Tuesday, September 16, 2014

All Things Through Christ

When I was young, my friend David and I were hiking in a public location and we discovered a cave.  It’s no good trying to talk some sense into seventeen-year-old boys when a cave is involved.  Never mind the fact that we had no guide and no proper caving equipment except a couple of dollar store flashlights—we plunged into the black with full abandon.  The entrance to the cave narrowed into a tunnel that descended at about a forty-five degree angle.  It was so small that we had to shimmy through it feet-first on our sides, leaning on one elbow.  The opposite wall of the crack that we were descending was so close that our noses almost touched the wet rock.  We were lucky we didn’t encounter any cave-ins or dangerous wildlife, and we emerged from the crevice into a large and beautiful cavern.  The great explorers were triumphant!  Of course, we soon found graffiti evidence that others had discovered this cave before us—what else did we expect in a cave that was in a public location?  
            As we left the large cavern, just as we began the long climb up that narrow tunnel, somebody at the top who didn’t know we were in there decided to see what would happen if they threw a firecracker into the cave.  The sound it made was deafening.  The tiny crack we were climbing through filled with painful smoke that threatened to take our breath.  Even though we had our flashlights, I know what the Bible means when it talks about a darkness that can be felt.  The only way I made it to the light of the surface was by constantly repeating Philippians 4.13, which says, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”  That one verse, repeated over and over, got me to the top.  But when I reached the surface, I learned that it helped me do more than survive the smoke and darkness of that narrow tunnel.  It helped me to not clobber the guy who had thrown the firecracker!  It helped me to forgive.  I learned that I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
            In the book of Genesis, we read about Joseph who learned a lot of hard lessons in the darkness of his prison.  He’d been gifted by God and favored by his father—and he had let it go to his head.  He had misused these gifts and repeatedly been obnoxious to his older brothers.  In return, they had sold him into slavery in Egypt.  As a slave, he had refused to do something immoral that was asked of him, and it landed him in prison.  I imagine that the stifling blackness of betrayal and choking smoke of his hatred raged within him, as in prison he ruminated on all the people who had hurt him.  But in the journey through his pit he had to learn, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”  He had to learn to forgive the people who had wounded him.
            Through a series of supernatural events, Joseph eventually got out of prison and not only thrived but became the number two man in Egypt, second only to Pharaoh.  A famine in his homeland caused Joseph’s brothers to journey to Egypt and beg for grain.  Once they realized who he was, they groveled before Joseph fearing his wrath for what they had done to him.  Yet he forgave them, blessed them, and invited them to come and live with him in Egypt.  Genesis 51 tells about the death of their father, after which the brothers feared that Joseph would now take his vengeance.  But Joseph said to them, ‘Do not fear, for am I in the place of God?  As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.  So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.’ Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them (vv. 19-21 ESV).”  Joseph confirmed that when it comes to forgiveness, he could do all things through the Lord who gave him strength.  He could forgive his brothers, and love them enough to take care of them.
            You know, it wasn't just Joseph’s brothers that he had to learn to forgive.  In the worst part of his struggle, when guilt and misery and self-blame threatened to choke out his very breath, Joseph had to learn to forgive himself.  He must have understood the role that he had played in offending his brothers to the point of them acting the way that they did.  He must have grasped how he had gotten himself into this situation.  He had to come to a place of forgiving himself, pushing through the struggle, and gaining God’s blessing.
            Forgiving ourselves is hard to do sometimes—but we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.  This past Christmas I got some new shirts.  They were the same size that I’ve always worn, but they didn’t fit me.  They were too small in the middle.  Or rather, I realized that I was too big in the middle.  I realized I had to do something about it.  Fortunately, I have a wonderful wife who is an absolute inspiration to me.  She’s lost 114 pounds in the past couple of years, and she taught me a lot about weight loss, about diet and exercise.  In the first part of the year, I lost a few pounds but then stalled out.  So this past May we began running. 
Lydia, Daniel, Beth, and me at the Color Run in Richmond this past Saturday.  What fun, running and getting covered in colored cornstarch every kilometer or so!
I've never seen myself as a runner.  When I was young I was that pale weak kid with asthma.  But Beth inspired me again.  She had more determination and drive than I did starting out, and all I was doing was keeping up with her.  Together we learned about how to stride correctly and how to breathe so that my asthma was no longer an issue.  I learned that when you struggle, you choke—but when you let go and trust God, breathing comes naturally.  When the running got difficult, I would say to myself over and over the same thing that I said in that cave when I couldn't breathe: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”  When I had a hard time forgiving myself for getting into this condition, I would repeat it again.  When I had a hard time loving myself enough to take care of myself, I would repeat it again.  And do you know what I found out?  I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.  I can forgive others.  I can forgive myself.  I can become what I never thought possible. 
Now, I've lost 21 pounds so far, and I’m more than halfway to my goal.  This past weekend, I ran my first 5k (3-mile) race.  Beth and I are training for a 10k in October.  Like Joseph, my journey with God has led me to understand the place of forgiveness in my life—forgiving others and forgiving myself.  It’s also helped me to understand more fully the ultimate forgiveness that God gives me through Jesus.  None of it would be possible without Christ who strengthens me.  Today I pray that through His power you’ll be able to forgive others, forgive yourself, and become something greater than you ever believed possible.

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