August 11, 2019
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
WHEN LIFE ISN’T GREAT
II Corinthians 12:7-10
Have you ever had one of those days when nothing goes right? I think we all have, but I don’t think any of us can top this.
There was a man who decided he was going to end his life. This was a very thorough individual, so he had thought through his plan very thoroughly. He had a contingency in place for anything that possibly could go wrong.
This man went to the top of a cliff overlooking the ocean. He put a noose around his neck and securely tied the other end of the rope to a tree. That should do it, but just in case, he also brought a loaded pistol, drank a vial of poison, and set his clothes on fire. Then he jumped.
As he was falling, before the rope tightened around his neck, he took out the pistol to shoot himself in the head. That was the plan, except he missed. The bullet instead hit the rope, cutting it in two. So he fell all way into the ocean far below. The ocean water extinguished the fire. He went way under and by the time he surfaced, he had swallowed enough water that he vomited up the poison. So he swam to safety.
He could not believe his bad luck. But he decided it really wasn’t bad luck; it was good luck. It was a sign from God that his life was worth living after all.
That’s a made up story, by the way. And yes, I know, suicide is nothing to joke about. Sometimes people do reach the point where they would rather be dead than alive. Maybe you have been there. Maybe you know someone who is there right now. Maybe you’ve lost someone close to you in this awful way. It’s a very serious thing. I do not mean to make light of it.
Here are three simple things you can do that can make a life and death difference for someone who is struggling: 1) Assure them that you will be there for them no matter what, 2) assure them that there is help, and 3) take them to that help.
But this is not a sermon about suicide. This sermon originated with a comment I heard a long time ago. I can’t remember who said it. But I wrote it down and filed it away. Here it is: Life is great. Except when it isn’t. But greatness is defined when life isn’t great. Three points. Just like they taught us in seminary.
Our scripture is from Paul. He’s talking about himself. He’s revealing something of a personal nature. It’s a little something he has to deal with in life. He calls it his “thorn in the flesh.”
I’m pretty sure it’s a metaphor. If all he had was a thorn piercing his skin, I’m pretty sure he would have just pulled it out. So he must be talking about something else. Something he has to deal with in life.
As you can imagine, there has been a lot of speculation about what this “thorn in the flesh” really was. Here are the top three guesses: 1) a hearing impairment, 2) a visual impairment,
3) epilepsy. But these are only guesses. It might have been something else entirely.
Paul’s choice of words is interesting. “Thorn in the flesh” implies that it’s not really that big a deal. It you’ve worked with roses, you have plenty of experience with “thorns in the flesh.” It’s more a nuisance than a real problem.
But it’s a big enough nuisance for Paul that he prays for healing. Not once. Not twice. Three times. God answers these prayers. But as is often the case with prayer, it’s not the answer he wants. Here’s the answer God gives: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (12:9).
And then Paul says he’s good with that. Of course, he would have preferred a healing miracle. That’s what he had in mind when he prayed those three times. But if that’s not meant to be, that’s fine. More than fine. In fact Paul says, “I delight in insults, in hardship, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (12:10).
Life is great. Except when it isn’t. But greatness is defined when life isn’t great.
I don’t know if I am the exception. I might be. But life has been great pretty much my entire life. If I gave you a percentage, I might say 99%. Now of course when you have lived as long as I have – almost 64 years – when you multiply 64 by 0.99, that leaves about 230 days that were not so great. Some of those were real hard days. Some of those days I wasn’t sure I was going to make it. But 99 out of 100 is pretty good. Almost always, if you ask me, “How’s life?” and I say, “Great!” I’m telling you the truth.
You may not be at 99%. You may be lower. You may be higher. But I’m guessing your life has been pretty great, too. Because God made life to be great. Not good. Not passable. Not acceptable. Not tolerable. But great.
We were born into an incredibly beautiful world. Just these last few days, right here where we live, have you noticed our gorgeous sunrises and sunsets? Of course this time of year, you don’t sleep very much if you are up to see both. The days are glorious. The nights are, too. The infinite number of stars, that you don’t fully appreciate until you get out of town. The moon, 50 years after we walked on it, which will be full this week.
