Archive for September, 2015

Sermon 09-06-15: “Fight Songs, Part 1: Our Shepherd”

September 11, 2015

Fight Songs

Psalm 23, among the most beloved passages of scripture, is also one of the most misunderstood. While the imagery of sheep and shepherd seems peaceful and bucolic, the poem is set in the context of danger and death. After all, within the shadows of the canyon are dangerous predators who want to destroy the sheep. Their shepherd is their only protection. What does this say about those of us who follow the Lord our Shepherd? Will he protect and provide for us even when we find ourselves in the “valley of the shadow of death”? 

Sermon Text: Psalm 23:1-6

[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Marine Lance Cpl. Jarrod Haschert is one lucky man! Over social media last week, Haschert invited Ronda Rousey on a date. He asked her to accompany him to the annual Marine Birthday Ball at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. And Rousey, the undefeated mixed martial arts champion, the woman that Sports Illustrated called the “world’s most dominant athlete” in any sport, said yes. Even though she hadn’t yet met or even spoken to the the marine, she said “yes”—as a show of support for our troops.

marine

Maybe you’ve never heard of Ronda Rousey, but it’s fair to say that at least millions of guys around the world consider Rousey “hot,” and most of them would dream of going on a date with Rousey… Although few of them would have the guts to do what Haschert did!

Ronda-RouseySo Rousey is going to go to this dance, and she’ll be wearing a formal gown, and she’ll be beautiful, of course. But don’t judge by outward appearances. Because even though she’s not a large woman, by any stretch, she could easily kill most men with her bare hands, I’m sure. Honestly. She’s tough, strong, quick, agile… and did I say tough?

But you wouldn’t know this by looking at her! Looks can be deceiving.

And when it comes to Psalm 23, this most beloved psalm, looks can also be deceiving. I mean, when we think of this image of the shepherd leading his sheep to lie down and rest beside “still waters,” doesn’t it seem like one of the most peaceful, calm, restful word pictures in all of scripture? Read the rest of this entry »

“That it has pleased God to make us just as we are”

September 11, 2015

John_Lennox_Faith_Quote_650x434

John Lennox, a mathematician at Oxford, is a winsome apologist for the Christian faith. I’m reading his latest book, Against the Flow: The Inspiration of Daniel in an Age of Relativism. In one chapter, he writes about the inherent risks of standing up for one’s faith, being a witness the way Daniel was, and shares an anecdote of his doing so at the highest levels of his profession. Being a witness for Christ, he says, can hinder one’s career.

But not always, and not, at least in Chapter 1, for Daniel and his three friends. Because of the boldness, sensitivity, and tact with which they witnessed to their faith in God, they prospered more than any of their fellow students at the university.

Lennox writes:

It would be a mistake, however (possibly a painful one), to think that this story somehow guarantees that if we honour God in our witness he will make us into intellectual and administrative geniuses like Daniel and his friends. It is perfectly true that God gave them their ability. That is what God did for four particular people at that time. It is no guarantee that he will do the same for us in our time. He had a very special role for them to fulfil, and he also has one for us. Just as God equipped them for their role, so he will equip us for ours; but those roles may be very different. In Christian terms: as it pleased him, God has set us in the great body of Christ, that organic unity that is the church. Each of us has a different function. All those functions are equally necessary and valuable, although not all are so obvious (see 1 Corinthians 12:1-26). We must learn to be content with the significance that God gives us…; and contentment comes when we understand that it has pleased God to make us just as we are.[1]

Contentment comes when we understand that it has pleased God to make us just as we are.

While I am 100 percent convinced that this is true, it is the struggle of my life to live as if I believe it. Am I the only one?

In the meantime, I’ll sing the following song until its words sink in. Merle seems very content, indeed.

1. John C. Lennox, Against the Flow: The Inspiration of Daniel in an Age of Relativism (Oxford: Monarch Books, 2015), 81-2.

Cranmer: “Elizabeth II becomes our longest-reigning monarch – God Save The Queen!”

September 10, 2015

The current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, with the Queen Elizabeth.

Stoking the flame of my Anglophilia, Archbishop Cranmer offers the following in celebration of Queen Elizabeth II, who became Britain’s longest-reigning monarch yesterday:

Through an era of unprecedented change and social revolution, she has been a rock of majesty; an anchor, compass and counsellor to 12 prime ministers and seven archbishops of Canterbury. When it has rained, her sun has shone because the Son dwells in her heart, transforming to the likeness of saintliness, servanthood and sacramental kingship. You may think all this smacks of obsequious fawning and sycophantic hyperbole: you know nothing of the image of God.

