A Christian\’s Strength

“I can endure all these things through the power of the one who gives me strength.”
Philippians 4:13 (Common English Bible)
            What is so remarkable about these words is that they are spoken by a man in chains. Paul is a prisoner in Rome. In a life dedicated to serving Christ, Paul has endured much – shipwreck, ridicule, hunger, and excruciating poverty. Now he sits in a Roman prison and writes that whatever the circumstances, Paul has learned the secret of inner strength and contentment. Perhaps even more remarkable, Paul lays aside his own needs and concerns to write a deeply personal letter to the Philippians to encourage them in their faith. Despite his imprisonment and impending trial, Paul’s one desire is to share with the church in Philippi that joy and strength does not come from outward circumstances but from an intimate relationship with Jesus. That power is so tremendous and so available that Paul feels he can face anything knowing that nothing can diminish his spirit. His spirit was invulnerable. Paul wants the Philippians to utilize that same power.
            The interesting thing about the New Testament is that we find that same power animating most of the early Christians. A profession of faith in Jesus usually pushed people to the margins of their communities. Families were torn apart – mothers and daughters, fathers and sons no longer in relationship with one another because one or the other decided to become a follower of Jesus. Worship services were conducted in secret and often disrupted by Jewish leaders eager to destroy the Jesus movement. The worst tortures that could be imagined were invented and performed to discourage participation in the new Christian faith. There was every reason for ignoring the swelling growth of the Christian Church, keeping your head down and simply avoiding trouble. Yet, for all the compelling reasons to remain separate from those following Jesus, men and women who risked believing in Jesus made one dominating impression wherever they went, the impression of uncommon power.
            That power has not been withdrawn.             It is not a closely guarded secret. Where men and women continue to take Christ’s attitude of loving others and serving others that same power is unmistakable. What is troubling is that few would say that the Church today impresses the world with the same power as it once did. Somehow those who claim discipleship to Jesus Christ show little evidence of a changed life, a life of uncommon power. Absent in many Christians today is a sense of adequacy for meeting challenge and adversity. Membership and attendance decline of the Christian Church has been tracked and documented for many years now. This has resulted is the publication of resources to perfect the church’s hospitality, increase the vitality of its worship, and harness the power of technology. However valuable these may be, the most urgent need is for followers of Jesus Christ to get back to that power which is possessed by the daily nurture of a personal fellowship with Jesus.
            Return for a moment to the first two words above, “I can.” Some years ago I was working with a personal trainer. One particular day he had me on my back, bench pressing what seemed to be an incredible weight for me. After pushing the bar above my head several times I did a controlled drop of the bar to my chest. I was depleted. I delivered an eye message to him to remove the bar from my chest. I will never forget his response, “That’s not my bar. You place it back on the upright supports.” Then he did what his training taught him to do. He placed his hands around the bar with my own. That was simply to ensure that I didn’t hurt myself. But the lifting belonged to me. I pushed with everything in me; I summoned all the power I could to lift the bar back onto the supports. As my strength began to fail, he matched the loss of my strength with his own until the bar had returned to rest on the support. Paul writes, “I can, through the power who gives me strength.” If you are depressed or in trouble say, “I can in Him” and you will find God’s strength come alongside your own. If you struggle with passions or addictions that frighten you, or if you feel that you are losing your grip on life, say, “I can in Him” and you will discover an unseen hand on the bar with your own, matching your strength. The Christian’s strength begins with, “I can.”