Some of you get around a little more than I have lately, and you’ve seen other sights of spectacular beauty. God gave us eyes to see all this. And ears to hear the music of nature and also the music written and performed by human beings God gifted with talent. Touch, taste, smell – the other three senses – also opening to our full enjoyment this amazing world in which God has placed us!
God was under no obligation to give us all this. Even if God wanted people on this earth, he could have placed us in a far more austere, less bountiful environment. But God chose to give us this wonderful world so filled with delights. Which must mean God really loves us! God must really want us to live a great life!
But there’s more. So far we have been talking about all that makes life enjoyable. But we haven’t talked about life itself. Just the simple fact that we are alive and relatively healthy is nothing less than miraculous. Your heart is beating, pumping blood throughout your body. You are breathing, making sure your blood is full of oxygen. You are able to move and work and eat and rest.
And we also have brains. So we can think and ponder and appreciate and be curious and learn and remember. Yes, I know memory does tend to slip with age, but isn’t it interesting that it’s those long ago memories that we cherish the most that stay with us the longest?
I haven’t mentioned yet God’s gift of the people who make our lives so much richer and fuller than they would be without them. Family, friends, love. To love and be loved. This too is a gift from God. As we grow and mature we realize that the pleasures of life, wonderful as they are, are nothing compared to the joy we find in our relationships with other people. And our ultimate relationship with God.
Louis Armstrong was right. It is a wonderful world. Life is great. And I wish we could stop here. But we can’t because, as we all know, there is more to this story.
Life is great, except when it isn’t. I hope you can all relate to what we’ve said about how great life is. But I know you can all relate to what we’re about to say – that sometimes life isn’t all that great. Life can be wonderful, and life can be awful.
Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” is not the best illustration of how awful life can be. Whatever it was, it apparently was minor enough that it did not keep him from the work God had given him to do. But I think we can all relate to what this may have felt like to Paul. Everything in your life is going really well, except for that one thing. That one “fly in the ointment.” It may be some physical ailment that won’t go away. It may be some worry that keeps you awake at night and casts a dark cloud over everything else. It may be some resentment toward another person that has become a heavy rock that you carry wherever you go. Whatever it is, it’s a “thorn in the flesh.” And as Paul discovered, sometimes we can pray for it to go away but it doesn’t go away. God’s answer is “my grace is sufficient.”
Of course, some thorns are bigger than others. Every church I’ve served, this one included, has had wonderful people who have had to face way more than their share of hardship and tragedy.
I’ve told the story before about the young couple in Medford trying hard to start a family, without success. Finally, she became pregnant. They were overjoyed. Then they found out they were having twins. They were ecstatic. Both little boys came into the world, apparently healthy. But then little Kevin started having symptoms that something was wrong. Two months and two days after he was born, he died. But they still had Kris. That’s what everyone told them. It was so fortunate they had had twins, not just a single baby. Then Kris started showing the same symptoms. It turned out they had the same genetic defect. Nothing could be done. Five months and fifteen days after Kris was born, he too died.
The pain and heartache in this life is not evenly distributed. Some people get way more than their share. And some people get less. Like me. A 99% great life, so far. But I know as I get older that batting average is going down, not up. Some of you know something about that. There are certain frustrations we can count on the older we get.
You can blame Richard Pimentel for the following:
Jacob, age 92 and Rebecca, age 89 had decided to get married. They went for a stroll, talking about wedding plans, and they passed a drug store. They talked it over and decided to go in. They found the pharmacist. The following conversation ensued:
Jacob: We’re getting married, and I was wondering if you sell heart medication.
Pharmacist: Of course we do
Rebecca: How about medicine for circulation?
Pharmacist: All kinds.
Jacob: Medicine for rheumatism?
Rebecca: How about suppositories?
Pharmacist: You bet!
Jacob: Medicine for memory problems, arthritis, and Alzheimer’s?
