Sunday, August 26, 2012
© 2012, Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Pray for me,
so that when I speak, a message may be given to me
to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel,
for which I am an ambassador in chains.
I remember one summer seeing an eye-catching promotional ad for an upcoming television show. An actress, who apparently had been spending an inordinate amount of time at the gym working on physical conditioning and strength, wanted to prove herself – to someone other than the attendant who hands out the towels at the door, I suppose. Actresses can be like that. So she arranged to take part in a circus trapeze act for one of those TV extravaganzas specially made for the late summer television doldrums. In the promotional piece, they showed her flying through the air, releasing her grip in time to spin around and be caught by a man on another trapeze who arrived just in time to make the catch. But I noticed right away that they had attached two lines to a special belt around her middle, so that if her partner failed to catch her, she would just bounce up and down like a yo-yo or a bunji cord enthusiast going off a bridge.
Right away I found myself thinking, “Oh, big deal! She’s got a net and a set of bunji cords!” How jaded and cynical can I get? I would never even climb the pole to the platform, let alone swing over the floor of a circus tent on a trapeze unless there was a substantial net, a large liability policy, and a highly trained staff of physicians and nurses in place. Still, we all know what is meant when someone says, “She’s performing without a net.” Whether we’re speaking of a circus performer or a Wall Street investor, it means someone is operating without precautions in the event that they might fail — they are operating at high personal risk. It is either confidence or craziness that causes people to take big chances. I can hardly look when one of those aerial performers, possessed of a maniacal confidence in their sense of balance, decides to walk a tight rope over Niagra Falls or between tall buildings.
Still, even the most daring circus performer takes some precautions, much as they may attempt to make it appear otherwise. The first precaution is thousands of hours, years of practice. They use special shoes so their feet can grip the line, rosin on the wire, a special pole to assist them with their balance. Not to do these things would be truly crazy, potentially deadly as well. Though they may appear completely vulnerable, there are subtle considerations providing for their safety, some of their own strength and ability to provide for them.
It’s interesting that when Paul wrote about the Christian struggle in the world, comparing our sources of strength as believers to the strength of a soldier’s armor, he was a prisoner, very likely guarded by someone wearing the very armaments he described. He was in the weakest of positions in which anyone could find himself, able to call upon few strengths of his own. Accused, arrested, behind bars, at the mercy of his jailers for his daily food, subject to the beatings of his more vicious captors. Yet in such a situation, he found the spiritual resources to write about strength, power, the armor of God. What confidence! Someone imprisoned for his faith who continues in his faith despite the penalties for it might appear to be working without a net, without a surrounding community of fellow believers, without the cultural support of a society that is tolerant of his religious affirmations, without even an outward sign that God approves of what he is doing — because if God was so fond of Paul, the thinking might go, why would he allow him to be imprisoned on trumped-up charges?
Without all those things that make for our accustomed measure of safety and security in declaring in this religiously free society that Christ is our Lord, what sources of strength are left? Just think if constitutional safeguards concerning our religious observances were taken away, if the entire culture around us were to turn to some set of beliefs directly hostile to our own, and if we saw our own fellow church members, one after another, abandon our faith, turning away from following Christ because it was no longer culturally acceptable — where would we turn for the strength to go on, to remain faithful?
Paul helps us see that all the outward safety nets for our faith are just trappings. Strip them away, and what we have left is the one essential of our faith, not the strength of our own personal convictions, but the very strength of God. If we rely on our own strength, it will ultimately fail us. If we rely on God’s strength, we cannot fail in the end.
Over 20 years ago now I recall seeing a movie called The Doctor. Maybe some of you will remember it. While I don’t believe it won an academy awards, the impact of it has stayed in my memory all this time. I think it contained a good lesson for anyone tempted to think they can survive this world by their own wit and widsom alone. In the film there was an intriguing scene in which the main character, a powerful and well-known surgeon played by William Hurt, is reduced to the status of plain old patient in his own hospital due to a serious medical problem of his own. He finds himself being treated as a piece of anatomy, shuffled from one waiting room to another. In particular, his own surgeon treats him with a mechanical sort of efficiency, rather than as a human being. When he objects, she literally throws him out of her office; but before he goes, he says to her “What is happening to me is like something that will happen to you. If not now, then maybe thirty years from now but it will happen. You will get sick one day. You will know what I am going through.” I’m not picking on physicians. Any one of us can find, and may already have found ourselves in such a life situation.