Source: Elizabeth II becomes our longest-reigning monarch – God Save The Queen!

“When will I ever learn?” On over-spiritualizing our spiritual lives

September 9, 2015

Dwight rescues Jim from temptation.

Dwight ends up rescuing Jim from temptation.

One of my favorite episodes of my favorite television show, The Office, is called “After Hours,” from Season 8. In the episode, Jim and several employees from the Dunder-Mifflin Scranton office are in Tallahassee for a two-week business trip. One of these employees, Cathy, invites herself into Jim’s hotel room, telling him that her room’s thermostat is broken and can she hang out in his room while maintenance repairs it?

Reluctantly, Jim—made visibly uncomfortable at the prospect of being alone in a hotel room with a beautiful young woman—agrees. At first, he sits on the floor while Cathy lounges on the bed.

Throughout the episode, Jim tries to discern whether or not Cathy is coming on to him. When he decides that she is, he contrives a reason for Dwight to intrude on them, thereby rescuing him from temptation.

At one point, the lecherous Stanley, who is known to be cheating on his wife, enters Jim’s room, eyes Cathy on the bed, smiles knowingly, and says, “Careful, Jim. It gets easier and easier.”

Frightening words, and true: Any behavior, good or bad, becomes easier as it’s repeated, in part because of physical changes in our brain chemistry. New neural  pathways are carved out that facilitate the behavior, the way a riverbed facilitates the flow of water. Once these pathways are created, through habit, changing the flow becomes far more difficult. (I blogged about this a while back in relation to internet pornography.)

In After You Believe, N.T. Wright’s book on Christian sanctification—which is the formation of our character through our collaborative work with the Holy Spirit—Wright makes the same point:

Most people in today’s Western world, I suspect, think of their minds as more or less neutral machines that can be turned this way and that. When I drive down the road to London, and then when I drive up the road to Edinburgh, nothing changes in the structure  of the car. But supposing the car had a kind of internal memory, recording the journeys I’d made, so that when I set off in the general direction of London—a trip I make often—the car might click into “we’re going to London” mode and nudge me to take the London-bound road, even if in fact I had been intending this time to go to Birmingham? I would then have to make a more conscious choice to refuse the pathway the car had chosen and to compel it to do the things it hadn’t expected.

In the same way, supposing a decision to cheat on my tax return leaves an electronic pathway in the brain which makes it easier to cheat on other things—or people—as well? Or supposing the decision to restrain my irritation with a boring neighbor on the train, and to cultivate instead a calm patience, leaves a pathway which makes it easier to be patient when someone subsequently behaves in a  truly offensive manner?… [I]t seems as though the idea of developing “moral muscles” by analogy with people going to the gym to develop physical ones, may be closer than we imagined.[1]

In Wright’s book on the Psalms, which I read in preparation for my new sermon series, he refers back to this idea in After You Believe. In Psalm 23, for instance, when David speaks of God’s “restoring” his soul, we shouldn’t think of this restoration as merely a spiritual process; it’s also physical. Our soul, which exists independently of the body, is still shaped by the hard work of physical discipline.

Therefore, the more we read and meditate on the Psalms and the rest of scripture—the more we pray, the more we worship, the more we make time for devotional reading, etc., the easier it becomes to trust in the Lord and lean not on our own understanding; the easier it is to see that our cup overflows; the easier it is to find that, in God, we have everything we need.

Not surprisingly, the times in my life as a Christian when I’ve felt furthest from God are those times when I’ve most neglected the practices of the Christian life. I now see that I blamed God for this: I was waiting for him to make the first move—to strengthen my faith, to give me some new epiphany, to give me some new spiritual experience—after which I’d start “living it out” more faithfully. What a fool I was! I had it exactly backwards.

Wright continues:

If learning virtue is like learning a language it is also like acquiring a taste, or practicing a musical instrument. None of these “comes naturally” to begin with. When you work at them, though they begin to feel more and more “natural,” until that aspect of your “character” is formed so that, at last, you attain the hard-won freedom of fluency in the language, happy familiarity with the taste, competence on the on the instrument.[2]

The bottom line is this: God sanctifies us in part through physical changes in our body, which occur slowly and with practice, as we commit ourselves to the hard work of disciplined Christian living. The secret to “learning to live in God” is really no big secret: we learn it, in large part, on our knees.

