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MOVING FROM AFFLICTION TO AFFIRMATION

2 Corinthians 4: 1-10

 

Portia Nelson was an American singer,
songwriter and actress. Most people will remember her as Sister Berthe, one of
the nuns in the Sound Of Music who helped sabotage the cars of the authorities
to let Captain Von Trapp and his family escape. She also played the nanny Mrs.
Gurney in “All My Children” and she had a number of solo and collaboration
albums to her credit. But in 1973 she discovered she had breast cancer,
underwent a mastectomy, and began treatments. During that time, she had time to
reflect on her life and her decisions. Four years later she published her
milestone work called THERE’S A HOLE IN MY SIDEWALK: THE ROMANCE OF
SELF-DISCOVERY. In that book is her remarkable poem called “Autobiography in
Five Short Chapters,” popular with self-help groups. Today I want to suggest
that what she describes is what the Apostle Paul may have discovered, what
Mother Teresa may have discovered, and what you may have discovered too. Here
is how this short work goes
:
I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
I fall in.
I am lost … I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes me forever to find a way out.

II

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place
but, it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

III

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in … it’s a habit.
my eyes are open
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

IV

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

V

I walk down another street.

 

In
so many ways that so called autobiography could describe many experiences? It
describes times in my life; does it describe some experiences you can remember?  Aren’t there times when things happen to you
that are not your fault? And aren’t there times, in spite of your best
intentions, that you make the same mistake twice? And aren’t there times when you
have trusted someone who let you down one time, only to be let down by that
person again? And then aren’t there times when you failed to learn from your
own mistakes and something bad things happen that are your fault? Finally then, have you come now to a point when you
see some light and some hope,  or are you
still drowning in darkness? Sometimes people begin to drown in self made, or
situational, darkness. At other times we are enveloped with light and love.
These are patterns for life. Children might just break into tears, or might
pout, or might get mad when they have a terrible, horrible, no good very bad
day! But as youth and adults, the choices we make, and the way we react to the
things that land in our laps, can have a huge impact on the direction and
length of our lives. We would do well not just to pout, but to pray; not just
to get angry, but to make a plan; not just to cry, but to act. The “Autobiography
in Five Short Chapters” holds a mirror up to many lives.

Do you recall the life of
St. Paul as depicted in the book of Acts? All he wanted to do was be the Jew he
thought he could be when his name was Saul. Instead, God threw him a jolting,
lightning bolt curve ball. Later Saul, who was renamed Paul, just wanted to be
the best apostle he could be, bringing the gospel to people who hadn’t heard it,
or to others who didn’t believe it. In his journeys he was run out of town,
forced to find his own lodging and his own food, and was taken to prison on
more than one occasion. He didn’t give up on the gospel, on his life, or on his
Lord Jesus! In particular you might recall how he changed a man’s life in Acts
16. Paul had been taken to prison, along with Silas, because in the name of
Jesus they had driven a spirit of divination out of a slave girl. The slave
girl’s owner had lost his source of income! In prison, Paul and Silas, instead
of doing the usual things that many prisoners do- such as planning an escape, growing
bitter, or growing angry- they started singing, and they started praying! How
different! The other prisoners listened to them and suddenly an earthquake
shook the prison, the doors flew open, and their shackles fell to the ground!
Their guard would have been put to certain death for letting his prisoners
escape, so, astoundingly, Paul and Silas stayed; and in their staying, they
converted the jailer and his family to Christianity! Paul had gone from
adversity to affirmation more than once in his life; and on that day, the
jailer did the same thing!

When Paul wrote to the
church in Corinth a second time, he knew of what he spoke. To them he said:
“Since it is by God’s mercy that we
are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.” What if you could look at
the trials or problems you face today, whether they appear to be mountains or
molehills, and say to your soul, “No matter what, today I will not lost heart; I
will not let discouragement overwhelm or undo me.” Certainly I have times when
discouragement creeps into my life as I’d imagine it does with you; but the key
is not to give your power, or your allegiance, over to discouragement. Discouragement is not a tool of God’s. Paul
then says, (and I’m reading from a slightly different translation): “We have
renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways; we refuse to practice cunning or to
tamper with God’s word.” At that point Paul had his Godly legs under him,
didn’t he? Paul found his second wind and was feeling the power of the Holy
Spirit at a time when others might have given up. But Paul is an extraordinary example of perserverence. How are you
doing in the area of perserverence? Do you give up easily or let others direct
your life in all things? Have you given in to “going with the flow” instead of
staking a Christian claim, or cutting a new path in your part of the world for
Christ? Are you fighting to keep your soul from succumbing to bitterness?

There is nothing easy about
Christianity; to be Christian does not mean troubles melt away. In my doctoral
research dealing with “The Dark Night of the Soul,” I have certainly discovered
that, if you are struggling, your are not alone. Others have struggled before
you, and even beside you, in their daily walk. If you have doubts, there again,
you are not alone. But if you doubt, remember to doubt your doubts as well!
Finally if you feel like you are in a place of darkness, there is one who is
the Light, one who loves you and has already ransomed your soul, who wants you
to have life, and have it abundantly. He is Jesus Christ. He is here to raise
up those who get crippled by some of life’s dark places; he is here to bring
light to your spiritual dark nights. And he, through good therapy and fervent
prayers, wants to vanquish your debilitating depressions forever. There is sure
and certain hope. Great Christians like Mother Teresa hid her darkness well,
but she experienced it. The great writer C.S. Lewis also went from Christian
faith, to faithlessness, and finally clawed his way back to faith. Thomas
Merton was a world famous Christian spirituality author, and yet he struggled
too. He once wrote: “Faith means doubt. Faith is not the suppression of doubt.
It is the overcoming of doubt, and you overcome doubt by going through it.” One
time he even wrote “I am the utter poverty of God. I am [God’s] emptiness,
littleness, nothingness, lostness.” Is that how you have felt at times? Then
today is the day to follow the time honored pattern of “affliction to
affimation.” Unlike “The Autobiography in Five Short Chapters,” sometimes we don’t
go down another street; we stay on the right path when we find it, and press
on, despite the pitfalls that life—or the devil—put in our way.

