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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Whether in poverty or prosperity...

In the past I have written to you that it took a lot to get me through college, graduate school, and post-graduate education, given my propensity to doubt my gifts and abilities and to assume failure when there was no logical reason to do so.

At about the time I graduated from high school and went to college, I first came across the many books of Dr. Norman Vincent Peale of New York City, a Dutch Reformed minister who pastored the Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan and who was a well-known motivational speaker all across the country. His book, The Power of Positive Thinking, is one of the best-selling American books of all time and has been translated into practically every known language on earth.

As a young man I traveled on a regular basis to New York to see Peale, both at his church and in his hometown of Pawling, which is roughly 60 miles north of NYC in Duchess County. We were not 'friends,' for I did not know him well enough. But I did know him.

The concepts Peale espoused were new to me. His view was that the Christian message was a positive one, empowering the individual to do far greater than they ever thought possible, and that, 'I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me' (a verse of scripture from the book of Philippians).

These messages helped me to keep at bay my inner demons that constantly told me how worthless I was, that  I would never amount to anything, and that I certainly did not possess the intellect nor the ability to get an education.

But by focusing on the positive messages of the Bible pointed out by Peale, I was able to earn a B.A. and graduate on the Dean's List. I was able to earn a Master's Degree with a B average as well. A theological Master's degree is much more involved than a Master's in other fields of study. The basic M.Div. is an 84 hour degree, and the Master of Theology is at least 30 hours above that.

Then, I put in another 3 years in post-graduate education in Pastoral Care through an accredited program at 3 different hospitals, through the Association of Clinical Pastoral Education.

Thus, the 'power of positive thinking' was exactly what I needed at the time.

However, as with all schools of thought, one eventually discovers the limitations. It wasn't so much that Peale's message was flawed but that the way people interpreted it was flawed. That included me.

I fell into the erroneous notion that faith, or positive thinking, is the magic potion that leads to wealth and prosperity, health and wellness, or whatever else I desired. Unfortunately, in some Christian circles at the time this notion was embraced through what became known as the 'name it and claim it' brand of theology...that through faith, we can get whatever it is we want. All we have to do is to name it, claim it, believe it is ours, and voila. It IS ours.

Such magical thinking is not consistent with the scriptures and does not reflect the intent of the Gospel.

So, what IS that intent?

We are here to do God's bidding, to live in His will, whether it be in poverty or prosperity, in sickness or in health, in anonymity or fame. A realistic view of the disciples of Jesus, the Apostle Paul, and centuries of other servants of the Lord, reveals that not all is sunshine and roses. These stalwart icons of the faith suffered greatly in this world. Many wound up in abject poverty and died penniless. Many were struck with physical maladies that threatened to prevent them from spreading the Christian message. Many were persecuted, beaten, shunned, scorned, and hated, sometimes to the point of being beheaded, crucified, or torn apart by wild beasts in the Roman Colosseum.

My point here is that if one makes the mistake of assuming that living the Christian life will result in abundance and riches, wealth and prosperity, wellness and lack of sickness, then one is setting himself/herself up for a rude awakening. It does not work that way.

Sometimes God wishes for us to minister to this world out of our abject poverty. So be it. Sometimes He wants us to reach out to others with the Christian Gospel out of our sickness or physical disability. So be it. Sometimes He allows us to be persecuted for the faith. So be it. My job is to be in the Lord's will, no matter what my standing in life or what will be my fate.

Sure, I want to be well. I would love to have enough money to be very comfortable. But that may not be what God wants for me. My task is to be at His disposal, to be His servant, totally submissive to His will.

It is not an easy way to live. But it is the only way I know, having arrived at this point through making some big mistakes.

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