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Of all the heroes of the Faith in the Bible, not counting Jesus, I am most impressed with Paul. We take off our hats and fall on our knees when we remember how, at the end of his life, he was taken to a lonely spot just outside Rome. A Roman broad sword flashed in the sun, and Paul went home. He was a martyr. But it was not the final fate of Paul's life that made him a hero. It was that long road, strewn with adversity, that made him a real hero. He not only suffered a lifetime of hatred by the people he left when he became a Christian; he suffered years of rejection by the Christians he joined before they would even half-trust him. And when they did let him on the team (in a secondary position to begin with) he had to survive adversities that would have destroyed a lesser person.
In II Corinthians, he catalogues his experiences. Listen! "Overworked, scourged, imprisoned and many times face to face with death. Five times the terrible 39 lashes, 3 times beaten with rods, once stoned and 3 times shipwrecked, and 24 hours adrift at sea. Constant danger on the road: danger from robbers, danger from rivers, danger from fellow countrymen and danger from foreigners...I have toiled (he said) and drudged, I have gone without sleep, hungry and thirsty and suffered from cold and exposure." (II Corinthians 11:23-27) And Paul was a long way from Rome when he wrote that.
I suppose the line that best describes Paul's life of adversity comes from the 4th chapter of II Corinthians. The J. B. Phillips translation reads: "We are handicapped on all sides, but we are never frustrated; we are puzzled but never in despair; we are persecuted, but we never have to stand it alone; we are knocked down, but we are never knocked out." It was not so much that last act in his life made Paul a hero worthy of our emulation, as it was the long road that led him there. He could have quit any time! He was knocked down, but not knocked out.
There is a heartrending scene in the Movie, Forrest Gump, based on the novel by Winston Groom. Jenny, the childhood girlfriend of the mentally challenged Forrest Gump, has come home from one of her many self-destructive prodigal escapades. She and Forrest go to the abandoned home place where she lived out her tragic years as a child. The house has deteriorated. The roof has caved in. The front porch and steps have fallen down. The sight of the house brings back to Jenny an overwhelming tide of the tragedy and pain she experienced there; the loneliness, the poverty, and the physical, emotional and sexual abuse of a drunken father. All of these repressed memories rush in on her, and she loses it, and storms toward the house screaming and throwing things. She throws her shoes, clods of dirt, and all the rocks she can find. When there are no more rocks to throw, she falls exhausted and sobbing to the ground. After an awesome stillness and a silence, broken only by sobs, Forrest Gump moves lovingly toward her, and as he lifts her up says: "Jenny, sometimes there are just not enough rocks!"
We have all been there! We have had some seemingly insignificant sight or sound or scene to suddenly open a trap door to the basement of our souls, and all the dragons we thought we had slain, and all of the ghosts we thought we had chained and all the pain we thought we had dealt with ~ come floating back to engulf and enrage and undo us. And there are not enough rocks to drive them away. If you have not been there, you probably will be.
All of us come at some time to the edge of things, where we are met by a sense of the inescapable. Down deep we know that major tragedies are inevitable. It is the minor ones that seem to get us. That may seem strange, but it is true. Most of us would rather be swallowed by a whale than to be nibbled to death by minnows!
Napoleon, in his Classic Officers Manual, "Maxims of War," lists 78 principles. It is amazing to see how many of these maxims are equally applicable to living. Since courage is usually considered the first qualification of a good soldier, it is surprising that Napoleon did not think so. His 58th maxim says, "The first qualification of a soldier is fortitude under fatigue and privation. Courage is only the second. Poverty and want are the best school for a soldier." Without fortitude to survive hardships, one seldom gets to the time and place where courage is required. One must survive to arrive at the field of battle where courage becomes a primary virtue.
For most of us there is seldom a decisive battle in life where the war is won or lost in one engagement. There are many worrisome skirmishes which seem so trivial, days of deprivation and depression and long periods of discouragement when what we think to be the real battle seems so far away. The truth of the matter is that this is the real battle.
Every day we see people who are managing some slow-moving tragedy in their lives which never culminates in a decisive, winner-take-all battle. We see people who cannot find work, who cannot make the next rent payment and whose children have gone wrong. Just add your nagging problem to the list. The list is endless. When you see people managing hardships with fortitude, you may say "there goes a good soldier."
