The Gospel in Tough Times

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25/6/17 8:00 pm

In 2016 as our community studied Philippians, we answered a question via email each week in preparation. We always enjoyed this online pre-meeting as we filtered our lives through the text of the week. Stories, confessions, reflections, all were shared and when we finally gathered in person on Wednesday evenings, it was as though the meeting had already begun with good energy. God was preparing our hearts as the questions helped us deepen Paul’s words and immerse ourselves in the text. We invite you to listen in on a few of our stories, and perhaps share some of your own.

But first, a preamble…

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What gets us through tough times? No matter who you are, it seems that no one is immune from facing adversity at some point in their lives. Maybe a relationship has gone awry and getting it back together feels futile. Maybe a work project has failed, or health problems snarl up days and nights that were once smooth sailing. Perhaps the faith structures that used to hold just don’t sustain anymore. These are times of suffering indeed, and unless we bring a new imagination to them, we suffer even more.

We are not alone. In Philippians, we read how the Apostle Paul experienced jail, death threats, beatings and more, yet he somehow saw his hardships in a new way. Not only did he talk about rejoicing in his circumstances but he had the character to put aside his own preferences and think about the needs of the Philippians and not what would suit him best. Anyone going through adversity knows just how hard this is.

How on earth did Paul develop this kind of character? Sifting through the book, we saw that his imagination was transformed as he used scripture and the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection to help him reinterpret his life. For example, one verse he might have used as a mantra was Job 13:18, “I know that this will work out for my deliverance and rescue. I know I will be vindicated.” We hear the echo of Job’s words in Philippians 1:19, “This will work out in my rescue,” or as another translation puts it, “This will work out for the good of my own soul” (Phillips). Paul knew that everything God wanted to do in and through him would be done no matter the circumstances.

Paul was always doing that kind of thing, going back to the Old Testament or to an event in Jesus’ life to help him tell his own story. He didn’t lie about the fact that he was in prison, and he didn’t know how things would turn out. Sometimes he even despaired of his life. But in the end, his faith was stirred amid his circumstances. We know because he wrote that God gave him these experiences so he could come to trust not in his own power but in God who raises the dead.

No matter what narrative we are stuck in, when scripture intersects with our lives, we begin living within a bigger story. We don’t sugar coat the tough experiences, but are given a new lens instead. Paul was trying to get the Philippians to practice the same habit of using scripture or something from Jesus’ life to inform them, their attitudes and thoughts. He called it “putting on the mind of Christ.”

We at Watershed wondered how we too could develop such a marvelous habit, and pondered the question: Describe a time in your life when scripture helped you see a time of adversity in a totally different way. We invite you to listen in on some of our stories.

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Story #1 from Bev— The year was 2009. Paul Patterson, Watershed’s pastor, was thrown into confusion and pain as a mysterious illness sent him to the hospital. The diagnosis of GBS (Guillain-Barré Syndrome) was helpful in realizing it wasn’t a stroke. A full recovery was quite likely, but in the meantime Paul and his wife Bev went through the wringer. Bev wrote this story:

During Paul's stay in the hospital I would come home and catch up on emails before I went to bed. I received some amazing faith-engendering emails during that time, from Watershed friends, from siblings, from co-workers who don't profess faith. A lot of these love-notes would include the scripture texts that capture lament and desperation so well. This practice helped me close the day with a sense of accompaniment and start the day with hope despite my anxiety.  

The memory of that time is a bit fuzzy but I’m pretty sure this is how I became acquainted with the Psalms in a personal way. Before that time scripture was more a thing to study and analyze, mostly on Bible study nights. It was after those long months of Paul's recuperation, at home and in the hospital, that we began morning devotions, something we later called “Bible Girl.” We were desperate for that morning time as we had to get through the days somehow, which felt long, muffled and foggy. Community was hugely responsible for unlocking the devotional side of me with all the cards and encouraging emails.  One card in particular with Psalm 121 stands out as so relevant, especially during the early days when the night terrors would take over Paul.  

