Friday, November 06, 2009

My Life as a Hippie Chicken

A little while ago, I watched the Olympic torch go through our town. A young lady, poster child of the 2010 Winter Games, ran past with a huge smile and the pride of national representation. She was soon after followed by a big black truck that I later learned was the machine they would unleash in the event of a terrorist attack, a reminder that we live in a world of crazies.

Some people just don't like the Olympics. They say it's too much money spent to impress rich people, while homeless shelters go unbuilt and social programs are cut. Perhaps what really gets them is that it's a lot of hoopla for the select few who can ski fast or pay the money to watch other people ski fast. But maybe they just feel intimidated by all these young athletes who ride the edge of the impossible.

It's fascinating to watch. Even people who don't like the Olympics, who stand in the doorway of the TV room making snide comments, find themselves drawn in to watch and see which figure skater gets the most points or which rock will spin nearest to the center circle. Or hold their breath for those Super-G ski racers who finish 0.0001 seconds apart from one another. The best in the world.

Olympians push the limits of human capacity. Athletes train for the better part of their young lives to shave seconds off their best time or find their way past the defense to the goal. It wouldn't be any fun at all if someone came along who had no limits. Superman is not welcome here. It's all about recognizing human limits and seeing how close we can come to them, or maybe stretch them a tiny bit more. It's worth watching if you get the chance.

I once thought I had no limits. I pushed myself so hard, taking on the impossible because with God nothing is impossible. What a surprise it was the day I found myself in the hospital, with the doctor saying that my body was sending me a message: I had exceeded the limits of its capacity and it wasn't going to take it any more. I remember the disappointment of knowing there were things I wanted to do - badly! - and couldn't. It was like being at the dock and the lake is like glass, sun's out, the boat's in the water and no one else wants to go, and I am just too tired to ski.

The verse in the Bible that is most consistently taken out of context is found in Paul's letter to the Philippians: "I can do everything through him who gives me strength." Wow, we lean on that promise, expecting God to make us able to do anything and everything. Trouble is, I have seen people with tremendous faith hit the wall like they didn't know it was there. It has made me realize that we don't understand what Paul was saying to the church in Philippi.

Let's put this verse back in context: "I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you have been concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength. Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles."

The story: The church in Philippi was known for its generosity, even though they themselves were poor. Paul was in prison, where unless you had someone on the outside looking after you, starvation would kill you if hypothermia didn't do it first. Paul found himself limited by chains and damp walls, dependent on the help of people sent by churches like this one.

Somehow between world travel and jail time, Paul had learned a secret. Whatever his circumstances, he could respond the same way. Eating like a king? Cool. Finishing off what the rats didn't want? Cool. Shipwrecked? Cool. Going where the Gospel had never gone before? Cool. He was like the hippie chicken in the movie Surf's Up; whether winning a trophy or getting cooked by savage penguins, life just didn't faze or dazzle him. He had learned how to be content in it all.

The secret? What will you give me for it? Oh, you want it, don't you? The secret to happiness, the way to the lost valley of Shangri-La. Utopia. A perfect state of being. Or maybe you think I have slipped across the lines to the Buddhist monastery. Nope. Paul offers it: "I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want."

The trouble is that you have had this secret in your hands all along, but you went and took it out of context. The secret to the contented life is this: You can do all things through Christ who gives you strength. This oft-quoted verse has nothing to do with Jesus giving you the strength to somehow overcome your latest limitation. It is all about Jesus giving you strength to be content within your limitations. Live in them. Maybe even welcome them.

I know, that cuts across the grain of many things you believe in: Taking Responsibility. Finding A Solution. Fixing Things. Paying Your Own Way. It unsettles what has become perhaps Western society's number one value: Independence. To simply "accept things" sounds almost dangerous, and taken to extremes you would find yourself in India, waiting all day for the holy cow to decide to move out of your way.

But even Olympic athletes know that they have limits. Why don't followers of Jesus know that? Rather than understand our human limitations, we believers seem to pretend we have none, because we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. Ever warn someone too late that the glass patio door is shut? They can walk as if it is open, but sometimes it is not, and they will get hurt. Paul didn't live that way. He encountered many shut doors, and rather than try to walk through them with Western arrogance, he tried other doors with Eastern meekness.

Paul came to the place where he celebrated his limitations. "To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong."

Delight in your weaknesses? Be glad for your limitations? The Donald Trump's of this world will laugh in your face! But you will find understanding at the Olympics. One month after the Games, hundreds of people who have really come to grips with their limitations will go to the edge of them in the Paralympic events. Maybe those are the ones to watch.

In saying all this, I hope to warn some of you whom I love and who I see thoughtlessly running toward an invisible brick wall. And maybe warn myself. Jesus loves you, but he may not intercept you from the collision course you are running. Perhaps it would be wise to stop now, take stock of your limitations and learn the secret of being content.

Jesus gives you his strength when you come to accept your weaknesses. As you recognize your limitations, he will show you the breadth of his grace. I cannot do every thing, but in Christ I can do everything.

One day you will find yourself at the very edge of your capacity, as life seeps from your body and your remaining breaths can be counted on one hand. And then... you will find yourself in a space without boundaries, in a glorious new body that knows no limitations. And you shall be like Him, for you shall see Him as He is.

Until that day, know your limits. And sometimes, as you come to the end of yourself, you will watch as God's unlimited grace takes over - a hint of the glory to come. You will rest in the knowledge that you can do all things through him who gives you strength.
    My heart is not proud, O Lord,
    my eyes are not haughty;
    I do not concern myself with great matters
    or things too wonderful for me.

    But I have stilled and quieted my soul;
    like a weaned child with its mother,
    like a weaned child is my soul within me.

    O Israel, put your hope in the Lord
    both now and forevermore. - Psalm 131


K-Bone said...

JIM. This is wisdom from the Holy Spirit! I'm tempted to steal this and use it for the sermon that I have to preach in my homiletics class (this temptation is not from the Holy Spirit). I won't.
I love this quote: "as you come to the end of yourself, you will watch as God's unlimited grace takes over - a hint of the glory to come." I want to know that brokenness more and more. Thanks for this reminder.

Anonymous said...

Love your style of writing there Jim.