Before the diagnosis of his own medical problem, it is likely that William Hurt’s character would have declared to anyone who wanted to listen that the source of his strength lay in the skill of his hands as a surgeon, in the quality of his mind, in the extent of his training and in his proven ability. But one little tumor reduced him to a status in which none of the things in which he customarily placed his confidence would provide strength for him now. Looking around, he saw little else to bear him up in his time of trial. Long since emotionally distanced even from his own family, he was going to face his surgery like an acrobat working without a net.
If we are sufficiently in touch with our lives to admit it to ourselves, certainly there have been such times for each of us. When our own mortality looks us in the face, reducing all our life’s priorities to a single overriding concern, we are bound to reach into the deepest parts of ourselves to search out a source of strength to see us through.
It is at precisely such times, when all other sources of strength have either failed us or been found wanting, or irrelevant, that we are in the blessed position in which Paul found himself in his prison cell. We may not think of it as a blessing, but I promise you it is. It may be the biggest trauma of our lives: our health threatened by a disease; our child marching off to war; our best friend dying before our eyes; the child we have loved into adulthood turning on us as though we were somehow the enemy rather than someone who loves them more than anyone in the world; a career collapsing around us; a marriage failing with no singular or even reasonably identifiable cause. Whatever the trauma, these are times when Paul says to us, as he says here, “Be strong!” Actually, this English translation of Paul’s Greek word is inadequate, making it sound as though receiving the strength of God were a step we could take, another achievement we could undertake, a self-help exhortation on the order of “Shape up! Be strong! Get with it! Just do it!”
A better translation would be something moe akin to, “Receive strength!” or “Turn around and open yourself to the strength of the promises of God which await you!” Receiving the strength of which Paul speaks is most certainly not another work we can perform, a variation of relying on our own strength. It isn’t an admonition to search within ourselves for a source of strength. It would be all too likely that we would have already searched as deeply into our own sources of strength as we could and found them wanting. There wouldn’t be any good news in that.
The blessing that hides in our severest trials is just the potential for this discovery that there is no trial we may face for which the strength of God’s promises cannot more than provide, not even the trial of death itself. Even when we “lose it” in the middle of our trials – get that feeling that we are totally out of control and suffering beyond hope, even then we may discover that our being out of control only provides us with all the greater opportunity to invite divine strength to control the situation in such a way that it’s resolution might be satisfying to God. A Christian is free to recognize that hope for redemption of a terrible situation may even lie beyond death, because in Christ, God reigns even there.
If you face life’s crises the way I do, you know that it is not within human ability to fully equip ourselves for facing all the traumas of our lives. Some battles are of such magnitude that rugged individualism, or professional counsel can’t help but fail us. So think of the pieces of armor that Paul used as an illustration, the qualities they represent speaking of ways God may strengthen us. If in the middle of our trials we find that there is truth to sustain us, it is likely to be God’s truth. If we find that we are unexpectedly succeeding in some things, it is likely to be a “right”-eousness that God has granted us, not our own faltering attempts to do things right. If we find that despite all expectations to the contrary we are able to hold our ground and remain standing even though everything familiar seems to be failing us, it is likely that our shoes are firmly footed in the gospel of shalom, the gospel of peace. If we find that things which usually drive us crazy now seem insignificant, hardly relevant, it is that the sustaining word of our faith is shielding us from those things which we might ordinarily allow to bring us down. If we find that even though every human being around us has failed us but we discover strength in the fact that God loves us in spite of it all, we are protected by the promise of salvation in Christ from having to rely on the strength of anyone else. If we find, astonishingly, that we can even talk to others about our difficulties and maybe even support a fellow sufferer by the ability to articulate our own pain, we are in reality giving voice to the word of God which lives within the heart of every believer through the strength of the Holy Spirit.
Strange as it sounds to modern ears, so attuned to a false gospel of rugged individualism and self-sufficiency, making ourselves ready to battle life’s demons that would tear us down has little to do with our own abilities and preparation, and everything to do with the sufficient grace of God, which stands ready to strengthen every believer in every hour. We need only look to our need to be open to God’s strength.
Copyright © 2012 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved