Shadow Sides 2: Paul and the problem that won’t go away

A series of posts looking at famous Bible people and how they’re a bit more like us than we may imagine. 

Think of the man who wrote a good part of the New Testament (Paul) and the first words that come to mind probably aren’t “man whose prayer didn’t get answered”. There are good many other phrases that might come to your mind: genius, great writer, leader, certain, inspired, ethical, apostle, convert, road to Damascus, church-planter, missionary. Or maybe there are other, less-complementary words that come to your mind (of which the equally Biblical ‘hard to understand’ may be the mildest). Love him or hate him, he’s one of the single most influential people in the history of the Christian faith. It’s apparent that God used him to communicate some eternal truths and to help us understand what the story of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection as told in the 4 gospels means for us.

So what sort of person was he? What, when pressed, defined him in his own eyes and, most importantly, in God’s eyes? We get a fascinating insight into that in the letter we now call 2 Corinthians. It’s markedly different to the CV’s of the influencers in the early 21st-century:

I’ve worked much harder, been jailed more often, beaten up more times than I can count, and at death’s door time after time. I’ve been flogged five times with the Jews’ thirty-nine lashes, beaten by Roman rods three times, pummeled with rocks once. I’ve been shipwrecked three times, and immersed in the open sea for a night and a day. In hard traveling year in and year out, I’ve had to ford rivers, fend off robbers, struggle with friends, struggle with foes. I’ve been at risk in the city, at risk in the country, endangered by desert sun and sea storm, and betrayed by those I thought were my brothers. I’ve known drudgery and hard labor, many a long and lonely night without sleep, many a missed meal, blasted by the cold, naked to the weather.

And that’s not the half of it, when you throw in the daily pressures and anxieties of all the churches. When someone gets to the end of his rope, I feel the desperation in my bones. When someone is duped into sin, an angry fire burns in my gut.

If I have to “brag” about myself, I’ll brag about the humiliations that make me like Jesus

(2 Corinthians 11:23-33, The Message)

We want our leaders to be in control; Paul admits to anxiety.

We expect leaders to have good relationships; Paul’s had arguments with friends.

We expect moral cleanliness from those in charge; Paul openly admits to plenty of time in prison and to being on the receiving end of brutal punishments.

We want to follow people characterised by strong competence; Paul invites us to follow him because he’s weak and he’s suffered.

He boasts about the things that have humiliated him and led to suffering because it’s in them that he finds himself to be similar to Jesus. Jesus, so anxious that He sweat drops of blood; feared God had abandoned Him; was betrayed and let down by close friends; was punished by the powers-that-be.

That’s not all. For Paul, there was more.

I was given the gift of a handicap to keep me in constant touch with my limitations. Satan’s angel did his best to get me down; what he in fact did was push me to my knees. No danger then of walking around high and mighty! At first I didn’t think of it as a gift, and begged God to remove it. Three times I did that, and then he told me,

My grace is enough; it’s all you need.
My strength comes into its own in your weakness.

(2 Corinthians 12:7-9, The Message)

Paul, so close to God that Jesus speaks directly to him; Paul, so inspired by God that 2,000 years we still read what he wrote to keep us going; Paul, writer of some of the most influential words in human history; this Paul has a problem he can’t shake, that God won’t take away no matter how much he pleads. It’s probably a physical problem – one serious enough to make him ‘beg’ for relief.

I know how that feels. I’ve been in pain every day for more than 16 years. On bad days, I’m told by people who know about these things, my levels of pain are worse than those of childbirth. I’ve begged for it be removed, and so have others on my behalf, many more than 3 times. Newsflash: I’m not as close to God as St. Paul.

It limits me. I’m also clinically depressed and anxious; I recently ended a church business meeting by breaking down in tears. I’m limited by mind and my body.

That, says Paul, is the point.

God’s fond of those who struggle, close to those in pain. Because when you’re weak, His strength is seen through you; His power is made apparent because mine is stripped away.