Napoleon was right. The first virtue is fortitude. Courage comes later. Hang in there. Some days survival is an achievement. When I was growing up in rural South Alabama during the Great Depression, there was an outbreak of hog cholera in our community. One Saturday afternoon a group of farmers were sitting around the country store discussing hog cholera. There was one old farmer who seemed to have had more experience than the others, so they turned to him for advice about what to expect. He thought for a moment and then made this encouraging pronouncement: "Hit appears that them what gits it and lingers for a few days do better than them what gits it and dies right off." Life is like that too! Hang in there!
There are people, however, who do not seem to be able to survive adversity creatively. Some had too much discouragement and too little love too early in life to be able to survive adversity. Nobody believed in them enough to give them the healthy ego strength to believe in themselves. They got too much too soon, or too little too late and when life knocks them down, they cannot get up. The capacity to cope creatively with adversity varies widely from person to person. Just as there are many whose scar tissue of adversity never develops into the muscle of character; there are also a few who might have made it, but they never had any real adversity, or adversity came at the wrong time. No matter what our limitations may be, we can prepare and condition ourselves for the inevitable adversities that come in every person's life. But this takes the discipline of intentional effort and abiding faith.
There are many forces that can beset us when we face adversity, but none are more subtle or seductive than self-pity. It is a common coping mechanism because it feels so good, and there is such an abundant supply. Only those who are intentional are able to avoid getting hooked on self-pity.
When Victor Hugo was exiled from his beloved France, he spent l8 years in the Channel Islands. For this man, who was once the Royal Dramatist, exile was worse than death. Each afternoon at sunset Victor Hugo would climb to a cliff overlooking a small harbor and look longing out over the water toward France. Legend has it that each day when he finished his meditations he would pick up a pebble and throw it into the water. The children who knew him asked him once why he threw a stone in the water each day. Victor Hugo smiled gravely and said: "Not stones, children, not stones. I am throwing my self-pity into the sea." Little wonder that during those 18 years of adversity he gave the world his greatest works and most profound insights. Be careful with self-pity!
There are times of exile in all our lives. There are battles we do not win. In every life there is some failure and defeat - moral, spiritual, financial - you name it. It is there. But, no defeat is final unless you believe it to be. It is necessary to say a definitive "no" to forces and folks who want you to accept defeat.
I like the spirit of the college student who wrote the following letter: "Dear Admissions Officer, I am in receipt of your rejection of my application. As much as I would like to accommodate you, I find I cannot accept it. I have already received four rejections from other colleges and this number is, in fact, over my limit. Therefore, I must reject your rejection, and as much as this might inconvenience you, I expect to appear for classes on September l8th..." This is not the best way to get in a school, but it will do in a pinch. It certainly represents the right attitude.
No matter how strong we may be, we do not survive adversity alone. There are other people whose strength flow into our troubled lives like a transfusion. No person ever saves himself by himself. We are ultimately saved by others, if we are saved at all. When Jesus hung dying on the cross, old enemies came by to gloat and to taunt him. They wagged their heads and mocked him, saying, "He saved others (but) he cannot save himself." (Matthew 27:42a) Did they not know that anyone who saves himself never saves anyone, not even himself? Only God can save us, and He saves us through the kind words, the encouragement, and heroic deeds of others.
While on a tour of California's giant sequoias, the guide pointed out that the sequoia tree has roots just barely below the surface. One man said, "That's impossible." I'm a country boy and I know that if the roots do not grow deep into the earth, strong winds will blow the trees over." "Not sequoia trees," said the guide. "They grow only in groves, and their roots intertwine under the surface of the earth. And, when the strong winds come, they hold each other up." That is what life is like when there is true Christian community.
In the ebb and flow of life, we finally get out into the deep water where what is happening to us not only lies beyond our strength to change and our knowledge to understand, it lies beyond all human strength and knowledge. Some of you have been there. All of us will be there some day. Our only hope is that the great God of the universe knows as much and cares as much as Jesus said. There are ages and stages in our lives in which we may doubt that. There are later ages and stages in which we want very much to believe it. But, there finally comes an age and a stage in our lives in which, if we cannot believe that, we are lost.
Paul says it well in 2 Corinthians 4:7, as he reflects on the tremendous reservoir of human power and potential: "It is clear," he said, "that the glorious power within must be from God. It is not our own." It is in that faith that we survive adversity creatively.
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