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I wonder what you were thinking when I read these words from Paul:
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God… I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I now what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry…”
Do you know what I was thinking? I was thinking, “I wish I could tell you that is the message I’d be writing you if I were Paul.” But I’m not so sure. I’m not sure I could be saying, “Rejoice in the Lord always…” and “I have learned to be content”… if I were writing the letter from a prison cell. Especially if I’ve been jailed more than once for my faith.
“Rejoice in the Lord always” Always? With thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God?” – Really?
That would be a hard letter for me to write after being beaten for my faith… after going hungry and after discovering that following Jesus doesn’t make life easier… it can lead to suffering.
“Rejoice in the Lord always… with thanksgiving… “I’ve learned to be content in any and all circumstances…”
I’d like to think I could write that to you but I know it would not come easy. Do you know what I mean?
After all, contentment, thanksgiving and rejoicing do not always come easy. More often than I care to admit to myself and to you, I have to tell you that my thanksgiving is driven by circumstances… It seems easy to be if I can count my blessings, but find it harder when times get rough. I have to confess to you, there are days I let myself too easily give in to circumstances… some which are very trivial in the big picture.
My niece reminded me of this when she was telling me about how bad the traffic had been for her that day. She said, “ But you know, Uncle Jody… that’s a first world problem.”
And I’ve been thinking about that. I’ve noticed how I let first world problems and circumstances throw me off for a morning or a day. Last Sunday, the paper didn’t come… and it sort of threw me off, I mean, my whole Sunday was about to be ruined– (Sharon even said, “I’m sorry–) then I remembered, “First world problem. Let it go.”
I hate to confess to you that I sometimes let those little first world problems get in my way and ruin an hour or even a day: “The car doesn’t start… first world problem. How many people in the world would love to have a car.” “Wendy’s doesn’t have baked potatoes for the 3rd time I’d visited them. You’d think they’d get it straight!” First world problem.
You know what I’m talking about don’t you? Please tell me that I’m not the only one who has trouble being content when first world problems come my way…
I hear people say, “You know, that new Apple I phone is great but the Siri drains the battery.” “My computer is acting up” First world problem. I had a hard time getting a parking place at the mall… do you know how far I had to walk? “ First world problem.
This Black Friday—listen closely if you dare go to the stores… and listen to the stressful comments—the line was too long… they ran out of the deal of the day… listen to yourself and if you begin to go in that direction, just whisper to yourself, “First world problem”—maybe it will help.
Of course, there are those who have real problems that are more difficult to pass over. Poverty in America is on the increase… listen to the stories of those going to homeless shelters and soup kitchens this Thanksgiving… and you’ll find people with real problems. I think of people trying to support their families on minimum wage—or about $14,000 per year in North Carolina. And, you are trying to provide care for your children at the same time.
Some people have real problems.I think about the families heading to chemo… or my caring bridge friend tell me that Vinny has been sedated 140 times before he was 6 years old…
Some people have real problems. This week two families at the Kirk have watched over a dying loved one… Another faced surgery… those are real problems.
Think about those who are unemployed and tired of looking… those are real problems…
Then when I widen my scope and think about those suffering from hunger, thirst, disease and persecution in the world… and I think about fellow Christians suffering for their faith in many parts of the world… now you are talking real problems.
And I would understand if those facing real problems would have a harder time finding contentment… or a reason to rejoice… or uttering words of thanksgiving.
I think of Jimmy Stewart in the old movie, “Shenandoah. He plays the part of the farmer who faithfully works his land and supports his family. He is not a very religious man, but his wife is. He promises her as she lies on her deathbed that he will continue to the custom of saying table grace before each meal. Every day he would pray this prayer:
“Lord, we came here and cleared the trees.
We took out the stones, and we broke the sod.
We prepared the fields and sowed the seed.
We tended the crops and fought pestilence and weathered the storms and drought, but we thank you anyway.Amen.”
Now, you wouldn’t blame Paul if his prayer sounded more like that:
“Lord, I listened to your voice… I answered your call… I have given myself—my life to you and your church… I have done tent making to make ends meet… I shared your message of love and reconciliation with the world… and we have fought through persecutions… hunger… hate… jail… we have been hunted down and despised for your name… but we thank you anyway…”
And maybe Paul felt that way at one time… we don’t know… but at least now—at this stage in his life—he says, he has learned to be content in any and all circumstances… and so he is able to say, no matter what your plight:
“Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say rejoice. Let your gentleness be made known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God which passes all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus… in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret…”
He has learned the secret. So Paul… would you mind… would you mind, telling us the secret? I’d love to have whatever it is that you have that leads to thanksgiving and contentment. Would you mind sharing the secret?
Well, he did. Maybe you heard it the first time… but it took me several readings to hear him. This is the secret: “The Lord is near…The Lord is near”
The peace of God will guard your minds in Christ Jesus… I can do all things through him who strengthens me…”
This is the secret: Paul is not looking “out there” – at the circumstances to find his peace or contentment.
He has tried that before… he tried finding peace in following the laws… in outward obedience without inward transformation… he used to think that he would find peace if his enemies would go away—so he tried to kill Christians before he became one…Paul has tried all that.
We know what that is like. If only my circumstances would change, I’d find peace. But it is not true.
As long as we look “out there”—for peace… it will always elude us. Take it from someone who knows—who has tried it. If only I would get that perfect job… or house or spouse or children… Then…I’d be okay…
Take a look at the face of shoppers this weekend… and tell me if they look like they’ve found peace… let me know if they are looking thankful and joyful.
Paul learned and is trying to teach us… that peace—real peace—is not “out there”—it is “in here”… Peace which passes understanding is not based on circumstances… peace is based on relationship. He has found his peace in his relationship with God in Christ.
He says he has learned that through Christ, and with Christ—he can face all things… hunger, jail, beatings, hard times…loneliness… death itself. There is nothing that life can throw at him which he cannot handle… because he has learned that Christ is with him… and that gives him strength… and peace… He knows he is not and never has been alone.
This is where all the great saints found their peace. They certainly didn’t find it in a store or in their wealth. They found the peace that so eluded them for much of their lives in God. Mother Teresa gave up a life of wealth and found peace. St. Francis the same.
Perhaps one of the lessons of life—and maybe you don’t learn this until you have lived life long enough—is that contrary to the gospel according to Madison avenue and wall street—peace is not found “out there”… but “in here”.
I like the way one person put it as he looked over his life and shared what he has learned:
“Along the road
I’ve traveled far
I’ve been lost and found
I’ve fallen and been raised,
My weary soul found rest
In some beautiful places,
In some wonderful people.
My soul wearies more easily now.
The ‘closed’ signs are going up,
And the road ahead is hard.
God help me!
In God alone I find rest now,
In the beauty behind all beauty,
In the wonder behind the wonderful peole.
In God alone.
I think Paul would say, “Amen” For Paul will tell you that life is hard and life with Christ does not always make it easier—at least if you look at the circumstances.
But something he has learned… while life may not always be easy with Christ… it is a life of peace… it is a life that leads to joy… to a reason to give thanks. For with Christ, you learn, in any and all circumstances, you can face anything through him who strengthens you and me.
So, on this day—this Thanksgiving week—no matter what your circumstances… may we learn the secret so we are able to join Paul when he says:
“Rejoice in the Lord always, again, I will say, Rejoice … don’t worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Happy thanksgiving! Amen.