The Secret to Success

We are sheltering in place. I say “we”, because I am not sheltering alone. My favorite person is with me. The love of my life is my partner in sheltering alone. And, even so, we have an enemy, one that transcends the walls and distance between people. We have an enemy seeking to divide us further, to separate us emotionally and spiritually.

As more people are confined to shared spaces, the opportunity for frayed emotions increases, and emotional and mental health can degrade. I think most Americans are not used to it. My wife and I should be used to this, we both work from home, and live in the “country”. Even so, we seem to fight more. As used to these conditions as we should be, this global crisis has caused us stress.

The Serenity Prayer, attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr, is normally associated with addicts, but I think the full text of it would be helpful to everyone as we endure this crisis in our own contexts:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference;
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His will,
That I may be reasonably happy in this life, 
And supremely happy with Him in the next.

For some reason, we tend to think everything should be good, easy, or at least pleasant for us. When our situation isn’t any of those things, we’re surprised, confused, and often despondent. Why? I know that, for myself, it’s because I’m selfish. You’ll need to answer that question for yourself about yourself. I recommend refraining from answering it for anyone else.

The other night, my wife and I were reading through Acts 16, and once again, I was struck by the experience of Paul, the most amazing and intimidating Christian missionary ever. He was on his second journey with Silas, and experienced a wide range of results and situations:

  • He found Timothy, yet had to circumcise him even though sharing a letter from Jerusalem freeing Gentiles from Jewish legal requirements (Acts 16:1-5)
  • He was prevented by the Holy Spirit from going into Asia (Acts 16:6)
  • He was not permitted to go to Bythinia by the Spirit of Jesus (Acts 16:7)
  • Winding up in Troas, he received a vision to go to Macedonia, and going, is beaten and jailed in a Roman colony without trial (Acts 16:8-40)

Now, that’s not all that happened to them in Acts 16, but it was full of ups and downs. They were prevented by the Spirit from going certain places, and when they went to where He wanted them to go, were beaten and jailed. You can see that it would have been easy to be dejected, give up, and just go home. Yet we have things like these things happening as well:

And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to a riverside, where we were supposing that there would be a place of prayer; and we sat down and began speaking to the women who had assembled. A woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple fabrics, a worshiper of God, was listening; and the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul. And when she and her household had been baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come into my house and stay.” And she prevailed upon us.

Acts 16:13-15 NASB

But about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns of praise to God, and the prisoners were listening to them; and suddenly there came a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison house were shaken; and immediately ball the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. When the jailer awoke and saw the prison doors opened, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here!” And he called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas, and after he brought them out, he said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” And they spoke the word of the Lord to him together with all who were in his house.

Acts 16:25-32 NASB

One of the most telling verses is 25, where, after being wrongfully beaten and jailed, Paul and Silas are singing praises to God, and the other prisoners are listening. Have things been going well? Sort of, but at that moment, not so great. Yet, they are in stocks, bruised and battered, and singing praises to God. By the way, they are praising the God who put them there.

There is definitely a spiritual aspect to this global corona virus pandemic. Lots of people have “conspiracy theories”, some of which spiritualize it. But I believe the greater spiritual aspect is our vulnerability to failing to love each other as Jesus loves us, to being obedient to our Savior, believing instead that He only leads us by worldly success. I believe this crisis brings our selfishness to the surface, or it has for me.

So, in response, let us pray and sing praises to God, the God who put us here, and let everyone with us in this pandemic listen. Are you finding that difficult? Then go back up and pray the serenity prayer. Paul’s writes to this church in Philippi some time later and says this:

Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.

Philippians 4:11-13 NASB

Contentment and serenity go together, and this church to whom he writes already knew this about Paul, they had seen it in his life, and a prominent member had followed Jesus because of this quality in Paul. Paul learned the secret of being content, and the “secret” is that we can do all things through Jesus who strengthens us.

Blessings upon you all as we go through this crisis together, even as we are separated.

Scripture quotations taken from the NASB. Copyright by The Lockman Foundation

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Blooming Where Planted: Joseph IV

If I can’t judge the love of my Master for me when I’m in the crusher, then can I do so when things are going really good?  Nope.  Paul claims that he learned the secret of being content in plenty and in poverty (Philippians 4:11-13).  A change happens for Joseph, but his behavior remains consistently focused on his Master, Yahweh.

Now in the morning his spirit was troubled, so he sent and called for all the magicians of Egypt, and all its wise men. And Pharaoh told them his dreams, but there was no one who could interpret them to Pharaoh.  Then the chief cupbearer spoke to Pharaoh, saying, “I would make mention today of my own offenses. (Genesis 41:8-9 NASB)

The cup bearer has an opportunity to remember Joseph, and what he did for him while in the jail.  Joseph is brought out, cleaned up, and given an opportunity to come before Pharaoh.  When he does, what does Joseph say? He points to God.

Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I have had a dream, but no one can interpret it; and I have heard it said about you, that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.”  Joseph then answered Pharaoh, saying, “It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer.”  (Genesis 41:15-16 NASB)

And God does give Pharaoh a favorable answer, but there’s more than just the answer God gives to understand the dream.  Joseph also gives Pharaoh guidance in how to respond to the meaning.  There’s an important element to how Joseph does that.

