early transgressions in open court. The court awarded Will one half of the McCoy estate, then promptly took it away to cover unpaid child support to his estranged wife.
William Oscar Yeater was my great-grandfather. He had a rough life, and I have merely scratched the surface of the full tragedy in this post. Will was haunted by a past that seemed to resist any kind of redemption or reconciliation. Will was a broken man, and he made many foolish choices. He was not fondly remembered by family members. Stories about him were rare and always spoken in hushed, hurried words. Will’s wife, Daisy, struggled to love him well and suffered deeply from his many failings. She married him, twice. All that Will put her through would help to transform her into the hallowed martyr and matriarch she became to her many descendants.
I did not know this story until I was well into adulthood with children of my own. I was, perhaps, near the same age as Will when he discovered the truth about himself. I was given a great gift to visit Dublin and it was there my dormant Irish genes woke within me. When I returned home I began to investigate my Irish roots and my exploration led me to meet Lenna Helmick and her son, Will Yeater, the bastard son of an Irishman named David Thomas McCoy. I am the heir of illegitimate Irish genes. Somehow, that makes them feel legitimately more Irish.
Lenna Helmick’s Cinderella story did not have a happy ending, neither would her son’s. Life is regularly messy, and it is more often unfair. Things don’t always work out as we had hoped and planned, and at times the cards are stacked against us before life even begins by people whose decisions we did not control. Few of us get an ending that Hollywood would market as “inspirational.” That does not, however, make them bad stories. It does not mean that we cannot find inspiration in the midst of their tragedy. Joy is not always a natural by-product of circumstance. Sometimes joy emerges only from careful and deliberate consideration. That was Wendy’s point the other night on the couch. She was right, as she so often is. Wendy knows the truth of it.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day from the heir of illegitimate Irish genes.
I have a pipe dream of someday starting an Irish folk band. We will be “The Bastard Sons of McCoy.”
(Note for regular readers: I’ve been taking a little time off for spring break this week. Regular posts will resume next week)