Got it all together? Sorted? Ducks in a row? That could be your biggest problem.

Painfully aware of limitations and dis-ability? Wrestling with weakness? Desperate for relief? God’s especially close to you.

 Also in this series:

Moses – frustrated and angry at God’s people

These posts are based on a series of sermons.

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On fire

All photos from Charles Mercer

Some experiences have a habit of stripping my intellectual and spiritual pretensions away. Inescapably seared into my consciousness is the day as a young child I was watching a tense game of cricket and as the bowler approached the wicket I mouthed two simple and hope-filled words at the television: bowl him.

He did. He bowled him. You and I know that my words had nothing to do with what happened, but that doesn’t stop a little part of me thinking that it did; especially when I’m watching an event as a 40-something adult and my team need some inspiration. Bowl himScore. Save. Miss. I’ve mouthed or uttered or shouted all of these and more at the crucial moments in more recent years. I don’t really believe it, of course … but there I go, regressing to childhood innocence once again, offering my incantations to the implacable gods of sport, hoping they’ll remember mercy and act on my behalf.

Photo: Charles MercerI live in Cape Town, which recently experienced an especially severe summer fire. It bears repeating that the professional fire services acted with immense bravery and professionalism; they were ordinary people doing something amazing. So too did individuals faced with trying to save property, businesses or lives.

For some ordinary people this was a devastating experience despite the best efforts of those tasked to help. The natural local plant fynbos was the primary fuel of the fire, aided and abetted by alien plants which only made things worse. (Actually for fynbos, fire is a renewing and life-giving thing, but that’s another post.)

Wild fires like these do something to us as we watch. Personally we were unaffected; however friends were evacuated, and we’ve heard stories of others getting stuck in to rescue a farm or a house. It does something strange to our prayers and our faith and our view of God. The raw, seemingly unstoppable power we see laid bare takes us back to the basics. God, stop the fire. Save us. Send rain. We, with all our sophistication and theology and ideas and science are reduced to begging an invisible being to do something with a visible crisis. We have no power; someone must, though. Photo: Charles Mercer

Now we know that God is a perfect Father, so this stripping away is a good thing if it pushes us into a more childlike honesty with God. Dad, stop the fire please. Please. Pllllleeease.

 We all need to be a bit more like that and a little less reliant on our intellectualisation. However He’s a perfect Father who not only knows best but who exists in and over a complex world, and who does so whilst maintaining an attitude of grace towards His children. Search the Bible and you’ll see no one formula, set of words or system that’s going to get His attention and get Him to work in the way in which we want Him. We all know it’s not that simple; but that doesn’t stop us thinking that if we just pray like this or this hard or this long or with these words that we’ll get the healing/provision/direction/rain we need.

That’s the thing with grace, though. It means we already have his attention, his best intentions, his perfect focus. We don’t need to do or say anything; but like any father He’s desperate to hear from us. Do my words have any effect? I honestly don’t know. I’ve seen inexplicable things happen when we pray and I’ve also seen nothing happen when we pray. So if the fire or other crisis strips us back to a kind of Baal-like set of incantations and lever-pulling before an almighty slot machine then we’ve got a problem. We’ve allowed a most basic thing – fire, an elemental force – to rob of us intimacy and closeness and turn us into helpless subjects of a disapproving and distant taskmaster.

Dad, we need it stop.

I know, He says. Does He stop it, or does it just stop? Does He send the rain, or is it just weather?

I don’t know. I honestly don’t.

But how good is it to hear I know when we breathe out our most fervent and desperate prayers?

It hurts. 

I know.

I need a friend. 

I know.

I need rain. 

I know. 

I need to pay a bill. 

I know.

It does something to us deeper than solving a problem; it tells us we are not and never will be alone, unheard or unloved. It doesn’t solve everything; and some days it will be soul-deep frustrating. Instead of getting the right answer every time, we will get a friend, a father. Which lasts much longer.