A New Outlook

“In the same way, when we were minors, we were also enslaved by this world’s system. 
But when the fulfillment of the time came, God sent his Son, born through a woman, and born under the Law. This was so he could redeem those under the Law so that we could be adopted.”
Galatians 4:3-5 (Common English Bible)
            Instant Family, a 2018 American comedy film starring Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne, weaves a story of a married couple considering the option of adopting a child. The hopeful parents are brought to an adoption fair where they have the opportunity to meet children they may consider adopting. As the story unfolds, the couple becomes foster parents to three siblings, one a teenager – foster care a requirement on the journey towards adoption. As foster parents there are laws that govern the dynamics of the relationship they will have with the children. One such law is that the children’s cell phone cannot be taken away. Although this “new” family initially experiences joy, it doesn’t take long for things to get hectic. Though the movie is a heart-warming comedy, it does grapple honestly with the struggles and difficulties that are a part of any family, particularly with an “instant” family as this one. 
            We were very much like the three children in the movie. The three children were in a foster system with its own regulations and rules and we were in “this world’s system” with laws that made claims upon us. The Apostle Paul writes that we were “enslaved” to the world’s way of looking at things. We are no stranger to how the world sees things; to the values that shape a world outlook on life. The worship of money, the passionate pursuit of success and position, and the desire for comforts found in ease, food and drink form the tapestry of a world outlook. Initially, that outlook may not appear to be enslavement. It all seems to be quite attractive, particularly to those who are still striving for them. Yet, with all the promises of happiness with this outlook, those who are honest will confess to a deep-seated dissatisfaction with life. What remains is a hope for something more.
            In the movie, Instant Family, the three children desire something more than foster care with all of its rules, restrictions, and uncertainty. Realizing how much they love and care for the three children, the couple also long for something more, something deeper. Eventually they all gather for a court hearing to decide on the question of adoption. It has been a long, broken road to the court hearing but the three children and the couple all want to become a legal family. Love has gripped each of their hearts. The old system of foster care no longer brought deep satisfaction and joy. The adoption is finalized and the laws that governed foster care fall away. The relationship of the children to their adoptive parents will now be governed by a more generous and gracious dynamic. Each of the five begins the joyous discovery together of what it means to belong to each other.
            In the person of Jesus Christ, our own enslavement to the world and its values has ended. We have been adopted as God’s very own children. It is an adoption that has been secured by a God that desires something more for us, something less restrictive, and more gracious, something less uncertain, and more shaped by family ties. This adoption brings with it a new outlook on life, a new way of seeing things. Creation is the work of a purposeful God. It is not something to be exploited for personal gain but something that is to be managed well that it may be a blessing for all people. The possibilities of human life are no longer limited by our own ingenuity and strength but are expanded by God’s own creative purposes.  Adoption releases us from the pursuit of meaning and happiness in material things and invites us to experience these things in relationships with others and with God.  Those things that are valued by the world cannot satisfy and ultimately lead to brokenness and death. Attention to a relationship with loved ones and God is life and peace.


Breakfast with Harry Emerson Fosdick

“I tell you that you are Peter. And I will build my church on this rock. 
The gates of the underworld won’t be able to stand against it.”
Matthew 16:18 (Common English Bible)
            In a recent episode of the television show, Young Sheldon, we see hung on a bedroom wall a poster of Albert Einstein. This particular episode develops as its primary story line Sheldon’s desire to become the next Einstein. Those familiar with the character of Sheldon from the television show, The Big Bang Theory,or this show, Young Sheldon, are quite acquainted with the breath of Sheldon’s intelligence. It often eclipses everyone in Sheldon’s orbit. What is often irritating about Sheldon’s character is his inability to be gracious about his intellectual capacity. Here, in this particular episode, young Sheldon has determined to learn all he can about the one he idolizes. Learning that Einstein was Jewish, it seems reasonable to Sheldon that his journey to become like Einstein must include conversion to the Jewish faith. In one poignant moment, Sheldon is counseled by a Jewish Rabbi that when Sheldon came to the end of his life, God would not ask him why he didn’t become like Albert Einstein. Rather, God would ask Sheldon why wasn’t he Sheldon.
            I am as guilty as young Sheldon. Near my desk is a framed picture of Harry Emerson Fosdick, a great preacher of another generation. I have read Fosdick’s autobiography and a biography of this man who was once called, “the least hated and best loved heretic that ever lived.” Many mornings I enjoy breakfast with one of Fosdick’s 47 books of sermons, biblical studies, and Christian apologetics. His life had sharp parallels to my own; his thinking stretching my thinking, and his writing informing my own reading – and understanding – of the Bible. Often, I place Fosdick quotes in the Sunday morning worship bulletin, and my preaching sparkles with Fosdick insights. A liberal Christian and preacher in those decades of our nation’s history when that was much more dangerous (Ordained in November of 1903, retired in May of 1946), Fosdick has shaped my own theological convictions and reading of the Bible to be more gracious and generous, less narrow and restrictive. Perhaps the critical difference between young Sheldon and me is that I harbor no illusion of becoming another Fosdick.
            Young Sheldon desires to be the next Albert Einstein and I deeply value the ministry of Harry Emerson Fosdick. The danger for both Sheldon and me is that we pay little attention to who God has uniquely created each of us to be. We are not alone. Many people today habitually wish they were someone else, or at the minimum, they wish they could be more like someone else. They wish they could possess qualities which they lack, to be more attractive, or more intelligent, or have a more outgoing personality. Perhaps their longing is simply to claim more courage, more patience, or more talent. The result is always disappointment. As Fosdick once shared from the pulpit, “Nobody can put qualities into us from the outside.”[i]  This lesson from Matthew’s Gospel suggest coming at this dilemma from another angle: claim who God has made us to be, “I tell you that you are Peter!” Jesus tells Peter that there is something already in Peter that is sufficient for planting and building the church.
            This presents both an encouragement and a challenge. It is an encouragement to accept that God has already made us sufficient for the work God has for us. It isn’t necessary to be someone else or to import into our lives qualities we don’t possess. “I tell you that you are Peter.” Jesus is asking Peter to claim that; to claim that God has uniquely and purposefully made Peter to be the man he is. The same is spoken to us through this text. We already possess all God needs for us to be useful. This also presents a challenge. Jesus saw something deep inside Peter that Peter didn’t see. Peter would be a rock, a strong foundation for the church of Jesus Christ. When Peter saw a reflection of himself in the waters of a lake, he saw a man that was temperamental, emotional, and lacking courage. Peter’s challenge was to see what Jesus saw, to reach down deep into himself, claim what Jesus saw, nurture it and make that quality the driving force of his life. It is our business in life to get out of ourselves what is already there; to lay hold of those virtues, and qualities, and passions that lay dormant within. It is then that we realize we don’t need to be anyone else. God’s grand purpose requires exactly who we were created to be.

