I am greatly encouraged; in all our troubles my joy knows no bounds.
2 Corinthians 7:4b
Note to subscribers: I had a technical glitch publishing this post this morning with some nasty HTML coding issues. My apologies. I trashed the original post and am reposting, so you may have gotten two emails. Sorry. Maybe it’s the cold 😉
I write this post from the depths of winter in Iowa. It’s -13 as I tap out these words, which is a bit warmer than it was yesterday. This morning I woke up to find our hot water heater isn’t working. Lovely.
Just a week or so ago I was sitting in O’Hare airport in Chicago chatting with a wonderfully gregarious transplant from New Zealand. He was complaining about the weather extremes he’s learned to live with here in the midwest of North America. It reminded me of an observation Garrison Keillor once made: Living in the midwest is like spending your summers in Death Valley and your winters in the Arctic. Indeed. Here’s the headline from the Des Moines Register on Tuesday:
Along the journey we face all kinds of different challenges. While it’s human to grumble and complain, I often find it personally necessary to make myself put things in context. This morning’s chapter provided it for me.
In writing to the followers of Jesus in Corinth, Paul references “all our troubles.” Later in the letter he provides specifics. Let me jump ahead for the sake of today’s thought. Paul writes:
“I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received the forty lashes minus one.(Note: 39 lashes with a scourge was the ancient prescription to bring the punished to the point of death without letting them actually slip into the comfort of death). Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones (Note: Paul’s would be executioners actually believed they had successfully stoned him to death. His body was carried and dumped outside the city of Lystra and left for dead.), three times I was shipwrecked (Note: He doesn’t mention the venomous snake bite that should have killed him.), I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move (Note: Scholars say that Paul logged some 10,000 miles during his journeys. That’s roughly 21,120,000 steps without a FitBit) . 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. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.
As I said: Context can be a good antidote for self-centered misery. It’s cold this morning and my water heater is broken. I am, however, in a warm house, with warm clothes, and a warm wife. The water heater guy will be by in a few hours to deal with the hot water problem. Boo-hoo for me.
What I found even more fascinating as I read Paul’s words today was that while he endured torture, stoning, shipwrecks, snakebites, imprisonment and the rest, he states that his “joy knows no bounds.”
Along this journey Wendy and I have learned a lot about joy (though I will freely confess that I know far less than Paul). Joy always jumps off the page at me, because it is one of those words that holds a lot of meaning for Wendy and me. We’ve learned from our journey together that joy is something deeper than a momentary feeling such as happiness which flits in and out with the ever shifting winds of circumstance. Joy comes from a deep spring. It’s not a surface, run-off emotion. You have to drill through bedrock of suffering to experience the flow of joy. It is a spiritual by-product of the three things that remain when all else is stripped away: faith, hope, and love.
In the quiet (and a blessedly warm home office) I am thankful this morning for the flow of joy that Wendy and I have come to experience, independent of whatever momentary personal circumstances we may be experiencing.
By the way, temperatures here in picturesque Pella, Iowa are forecast to be 57 degrees (above zero) on Sunday.
Stay warm, my friend. Have a great day.
For [God] says,
“In the time of my favor I heard you,
and in the day of salvation I helped you.”
I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.
2 Corinthians 6:2 (NIV)
I hate waiting. I especially abhor needless and unnecessary waiting.
I confess. I’m convinced this particular disdain and impatience is rooted in being the youngest of four. Growing up I spent years watching my older siblings get to do things before I did. In most cases I can look back from a place of maturity and understand requisite age and size restrictions. Still, there were times when I rightfully argued that capability should have outweighed arbitrary age limits for certain activities. I’m sure of it. At least, that’s the whine of my inner child.
It never ceases to amaze me just how much our childhoods continue to subconsciously affect us in our adult years. Just this past year Wendy came to a sudden revelation about some inner thoughts she had, and their subsequent emotional reactions they created within. She realized that her thoughts weren’t actually her thoughts, but the voice of her mother playing on an endless loop in her brain. Fascinating.
I digress. Back to waiting.
As our local gathering of Jesus followers has been journeying through the book of Acts this year I have been reminded of two major paradigm shifts that happened when God moved humanity from the religious legalism of the Judaic system to the outpouring of Holy Spirit in the first century.
The first paradigm shift was the decentralization of power. Gone was a rigid system in which a human high priest and other humans, simply on the basis of their heredity, have spiritual power and irrevocable spiritual authority over everyone else. By the middle of the story of Acts we’re reading about common, everyday individuals we’ve never heard of, three or four social circles away from the twelve apostles, who God is using to move the Great Story forward. “Wait a minute. Who is this lady, Tabitha? Who is she and where did she come from?”
