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My experience over the last few days reminds me of what the Apostle Paul says in chapter 12 of his 2nd letter to the church in Corinth (2 Cor.12). He says that Satan gave him a “thorn in the flesh” to torment him. No one knows just what that “thorn” was. I believe most scholars think of it as some kind of chronic sickness. Some people (including myself) wonder if he might have been referring to some annoying individual who was giving him trouble in his ministry. However, right now I’m thinking of it as some physical ailment. Paul says that three times he asked God to take it away from him, but God didn’t do that. Instead God said “My grace is sufficient for you…”. Then Paul goes on to explain that he is able to continue to go through all kinds of hardships because the “power of Christ dwells within me”. I understand him to mean that he accepts that God will not take away his “thorn” or other hardships. He will be physically weak. However, God will give him the spiritual strength he needs to get through whatever hardships he faces.
Now, I don’t in any way equate myself with Paul. My “hardships” have never been and never will be what he had to endure. But Paul was writing not to boast about himself, but to encourage the people of the church to rely on God’s grace to get through their troubles. I believe that message still applies today, to all people, including myself. My experience over the past three days has reminded me of the truth of Paul’s message.
I rarely get sick. I’m 73 years old and according to the survey I take though my health insurance, compared to my “peers”, which I assume means other 73 year old males, I’m in very good health. However, I do have a pain in the neck (arthritis), which usually isn’t all that painful. And every few months I have a severe attack of gout in one of my joints. But for that I take a pill and rest. It usually doesn’t last more than a day.
For the most part, these aches and pains often slow me down, but don’t keep me from doing things I need to do. However, during Friday through Sunday last week it was different. The pain in the neck was really bad. And I had a severe gout attack in my elbow that just wouldn’t go away. On top of it all, here in New Jersey we were experiencing the first heat wave of the year. Four days of over 90 or more degree weather, and Sunday was pretty near that at 88 degrees. All of this added up to three physically painful days.
I got through all that reasonably well on Friday and Saturday. I had no commitments those days. I just took my gout pill and rested. I didn’t get much of anything done, but I was constantly thinking about what would happen if this continued into the next day – Sunday. As a retired pastor I am sometimes called to serve as a substitute preacher at nearby churches. While my pain in the neck might cause me some discomfort when I am serving in this way, it’s usually not anything serious. However, earlier in the week I had agreed to serve as substitute preacher, and serve communion, at not one, but two churches on the same day, one right after the other. Also, they were located beyond the geographic limits I had set for myself in terms of travel for these substitute preaching engagements.. So when it looked like my relatively severe aches and pains were going to be lasting into Sunday, I began to wonder how I was going to be able to do that. It was too late to cancel. All told, including travel time, this would take me about five hours. But I kept telling myself that it wouldn’t be all that bad.
Then came Sunday morning. The first problem I faced was having to get up earlier than I usually get up on Sunday mornings. Right away I felt the pain in the neck, which was already much more severe than usual. And finally, there was the gout pain in the elbow, now in its fourth day. But I told myself that by the time I got to the first of the two churches all of this pain would surely subside. Also, it wouldn’t be as hot as the last four days. So I shouldn’t have any problem with any of that.
So I began my trip to the first church. My AAA map showed that it would take 32 minutes to get there. But they didn’t get that right. Even though I allowed 45 minutes, I turned up at just the last minute. As I got closer to the church, I kept hoping and praying, as Paul did, that God would make the pain go away. But as it was with Paul, God didn’t do that. In fact, over the next few hours at the churches, the pain got even worse. Also, the temperature was steadily rising again. And in the first church I went to, there was no air conditioning. The heat just added to the pain.
At one point, during the first service, in the midst of my preaching and my pain, I realized that God wasn’t going to take the pain away. God’s response was to bring to my mind what Paul wrote to the church in Corinth about his experience with troubles. God didn’t take away his troubles. Hoping for that was not a realistic hope for him. It was just wishful thinking. Instead God gave him the grace – all the strength he needed – to get through it all. That was the hope he could and did rely on. And that hope – getting through it all in spite of his troubles – was fulfilled.
As I thought about those words from Paul, I realized that God was telling me that what he did with Paul, he was doing with me. No, God was not taking away my aches and pains (at least, not now) but I he was giving me all the grace I needed to give me the strength to endure and do an effective job of preaching and serving communion. That was the hope God was giving me. That was not just wishful thinking. That was the hope I could rely on. So that’s what I hoped and prayed for through the services at the two churches. And that prayer was answered and that hope fulfilled. Not only had I gotten through it all. But based on the smiles and even laughter from the people of the two congregations, and their very positive comments after the services, I knew that despite my physical weakness, God’s spiritual strength was at work within me, helping the people to experience the presence of God, in Christ, through the Holy Spirit in their lives – during the services and as they left to go out into the world. Then I went home, took a gout pill, and rested for the rest of the day.
I don’t know why God doesn’t always take away our aches and pains, or all of our other troubles or problems. There are theological explanations about that. Some make sense to me. Others don’t. But at this point in my life I’m not questioning God about that. Instead I’m thanking God for what I know to be true based on my own 73 years of life experience with God. That is:
- If I discern what God wants me to be and do,
- And if I say yes to whatever that is,
- And if I have faith in God’s ability (his grace) to enable me to be and do whatever that is,
- And if I hope and pray for the fulfillment of whatever that is,
- Then God will answer my prayers and fulfill my hopes concerning whatever he wants me to be and do.
I believe that God works this way with all people, if we will let him do so. In the process of writing my memoir, which I hope to publish later this year, I realized that this is how God has worked in my life, even at times when I didn’t know that. I realized that every time God has given me something good in my life or gotten me through a difficult situation, it was a gift. But God’s gifts were not just the good things I received from God. They were not just the fulfillment of my hopes. I believe that hope itself is a gift from God.
Oh yes, when I woke up this morning (Monday), the pain was gone. As I always say – “in God’s time and in God’s way – God’s will shall be done.”
Grace and peace, Ray Gough
Thanks for your attention. We look forward to hearing your comments about our web-site. We also invite you to send us stories of your experiences and observations of present hopes and hope fulfilled, so we can spread them around the world via this web-site. This is one way we can all join together to help keep hope alive.
May God be with you,
Patty Perez and Ray Gough