“Now as for the repeating of the dream to Pharaoh twice, it means that the matter is determined by God, and God will quickly bring it about.  Now let Pharaoh look for a man discerning and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt.  Let Pharaoh take action to appoint overseers in charge of the land, and let him exact a fifth of the produce of the land of Egypt in the seven years of abundance.  Then let them gather all the food of these good years that are coming, and store up the grain for food in the cities under Pharaoh’s authority, and let them guard it.  Let the food become as a reserve for the land for the seven years of famine which will occur in the land of Egypt, so that the land will not perish during the famine.”  Now the proposal seemed good to Pharaoh and to all his servants. (Genesis 41:32-37 NASB)

Whether Joseph did this with the hope that he would be “the man discerning and wise”, or whether he simply saw the answer and gave it without hope to be that man, is debated.  It’s not easy to know.  In every previous circumstance we’re not given the initial response of Joseph to his masters, merely that he succeed under each master.

So, it’s possible that he uses this suggestion as a way to get in good with Pharaoh, who has already demonstrated a lack of wise magicians.  But it’s also possible that Joseph is simply without guile by this time, and makes the suggestion knowing that this will be the best response for whoever Pharaoh appoints.

Then Pharaoh said to his servants, “Can we find a man like this, in whom is a divine spirit?”  So Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has informed you of all this, there is no one so discerning and wise as you are.  You shall be over my house, and according to your command all my people shall do homage; only in the throne I will be greater than you.”  Pharaoh said to Joseph, “See, I have set you over all the land of Egypt.” (Genesis 41:38-41 NASB)

But it works out that Pharaoh has no qualms about who Joseph has been, only for what he has said to Pharaoh now.  There’s no “class” problem with Joseph having been a slave, or a felon, or even a Hebrew.  Pharaoh makes Joseph the second in the Kingdom of Egypt because it’s clear he has a plan.  Joseph has arrived.

Right away, Joseph gets busy implementing his plan for surviving the seven years of famine.  And he collects so much grain in the seven years of plenty that they stop counting it.  But Joseph also is fruitful personally…

Now before the year of famine came, two sons were born to Joseph, whom Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera priest of On, bore to him.  Joseph named the firstborn Manasseh, “For,” he said, “God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household.”  He named the second Ephraim, “For,” he said, “God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.” (Genesis 41:50-52 NASB)

The names of Joseph’s sons is an important view into Joseph, and how he sees what God is doing with him.  Think about why he names his sons as he does.  “God has made me forget all my troubles, and all my father’s household.”  He’s done with where he has come from, and is totally invested in his present.  His past wiped away his dreams.  He has forgotten his father’s house, their dysfunction, their treatment of him, his loss, and his pain.

To Joseph, this is what God is doing in him, this is his “payback” for all he has suffered.
“God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.”  He is finally being blessed for his faithfulness to God.  So, the lesson for Joseph is that, if we hold fast to our faith in God, then, eventually, we’ll be blessed wherever we are!  God is good, see?  Look what He did for Joseph, rewarding his faithfulness.

So, decisions we make, decisions to remain faithful to God, these eventually work in our favor.  The question is timing.  The problem with pragmatism is that, way too often, time is too heavy of a factor.  Understanding and wisdom comes over long periods of time, but we’re impatient.  Often it’s the spectrum of experience, bad and good, that helps us better understand where we are, and what our Master is doing around and through us.  But keep in mind, the goal isn’t the achievement of power God granted to Joseph, but the serenity Paul learned.  We, too, can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.

What’s your view through the knothole?

Passion Week XIII

And He looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury.  And He saw a poor widow putting in two small copper coins.  And He said, “Truly I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all of them; for they all out of their surplus put into the offering; but she out of her poverty put in all that she had to live on.”  (Luke 21:1-4 NASB)

The Widow’s Mite!  It’s been used in “Stewardship Sermons” for ages.  In Mark, Jesus goes and intentionally sits and waits for her to give.  In Matthew, this account is missing, as it is in John.  Here in Luke, Jesus looks up.  It’s as if, in the midst of all He is saying and doing, He remembers, “Oh right, the widow!”.  He looks up and points her out.

There are many interesting things about this account, not the least of which is the question of what happened to the widow?  But another is whether anyone else noticed.  The chances were high that she was easy to spot for what she was.  She probably looked the part since she had reached that point only after selling everything else.  Would anyone else have spotted the unaccompanied woman in old worn clothes?

But what sort of person, or what drives a person to the point where putting the last two coins in the treasury is good idea?  How does that happen?  When does that happen?  In a sense we might think she’s given up, reached a point where there is no point, so might as well give the rest.

But think about what she’s done.  She’s given the last of what she had to the One she figured was responsible.  All things come from God, good or bad.  Yet, regardless of her circumstances, she gives to the One having landed her in them.  The God of her fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has taken her husband, left her without children to support her, without land, without legal protection, and without finances.  And to Whom does she give her last two coins?  This God of her fathers.

How easy is it for me to give in to my circumstances, blaming and resenting my Father in Heaven?  How cheaply do I sell my joy and contentment?  For what will I trade the blessings of being a child of the King?  She held on through everything, and gave right to the end of everything she had.  I have much and give out of my abundance, and whine like a mule because my job is boring.  Really?

The thing distracting me is me.  What gets my view off my Savior and on my circumstances is my discomfort, my boredom, my frustration with management from whom I feel disconnected and marginalized.  Ah, poor blessed employed whiner, such a pity he’s being ignored by people he doesn’t know.  Funny how I have such a problem getting people to come over to my pity party.  I probably should have had cake and balloons.

So different from a widow with two coppers.  Maybe if I grew up to be like her my life would be more of a blessing to others.  I can’t imagine her mindset, which is really dangerous.  I should be living it, forget imagining it.  I’m going to force my focus on Jesus.  Today I will practice the presence of my Savior.  Booyah!

What’s your view of our Master through the fence?