The second paradigm shift is the lifting of restrictions to experience salvation through Christ and participate fully in the organism Paul refers to as “the body of Christ.” Any and all who choose to follow Jesus have immediate and full spiritual access to all that God has to offer regardless of background, previous record, heredity, socio-economic status, race, gender, politics, education, or age. Any and all who follow Christ receive the indwelling of Holy Spirit, spiritual gifts, and a calling to use those gifts, in love, for Jesus’ good will and purpose.
This is a radical, transformative spiritual shift (that human organizations and institutions have continually found ways to reverse for two millennia).
In today’s chapter Paul quotes a verse from Isaiah 49. It’s a great messianic prophecy. I get why it would have been one of Paul’s favorite references. All of Paul’s readers who were raised in Judaism would have been raised waiting for the Messiah. It had been 400 years since the last prophet, Malachi, and since then they’d been waiting for what God was going to do. Paul writes to those in Corinth that there is no longer any need to wait for God. All that God has to offer is immediately available to anyone, anywhere, in this very moment.
In the quiet this morning I’m thinking about my level of patience. I’ve gotten better at waiting along my journey. “Patience” is a fruit of the Spirit that gets developed over time, and I can see how it has developed in me along the way. I’ve also come to embrace that while all that God has to offer is immediately available, this is still a journey. There’s still a story being revealed. I still have to wait for some things to be fully revealed and realized in this finite, time-laden existence. I’m reminded, once again, of the words of the wise Teacher of Ecclesiastes:
There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.
As for following Jesus, Paul writes to the Corinthians, there’s no time like the present moment.
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!
2 Corinthians 5:17 (NIV)
I got my first tattoo in the fall of 2005. It was an incredibly tumultuous time in my journey. It was the most tumultuous stretch of the journey I’ve yet experienced, in fact. I was recently divorced, a reality I’d never imagined for myself, with two teenage daughters trying to make sense of their own shattered realities. Wendy had also entered my life. This was another unexpected and unlooked for reality that I knew in my heart was of God’s doing, but it made the whole picture a hot mess.
So, why not get a tattoo?
The tat is a celtic cross on my back. In the circle at the crux of the cross is a reference to Revelation 21:5:
He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
Wendy also got a tat that day. A butterfly with the same reference. It was a permanent reminder amidst temporary circumstances of the hope we had in Jesus. Wendy and I both knew by the faith that Paul writes about in today’s chapter that Jesus, the Creator, was in the process of picking up the shattered pieces of life and the mess that had been wrought by our respective human flaws and failings, and together was making something new out of it.
It was months later that I went to a weekend retreat for teens that our daughter Taylor was attending. She was going to speak to her peers and I had been invited to listen. It was hard. She spoke about her own pain amidst the divorce and remarriage and the tumultuous changes in her own experience and realities. “One of my dad’s favorite verses is Revelation 21:5,” she said before adding, “I don’t like that verse.” Ugh.
Our human failings create so much pain for the ones we love most.
Along my spiritual journey I’ve learned that God expresses themselves over and over and over again through the theme of creation and re-creation. It’s an integral theme in the divine dance. Old things pass, new things come. On the macro level consider the first chapter, Genesis 1, in which God creates the heavens and the earth. In the final two chapters of Revelation God creates a new heaven and a new Earth (Rev 21:1). On the cosmic level it happens at the cross and the empty tomb. Jesus refers to this creation and re-creation theme over and over again. “Unless a kernel dies and is buried in the ground,” He said, “It can’t spring to new life.”
I’ve also observed that many of my fellow followers of Jesus like to gloss over this theme with broad religious brush strokes of propriety. They like “old things pass away and new things come” to look pretty and proper with an emotionally moving musical score underneath. It’s so much easier to swallow when it’s neat and easy.
Maybe it is that way for some. I haven’t found it to be that way. Resurrection is proceeded by crucifixion. Crucifixion is a raw, naked, shameful, bloody mess. Just like my life back in 2005 when I got my first tat.
In the quiet this morning I’m reminded that when Jesus called followers, He made it clear that things would change. Old things would pass away. New things would come. And, not necessarily in comfortable ways.
We sent Timothy,who is our brother and co-worker in God’s service in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith, so that no one would be unsettled by these trials. For you know quite well that we are destined for them.
1 Thessalonians 3:2-3 (NIV)
This past week was a bit of a whirlwind for Wendy and me. It began with the unexpected death of a friend. She and her husband had been in a small group with us during a particularly turbulent time of our lives, and her death rocked our world a bit. The morning of the funeral we received news that another friend had suffered a heart attack in the night and had been flown to Des Moines for a hastily performed cardiac procedure.
We visited our friend in the hospital and were encouraged to find him alive and well. In fact, if it weren’t for the fact that we knew he’d just been through a life-threatening trauma earlier that day, I’d have told you everything was perfectly normal.
