When You Have To Go To Plan B
January 30, 2000 | First Presbyterian Church Orlando | II Corinthians 12:1-10
I love that “Peanuts” cartoon where Charlie Brown and Lucy are engaged in conversation. Lucy says: “You know, Charlie Brown, life is like a deck chair. Some people like to place their deck chairs where they can see where they’ve been. Some people like to place their deck chairs where they can see where they’re going. Some people like to place their deck chairs where they can see where they are now. So, Charlie Brown, where do you like to place your deck chair?” Charlie Brown sighs and replies: “Lucy, I can’t even get my deck chair unfolded!”
For many of us, life is every bit as difficult and challenging as it was for Charlie Brown. Sometimes it’s tough just to get the “deck chair of life” unfolded. Unless I miss my guess, there are people facing those kinds of challenges here today. Unless I miss my guess, there are those here who started out in life with a Plan A but who then encountered such challenges that they had to resort to Plan B. Unless I miss my guess there are those here who have lost loved ones and who would give anything to bring them back for a month or a week or even a day—and there is a loneliness in your soul that no other human being could fill. Unless I miss my guess, there are those here who wanted to be married and who are not married, or who wanted to have children and have not been able to have children, or who have longed to have grandchildren and it hasn’t happened, or who have a child or grandchild who has gone off into “the far country” physically or emotionally or relationally—and you are trying to figure out how to live in spite of that. Unless I miss my guess, there are those here whose career track or financial life didn’t work out that way you wanted—and now as you reflect upon it you find feelings of disappointment or frustration or even anger welling up within you. Unless I miss my guess there are those here who have been leveled by some devastating disability or illness—and you find any suggestion of a Plan B in life to be a terrifyingly painful reality.
Well, I want you to know that not only do I understand your feelings—I have them in my own life—but much more to the point, I want you to know that the Apostle Paul understands what you are dealing with. You see, the Apostle Paul was a person who many times in his life had to let Plan A go by the boards and then turn to Plan B or even Plan C or D or E. You remember that he was on a track to become one of the leading lights and one of the most powerful figures in the Jewish religious establishment—and then his experience on the Damascus road left him stumbling blindly toward Plan B. There were times when he would be on an important journey and he would be shipwrecked and all his plans would have to change. There were times when he poured himself into founding a church someplace—and then later on the church people would drift away from the true faith or the citizens of that community would try to take Paul’s life. There were times when he was thrown into prison—it wasn’t the right time to be in prison—and all his plans and priorities were tossed into disarray. Over and over in his life’s journey Paul had to turn to Plan B, but never is that more clearly, painfully and poignantly described than in this passage from II Corinthians twelve. From Paul’s experience as described in these verses, we can draw some principles which I would like for you to key into the computer memory bank of your mind. You see, I am convinced that there will come a time for all of us when we need these principles. So even if right now you are sailing along through Plan A in your life and you are living out all your dreams, still make a note of these principles, for sooner or later in your life, you will have to turn to some Plan B.
First of all then, remember this: Adversity, disappointment and challenge are the raw material of the spiritual life.
Of course, we don’t like to hear that. Instead, we like to hear that if we pray our prayers then God will give us every desire of our hearts. But, listen to what Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said: “What discord we should bring into the world if all our prayers were answered exactly as we prayed them. For then we would govern the world and not God—and do we think that we couldn’t govern the world better?” Heavens, no! Yes, God wants to give us good things in life and frequently does—but God also understands that sometimes adversity and challenge prove to be the raw material for building a great spiritual life.
That was certainly true for Paul. Here in II Corinthians 12, he tells us that he suffered with what he called “a thorn in the flesh.” For centuries scholars have debated as to just what that thorn may have been. Tertullian, one of the great heroes of the early Christian church declared that Paul had a chronic earache which would flare up and upset his equilibrium, causing him to be afflicted with dizziness and to suffer serious falls. John Calvin said that Paul’s problem was severe, paralyzing guilt for his murderous past which resulted in the death of so many Christians. Martin Luther declared that Paul suffered from bouts of deep depression, causing him to be periodically laid low by an unrelenting sense of melancholy. Some scholars have suggested that after seeing the blinding light on the Damascus Road, Paul spent the rest of his life dealing with serious eye trouble and migraine headaches. Some have speculated that Paul was epileptic and was stricken by grand mal seizures which incapacitated him. Still others have suggested that during his travels Paul contracted malaria and its chronic recurrence would have rendered him seriously ill on occasion. And, of course, there are numerous speculations about some physical disability brought on by birth or illness or accident. But for all of that, we don’t know what it was. What we do know is, it hurt him; it harassed him; it disturbed him; it drained him; it diminished his joy and it hindered his ministry. And also what we know is that Paul begged God repeatedly to remove this “thorn”.
Now, it’s important to note that God did not remove the thorn. Instead, God said: “My grace is sufficient for you. My power is revealed in your weakness.” And what Paul learned from that is that adversity and disappointment are a classroom, a laboratory where you learn the greatest lessons of life. Paul’s experience was like that of the oyster. The oyster feels a grain of sand grinding away down inside its shell giving pain and agony. So what does the oyster do? The oyster secretes a milky solution which surrounds the grain of sand and, layer by layer, produces a priceless pearl. That’s what God’s grace did for Paul. The thorn layered over by God’s grace transformed Paul from a tough, brusque, harsh, conceited man into a sensitive, loving, spiritually powerful disciple of Jesus Christ.
