I will glory in the Lord; let the afflicted hear and rejoice. - Psalm 34:2 (NIV)
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. - Philippians 4:4–5
Two-year reading texts: Psalm 18:46-50; 2 Chronicles 5:2-6:23; Acts 18:22-19:5
I can't hear today's words from Philippians 4 without remembering a hospital visit I made, back in the very early days of being trained as a pastor.
Part of the seminary experience is a unit of "Clinical Pastoral Education" (CPE) which begins to equip you as a giver of pastoral care, and lets you loose, with supervision and a structure for processing and learning. My CPE time was in a hospital system where I was on call to the whole hospital at times, but mostly focused on a surgery ward and a palliative care (end of life comfort care) ward. An intense experience over just one summer, it was probably the single most helpful piece of my formation as a pastor, at least in terms of helping me come to grips with my fears about hospitals and fears about whether I could really do this pastor thing.
The visit I'm thinking of came shortly after that CPE summer, when I was working as an assistant to the pastor of our local church. We divided up the duties of caring for members of this relatively large congregation (thus giving me the foundation of the "Care Team" model I've promoted throughout my ministry) and I was assigned to visit a woman, a few years younger than me, wife and mother of several kids, who was in the hospital waiting for a very serious surgery, after months of suffering with her medical condition. I was still new enough at these visits that I was worrying about what in the world I could do or say that would help.
I got to her room, and before my fears had the chance to develop into any real words or actions, she was thanking me for the visit, and talking with me - more than that, she was proclaiming the gospel to me! - around her faith. She quoted part of this Philippians 4 passage, which I'll quote here again, along with the two verses following today's New Testament text:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.No doubt she was worried, in this situation! But she wasn't in the habit of focusing on her worries, instead trusting, thanking, praying, even rejoicing - and discovering that peace of God that surpasses all understanding. It was a calm, prayerful, deep conversation. I think I ministered to her, just by being there as an affirmation of the care of God and her church. I know she ministered to me. This moment was real, flesh-and-blood, transformed-heart proof to me that faith in Christ Jesus is a thing of enormous power, connecting us in a community of care and hope.
For me, this visit changed every future visit and pastoral conversation. I've been anxious about what to say and do at times since then, but never truly worried. I know that God is already there before I am, and that I and the people I work with are equal partners in letting our faith and our gentleness be known. I don't have all the answers, but I know Who does.
For the woman I visited, the surgery turned out well. She left the hospital soon after, came home, and enjoyed better health and a more unshadowed life with her family. I haven't seen her in years, and I don't know how things are going for her today. But I would guess that in the ups and downs of life, she has found many more things to pray about, and many more situations in which she can rejoice. And I believe that even if that surgery hadn't gone so well, she would still have been rejoicing.
For the church and the world, I know there are always easy times and hard times, sun and clouds, plenty and need, fear and leisure. According to our understanding, our moods and attitudes ought to fluctuate too. But the real, deep truth of faith in Christ Jesus is this peace, which truly does surpass our understanding. Being rooted in him, trusting in his presence, extending his gentleness, love, and care to others, we can live in his way and have the blessings of God's kingdom, in any - yes, any - circumstances. May we rejoice in the Lord, always.