[i] Harry Emerson Fosdick, The Hope of the World.  (New York and London: Harper & Brothers, 1933) 186.


Throwing Away Self-Pity

“Awake, awake, put on your strength, Zion!”
Isaiah 52:1a (Common English Bible)
            Captivity for Israel has ended. God has defeated the powers of Babylon and has authorized Israel to depart and head for home to Jerusalem. A new day, with a strong future, now rises for God’s people. “Awake, awake!” is God’s double imperative to Israel. “Put on your strength, Zion!” The call sounds strangely familiar. “Up and Adam! Let’s get going!” is the more common usage today. These, or similar, words have been uttered by most parents summoning their children awake from their sleep. The image of sleepy children, resisting the call to leave the comfort of a warm bed, is sharp and crisp. The parent can wake the child with a shout, can summon the child from the bed, but it must be the child’s own strength that moves them from slumber to a fresh engagement with a new day.
            God’s present difficulty is that Israel doesn’t want to get out of bed. During their captivity in Babylon, Israel has become dulled, inattentive, hopeless, and grief-stricken.[i] Israel has been humiliated by Babylon and has spiraled into such despair and self-pity that they no longer want to live. No longer did life offer a driving purpose, only a memory of brighter days. Absent was a radiant hope, only a fading dream. A captivating vision has fled from their sight. What remained was a history. “Awake, awake!” is God’s response to Israel’s self-pity. “Put on your strength, Zion!” God is reminding Israel that there is still strength in the people and is here urging them to summon that strength and toss-off that negative attitude that has consumed them.
            Psychotherapist and author, Amy Morin writes that feeling sorry for yourself is self-destructive.[ii]Though we all experience pain and sorrow in life, dwelling on your sorrow and misfortune can consume you until it eventually changes your thoughts and behaviors. Morin contends that any of us can choose to take control. “Even when you can’t alter your circumstances, you can alter your attitude.”[iii]This is the clear declaration of God to Israel; the clear call to shake off their indulgence in self-pity, claim the strength that remains in them, and move positively forward toward the future God has prepared for them. God’s strength comes alongside our own. It does not do for us what we can do for ourselves.
            After Victor Hugo was exiled from his beloved France, he spent 18 years in the Channel Islands. Hugo once described this exile from the nation he loved as worse than death. Each afternoon, at sunset, Victor Hugo would climb to a cliff overlooking a small harbor and look longingly out over the water toward France. Legend tells us that each day, following his meditations, Hugo would pick up a pebble and throw it into the sea. One day the children who developed an affection for him asked why he threw a stone in the sea each day. “Not stones, children, not stones. I am throwing my self-pity into the sea.” Little wonder that during those 18 years of struggle, Victor Hugo gave the world his best and most profound work of literature.

[i]Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66.(Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998) 136.
[ii]Amy Morin, 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do. (New York: William Morrow, 2014) 20.
[iii]Morin, 18.