© 2017 Lynn Abbott
Nestled beside a cherry orchard, the front lawn of my childhood home disappeared beneath a soft, silken blanket of snow each spring.
And with the arrival of those fluttering tissue white petals, I knew came the promise of a delicious harvest and that come summer, my brother and I would gorge on Bing cherries.
Yes, in midwinter, I dream of Spring and Summer. It’s a rare person who does not long for the coming of milder weather Naturally, we wish to exchange brutally, icy winds for the warmth of golden sunshine.
Every day tasks become just so much more difficult in bad weather. And in the midst of winter storms, life grinds to a halt.
Of course, for some, that’s cause for celebration! Celebration, that is, if winter storm’s require a “snow day.” But for the most part, there are few perks with inclement weather.
I suppose that’s why bad weather often metaphorically represents life trials. And perhaps, for this reason, the “snow” of cherry blossoms especially contrast with the icy flakes I see so frequently in mid-winter.
Indeed, for the child in me, the five cherry trees in my parents’ garden represented so much. Climbing the rope ladder that my father attached to one enormous tree, I often perched on a large branch that gave me a beautiful view of my surroundings.
Well, that is if the trees had completed their blooming.
The best part for a young child? The strong trunk and branches provided quiet shelter; a lookout when escaping those ever-present, imaginary monsters; a secure shoulder from which to enjoy a refreshing breeze as well as the beauty of the blooms and later, the savor of sweet, summertime fruit.
Sometimes, I wish I had a treetop from which to view life’s challenges.
You know the feeling. In the midst of extreme obstacles and cold blasts, it would be nice to see clearly “the happily ever after.”
On occasion, God has allowed His saints a clear glimpse of the glorious future He has planned.
For example, God gave Stephen a vision of a glorious future as Stephen was stoned for his faith, (Acts 7). And John received the book of Revelation while imprisoned on the Isle of Patmos.
But let’s face it: most Westerners do not face such persecution or even death for their faith, and thus, such visions are few and far between.
The apostle Paul’s faith under nearly impossible circumstances, however, challenges me when I walk through life’s mid-winter blasts. In Philippians 4, he actually wrote that he found contentment in all circumstances…
In all circumstances? In all seasons of life? Truly?
Springtime, I can understand. I rejoice in Spring as well as in Summer and Fall. And undoubtedly, I love Christmas. But mid-winter?
To be quite honest, when the sun hides for weeks on end, and when a bitter North Wind buffets me, I find it tough not to grumble.
Yeah, when circumstances look bleak,
when financial crisis threatens,
when health fails,
when relationships shatter,
when basic needs go unmet,
I suspect that you and I both look for a cave in which to hibernate.
“Wake me when it’s over,” we cry.
You can understand, then, that I find the events recorded in Acts 16 to be particularly remarkable. Shocking, even, when I consider that Paul later wrote to the church there that he had learned contentment in all circumstances.
The birth of the Philippian church in and of itself was miraculous. After all, Philippi wasn’t originally on Paul’s itinerary. He intended to visit Bithynia.
Yet, our Savior had other plans for Paul and his companions. Luke reports in Acts 16 that the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to go to Bithynia.
Luke doesn’t tell us much more except to outline Paul’s alternative route. Apparently, he took a Holy Spirit inspired detour and landed in the port city of Troas.
There, he had a vision: a man called them to Macedonia. Paul recognized God’s call on his life and therefore, crossed over to Philippi, (Acts 17:9-10).
Paul rightly concluded that God wanted him to preach the Gospel in Philippi, a leading Roman colony and city in that coastal area of Macedonia.
Upon arrival, Paul sought out a prayer meeting just outside the city. Almost immediately, Paul established the first house church in Philippi.
Lydia, a wealthy cloth merchant originally from Thyatira, loved Yahweh, and after hearing Paul’s message, she readily received Christ. Immediately after she and her household were baptized, she invited Paul and his missionary team to stay in her home. With Lydia’s financial support, a new church was established in Philippi.
Sounds like every church planter’s dream. But nothing of great, spiritual value comes without effort, or opposition. One day, on the way to prayer meeting, Paul and his fledgling church encountered a demon-possessed, slave girl. And the demon recognized Christ in Paul and his companions.
As a result, the young girl shouted, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved,” (Acts 16:17).
So what’s up with that? After all, one wouldn’t suppose that demons would wish to advertise Paul’s work. Yet, the slave girl alerted the city.
The demonic strategy, however, quickly became clear. The young girl shouted continually… she became a heckler, a disruptive distraction. Furthermore, she had a reputation for predicting the future, and her correct identification of Paul and his work reinforced her reputation as a soothsayer.
The demon obviously did not seek to help Paul or to promote God’s agenda. The demon was simply an opportunist. And the young woman’s grand-standing not only increased her credibility but it also drew attention away from Paul’s message.
Paul initially did not respond to her. He ignored the demon and continued presenting God’s Word. However, as the days passed, the young woman became more than a passing annoyance. As her disruptions continued day after day, Paul became concerned.