Photo: Charles Mercer

A lament for a diseased body, a question redefined … and maybe a calling

How annoying, how unsophisticated, how inconvenient to my intellectual pretensions when a cliché appears to have more than a grain of truth to it. In this instance I’m thinking of “A problem shared is a problem halved”. It’s not true of course, not in the literal sense. If I talk to you about a problem with money, it doesn’t mean that my debt is halved (unless you’re both very rich and also a very free giver). It does mean, if you listen well, that the secret has lost its power. It is in the light now, with someone I trust, and while the situation hasn’t objectively changed, it has done so in a subjective sense. It feels different.

I was diagnosed with a chronic disease in 2000, our first-second year of marriage. I had, it turns out, been experiencing the symptoms for a long time. Severe ‘shin splints’ whilst running or playing football weren’t, it turned out, shin splints. Some nights I would sleep well, many others I would be unable to sleep past 3 or 4 a.m. Not for the reason that newly-marrieds are supposed to lack sleep. Pain would wake me and keep me awake. With diagnosis came treatment, which has been a long journey. The journey is still ongoing. I reached a kind of equilibrium: accepting I had a disease around which my life needs to be centered, and being willing on days I felt able to, to ask for prayer for healing or strength or comfort. It’s a balancing act to be sure. Ironically I’ve never been very good with physical balance; but emotional, theological and spiritual balancing seems to come somewhat more naturally more to me.

In learning to orient life around this reality we (I include my wife in this, for it inevitably exacts a toll on her also) to a certain extent forget what it is we’re carrying. In integrating the joint possibilities of total remission or a wheelchair in later life there’s a strange forgetting that goes on. Until you meet someone else.

It wasn’t until I took a phone call a few weeks ago that I began to recall what we had been carrying. A mother who knew us through a church had found about my diagnosis and got in contact to say that her daughter also has the same disease and wondered if we’d like to all get together for dinner. We did. It was the first time we had deliberately and consciously sat down and chatted with others who had actual, real, personal experience of this evil but strangely relatively unknown disease. A week or so later I discovered a Facebook group for people with the disease.

These two experience, the one across a dinner table the other across the ‘virtual’ (but no less real) reality of social media have worked a strange magic on me. Suddenly there are safe places to ask questions about the disease and its implications which I had never allowed to bubble to the surface simply because there was nowhere safe enough to take them. Suddenly the story of my wife and myself was not just the story of the struggle of two people, but one caught up in a much bigger story in which many, many others are also writing their own chapters.

This experience of suddenly, 14 or so years after diagnosis, experiencing that we are not alone has been one of the removal of a burden I hadn’t even allowed myself to remember I was carrying. I can feel lightness on continually aching shoulders. My back and joints are, of course, no less pained. We’re not talking physical healing here. It’s deeper than that – the healing of no longer walking alone but having eyes opened and seeing there’s a crowd walking around us we’d never noticed before.

In laying that burden of solitariness down I’ve realised what it is that I am carrying. A lot. Pain (on a bad day the equivalent of a severe childbirth), fatigue (a symptom of the disease, the hardest to treat and the most emotionally debilitating), the endless medication, the financial cost, the things I am may not ever be able to do (I miss playing football and running), the dread of cold and wet weather, the  people who don’t believe you really have a problem, the people you think for reasons you can’t articulate don’t believe you, the passing it off as ‘a bad back’, the dread of sleeping somewhere with a bad mattress, the injections, feeling I need to move those chairs because there’s no one else to do it and living with resultant pain for days, the comments like “You’re young to have a back problem”, the well-meaning ham-fisted attempts to help about which you need to be polite, the way it affects intimate aspects of our lives, the taking a long journey at holiday’s beginning and end and living with resultant pain for days, the broken sleep for both of us, the needing to stretch and shift every hour or so … You want more? I could give you more. I typed that list without even thinking, and I could go on. I really could. Along with the relief of discovering we are not alone has come through the “Yes, I have that too” of other sufferers a kind of grieving at grievances foregone. If you need to get on, you don’t have time to mourn. So I’ll be catching up with some of that, I think.