1. N.T. Wright, After You Believe (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 39.

2. Ibid., 42.

Sermon 08-30-15: “Nothing Separates Us”

September 7, 2015

Disney Summer Drive-In

My sermon on Toy Story 3 uses Andy’s relationship with his toys as an analogy for God’s relationship with us. In Woody, therefore, we learn a lot about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. Like Woody, we trust in God’s goodness and faithfulness no matter where he leads us, and no matter what he asks of us.

Sermon Text: Romans 8:38-39

[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]

TS301

Clip 1: The first clip is a flashback to Andy’s childhood. Andy uses his imagination to create an elaborate fantasy world of heroes and villains, in which each of his toys plays a role. Next, we see his mother videotaping him, as Randy’s Newman’s “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” plays over the opening credits. The last line of Newman’s song is “And as the years go by/ A friendship will never die.”

It’s easy to see how Andy, the kid who owns all the toys in this scene and who has created this world for them—at least in his imagination—is a lot like God.

God, like Andy in this clip, is in control of the world—and ultimately of us. We call this doctrine God’s sovereignty. Proverbs 16:9 reflects this idea: “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.” This doesn’t mean God is like a puppet master, controlling our choices. No. It’s more like God is a chess master. Read the rest of this entry »

Living a Christian life is dying a series of deaths

September 4, 2015

Jesus, in the context of John 12 and his fast approaching appointment with the cross, tells his disciples, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15, echoes these words: “What you sow does not come to life unless it dies.”

Living as high on the food chain as I do, being so far removed from “the land” and the agrarian world of Jesus’ and Paul’s day, I never understood what this meant—aside from the fact that it’s a reference to death and resurrection. Cornelius Plantinga, in this sermon on Jesus’ words in John 12, describes it like this:

Jesus wants us to go down into a death that will cause new life to spring up twenty-fold, but we keep clinging to our old life. We’re like a grain of wheat. Jesus says we’re like a grain of wheat. You know, wheat is a cultivated grass, and for thousands of years people have cultivated those strains in which the kernels cling to the head. And we understand. If the kernels are loose on the head, the wind just blows them off. So for millennia farmers have sown the kind of wheat in which the kernels stick.

That’s the kind of wheat Jesus is talking about, and he says we’re like a kernel that clings to the spike of its old life. The trouble is there isn’t any future there. No glory there. No miracle of multiplication. To get food from wheat, you have to thresh the grain off the head. The grain of wheat “dies” not by falling into the ground. It dies by being stripped from the head. It’s viable off the head, but it will generate life only if it is pulled away from its old source of life and buried in the ground where moisture and nutrients will bring forth its life.

It occurred to me recently while reflecting on Jesus’ words—as it has always occurred to Christians like Plantinga who are smarter than I am—that this applies not only to Jesus’ death and resurrection, and our own death and future resurrection, but also to living the Christian life in general: we all die a series of deaths along life’s journey home to be with God.

It happens all the time in the Christian life! Or it at least it ought to.

For example, I’ve struggled mightily over the years with what I sacrificed in order to answer God’s call into ministry. I had no idea it would be as costly and difficult as it turned out to be: to leave behind a reasonably successful career, to sell a home, to uproot my family, to afford an expensive seminary education, to start over again on the bottom rung of a new career—one which doesn’t pay as much to begin with, or come with as much “prestige,” or feed the ego nearly as well as other careers.

Don’t get me wrong: Professional ministry certainly can feed the ego, as it has fed mine over the years (though please beware of us ministers when this is happening); but when a minister decides to finally do ministry right—or take some halting steps in the direction of doing it right—the job has a way of beating the ego to death. Just stomping it flat!

What’s the poem by Donne? “Batter my heart, three-person’d God…” Please, God, the batter is well-blended, I promise! 😉

And this is true for all Christians. What does our United Methodist Book of Discipline say? We Christians are all ministers, lay or ordained.

My point is, this is a little death I have to die. This little grain of pride—which believes that the world or, worse, God owes me something for “answering the call”—needs to be stripped from the stalk and blown away. Then, when it lands in the earth, who knows what might happen?

