For the Grads: Facing Challenges

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Philippians 4:10-13 

When I asked our recent graduates what they needed to hear around the time of their graduations, their answers brought up some pretty important topics – things any of us might need to hear.  Like how to keep our faith in new and difficult circumstances, stay in the moment while anticipating the future, or hear God’s call for our lives.

Now, how about this one, from SMHS class of 2019 graduate Jack Stuckey:

“how we can rest in the peace and power of faith in the face of seemingly impossible and unstoppable challenges”

“Seemingly impossible and unstoppable challenges.”  Part of me likes those odds.  They’re the stuff of really good stories, the kinds of things I used to do just to say I did it:  when we hiked Blood Mountain at night, got lost, and found our way back; when I rode off that big jump on my snowboard; when I ate a whole pizza to defeat a boy in an eating contest.  We saw those “seemingly impossible and unstoppable challenges,” and we rose up to them, and we conquered them!

But that’s the silly stuff.  If you fail at something like that, you get an upset stomach or hurt pride or, at worst, a broken bone.  There are other “seemingly impossible and unstoppable challenges” in life that can destroy our peace and break our faith.  Financial challenges; relationship challenges; health challenges; decision-making challenges; career challenges… 

Last week, Evelyn Graning and I talked about how we figure out and follow God’s call.  Some of the worst challenges are the ones that stand in the way of what we know we’re meant to do.  When we don’t get into that school, or don’t land that job, or when that relationship doesn’t work out – things like that can feel like insurmountable obstacles.

Or how about this one:  when we get thrown into jail.

Oh no – I don’t mean me.  I’m talking about Paul, the “apostle to the Gentiles” who wrote most of the letters in our New Testament.  Today’s Scripture is from a letter we call “Philippians” (because it’s to a group of Christians in a city called Philippi).  Paul is writing this letter from prison, which is a problem.  It’s a problem because Paul’s mission is to take the message of Jesus Christ beyond Jerusalem and into the known world.  But it’s hard to take the gospel anywhere when you’re stuck in a jail cell.  It’s not known for certain which prison Paul is in; a lot of people think he’s in Rome, like it says he was at the end of Acts.  If that’s the case, then Paul been locked up for 2 years under capital charges. 

How can Paul continue his ministry under these circumstances?  It’s seemingly impossible.  The Roman Empire is unstoppable. 

But when you read Philippians, you can see that Paul doesn’t feel at all stopped.

He starts his letter by telling his Christian friends in Philippi, “I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel…” (1:12).  See, there’s an imperial guard working the prison where Paul is behind bars.  They happen to be the kind of people-beyond-Jerusalem that Paul is called to reach.  And because everyone knows that Paul is in prison for his faith in Christ, the fact that he’s standing his ground, unshaken by his imprisonment, is helping encourage others to stand firm in their own faith.

Paul is facing a seemingly impossible and unstoppable challenge, but he still has peace and faith that it won’t stop him from following God’s call.  At the end of his letter, Paul tells the Philippians what this peace and faith means to him.  It means that whether he’s hungry or well-fed, has a little or has a lot, imprisoned or free, he can still say: 

I can do all things through Christ who is my strength” (4:13).

That’s an impressive amount of peace and faith in the midst of impossible and unstoppable challenges.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a little dose of that?

We can have a dose of it.  It’s just a matter of learning how to lean into it.  I’ve learned the most about how to do that by applying this verse to something kind of small and silly.  No – I didn’t quote Philippians 4:13 to myself while I was trying to eat that whole pizza.  But I do quote it to myself almost every time I go for a run.

Running isn’t something I’m naturally inclined to.  My body is better designed for walking, I think.  I was 17 the first time I ran a mile, and it felt like a miracle.  I remember heading out my family front door, taking a left onto Brightwaters Blvd, and starting out at a jog.  I had tried this a number of times before with every little success.  But on this particular day, something different happened.  Maybe I had drank more water, or maybe it was awesome mix tape I was listening to.  Whatever the reason, I got to the end of the mile-long street and realized I had run the whole way.  A miracle!

For most of my adult life, running a single mile has felt about as big an accomplishment as running a marathon does to other people.  I run more now than I ever have, but mostly out of necessity.  If I don’t exercise, I get real grumpy… and I’m a working mom… and running is simply the quickest method of exercising that I know of.  So, I run.

But running is still miserable.  It’s hard.  I think it’s especially hard in western North Carolina, where there is no running route without hills.  If I head out my door and run Main Street to the right, it’s a long uphill pull toward WalMart.  If I head out my door and run Main Street to the left, there’s a rough climb up to Harold’s Grocery Market.  Either way, I’m faced with a long stretch that will very much make me want to stop running.

Those are the times when I start to say to myself:  I can do all things through Christ who is my strength.

I picked this habit up years and years ago, back in my teenage years when I was first reading the Bible for myself.  I must have come across this verse in my reading, and they must have struck me as significant right away, because I don’t remember a time when I didn’t have Philippians 4:13 committed to memory:  I can do all things through Christ who is my strength.  I’ve also found that, because every word in this sentence is a single syllable, you can repeat it really easily in rhythm with your breath:  I can do all things through Christ who is my strength.  When I hit that moment in my run when I want to stop I’ll keep my head down and repeat Philippians 4:13 to myself, and then let myself look up again and see that I’ve gotten a little closer, and then put my head back down and repeat it again… and more often than not, Philippians 4:13 will carry me until sweet, sweet downhill gives me a little boost.

I’ve been doing that for years and years – for as long as I’ve been trying to run.  It’s become almost unconscious; when the run gets so hard I want to quit, I quote Philippians 4:13.

But you know – I’ve never taken to saying Philippians 4:13 to myself in the faith-draining, peace-sucking, unstoppable challenges of life.

Weird, right?  If I turn to Philippians 4:13 so naturally when I run, then why haven’t I turned to it just as naturally when I’m deadlocked in a hard decision, or when our finances aren’t adding up, or when there’s a problem at church that seems unsolvable? 

I’ll tell you why:  because – as Mike Myers once so eloquently put it – I was putting the wrong emPHAsis on the wrong sylLAble. 

When I would say Philippians 4:13 to myself while running, I’d say it like, “I can do all things through Christ who is my strength.”  Emphasis on the “I,” or sometimes the “can.”  As though the message of Philippians 4:13 is that through Christ I’m some kind of superhero who can do anything. 

But that’s not at all what Paul meant when he wrote it.  For Paul, the emphasis was on the “through Christ.”  Through Christ as in, drawing on Christ as his source of strength.  But also through Christ as in, working toward a goal set by Christ.  So when Paul wrote, “I can do all things through Christ who is my strength,” what he meant was, “When Christ is my strength and my direction, there’s no challenge I can’t overcome.”

What was true for Paul is true for us, too.  If we’re living in Christ and working for Christ, then we can walk right over even the most impossible and unstoppable challenges.

I want you to practice saying it out loud with the right emphasis:  “I can do all things through Christ who is my strength.”

Say it in response to the seemingly impossible and unstoppable challenges you’re facing.

Coronavirus?

“I can do all things through Christ who is my strength.”

Racism?

“I can do all things through Christ who is my strength.”

Money? 

“I can do all things through Christ who is my strength.”

Relationships?

“I can do all things through Christ who is my strength.”

Through Christ, may you rest in the peace and power of faith… even in the face of seemingly impossible and unstoppable challenges.

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