It’s no coincidence that there’s a correlation between this disease and depression. Intense pain and daily fatigue is hard to bear. Trapped in that emotional spiral it’s tempting to ask a common question “Why me?”. “What have I done to have to bear this?”. “Who sinned? Me or my parents?”

As ever, Jesus’s answer isn’t so much an answer as it is a redefinition of the question. He’s whispering a question in my ear. What if, He gently lilts, this is a gift? A gift for being faithful with a few things so you’re being entrusted with much? What if this isn’t a punishment but a calling, asking me to teach with words and deeds and struggles how to seek healing alongside learning to live with what you have? Not that God wishes this on me. Far from it. He wants me to transcend it. To allow Him to show me and others that there’s more to pain than pain, more to a sufferer than a diagnosis, more suffering than just the suffering.

I don’t feel that I’ve been faithful, I can’t see where God may have got the idea that I can drink this cup. I don’t claim much for myself. Bad days can be bad indeed. Many parts of me feel broken and wounded. I’d love the cup to pass from me.

As the prophet sings, however, “Let the broken hearts stand as the price you’ve got to pay”.

In that lament there’s a kind of peace, and a path to healing.

Amen. Let it be to your servant as you will.

When dry isn’t dry and healed isn’t healed

I often find that the best people to speak to are recovering addicts. I mean by that the people have been through some version or equivalent of the 12-step process. I am privileged to count some of these people amongst my friends, and also have encountered their ministry to me in my different professional capacities over the years. I find that in conversation with people who have come to terms with their addictive dispositions and have done something about it that we do not encounter any of the tortuous self-justifying in the face of the bald facts of sin which so many of us undertake. I am powerless. Left to my own devices I am a slave to something other than God. Herein lies the first step on the road to healing. It’s no coincidence that this admission of  powerlessness is both the first of the 12-step process for [alcohol, drug, sex … ] addicts and also a crucial, unavoidable step for all of us on the path of following Jesus. Admitting I am powerless.

The key in this for the addict (and as I often find myself saying, we’re all addicts; to misquote a character in one of my favourite films, some of us just happen to be addicts in more socially acceptable ways) is that the process identifies the problem as wider than just the substance or behaviour. The substance (let’s call it that for now) is the toxic catalyst through which the addict has been bought to her knees; but what lies behind the addiction, as the 12-step process will reveal to her, is that there’s far more going on here than loving cider too much. A view of self and others is being covered up, a pain medicated rather than treated.

This is why people often relapse – slip back into the addictive behaviour – once the process has been started. Starting to peel back the layers is a painful process, and it’s perfectly human to want to opt out of that. The ‘typical’ addict will need to start all over again, several times. It’s possible, you see, to give up the substance without giving up the behaviour. I’ve heard recovering alcoholics call this being ‘dry drunk’. The person may not have had a sip of alcohol for years, but she’s still covering up the pain with something, medicating in a more ‘acceptable’ way. The 12-step process is a 12 step process (say those last 3 words slowly and distinctly) for a reason.

Which brings me, naturally, to social media. I know people for whom serious problems are raised through social media. Social media, like alcohol, are not the problem; Facebook, Twitter are simply the crucible through which the problem is exposed. What’s painful about this is that it’s disarmingly public. It’s very easy to use these media to Instagram your life – to present it as a beautiful series of triumphs, successes, deep moments of revelation and joy. Or the converse – as struggle after struggle. In short, to use these media to suck the ‘normal’ out of your life. Occasionally something normal will seep through, though. The ‘normal’ here are the parts of us we cover up with the negative, positive or dramatic we present to the world; these are exposed through a well (or sometimes not so well) meaning comment or tweet, a misunderstood ‘like’ or a hashtag hijacked. Then comes, for some as I’ve noted with what appears to be increasing regularity recently, the social media sabbatical or full-scale opt-out.