But it hurts to “die” in this way: to realize—as if it surprises me!—that I’m not, nor will I be, God’s gift to my profession, or to the United Methodist Church, or to any local church; to learn to say, “Who cares?” and trust Jesus when he tells us that whoever wants to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

I believe that on the other side of every little death we die lies the opportunity to experience more of this abundant life that Jesus promises.

Speaking of which, here’s a great mournful song about dying (as opposed to all those bright and happy songs about dying?) by the Lost Dogs. The lead vocal is by the late, great Gene Eugene.

We are never “in the black” with God

September 2, 2015

I just read an extraordinarily good essay on marriage by Ada Calhoun in her “Modern Love” column in the New York Times. (It’s from July of this year.) But I’m less interested right now in the substance of the column—which, again, is excellent, and you should read—than in these three paragraphs:

One thing I love about marriage (and I love a lot of things about marriage) is that you can have a bad day or even a bad few years, full of doubt and fights and confusion and storming out of the house. But as long as you don’t get divorced, you are no less married than couples who never have a hint of trouble (I am told such people exist).

You can be bad at a religion and still be 100 percent that religion. Just because you take the Lord’s name in vain doesn’t make you suddenly a non-Christian. You can be a sinner. In fact, I think it’s good theology that no matter how hard you try, you are sure to be a sinner, just as you are sure to be lousy, at least sometimes, at being married. There is perfection only in death.

It is easy for people who have never tried to do anything as strange and difficult as being married to say marriage doesn’t matter, or to condemn those who fail at it, or to mock those who even try. But there is so much beauty in the trying, and in the failing, and in the trying again. Peter renounced Jesus three times before the cock crowed. And yet, he was the rock upon whom Christ built his church.

“I think it’s good theology that no matter how hard you try, you are sure to be a sinner.”

I love this, even though it grates slightly against something I profess to believe.

Within my particular ecclesial tradition, after all, we have this doctrine of perfection, that we can be “entirely sanctified” by the Holy Spirit, such that we’ll no longer sin—in this life, prior to death. In fact, we Methodist clergy tell our bishop, at ordination, that we expect to be perfected in our lifetime. It is, by far, Wesleyan Christianity’s most eccentric doctrine, and one that I hold to very—ahem—loosely.

According to my Wesleyan theology professor in seminary, Wesley himself didn’t know anyone for whom this had happened, and Wesley didn’t claim that he was yet perfected.

So maybe we can just concede that “perfection in love” is a remote possibility at best—and not something to get hung up on? Plus, I worry that this doctrine inflicts too much harm on people like me, whose consciences are already tender and easily wounded. Satan—whose name literally means “the accuser“—constantly whispers in my ear: “You are a failure. You are unlovable. You are a disappointment to others.” And now I have this other voice telling me, “You can be perfect. You should be perfect. What’s your problem?”

[I’m not saying that the doctrine of perfection, properly understood, inevitably leads to my particular struggle. And I’m happy to say that Satan’s “whispers” (no, not a literal voice in my head!) aren’t nearly as loud as they used to be. I’ve learned strategies to cope with them, thank God!]

All that to say, I mostly agree with this columnist’s view of what counts as “good theology.” And we need to keep this good theology in mind in light of the idea I expressed in yesterday’s post, “‘Learning to Love the Bomb’ of Our Past Failures.”

One thoughtful commenter, my friend Tom, said he struggled with the idea that we can be grateful, not merely for the tragedies of our lives that we don’t cause, but even for the tragedies that we do cause, usually in part through our own sinful choices. (In my experience, most “tragedies” are self-inflicted.) He wrote:

What a difficult issue for me!… It is true that everything “shapes us,” so if the ultimate result is a good thing, maybe we can even be “happy” for those bad things along the way. This is okay for the “mishaps,” but more problematic for the “misdeeds.” I mean I am really in conflict over this point you are making. I think on the one hand you could be right–on the other, should I acknowledge that I could have been even a better “specimen” had I gone straight rather than on detours? “Be not deceived, God is not mocked. For whatsoever a man sows, that shall he also reap.” Should Samson be as happy about how he ended up as Daniel?

As I said in reply, it’s not a question of being “as happy as” someone who was more faithful to the Lord than we were; it’s a question of seeing, in retrospect—after genuine repentance for our sin—that God has indeed used the experience to help us, to heal us, to save us.

I can’t psychoanalyze Samson, but if his actions at the end of his story reflect genuine repentance, then, yes, even in his death, I imagine that he was “happy,” if you want to put it that way. He was at least at peace. His life had finally resolved all the contradictions that led him to that terrible place, and for that he could surely be grateful. He could take satisfaction, in the end, that he was finally getting his life right with God.

