Contentment is a matter of perspective

There is a classic Yiddish folktale of a poor man living in a crowded one room hut with his wife and five children. Against his will his mother-in-law comes to live with them. He tries to cope but the noise and cramped conditions wear him down to the point where he goes to the local rabbi seeking counsel. The rabbi, upon listening intently and pausing to reflect for a moment asks “Do you have a rooster?” “Yes,” replies man. “Then bring the rooster into the hut with you and come and see me in a week.”

A week later after enduring even worse conditions, the man returns complaining to the rabbi. “Do you have a cow?” the rabbi asks.”Yes” the man replies hesitantly. “Then take your cow into the hut as well, and come see me in a week.”

Over the next several weeks, the man, on the discomfiting advice of the rabbi, adds into his increasingly chaotic little hut his goat, pig, two dogs and his brother’s children. Finally, at wits end, when he can take it no longer, he goes to the rabbi. “This is crazy! It’s not working, things are only getting worse!” “Good then,” said the rabbi. “Now kick all the animals out and send the guests home – come back and see me in a week.”

Upon doing this the man reported back to the rabbi. “It’s wonderful, Rabbi, my home is so spacious and quiet – why I don’t even mind having my mother-in-law live with us now. I can’t believe it.”

I was first introduced to this delightful story as retold by Margot Zemach in her beautifully illustrated children’s book entitled “It Could Always Be Worse” when my children were little. It became one of my favorite books and I loved reading it over and over to them. The tale’s message about contentment is so simple and yet so profound.

Contentment is basically a matter of perspective and therefore something that can be learned.

Not surprisingly this is exactly what the Apostle Paul says about his quest for contentment in the midst of difficult circumstances in his own life. “I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content” he says. (Philippians 4:11)

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Hope that does not disappoint

It is a mystery how God uses suffering in our lives to make us more hopeful. You would think the opposite would happen. But Paul tells us that “suffering produces perseverance, perseverance, character and character, hope.” (Romans 5:3-4 NIV) It’s obvious that suffering can produce perseverance, after all no pain, no gain. And if a person reacts properly to suffering it can also develop character. But what about hope? Ultimately how does suffering produce hope?

Two years ago this week, in the midst of stepping down from my role as a senior pastor and anticipating a new phase of life and livelihood I discovered a lump in my neck. That lump was like a squall appearing on the horizon that turned into a hurricane. It pummeled me for four months with visits to four physicians, two biopsies, a surgery to remove it, the discovery of thyroid cancer, another surgery to remove my thyroid, radioactive iodine treatment and a scar revision surgery.

Coinciding with all this income from a small business we run, which we were relying upon as part of my professional transition, totally disappeared as tornadic winds blew it away for five long months.

It was the perfect storm of trials in the area of career, health and finances. To be honest, I was so deluged by the winds and waves of life it felt like my little boat of faith was sinking and taking any life preserver of hope down with it.

I can vividly recall the sense of devastation as my plans and hope for the next chapter in my life were being swallowed up and the grip of the fear of death was threatening to drown everything I held dear.

The two year anniversary of the advent of the lump has given me pause. Several days ago, as I was contemplating the quality of my life and the depth of my hope before and after the storm, I could not help but give praise to God.

The Bible tells us that Abraham, in the midst of enduring a twenty five year trial, “even when there was no reason to hope, [he] kept hoping, believing that he would become the father of many nations.” (Romans 4:18) Another way of putting it is that “in hope against hope he believed.” This passage of scripture makes an important distinction between two kinds of hope – there is the hope that depends upon man and the hope that depends upon God. It is the difference between natural hope and super natural hope, temporal hope and eternal hope, human hope and God hope.

When the flame of human hope is extinguished as it was for Abraham (and category 4 and 5 storms have a way of doing that) there is an even greater more enduring hope from God that is available to sustain us. It is the kind of hope that is only produced and revealed through suffering.

This hope from God triumphs over despair because it is in God and His faithfulness, and not in ourselves or what we might dream of accomplishing.

That is a difficult and hard lesson to learn but 20/20 hindsight gives us God’s perspective on His hope-filled purposes for trials and suffering. My puny human hope and dreams sank during the perfect storm two years ago, but God supplanted it with His hope and my life is inexplicably better today because of it.

A condition I battled for years, pre thyroid cancer, was depression. It was something, only those closest to me were privy to. Most of the time it was like a dark, discouraging cloud hanging over my head, but there were a few times when it was debilitating.

One of the remarkable hope-filled things for which I praise God on this two year anniversary is that since having my thyroid removed, I have been free from depression. That marks a huge breakthrough in my life and makes all I went through more than worth it.

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