Now that may be a good, necessary and healthy thing to do. It may well be. This represents no judgement on any one individual by me; there is no one person on my mind here. Doing so, though, may be the social media equivalent of going dry-drunk; cutting out the presenting issue but not dealing with the root-cause. We can get addicted to anything, really. We love enslavement so much we seek it out in subtle forms which we can over-paint with the word ‘freedom’ and kid ourselves that we’re free just because we say we are. Social media are, in truth, just the latest version of that. We do need to know the particular temptations and pitfalls of this still new reality; we need to be wary as much as we need as Jesus-followers to engage with it in constructive and loving ways. Like anything containing people, which is what these media are about at the end of it all, these media will bring out the best and the worst in us. They will present us with our capacity to show compassion and our potential to hurt with anger; they will show we can be brave and that we can be egocentric cowards.

All of which is why ‘healing’ may not always be healing. I know of cases where people have been prayed-off addictions. In some cases that may have been necessary to save a liver or a life. But has the prayer addressed the heart? Has it replaced one addiction with another? Maybe, in some cases, it’s addressed the whole person. In others, maybe not – the healed still has a way to travel to embrace full healing. I know of cases where people have been instantaneously healed of depression; if that depression is purely chemical, then let’s rejoice. If there’s other, more complex reasons for the depression, then harder questions may need to be asked, more steps taken and prayers prayed. I know of people who have, after prayer, opted out of a church or a community or social media. Maybe that was necessary. Have they, though, gone to the heart? Maybe … or maybe not.

I don’t mean to judge healing or opting out of something. I really don’t. Sometimes instantaneous healing really is immediate and total. I’ve seen it happen and rejoiced in the fruit. Sometimes the opt-out is a wise, life-giving choice. I also know, though, my own capacity to deceive myself into looking good, holy, healed and a little ascetic  in the face of others. It may look pretty or godly to them; it may be the stuff of front-of-church testimony and comforting Christian paperbacks. The reality is in that often sung-about but rarely actually experienced, secret and quiet place I know God wants deeper work. Which is less comfortable, less pretty and longer-lasting.

Seeking power, and giving it away

This sermon was part of a series preached on the book of Acts, in this case Acts chapter 14. It’s a good idea to read that first, and have it alongside you as read this post.

Power is powerful. It has a capacity to attract gravitational pull towards itself or repel with similar force. It’s been the subject of the stories people tell since people started telling stories. When we come face to face with a person who holds power, it’s easy for us to find ourselves paying attention to the trappings of power as opposed to the person themselves. So when someone like Ghandi comes along, divesting himself of the trappings of power, his message becomes exponentially more attractive and subversive.

In Acts 14, covering the second half of Paul’s first missionary journey, we see the extent to which power – in this case, spiritual power – is both available to all of us but can also provoke wildly divergent reactions … ultimately laying bare the essence of our reactions to God Himself.

The chapter gives a quick overview of Paul and Barnabas’ experience in a number of different places. In each instance, though, we see that the power of God is available and active. God is at work in a real, direct, powerful sense  – in such a way as to be described as miraculous. So in 14:3 we read that ‘miraculous signs and wonders’ confirm the preaching of the news about Jesus. The same thing is repeated in a different city in 14:8-10 –  a man crippled from birth is healed by Paul after he has heard the message preached. It bears many similarities with the first healing miracle in the book, recorded in Acts 3 – a man crippled since the day of his birth, the apostle looking him directly in the eye, the man jumping as he’s healed.

