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When I was in seminary I was a member of this gym and towards the end of my time in school on my own everyone else had graduated. So I had gone to the spin class I had consistently been going to for several years and I was like I’m feeling good this was a good day, They had other classes so I looked on the list and I saw cardio kickboxing I was like yes cardio kickboxing David Blains some air punching to music, I got this. I did not got this. The instructor was not to do anything what would be in a typical fitness video. He was moi thai, professionally trained, let’s hit some things. But first, we had to jump rope for 10 minutes. It was a lot and I loved it and I went back every week, just as soon as my leg stopped hurting so badly that I could walk up a flight of stairs again.
These are the kind of people that will tell you the pain you are feeling are your muscles rebuilding, That is how you are getting stronger. And I guess that is probably true. I hurt my back a couple of months ago from reaching wrong and picking up something too heavy wrongly, and that was not my muscles rebuilding and becoming stronger. That was my body rebelling. Telling me not to do that and maybe to build those muscles back up. Pain can be your body telling you something you need to know.
The same is true for our feelings. Sometimes you, me might find yourself upset for seemingly no reason and we have a choice do we decide there’s no reason so we suppress those feelings or do we investigate to figure out why. Do we push the feelings away or do we lean in? and leaning in is going to be uncomfortable. It might even be painful.
Our letter writer Paul says a lot of things in this letter. He says a lot of things just right here in this section and not all of it is easy to understand. The last half of this text. And it’s the part of the text that we spent most of our time in Bible study but I don’t want to spend another sermon trying to talk about how the Empire wants us to die And Jesus presented a way of life that was counter to the Empire it’s there it’s all in there.
But Paul talks about our suffering and our struggles, our problems. Boast! Have pride! Boast in the muscles soreness that is rebuilding muscles! Boast in laying on the floor until you can stand up again in the midst of back pain…
Of course, Paul was no stranger to problems, on his first journey telling Gentiles about Jesus they stoned him and left him for dead outside of their city. That was a real problem. The Jewish and Jewish followers of Jesus had been kicked out of the city of Rome for a while, under orders of the Emperor. That was a real problem.
And we do that right, to ourselves and to others–you, I, don’t have real struggles. Have you seen/talked to/considered this person? They are sick/without a job/grieving. They have real problems so we should just be grateful.
Just because someone has it “worse” doesn’t make your struggles and problems and pains less real or less real for you.
And when we spend time thinking about boasting in our struggles and in our pain and our problems it sounds like a problem. Because that starts to sound like complaining and we celebrate the people who never complain when life gets hard. I can’t tell you how many times I have been told by family or friends of a loved one who has died, with admiration, how they never complained, never said anything negative. And we shake our heads at those who seem to only complain. But notice, it isn’t boasting or taking pride! It’s complaining.
Maybe there is a difference that isn’t stated: the difference between the problems we are actively experiencing, the difficulties that we are in the midst of the struggles, that we are still struggling with; and the ones we have seen through to the other side. And it doesn’t mean when one has finished, there isn’t another struggle right behind it but that one problem has come to an end.
Because when we have reached the end of one particular time of problems or struggles, we might be able to look back and see where we have grown. We might see that we have grown in patience, in character, in hope. We might see that there were lessons learned. It is easy then to take from Paul the prescription on how one should approach their struggles or hard times. But image while you’re in the midst of pain, maybe while you lay on the floor from a pain in your back, or from the midst of deep depression, and someone comes up to you and tells you this is character building, if you let it be. And then, not having the strength to get up and punch them in the nose.
But I don’t think Paul was all wrong. The struggles and problems we survive will change us and we get to decide if we are grow and become or if we’re Ms Havisham in Great Expectations–surrounded by the rotting and decaying world when she got trapped in her problems.
On the radio and Podcast show This American Life several years ago that told the story of a podcast called Dopey. Dopey started as a comedy podcast where two, sober, recovering addicts told the funny stories of when they had been on drugs, the wild things, the crazy thing, the chaotic things. When they started, it wasn’t supposed to be about recovery because recovery, while important to them, wasn’t funny. As time went on, those stories became harder for even them to hear and tell.
This American Life called the episode War Stories, they were the stories of people who had been there, been in it, and came out the other side. When they moved from actively using to struggling with their addition, there was endurance and character and hope. It was a hope that they proclaimed for those that they cared about to find life outside of addiction, to live. It was hope that came from the struggle, from being in it, a hope that understood sometimes things are hard and the hard things will come again, but there is still hope.
For Paul, boasting in our problems is boasting in the God who is present in the midst of and along side of us. Taking pride in our struggles is taking pride in the God who experienced life among us, struggled with powers of this world, and denied them the weapon of their power, death.
And it matters that God gave the covenant law to the Hebrew people to give them guidelines to live in community. And it matters that when Jesus live on this earth, he gathered around him close friends. It matters because when the struggles come, the thing that is the blessing is the community that knows, that walks along side us, that offers encouragement, presence, a meal, a place to stay, a hand. It’s the community that says: I don’t know exactly what you are going through, but I have gone through things. We will get through this. It is not boasting in our suffering but it is empathetic companionship and boasting in the God who journey’s with us.
It is then, in each other that we find the strength to get up and keep going, to ask for help, to make the call, to keep trying. It is in our own stories that we see where Paul was right: that struggle has made us patient, and that endurance has changed our character, and that in all that we have hope in the God we can take pride in.
And that is why we tell stories, not because we have some dramatic something to share but because we can offer one another hope, courage, community, and a reminder that God is with us always.