Let us close with another
look at Paul’s self-revealing second letter to the Corinthians. He wrote: “It
is God who said ‘Let light shine out of the darkness’ who has shone in our
hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of
Christ….We are afflicted in every way,
but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not
forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.”
From affliction to affirmation.
May that be the description of the way you choose to live, now and forever.
Amen!

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                               June 10, 2012

 

 

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THE CALL

Isaiah 6: 1-8

 

We have entered a sanctuary where
some just attend a service, some actually worship God, and still others listen
for the call of God.  If God were calling
you to some ministry, some new direction, some new attitude today, would you hear
it? And if you heard it, how would you hear it: just with your ears, or would
it be with your heart? How about with your eyes too?  A young man named Jacob Buchholz is
graduating from Princeton Theological Seminary this month. He grew up with
family members who were deaf and he plans to help train deaf pastors and start
churches that primarily serve deaf persons. He cites the statistic that of all
persons who are part of the deaf community internationally, only 1 percent are
Christian; and of those who are deaf in the United States, only 3 percent are
Christian. God has called him to reach more deaf people for Christ. How would
deaf persons “hear” such a call: with their heart; in their soul, or perhaps
through their eyes?  Some have been
called by God as they viewed art; a sunset or sunrise; a beautiful meadow,
towering mountains, or crashing waves. Others were called by God through the
voice of an evangelist, someone like the Rev. Billy Graham; others are called
through the voice of a pastor, a youth leader, or by the voice of the Holy
Spirit as they joined others around a campfire. God uses nature, and people, to
call men and women into ministries that are called ordained ministries, but
also God calls others in the work that is called the ministry of the laity. And
age is not an issue with God! Today let me share some examples, and you might
finish the examples by ones you yourself have seen or experienced.

 

First, we know about the way God
called Moses with a voice coming from a burning bush. It was quite unusual but
it worked! That’s in Exodus 3. We know also that God called Isaiah to be a
preacher and we heard that call from Isaiah 6 today. Isaiah felt inadequate. My
goodness, if one of the greatest prophets who ever lived did not feel up to
God’s request, no wonder others of us feel inadequate! But God answered
Isaiah’s doubts with actions of blessing. When God was done blessing him in a
moment of Holy musing, perhaps with the angels of Heaven, God pondered: “Hmm.
Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” And the newly prepared Isaiah heard the
words come out of his mouth even before he could think! “Here I am! Send
me!”  Jeremiah also tried to wiggle out
of the call of God. Jeremiah was called by God when he was just a youth, the
age of some of you here today. Jeremiah protested that he was too young to
serve God. God would not take such a protest. God later showed how much young
people mean to the Kingdom; they often exhibit openness, vision, and humility,
One day long ago, the Holy One called a young woman named Mary, and asked her
consent to bear the Son of God. God called a young women like Mary into a
Heavenly collaboration! And God also calls old men like Abraham, and others of
every age in between!

 

Second, there are certainly even
people around you today, here and now, who have answered a personal call from
God. Who do you know who has been called to a special ministry? They are all
around you. I have answered a call from God as has most anyone ordained to
ministry. But some have felt called by God to serve through music, or through
teaching, or through hospitality, or through cooking, or gardening, or
repairing, or driving. The ways to answer a call from God are many and varied.
Not everyone who does those tasks, however, does them for God. Some do it for
themselves, or for the accolades of other persons. But there are those who have
answered their calls to respond to God and to give glory to their Savior Jesus
Christ.

 

Years ago in 1986, Cyndi Smith and I
arranged for an evening for Dr. David Read to preach from our pulpit. He was
then the minister of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City
and in his day he was one of the top ten preachers in America. His
autobiographies are in our church library, and in them he says that his friend
dragged him to evangelistic meetings in his native Scotland, and all he really
remembered about them were the good refreshments and the hard seats. He said
his mother taught him to be suspicious of preachers who smiled too much too! He
read widely and well from the classics, and it was to this man, this ordinary
man, that God extended a call to preach and lead churches. That’s just another
example of a call. A number of years later, it was to another person, Dr. Laura
Mendenhall, that a call from God was finally accepted. Growing up in Texas, her
pastor asked her to consider preparing for ministry even though in those days
and in “those parts’ she had never seen a woman preacher in her life! That was
in the 1950s, just around the time Presbyterians ordained their first two women
to ministry: Rachel Henderlite, and Margaret Towner. Laura met and learned from
them, grew in the grace of God, and also from the encouragement of ministers
around her. She became a Christian Education Director first, then ended up
serving four churches as their pastor! In 2010 as my daughter graduated from
Columbia Theological Seminary with the Master of Divinity Degree, Dr. Laura
Mendenhall was the seminary president who handed her her diploma: Laura had
become a wonderful preacher, witness, and passionate steward for her Lord Jesus
Christ. All of that happened because a pastor invited a youth group member to
consider the ministry.

 

Today God, through me, invites you to
listen to, and look for, and validate your own personal call from God. God had,
and still has, wonderful plans to work out in collaboration with you! Your
life, no matter your age, can still bless others and honor God! Thank you to
those who responded to the call already; and thank you to those who choose to
listen for it today and in the days ahead: with your ears, with your eyes, but
especially with your heart.

 

Please find our next hymn on the back of the prayer sheet: Jesus Calls
Us.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                                             June
3, 2012