A similar thing happens at the end of Paul’s time Lystra. Paul is stoned and described as being ‘left for dead’ (14:19). The Christians gather round him (14:20), and he’s able to walk back into town. We need to pause here to let sink in what actually happens. The people who stone Paul here know how to stone someone to death – it’s part of their tradition. They knew what a person who had been stoned to death looked like – so when they drag Paul outside the walls of the city, they really think he’s dead. There’s not going to be any doubt in their minds. The disciples gather round the apparently dead Paul – a turn of phrase which commentators tend to agree represents another way of saying they prayed for him – and the man who was previously assumed to be dead is able to get back and walk under his own power back into the city. There’s only one way that’s possible – the power of God.

The fact is that Paul would go on to write about this in his letters to the churches. There’s more than one list of the gifts given to the church by the Holy Spirit in the letters we attribute to Paul – they overlap and fill in gaps in one another. Look at just one – probably the most famous in 1 Corinthians 12:8-11 and we find gifts of the miraculous and healing are right in there. It happens with Old Testament prophets (think, for example, of Elijah); throughout the life of Jesus; throughout Acts and on into the life of the early church. Records start with Iraneus, Bishop of Lyons in 200 C.E. referring to people healing in the name of Jesus, and carries on – in every era of the church, there are people discovering and rediscovering the power of God to heal. Nothing in the Bible or church history realistically allows us to think that gifts of healing and the miraculous died out with the apostles.

Now we know that we don’t live in a perfect world; we don’t see all the answers to prayers we want to because we live in war zone, waiting for the return of the king who will remake creation so that sickness, pain, tears and death are no more (Revelation 21:4). But it’s very clear from the Bible that God’s power is available to us to heal now – to demonstrate that what’s written in the Bible is still powerful, that God really is the same now as He was then, to pull back the curtain of eternity and give us a glimpse of what it will be like when the King returns. So it continues – I’ve prayed for people to be healed and not seen the answer we’d longed for. I’ve prayed for people and seen the deaf have hearing restored, withered muscles restored and pain subside. The power of God is here.

But people like you and me are nothing if not stubborn, and Acts 14 shows the variety of different reactions we can have to God’s power.

There can be outright opposition (14:2-3, 4-5), coming from the same hard hearts and jealousy which we saw at work in chapter 13 last week. There’s also, in Lystra, the sort of opposition that comes from misunderstanding. Lystra was the centre around the cult of the god Zeus; he was believed to have visited the city with his spokesman Hermes, to be recognised by only one elderly couple. His devotees in the city were determined not to make the same mistake again, so when Paul and Barnabas arrive speaking of a God and engaging in the miraculous they assume it’s Zeus returning and try to offer sacrifices. (14:11ff). It’s all the two missionaries can do to stop the townsfolk from making sacrifices to them.

Before we dismiss the Zeus-loving Lystrans we – followers of Jesus and atheists alike – should pay careful heed. Do we ever see one thing and let our assumptions lead us to one conclusion? Or do we stop to consider  – that if there is a God, isn’t it possible, indeed likely, that He may do some things which we find hard to explain without moving to a more ‘rational’ explanation?

Either way, Paul and Barnabas’ reaction is in sharp contrast to Herod’s – they point away themselves, towards the God of heaven and earth, the God of Jesus. Herod, (12:21ff) hearing the crowd acclaiming him in his finery as a god, accepts the praise – and pays the  terrible consequence. Herod’s all for taking all the acclaim and power he can get; Paul, by stark contrast, goes from Lystra back through other cities already visited (14:21-28), releasing other leaders, building them up and delegating power, giving it away, passing it on. It’s not his to hold on to – he’s there merely to hand it to others.

So the power of God is real and it is here. It is here to break into our lives. It is here to heal. It is here to demonstrate that what is written in the pages of the Bible still makes a difference now. It is here to give us a glimpse of what’s to come. So seek it. Use it point away from yourself to Jesus; use it demonstrate the only one with any power that counts isn’t you or me but God Himself. Seek it, and give it away.

This post is adapted from the notes of a sermon I preached at St Peter’s, Mowbray, Cape Town on Sunday 18th November 2012. It’s not an exact text of the sermon as I don’t preach from a full text. The sermon was not recorded.