The Lord is your keeper;
    The Lord is your shade at your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
    nor the moon by night.

Even though I, in a sense, was removed from that existentially, those promises of God's faithfulness and presence in the dark hours protected both of us from lunacy.

Another passage from Corinthians was a lifesaver during this time. Even though I often felt swamped by the unknown and didn't understand the meaning of this seemingly random event, these verses reassured me that I could trust in something greater than my own ideas of a perfect outcome. God's love would provide a deeper knowing and make what seemed haphazard meaningful.

“Now we see a reflection in a mirror; then we will see face-to-face. Now I know partially, but then I will know completely in the same way that I have been completely known. Now faith, hope, and love remain—these three things—and the greatest of these is love.“ 1 Corinthians 13:12-13

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Story #2 from Cal— When I read this question, the first thing I thought of was how helpful Psalm 23 had been when I was accompanying my mom as she was dying of leukemia. Initially she wasn’t in imminent danger and could manage most of the symptoms with regular blood transfusions. This worked for some time, but the day came when my mom grew sicker and needed more help both from us as a family and from home care. 

I remember the burden I felt when I thought about how much more time and energy it would take on my part as my mom got progressively weaker. Each of us brothers agreed to spend time at her house looking after her on weekends. One day, Paul Patterson told me that I needed to see the whole experience as a once in a lifetime opportunity to accompany my mom. That one insight changed the way I saw my time with my mom and gave me something to keep going back to as a reminder when things got tough.  

I don't remember exactly how or when but the verses from Psalm 23 came to me as words of great comfort, especially verse 4.

"Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me, your rod and your staff, they comfort me."

Through the whole time of being with my mom while she was dying, I saw how God had been directing me with His rod and staff. Through the wise counsel of Paul, and the prayers and offers of support from friends, God was accompanying me as I was accompanying my mom. It was also a source of comfort to me that I was with my mom as she took her last breaths and that the psalm came to me as something I could pray with her as she died. 

I think meditating on the psalm and the wise words of Paul helped me live better than I sometimes do. It didn't take away the pain or discomfort of facing death with my mom but it helped me see the time of adversity as a time when I was being accompanied. Even though it was a difficult time and I often felt weak and vulnerable, I knew that I was being carried and guided by the Shepherd and that made a huge difference in how I perceived what I was going through. As odd as it is to say, I often felt very close to God during that time and my faith in God seemed real. 

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Story #3 from Linda — Years ago I was laid off. My bad news was compounded when I became very anxious and lacking faith.  It was about 5 1/2 months from the lay off announcement to when I got offered a new job. At first the anxiety held the upper hand. Overall I didn't handle it very well, but I remember at one point Paul Patterson referenced Romans 5.

“And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” Romans 5:3-5

I found this encouraging, first because there was hope I might grow in character. And secondly, that God in Christ is present with us even when we are not handling things well. After I started the transition to a new job, I kept returning to that hope. Suffering is hard, but having another Story to shape your expectations and understandings is actually a comfort.

It was only as time went on that I saw more clearly how I had been accompanied. Hearing the gospel, encapsulated in that scripture passage, helped me even at the time by starting to give me options on where to tether my imagination, my emotions and my mind. In our community covenant, we’ve made a commitment to help each other stay rooted in this Story, especially when we are tempted or distracted by life. I find I need to be reminded regularly where my true worth and identity lie. I find our Wednesdays and Sundays so good for that. At the same time, being reminded helps me live more freely in the world because at the center of the gospel is a person, not a code of conduct. I find myself often praying for people going through a crappy time, that they too may encounter this Presence, the God who stands between us and our troubles and transforms them.

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“What is the Bible?”
This is a 5-minute introductory video from the good folks at The Bible Project. Episode 1 of a 14-part series explores the origins, content, and purpose of the Bible. Here you'll be introduced to some of the basic skills necessary for reading the bible effectively.

Question of the Week

Describe a time in your life when scripture helped you see a time of adversity in a totally different way.