...and you've known the right answer all along.
A few years ago, I took some vacation time and went on a trip south. I drove to Florida to go to Walt Disney World, but on the way I stopped to stay with my Uncle Mike who at the time lived on Hilton Head Island. On a few occasions I used the drive to Florida as an opportunity to see my uncle, but this trip in particular was special: my sister Jen was also going to visit.
At the time Jennifer was living in South Carolina, and so it was a convenient way to have some brother-sister bonding time. What happened next, I did not expect.
When I got there, Jennifer told me she was going to get a tattoo. I took the bait and asked her what tattoo she was planning on getting, and it turned out to be one of the many Bible verses we memorized as children, a portion of Philippians 4:13, "I can do all things." My sister had just been through a particularly rough patch of life, and the Bible verse was meant to be empowering. And just like that, on a whim, I decided to get it with her.
I don't usually make big, spontaneous decisions like that. I usually need to run the idea through the ringer more than a few times before I settle on something. But this verse, printed as a continual reminder on my skin of the power of Paul's words
"I can do all things through him who strengthens me."
And in good times and bad since, the tattoo has been just that. After a really hard trip to the hospital, or a really rewarding vestry meeting, many times I've looked down at my left arm and felt the promise inscribed there.
Lately, though, I haven't felt much like I can do all things, but I certainly do feel like I'm trying to do all things......and then some! I'm continuing to work from home while my kids are virtual learning from school, which means I have to get them onto class and manage their participation. Even though I'm a natural "night owl," I wake up before sunrise because otherwise I might not have a chance to make coffee before the craziness begins. I'm chairing the planning committee for our diocesan convention, which has come to feel like its own second full-time job. Oh, and I'd really like to maybe squeeze an actual relationship with God and my wife in there somewhere if its possible.
There have been times lately when "I can do all things" felt a bit less comforting and a bit more like sarcasm.
However, those words from Paul weren't written in a vacuum. They were written in a letter. And the context of that letter as well as the content of that letter are very powerful.
If you've never read Philippians, it isn't very long. It's just over 2,000 words, which is about a 15 minute read. If you're at all struggling or at all suffering during this challenging year that is 2020, it may be just what you need.
You see, Paul wasn't exactly on easy street when he wrote "I can do all things." He wrote the letter to the Philippians while in prison, while suffering for the sake of the Gospel. The whole context of the book is suffering. This is the same book that contains the so-called Philippians hymn, something that many scholars believe Paul was quoting when he writes:
who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
This is why the part of Philippians 4:13 that is left out of my tattoo is so important, in fact more important than the words we chose to get inked: "through him who strengthens me." Just take a look at the surrounding verses:
"I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being-well fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me."
I wonder if James Taylor was channeling a bit of Paul when he wrote "I've seen fire and I've seen rain?"
Paul and James Taylor both realize that at high times and at low, on the mountaintop or in the valley of the shadow of death, it's in Jesus that we find the strength to go on. That strength doesn't come from within us, it comes from the faithfulness of Jesus, it comes from what the Philippians hymn describes. His faithfulness did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited. His faithfulness cried out in the Garden "not my will but yours be done." His faithfulness humbled himself to the point of death on the cross. And so now our righteousness, our right standing before God, our strength to persevere in the face of any challenge, comes through the faith of Christ.
We're not promised that there won't be both fire and rain. We aren't promised either to have little or to have plenty, to be well-fed or to go hungry. Life promises to give us both in due season. But Christ promises a joy, an unfathomable, incomprehensible peace no matter our circumstances when we abide in him. The one who humbled himself, the one who died, the one who was raised for us and glorified, he knows because he shared it with you. He knew both laughter and tears. And now he shares with you in yours.
So no matter what you're going through right now, no matter what hardship or blessing, remember Paul's secret to both good and bad times:
"I can do all things through him who strengthens me."
And listen to a little James Taylor, because that's also good for the soul.