As we spoke with our friend and his wife there in the CCU she shared about their life journey and the fact that the two of them had just entered a particularly enjoyable stretch. Retirement, time together, and the opportunity to enjoy large parts of each day in conversation and shared activity had been brining them both tremendous joy. She told us of her emotions and prayers the previous night as she faced the potential reality that it might be coming to a tragic end.
I thought about these two experiences, with two very different outcomes, as I read today’s chapter in Paul’s letter to believers in Thessalonica. Paul fled the city when his life was threatened. He knew that the fledgling believers he left behind continued to face opposition and persecution. Paul was worried about them, which was why he sent his protege, Timothy, to check on them, and why he was writing them this letter after Timothy’s return and report. Addressing the trials they were facing, Paul states quite bluntly: “You know quite well we are destined for them.”
Along my faith journey I’ve observed many who seem to have approached their life and/or faith journey with the expectation that it should always be a cake walk. In the quiet this morning I’m pondering the various reasons we might come to that conclusion. Is it somehow that the “prosperity gospel” that falsely teaches God wants us all to be “healthy, wealthy, and wise” has permeated our culture more than we care to admit? Is it somehow, for those of us living in America, some kind of bleeding over of the American Dream into our faith? Why is it that I am shocked and feel somehow cheated when life’s road unexpectedly becomes rough terrain?
My journey through God’s Message has taught me that I should expect rough terrain on life’s road. All of the early father’s of the faith said so. Here’s just a small sample of reminders:
“In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (Mt 10:16)
“We glory in our sufferings.” (Rom 3:5)
“Consider it pure joy when you encounter various trials….” (Jam 1:2)
“…rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.” (1 Pet 1:6)
I find myself looking back this morning at Wendy’s and my journey over the past 13 years. Like our friend we visited in the hospital we’ve recently been experiencing a sense that we’re coming out of a valley and into a stretch of smoother terrain. It’s a good feeling, and we’re enjoying the lift. Nevertheless, this past week has been a reminder that I can never know what’s waiting for us up ahead.
As I start this week I’m reminded that with each warning of trouble, suffering, trials, and grief, Jesus and the early followers connected the inevitable hard stretches of life’s journey to heart, overcoming, glory, joy, and rejoicing. This journey will include both good times and unexpected bad times. It’s a natural part of the journey. Paul told the Thessalonians believers “we’re destined for them.” I shouldn’t be thrown for a loop when they happen as though I hadn’t been warned that they will come, or like I hadn’t observed that everyone I know experiences tough stretches along the way. There’s always purpose in the pain.
It’s the trials and the overcoming that make our favorite stories “epic.”
Have a great week my friend.
Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.
…for each one should carry their own load.
Last week I had a CrossFit workout done with a partner. There were four weight lifting exercises with 25, 35, 45 and 55 reps, respectively. These were shared. My partner and I chose to alternate doing five reps each, back and forth, until they were completed. Between each weightlifting exercise we both had do 12 “over the bar burpees” together, at the same time. Each of us was responsible to do all 12 reps, even though we did them together.
In today’s chapter, I noticed what seemed to be a contradiction in Paul’s instructions to the followers of Jesus in Galatia. First he tells them to “carry each others burdens,” but then a few sentences later he tells them that each person should “carry their own load.” So, which is it? Carry each other’s burdens or carry your own load?
As I dug into the original Greek words Paul used when he wrote the letter, I found that he used two very different words for “burden” and “load.” When talking about carrying each other’s burden he used a form of the Greek word “baros” which literally means a weight. He’s just finished stating that if a brother or sister is caught in a sin we should “restore them gently.” The picture here is that we all have our own shortcomings. Everyone, even the best of us, will blow it from time to time because we’re human and we all have our faults.
This is a partner workout. When you’re struggling I’m going to be there to help you carry the weight. And you do the same for me when I’m struggling. We alternate and share the reps so that we can mutually encourage one another and allow for mutual “restoration” back and forth.
A few sentences later Paul uses the word “phortion” (for-tee-on) when he says one should carry their own “load.” This specifically means a burden that is not transferrable. It can’t be shared.
Which brings me back to the workout last week. The weightlifting exercises was “baros.” It was a shared burden as we alternated. One of us carried the weight as the other rested and was restored. Back and forth. The Burpees, on the other hand, were “phortion” and each of us was responsible to do all twelve reps. The Burpees were our own load to carry, and we couldn’t transfer the reps to our partner. (Though there was mutual encouragement as we did them together, in unison. We weren’t alone as carried our personal Burpee burden, which is a completely different spiritual lesson.)
Along this life journey I’ve found that I have different kinds of burdens to carry as I make my way along the path. Sometimes burdens are mutual and I share them with my partners and companions. Other times I have a load that is mine alone to carry and no one else can carry it for me. In the quiet this morning I’m pondering some of life’s burdens. Once again, I find myself asking three familiar questions that provide important definition to life: