Around 1990 I was asked by our friars in Kingston, Jamaica, to give a youth retreat. Many think of Jamaica as an island of wonderful beaches and great hotels. That is true in the north of the island. But, most of it is desperately poor, especially, the capital of Kingston. Most of the people lived in shanty towns. On a Friday night we drove miles from the church to pick up the teenagers who were making the retreat. I said, “They all live so far from the church. How do they get to Mass on Sunday?” They walk 8 to 10 miles every Sunday was the reply.
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 US. It is called, We Are Yours. One line 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. These young people had very little of the world’s goods. They lived in shacks, sometimes no running water or electricity, poor schooling, little or no medical care, violence and drugs everywhere. They had every reason to despair and give up. But, their lives were Christ centered. Like St. Paul, they would say we can do all things in Him who strengthens us.
St. Paul tells us about his life. Like many of us, his life was a mixture of good times and bad, of 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 three times and three times imprisoned. In his own words, he was beaten, betrayed and often without food or drink. And yet, all through his letters we find words like joyful…happy…delighted…cheerful…glad.
Joy was a profound reality in Paul’s life, as profound as sorrow. He says whatever the situation, I have learned to be content. The word “content” in Greek means someone who is independent and 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 when he says, “I can do all things in Him who gives me strength.” Paul relies on an unseen power. His independence comes not by isolation, but by incorporation into Christ. So what does Paul’s life say to us?
If you are like most people your life is or has been a mixture of good times and bad, of joy and sorrow, of satisfaction and frustration, of rapture and despair. Some of us will be wealthy or powerful. Others will just about make it and cry to Heaven against the injustice of the system. Most of us will wrestle with faith and doubt, hope and despair, love and lovelessness. The Christian question is, “Will you be able to say with Paul I have learned 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 such as the rough times, the ill health, the auto accident, the death of a loved one, the breakup of a marriage and the thousand and one things that plague human existence and turn individual and family life upside down transforming ecstasy into agony and life into death. Only with the strength that is God-given will you be able to say with Paul, “For the sake of Christ, I am content.” Put up with weakness, 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 the average, most of us live quite well when compared to a great many people. We are on the whole well-fed, well-educated, well-housed and loved. How do you live with that? Easy, you say. 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, in time of tears. Isn’t it true that when all is well and life is just great that is when we are most in danger of forgetting God and 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. 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 in good times and in bad, “I am content because I do all things in Him who strengthens me?”