“Finally, Paul became so troubled that he turned around and said to the spirit, ‘In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!’ At that moment the spirit left her,” (Acts 16:18b).
Problem solved. Or so it seemed.
But a mid-winter storm had begun to brew. The young slave girl’s owners made a lot of money from her demonic abilities.
Uh, huh. You can well imagine their anger when they discovered that she had lost her clairvoyant powers. Her spiritual freedom hurt their bottom line.
Furious, the slave owners seized Paul and Silas, and accused the evangelists of treason: “These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice,” (Acts 16:20).
As a result of these false accusations, the Roman magistrates commanded the prison guards to flog Paul and Silas , and then, to throw the two in jail. As accused traitors, Paul and Silas were placed in stocks and housed in an inner cell.
Talk about icy winds.
It hardly seemed just. After all, Paul and Silas had followed God’s direction. They had preached the Word and many had received Christ. Even so, they had sailed straight into stormy weather. It would have been easy to doubt and question their calling or even God.
Yeah, doubt dogs the best of us. We’d like to believe that if we obey God we’ll walk in Spring sunshine perpetually. Nevertheless, while eternity promises such peace and grace, this world often brings heartbreak, pain, suffering and persecution.
But here’s the absolutely amazing part… In his letter to the Philippian church, Paul actually wrote, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances…” (Philippians 4:11).
The events of Acts 16 definitely certify Paul’s sincerity.
Luke writes, “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them,” (Acts 16:25).
Beaten and robbed of their freedom,
Placed in stocks and cast into a cold, dark cell…
And Paul and Silas were singing?
Yup. Paul and Silas fully knew and trusted God. And when faced with unimaginable pain and suffering, they immediately ran to their heavenly Father.
Like children seeking shelter in an old cherry tree, Paul and Silas leaned into Yahweh’s everlasting arms.
They prayed and worshiped. Prayer and worship, in fact, sustained their faith during that storm.
Could they see ahead? Hardly. I doubt they could even see beyond their noses in that dark, interior cell.
Yet, through prayer and worship, they ran to the Light of the World. They asked for God’s intervention; they also recalled God’s character–His omnipotence, omnipresence, faithfulness, love, mercy, and yes, His grace.
Prayer, yes. But also worship. For Paul and Silas, the two were intertwined.
Indeed, through worship we recall the greatness of our God; in prayer, we carry our requests to our almighty Savior. Worship is inextricably linked to effective prayer.
When we worship, we climb into the boughs of our Savior’s love and grace.
Through worship, we anticipate the coming Spring because our God is faithful and will fulfill His promises to His children.
Worship warms our hearts and turns our eyes toward Jesus.
It replaces icy snow with Abba’s gifts of mercy and compassion, new every morning (Lamentations 3:22-23).
And for me, that is why running to Abba in the midst of a storm reminds me of a childhood spent climbing a blossom-laden, cherry tree.
Quite honestly, I couldn’t see beyond those abundant, cherry blooms. Yet, I found rest, safety and shelter in the arms of that beautiful tree. And it was enough.
And so it is. In the arms of our all-powerful and loving heavenly Father, we find peace. We cannot see the future, but we will discover contentment in His care. Paul and Silas teach us that.
Prayer founded upon worship, the recognition of God in all His holy and infinitely perfect attributes, made the all the difference for Paul and Silas.
I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances, (Philippians 4:11).
And if anyone could verify Paul’s authenticity, the Philippians could.
God honors His children’s faith; He worked miracles on behalf of Paul and Silas. A sudden and violent earthquake shook the foundations of the jail, and the prison doors opened. Prisoners’ chains came loose.
Fearing Roman retribution for any perceived dereliction of duties, the jailer nearly committed suicide. In compassion, Paul reassured the jailer that the prisoners remained in their places. Understandably, an amazed guard called for the lights, and rushed to see Paul and Silas.
“Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” he cried.
That was it, God’s purpose for the storm. God allowed a cold blast in order to bring about spiritual transformation in that jailor’s life. Serving time for their faith, Paul and Silas met that Roman guard.
Even though we cannot see the purpose for many of the winds we face, our faithful God pursues good for, in and through us.
And as we pray and worship, like Paul, we turn our hearts to the One who calms the storm.
Through worship, winter’s cold, bitter heartbreak is replaced by God’s gentle love and grace.
Snowflakes give way to snowy, cherry blossoms.
Contentment becomes possible in the everlasting arms of our heavenly Father.
You see, the key to Paul’s contentment in all circumstances is found in the verse that follows Philippians 4:11-12.
Resting in the Father’s arms, Paul confidently penned, “I can do everything through Him who gives me strength,” (Philippians 4:13).
In Philippi, Paul and Silas demonstrated how to access that strength…
Prayer and worship,
worship and prayer.
In God’s presence, we find new beginnings–morning by morning; season by season.
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding will guard our hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus,” ~Philippians 4:6-7
“I can do everything through Him who gives me strength,” ~Philippians 4:13