Around 1990, our Friars in Kingston Jamaica asked me for a youth retreat. Many think of Jamaica as an island of wonderful beaches and great hotels. While that is true in the north of the island, most of Jamaica is desperately poor. Especially in the capital, Kingston where most of the people lived in shantytowns. On Friday night, we drove miles to pick up the teenagers who wanted to attend the retreat.
Noticing they all lived so far from the church I asked, “How do they get to Mass on Sunday?” “They walk,” was the reply, “About 8-10 miles every Sunday.” The retreat was amazing; I had never seen a group of teens eager to know more about their faith. They spoke of Jesus as they would a close friend. At Mass Saturday morning, they sang a hymn I had heard many times in the United States, called We Are Yours. One line in the hymn goes, “We are poor, yet we have brought the best we could, we are yours, we are yours.”
For the first time, I heard those words sung by truly poor people who had very little of the world’s goods. They lived in shacks-sometimes with no running water or power-had poor schooling and had little or no medical care. At the time, with a corrupt government, violence and drugs were everywhere. These people that were in despair had every reason to give up. However, they took after Christ and said, “We can do all things in Him who strengthens us.”
In today’s reading St. Paul tells us about his life. His life, like many others, was a mixture of good times and bad filled with joy and sorrow. In fact, his life would have made a great mini-series. On one occasion, he was stoned and left for dead. There were plots to kill him and riots against him. He was shipwrecked and imprisoned three times. In his own words, he was beaten, betrayed, and often went without food or drink. However, in his letters we find words like joyful, happy, delighted, cheerful and glad.
Joy was a profound reality in Paul’s life, as profound as sorrow. He would say, “Whatever the situation, I have learned to be content.” The word content in Greek means someone who is independent. Not enslaved to external events or other people. In other words, Paul was his own man. Paul tells us the secret of his success in life, “I can do all things in Him who gives me strength.”
Paul relies on an unseen power; his power comes not by insolation but by incorporation. Incorporation into Christ. What does Paul’s life, in particular, today’s epistle say to us? If you are like most people whose lives have been a mixture of good and bad times then some of us will be wealthy, some powerful and others will just about make it.
As some of us cry to heaven against the injustice of the system, most of us will wrestle with faith, doubt, hope, despair, love and lovelessness. The Christian question is, will you be able to say as Paul did, “I have learned that whatever my circumstances to be content?” You can only say that if you also can say with Paul, “I can do all things in Him who gives me strength.” All things: the rough, the ill, the auto accident, the death of a loved one, the breakup of a marriage, the thousand and one things that plague human existence and can turn individual and family life upside down or transforms ecstasy into agony and life into death. Only with the strength from God will you be able to say with Paul, “For the sake of Christ, I am content, I can put up with weaknesses, insults and hardships for when I am weak, I am strong.”
On the other hand, how do you handle the other side of the coin? The good times? On average, most of us sitting in this church live quite well when compared to a great many people. We are overall well fed, well educated, well housed and loved. How do you live with that? Easy you say, while you may fail to realize that you need God’s strength in the good times as well as the bad. Pray to Him in times of laughter as well as times of tears.
Is it not true, that when all is well and life is just great, that is when we are most in danger of forgetting God? Most in danger of putting our trust in everything except God. We worship a strange God, a God who needs nothing. Except that He needs to be needed, needed by YOU. However, you can lose your God and you will lose Him unless you love Him and have a relationship with Him. Do not just wait until disaster strikes before you go to Him in prayer.
Perhaps, from time to time, we need to remind ourselves of those startling words of Jesus, “Apart from me, you can do nothing.” Are you able to say that in good times and in bad? “I am content because I do all things in Him who strengthens me?”