Pharmacist: Yes, a large variety. The works.
Rebecca: What about vitamins, sleeping pills, Geritol, antidotes for Parkinson’s disease?
Jacob: Anything for heartburn and indigestion?
Pharmacist: We sure do.
Rebecca: You sell wheelchairs and walkers and canes?
Pharmacist: All speeds and sizes.
Jacob: Adult diapers?
Rebecca: Good. We’d like to use this store as our Bridal Registry.
As they say, growing old is not for sissies. There are thorns in the path ahead waiting for all of us.
I think of our daughter Heather who is going through a tough time right now. She was maybe 7 years old and very proud that she had learned to ride her bike. She was riding one day, having a great time, but then she lost her balance and steered right into a big rose bush. Thorns were piercing her skin everywhere. And the more she tried to free herself, the more painful it became. So she just stayed as still as she could. And she screamed. For a long time
she screamed. She was too far from home for us to hear her. Fortunately a neighbor heard and came to her rescue.
That’s going to happen to you and to me. Figuratively if not literally. If we live long enough, we will eventually find ourselves in a spot where we are stuck in a rosebush, we can’t do a darned thing to free ourselves, and all we can do is wait for someone to come along and help us.
Life is great, except when it isn’t. And there are times when it isn’t. That’s life. The good – which is so incredibly good – and the not so good – which can be truly awful. You can’t have the one without the other.
We could stop here, on this grim note of realism. You can’t have roses without thorns. Deal with it. Except Paul does not stop here in today’s scripture. He takes us one giant step further.
Remember, Paul prays those three times for a thorn-free life and God’s answer is that he’d better get used to the thorns. But that’s not the whole answer. Remember what God said? “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (12:9). In other words, a life without thorns is not a life in which God’s power can be most perfectly displayed.
Life is great. Except when it isn’t. But greatness is defined when life isn’t great. When life isn’t great, when we aren’t our best, when we are weakest, God’s strength can be seen most clearly through us.
It would be nice to have a trouble-free life. In a world where there really is a fountain of youth. And no health challenges. No challenges at all. Every day you just do whatever you feel like doing. No financial limitations. A whole life just enjoying life to the fullest. That may sound pretty good. Truth be told, if I got offered this, I would have hard time turning it down. But one thing we can say for sure about a life without trouble – the world will not be any better because you lived.
One thing every great person has in common is adversity. Adversity is the only canvas on which a great life can be painted. It’s when you are tested that you find out what you are made of. It’s when life is not great that you get your chance to be great.
Think about that the next time something awful happens to you. Finally, an opportunity for me to be great!
I want to close with the story of Betty Makoni. Her early life was not very great. It was pretty awful. She grew up in Zimbabwe, in poverty you and I cannot imagine. She was six years old when she was raped. She was nine years old when she witnessed the murder of her mother. She was an orphan, one of so many on the continent of Africa with little chance for much of a life at all.
But Betty’s mantra even from an early age was this: I will not be a victim. I will be a survivor.
She put herself through school selling fruits and vegetables. She became a school teacher. She noticed that many dropped out of school, mainly girls, many of whom had been sexually abused.
So she decided to do something about this. She founded the Girl Child Network. She started clubs at schools to encourage these girls to tell their stories, to speak up, to report abuse. She has built thee homes for abuse victims. Her work has spread all through Zimbabwe. She has taken victims and turned them into survivors.
The number of girls Betty Makoni has saved from abuse, child labor, forced marriage, and human trafficking is estimated to be as high as 35,000.
Life is great. Except when it isn’t. It wasn’t for Betty Makoni. She is truly great because her adversity became God’s opportunity. Her weakness became God’s strength. She has not lived a trouble-free life. But that’s a good thing, if not for her, for 35,000 others.
Thank you God for life, in all its beauty and bounty. Thank you for grace when life is difficult to bear. And thank you for opportunities to show, not what we’re made of, but what you’re made of, as we spend our lives on something greater than ourselves. To your glory, through Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.