Trisha and I lost a great friend a couple of weeks ago. He was one of the most spiritually powerful men we have ever known. His name is Heyward McDonald. I wrote about him in my recent book, The Forgotten Man of Christmas. I’m so glad I did, for reading the words I wrote about him turned out to be among one of the last things that he did. If you don’t know his story, you should. Heyward McDonald graduated from the United States Naval Academy and was rapidly rising through the Navy’s chain of command. One day, accidentally, he was inoculated with an unsterilized needle. He contracted polio and lost the use of his legs. The bright promise of his naval career was over, but he refused to let that swamp his spirit. He turned to Plan B. He learned to live with crutches and a wheelchair. He went to law school and eventually entered politics in South Carolina. Now, in order to climb stairs, he had to turn around backwards and with the strength of his arms pressing down on his crutches he would lever his useless legs back and up for each step. Political experts advised: “No one who has to back up the stairs can get elected.” But he was elected and went on to become one of the most powerful leaders and one of the most visible Christians in his state. But listen to what he said of his challenges: “Polio paralyzed my legs but not my heart. I am a better man and a stronger Christian because of this disease.” God’s grace was sufficient for Heyward McDonald. That’s a hard lesson to learn, but it’s true. Adversity, disappointment and challenges are the raw material of the spiritual life.
That leads me to another thing I want us to remember: When you can’t change your circumstances, ask God to change your attitude.
I would love to spend an hour or so with the Apostle Paul to ask him how he felt when God didn’t answer his prayer the way he wanted it answered. I would love to ask Paul: “What do you do when the door of life slams in your face? How do you deal with it?” But come to think of it, I don’t have to wait until I can spend some time with Paul. There is enough in the writings of Paul to know that when his circumstances didn’t change, he asked God to change his attitude. That’s why later on he could write: “I have learned in whatever circumstance I am in to be content…I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
Dear friends, here is what separates Christians from other people. In most respects, Christians are like everybody else. Christians are not exempt from the hardships and heart aches of life. Christians go bankrupt. Christians get divorced. Christians have automobile accidents. Christians are rushed to emergency rooms. Christians get pink slips. Christians are placed in intensive care units. But what separates Christians from other people, what gives Christians a courage other people do not seem to possess is the fact that we can know that we have Christ, and through Him we can do all things. While our circumstances may not change, our attitude can. Listen to how Paul expressed it here in II Corinthians 12: “I am glad for this weakness, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me…for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”
Every Sunday, I look down to my left and see Paul Wallace. Every time I see Paul Wallace I think about what it costs him to be in church every week. Everytime I see him, I feel my spirit lifted, my faith energized. You see, Paul Wallace has an attitude of faith and courage that will not quit. If you don’t know Paul Wallace, you should. In order for that to happen, I’ve got to move from this pulpit down to where he is…Paul Wallace was following Plan A in his life. He was on a fast track to the top in the Disney Corporation and then one moment, and he had to turn to Plan B. I’ve asked him to come to share with you his story and what it means to have to turn to Plan B in your life. Paul Wallace:
“On February 8 of 1988 I broke my neck while skiing in Vail, Colorado. As a result of the accident, I am paralyzed from the shoulders down. I am not able to breathe without the help of a ventilator. Before my accident, I was extremely independent. When I woke up in the hospital in Grand Junction, Colorado, I was unable to breathe, talk or move. You would think that I would have been terrified, but instead, a divine sense of calm enveloped me. As I opened my eyes, I was surrounded by my family and friends. Throughout my hospitalization and rehabilitation, the outpouring of compassion and encouragement from my family, friends and co-workers was immeasurable. The accident taught me to appreciate these blessings, as they far outweigh my previous values. I continue to work for the same wonderful company and count this among my many blessings, along with the ministry of this church, my family, my friends, my co-workers and the diligent, heartfelt care of skilled nurses. From a life of independence to a life of total dependence, I could not survive without the strength of my faith and the love and support of my family and friends. Thank you.”
Every time I stand in that pulpit, I look to my left and I see Paul Wallace and I think what it costs him to come to church every Sunday. That process began at 5:30 this morning, and it took all of that time between then and now for Paul, with his skilled nursing staff to get him ready to be in church and he is in church every Sunday. Every time I see Paul Wallace, I find my spirit lifted and my faith emboldened. I thank God that He has given me the privilege of knowing and loving this great man, because you see, here is living proof of one man who when his circumstances did not change, asked God to change his attitude. You know what I wanted to do today was to talk to you about the things that we can do whenever we are forced to turn to Plan B in life. But when it comes down to it, all I can do is to tell you to do what the great Paul the Apostle and the great Paul Wallace have both done. Ask God to remove the thorn, whatever it is. If God does not remove the thorn, then ask God to use it. If you do, then you are going to hear ringing down from heaven the same words that the great Paul the Apostle and the great Paul Wallace have heard—the words of God: “My grace is sufficient for you. My power is revealed through your weakness.”
Closing Prayer (Paul Wallace prays this prayer every day)
Sir Francis Drake’s Prayer
Disturb us, Lord, when
We are too well pleased with ourselves
When our dreams have come true
Because we dreamed too little,
Because we sailed too close to the shore
Disturb us, Lord, when
With the abundance of things we possess
We have lost our thirst
For the waters of life
Having fallen in love with life,
We have ceased to dream of eternity
And in our efforts to build a new earth,
We have allowed our vision
Of the new Heaven to dim
Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,
To venture on wider seas
Where storm will show Your master;
Where losing sight of land,
We shall find the stars.
We ask You to push back
The horizons of our hopes,
And to push us in the future
In strength, courage, hope, and love.
This we ask in the name of our Captain,
Who is Jesus Christ. Amen.