"I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty."
I think that it must be one of the many weird things about the English language that makes it confusing for the rest of the planet: "awfully good"; "jumbo shrimp"; "pretty bad"; etc. The words alone offer no confusion of meaning but their combinations do. Paul's words from Philippians describe the extremes involved in a normal life, yet they are not the same as what has come to be known as "extreme living", but they should! Or should they?
We are privy to more information about the context of these words than many from Paul because we have the Philippian story, but unfortunately we treat it like a cleaned up version of the old west as portrayed in Gunsmoke. I recall my parent's complaining about the spaghetti westerns of Clint Eastwood and how bloody they were, never acknowledging that the violence of Matt Dillon spilled more than a few drops albeit, never shown! The Philippian church was planted by the blood coursing from the wounds of a jailed, beaten missionary. In a matter of hours his beating translated into a baptism for the jailer and his family. He began in need and finished with plenty. Although not a proper description, it certainly fits the profile of "extreme living".
This is the observed pattern that I wrote about last month: the cycles of life. In retrospect, they last for a brief moment but, when we are in them they can seem eternal. The problem of human nature is in wanting to treat the extremes as the norm. The "for better or worse" in marriage vows is a perfect example. Oh, that the honeymoon were what marriage is intended to be like! Then, there is the first fight, mean words, cold shoulders. This is what we were warned that marriage is really like: cohabitation. It is why so few marriages last past a few years. Or, like learning to drive. The laws of physics tell us that the nature of motion is to go in a straight line. Our minds tell us that we have to steer the car in a straight line. With our hands white-knuckled at 10 and 2 on the steering wheel, we will be fighting the car to keep it between the ditches, never realizing that if we just relax it won't need our help!
Don't let me lose you now. In Kingdom work, we will have moments of success, excitement, appreciation, approval and victory. If we have been to the conferences and read the books we will conclude that we are doing something right and make our plans to never change a thing. We are the captains of our fate and we are good! But, in Kingdom work, we will have moments of failure, sameness, betrayal and defeat. If we have been to the conferences and read the books we will conclude that we must be doing something wrong and make our plans to change everything. We are the victims of our fate and want to walk the plank! Don't tell me that the Apostle Paul didn't know the feeling.
How did he manage to endure until he lost his head? In his own words we find the answer, "I have learned to be content." What? Paul didn't know everything that he needed by divine inspiration? Gasp! Blasphemy! Heresy! No, relief! In almost 40 years of ministry and 20 year as a church planter I can honestly say that "I have been to the mountain and it is a volcano!" The peaks and valleys of the cycles of life and ministry are what they are, they just don't happen to represent where success is measured. I am currently in a valley and don't like it. Never have. Never will. Have I learned contentment? No. I have learned to make no rash decision either here or on the mountain top.
A couple of years ago my brother-in-law, college roommate and I hiked 50 miles of the Appalachian Trail in the Great Smokey Mountains. As we began, someone asked, "Whose idea was this? This is awesome!" By the end of the first day, someone asked, "Whose idea was this? This is awful!" Same day, same trail. By our journey's end, the question was, "When can we do this again?"