"Celebrating Our Struggles"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 6/7/1998
Proverbs 8:1-4,22-31; Romans 5:1-5
Paul wrote, "We also boast of our troubles, because we know that trouble produces endurance, endurance brings God's approval, and God's approval creates hope." What would motivate Paul to teach that we should celebrate our struggles? What possible good could come from such a practice? Isn't such a response a denial of our pain?
Let's think about this for a minute. When we are struggling with one of life's issues, what are we doing? Many of us swirl around all the responses that our feelings have motivated. We show hurt. We lose energy and focus. Our self-starting abilities become weakened. Issues that used to matter to us no longer do. We may no longer want to be around people. What is happening to us during such times? What is happening is that buzzers are going off warning us that something has gotten to us.
It was 5:00 a.m. when a couple was awakened by a driver blowing the horn of his automobile. A few minutes later the horn blew again prompting the man to get out of bed and peer out of their bedroom window. He saw his neighbor's car pool announcing its arrival. When he got back into bed he said to his wife, "That guy is nuts! Doesn't he realize that other people are still sleeping at this hour? If I had magical powers, I would flatten all four of the tires on that car." When the horn blew a third time he said, "No, if I had magical powers, I would silence that horn." His wife responded, "If you had real magical powers, that horn would not bother you."
Now, think about her words. His wife had wisdom. Would we rather be working on our spiritual Ph.D. or allow someone who was repeating the 4th grade to upset us? We fall into this trap all the time. The question we need to ask ourselves is why do we struggle? Why are we being bothered by some event or experience? The answer to that question will always remain the same. We struggle because we have not yet learned what else to do.
Years ago I was driving my V.W. Bug on the beltway when I noticed the appearance of a warning light on the dash. When my engine began to sputter, I quickly got off on the shoulder and turned off the ignition. I opened the hood and found that my fan belt was shredded. Fortunately, like all veteran Bug drivers, I had a spare.
My struggles began when I realized that I didn't know how to put the belt around the pulley. Every time I turned the nut on the generator, the pulley turned. For 45-minutes I tried to figure out how to install it. I stood there totally frustrated. Rush hour was just beginning so I was successful at making even the passing of time my enemy.
Just as I was getting ready to start on a hike to find a telephone, another V. W. Bug pulled in behind me. Out stepped a woman who said, "Ah, a broken fan belt. Do you have a spare?" She got a screw driver from her car's tool pouch and jammed it in through a slot in the pulley. Then she used my lug wrench to unscrew the nut and I discovered that the pulley splits in half. Within three minutes she installed my spare fan belt and I was on my way. My struggling had been caused by my ignorance. All I knew how to do was struggle, look at my watch and become increasingly agitated. The car was not doing this to me. I was.
How many of us do not recognize what struggling means? Struggling is really a marvelous window enabling us to view ourselves. It is a mechanism that tells us that we have something that we have not yet mastered. When we learn how to remain in control of ourselves, eventually fewer and fewer circumstances will upset us. This is the quality of person that Jesus wanted to send into the world. In our discipleship, we cannot convincingly communicate about Jesus' orientation to life when it bears little resemblance to the way we live.
Hurt feelings, for example, should tell us that we have not yet learned how to allow other people to be as strong willed, as insensitive or as uninformed as they want to be. That is their freedom. Such people are not bad; all they are doing is communicating who they are.
In our response to them, we should remain grateful for their being who they are. Why? Because many of us really do want to get to the place where emotionally such people will no longer have the ability to offend us. How can we ever get to that point without such people constantly being in our lives? Gratitude rather than anger will give us this skill. The minute we become upset we have lost the game.
Struggles are wonderful because they point to the exact spot where we need to grow. When we are bothered to the point where we want to flatten someone's tires or silence their horn, we have allowed something to score on us. The world is not going to change to accommodate our vulnerability. Our vulnerability will only be silenced the minute we change the rules by which we live. Struggles are to be celebrated.