Who knows?

I continued in my reply:

I don’t draw as sharp a distinction between “mishaps” and “misdeeds,” simply because sin remains pervasive in our lives, regardless what is happening to us. God is always relating to us, as the late Dallas Willard memorably said, “on the basis of pity.” We don’t cross some threshold at which point our life is now “in the black.” We’re always in debt, always in need of grace and mercy at every moment—even as we are being sanctified.

It felt good for me to write that. Feel free to share your thoughts.

Here’s a wonderful song about being wrong by Colin Blunstone, from his masterful 1972 album, Ennismore.

“Learning to love the bomb” of our past failures

September 1, 2015

Searching_for_bobby_fischerIn my sermon on Sunday, I made reference to a movie from 1993 called Searching for Bobby Fischer. It’s about a child chess prodigy named Josh Waitzkin. I see from Wikipedia that Waitzkin is a real person, so the movie is based on his young life. Bobby Fischer, whose legacy casts a tall shadow over the characters in the movie, even makes appearances throughout the film in grainy stock footage.

In the film, Waitzkin is so good that his opponents only need to make a few moves before he tells them, “You just lost the match.” He was able to anticipate his opponents’ next dozen or so moves, and his own counter-moves, and foresee that his opponent would lose.

I made the point in my sermon that God’s foreknowledge is like that—except he can see in advance all the moves that we will make in our lives—good moves, bad moves, smart moves, dumb moves. And he can see all the moves that he will make in response to us. Except, instead of looking at us and saying, “You lose.” He can say, to those of us who trust in his Son Jesus: “You win. I’m going to make sure that you win!”

As I said on Sunday, I find this idea immensely reassuring because, among other things, it means that our lives can never spin so far out of control that God can’t rescue them and bring them back under control. Then, in God’s providential care, even the mistakes, the foolish decisions, the monumental errors in judgment—indeed, the vilest sins—can be redeemed by God, such that we can look back on them, and the attendant suffering in their wake, and be grateful even for them.

Or can’t we? Am I wrong?

No, I believe we can.

In that recent Stephen Colbert interview that touched me so deeply, he described making peace with the childhood loss of his father and two of his brothers as “learning to love the bomb.” He said, “Boy, did I have a bomb when I was 10. That was quite an explosion. And I learned to love it… That might be why you don’t see me as someone angry and working out my demons onstage. It’s that I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.”

I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.

What profound words! Who besides Colbert has the nerve to speak them out loud? Yet I believe they’re true—and deeply Christian. I would add that we should also learn to love the person who was created, in part, through these things that we most wish hadn’t happened.

I was meeting recently with some friends, one of whom is considering breaking up with his girlfriend of seven years. As you can imagine, he’s feeling pressure from all quarters to fish or cut bait. He said, “I need to figure this out. Because if I decide I need to break up, I’ll already have wasted seven years of my life!”

My friend isn’t a Christian, nor would he have welcomed at that moment a deep theological treatise from me on God’s providence, but I did say, “Well, those years haven’t been wasted.”

Or, I should have said, they don’t need to have been wasted. We have a choice whether to assimilate our past experiences into our present life in a healthy way. And if we have faith in the God revealed in Christ, we have so much incentive to do so! “In all things God works for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

But all of us, whether we’re Christians or not, can see how our past makes us into the people we are today. For example, I mostly like who I am today—and God knows it took everything in my past to make me this way. I can be grateful, not bitter or angry. I can learn to love the bomb. And learn to love myself more in the process.

Prayer Service Homily 08-23-15: “Faith into Action”

September 1, 2015

I preached the following homily at our church’s most recent prayer and healing service, on Sunday evening, August 23, 2015.

Homily Text: 1 Samuel 17:40-48

The following is my original manuscript.

My mother was a collector of Lladró porcelain figurines. Do you know what I’m talking about? They were these beautiful, delicate little knickknacks that she put on a shelf behind glass in a hutch in the “living room”—which was a strange name for it, since no one ever lived in the living room—unless we were entertaining Queen Elizabeth or Prince Charles. But that was only once in a blue moon. The point is, these figurines lived in this room in which we kids were never allowed to play—a room where few people ever ventured, a room where everything collected dust from lack of use. These figurines were for decoration only; they weren’t action figures.

