Stay the Course: God's Course Through Loss
There's a cartoon showing a young woman asking her doctor, "What can I do to feel better without giving up what's making me feel awful?" She didn't want to choose. She didn't want to discard. She wanted to keep it all. The idea of loss threatened her.
The Scripture lesson today recalls those glorious words which serve as the inspiration for our Lenten theme this year: Stay the Course, Philippians 3:13-14. Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
Pressing on toward the goal, straining forward, staying the course, particularly God's course, requires giving up excess baggage. The Christian life is essentially a journey. To stay the course requires us to lighten our backpacks, to get as unencumbered as possible, so the journey can be enjoyed and the goal reached. In the Scripture lesson today, Paul recounted how he gave up his religion, his heritage, and way of life. In Philippians 3:5-6, he described them,
circumcised on the eighth day,
a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin,
a Hebrew born of Hebrews;
as to the law, a Pharisee;
as to zeal, a persecutor of the church;
as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
Not only did he give it all up, not only did he lose it all, he went a step further, and, v. 8, I "regard everything as loss...I regard them as rubbish." Not that he meant to call his heritage rubbish, not that he considered his background worthless, but what he meant was that in comparison with knowing Christ Jesus his Lord, everything else faded into insignificance and became as worthless as rubbish, unnecessary baggage on his journey.
Paul did not come to Christ because he was depressed about his life. He didn't come to Christ because he felt worthless or sinful. On the contrary, he claimed he was "blameless under the law." He was a good Jew, a good man, honorable and righteous. He didn't come to Christ because of flaws in his life. He didn't come to Christ because Christ was greater than the worst in his life. Paul came to Christ because Christ surpassed even the best in his life. Even though there was nothing wrong with his previous life and religion, in comparison with Christ, he regarded it all as loss, as excess baggage he did not need to carry on his faith journey.
I like William Barclay's translation of Philippians 3:8. The Revised Standard Version and the New Revised Standard Version as well as the King James Version read, "For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things." Barclay translates, "For his sake I have had to undergo a total abandonment of all things."
Some of you have given up prior lives to come to Christ. Some of you have given up other religions. Some of you are experiencing an involuntary loss. Something was taken away. Some are suffering a loss of job. Some are suffering a loss of financial security. Some are experiencing a loss of health. Some have suffered the loss of a spouse, or parent, or child, or friend. Some are facing the immediate loss of your own life, and facing your own death.
When you experience the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus your Lord, all the losses fade in significance. When you experience the surpassing worth of being in fellowship, in relationship with Jesus Christ, everything else can be abandoned, even your own life.
Henri Nouen, the renowned Catholic theologian and writer, said he made a major discovery on a trip to Latin America. He discovered that the poor of Latin America consider a gift what we Americans claim as a right. We Americans emphasize our rights, our rights to food, health, shelter, education, and a long life. This attitude causes us to look on things and relationships as rights and possessions. In contrast, the poor of the third world do not look on life as their right, but as a gift. Children and friends, bread and wine, music and pictures, trees and flowers, water and light, a room or just a bed, all are gifts to be grateful for and celebrated. They rejoice at what they have, rather than lament what they don't have.
A good steward, a disciple of Jesus, has learned that we own nothing, not our houses, or land, or jobs, or spouses, or even our own bodies. Everything we have is a gift from God, a gift to be enjoyed, a gift to be managed on God's behalf, a gift to be grateful for. In other words, be grateful for what you have or had, rather than lament over the loss. Be grateful for what you have, rather than mourn and grieve for what you don't have. Sometimes it takes a loss before we realize what we have in Christ. Sometimes it takes a loss before we are grateful for what we have. Sometimes it takes a loss before we turn to God in complete trust, and learn the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord.
In a concentration camp, there lived a prisoner who was fearless and free. He liked to play his guitar in the middle of the prison square. Gradually other prisoners began to gather around him each day to hear him play and sing. Soon they became as fearless as he and began singing along with him. The guards grew worried about this community spirit and forbade him to play.
But the next day there he was again singing and playing on his guitar with a larger crowd around him. The guards angrily dragged him away and had his fingers chopped off. But, he stayed the course and the next day he was back, singing and making what music he could with his bleeding fingers. This time the crowds were cheering. The guards dragged him away again and this time smashed his guitar. The following day he was singing with all his heart. What a song! So pure and uplifting. The crowd joined in, and while the singing lasted, their hearts became as pure as his, and their spirits as invincible.
So angry were the prison authorities this time, they had his tongue cut out. A hush descended on the camp. To the astonishment of everyone, he was back at his place the next day swaying and dancing to a silent music that no one but he could hear. And soon the other prisoners were holding hands and dancing around this bleeding, broken figure while the guards stood rooted to the ground in wonder.
Stay the course: God's course, even through loss. As Paul experienced, press on toward the goal and count all things as loss, because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord. Lighten your backpack. Be prepared, if called to do so, to undergo a total abandonment of all things, counting them as nothing in comparison to knowing Christ.
© 1992 Douglas I. Norris