Even though, to a four- or five-year-old kid they looked deceptively like action figures.

But the point is, if you played with them—which is to say, if you used them—you got into big trouble. They were not to be used; they were to be put on a shelf, where they looked pretty and collected dust.

I confess that I want my Christian faith to be like these Lladró figurines. I want to put my faith on a shelf—where it looks good, and it’s there if I ever need it—but I never want to need it. You know what I mean? Life never seems to work out that way, does it? You can’t go very long without being put in a situation where circumstances demand that we put our faith into action.

In a letter C.S. Lewis wrote a Benedictine monk in 1938, on the eve of war with the Germans, he said:

I have been in considerable trouble over the present danger of war. Twice in one life—and then to find how little I have grown in fortitude despite my conversion. It has done me a lot of good by making me realise how much of my happiness secretly depended on the tacit assumption of at least tolerable conditions for the body: and I see more clearly, I think, the necessity (if one may so put it) which God is under of allowing us to be afflicted—so few of us will really rest all on Him if He leaves us any other support.

So he’s saying that he’s ben very worried out about the possibility of war. The extent to which he’s worried has surprised himself. After all, he’s already been to war himself—he fought in World War I, and got injured. And he’s been a Christian for a long time. Why, after all these years of being a Christian, can’t he heed Jesus’ words about “not being anxious” about anything and not worrying. Why doesn’t he have more courage and strength after all these years?

His anxiety about war has made him realize how much his happiness depends not on his faith in God, but on physical safety and physical comfort and physical security. Which is why, he says, it’s necessary for God to “allow us to be afflicted.” Because so few of us will “really rest all on God,” he says, “if He leaves us any other support.”

If you’re worried about something tonight, then it’s likely because you, like C.S. Lewis, have been leaning on something or someone other than God for support. You’ve been trusting in something or someone other than God for support. And it’s as if God has knocked that pillar out from under you now. And you’re scared, you’re worried, you’re fearful.

If so, the good news is that the Bible is filled with heroes who are just like you—who are filled with excuses about why they shouldn’t be the one to face what God has asked them to face; to do what God has asked to do; to endure what God has asked them to endure. Moses was called, and he said, “God, I’m a man who’s slow of speech—I stutter or stammer. I’m not an effective speaker. Who am I to stand up to the most powerful man in the world and say, ‘Let my people go!’”

Or think of Gideon, when he’s called to lead an army against Israel’s enemies. He says, “God, I’d be happy to do what you ask, but can you pass this little test first…” [Fleece]

Or think of Esther. Her cousin Mordecai says that she needs to go to the king and talk him out of destroying the Jews in Persia, and she’s like, “If I approach the king without being summoned, he’ll kill me!”

There are always good reasons for avoiding facing the thing that God is asking you to face, or doing the thing that God is asking you to do, or enduring what God is asking you to endure. There are always perfectly good reasons why you, of all people, shouldn’t be the one to face it, do it, endure it. “Why has this happened to me of all people?” you might ask.

Well, if you’re asking that question this evening, then you can be sure that it’s because God believes in you more than you believe in yourself. The apostle Paul probably asked the same question: “Why is this happening to me?” when God let the devil afflict him with this thorn in his flesh, whatever that was, as he describes in 2 Corinthians 12. Yet God tells him, in so many words, I’m going to give you the grace that you need to handle this. I’m not going to take this thorn away from you—I’m not going to make you all better, the way you want—but I am going to use this thorn in the flesh to accomplish something even better: You see, not only will I give you the grace that you need to endure this affliction, I’m going to make you a better, stronger, more faithful person through this affliction. “For my power,” Jesus told Paul, “is made perfect in weakness.”

God says, “You’re going to be more powerful if I don’t take this thorn away—or maybe I should say, I’m going to be able to work more powerfully through you if I don’t take this thorn in the flesh away. Trust me, Paul. You’ll see.”

Sometimes God afflicts us with something he wants us to learn to live with, to cope with. Sometimes God wants us to defeat this challenge, to overcome it. Either way, it’s going to require us to do what we normally don’t want to do: which is, to take our faith down off the shelf where sometimes it collects dust from lack of use and put it into action.

In other words, it’s time for you and I to go to go down to our river bank, pick up some smooth stones that look good for slaying giants, take dead aim at our enemy, and hurl that stone as hard as we can. God will make sure it hits the target!

What giant are you facing tonight?