In every other place in life we understand this. For example, if we want to be an accountant, we have to learn to work with numbers and spread sheets. If we want to become financially independent, we have to develop a willingness to invest our money. If we want a healthy marriage we have to learn how to practice the skills associated with communication, intimacy and faithfulness. Yet, when it comes to learning skills of the spirit, too many of us admit that we do not know how to begin the process that Jesus and Paul taught.
My impatience and agitation with the fan belt gave me insight. I needed a teacher to show me how to do what I had not yet learned. That woman literally saved me from ever again feeling victimized by a broken fan belt. In the identical way, Jesus was trying to save us from being slaves to our impulse judgments, our hasty reactions and our constant struggles.
The Apostle Paul understood this very well. Not only did he enjoy writing about his experiences, but Paul kept count of the times he struggled. Once Paul wrote,
"Five times I was given the thirty-nine lashes by the Jews; three times I was whipped by the Romans; and once I was stoned. I have been in three shipwrecks, and once I spent twenty-four hours in the water. There has been work and toil; often I have gone without sleep; I have been hungry and thirsty; I have often been without enough food, shelter, or clothing." (II Corinth. 11:23-29)
Paul became energized by these experiences. Without them, he would not have learned how to move through and beyond them.
We never find Paul claiming that he was a victim. Why? He never gave his struggles such a defining label. Struggles were to be celebrated. No experience can devastate us permanently once we understand why we are having it. Everyone's struggles will be different because all of us have different skills to develop.
The hardest accomplishment as a disciple is to convince someone that they can grow to become something they have never been. Paul gave us an insight into how this process works. He wrote, ". . . God has poured out God's love into our hearts by means of the Holy Spirit, who is God's gift to us." The Holy Spirit is there inside of each of us assisting with every step of the way.
Wednesday I went sailing with Gordon Harvey and Loring Dague. The weather forecast called for 10 knot winds for most of the day. The forecast was wrong. At one point we experienced winds of 34 knots. Gordon had to struggle at the helm as the sailboat was blown to its most extreme angle as we flew across the waves. Loring was taking a nap down below while I was sitting at the high side of the boat nearly wetting my pants! Notice how each of us dealt with the sailing conditions differently!
What powered the boat was something none of us could see. We could see only the results of it. If a sailor does not know the ways of the wind, the boat's sails can be torn apart. It is the same with our lives. Paul wrote, "God has poured out God's love into our hearts by means of the Holy Spirit, who is God's gift to us." When we are aware of this truth, we must also learn not to resist its flow with our judgments, our analyses, our fears, our worries, and our plans. We can so easily tie our lives into knots.
Thirty years ago on Friday I was ordained a United Methodist Minister. I can tell you as a matter of fact that I could never have planned any of the pivotal experiences that have shaped the destiny of my life. For example, I could not have determined how our lives would unfold at any of the churches we have served. I could not have anticipated the arrival of certain key people who dramatically influenced our lives. None of us can.
How the Spirit works is fascinating! Let me give you an example of how the process of struggle moving to faith worked within our congregation. When you learned that Bob Paulen was being appointed to Good Shepherd church in Waldorf and you were getting me as your minister, that transition in leadership represented a major adjustment for the congregation. Then when you learned that I wanted to borrow $50,000 from St. Matthew's Parsonage Fund to make the down payment on a house, a distinct chill filled the air. The Administrative Board voted against my request!
The reasoning came from the same cautious place where many of us would be with respect to money. "Suppose this minister does not work out? He will owe us $50,000 dollars. This arrangement could make life very uncomfortable for everyone." Few people were interested in loaning $50,000 to someone no one knew, particularly in an environment where already there were some economic pressures on the church's budget.
But a few people enabled the Board to come back to the issue and they struggled with reasons why they should take the risk and make the loan. Regardless of the conservative nature of its fiduciary responsibilities, the Administrative Board stepped out on faith and reversed its earlier decision. The loan was made before anyone knew what the future would hold. The healing process begins for each of us the moment we make a decision and step out in trust that God's gift really works.
We can never know where any decision is going to lead us. If struggles result, we must understand that struggles always bring opportunities for skill development. We move through the pain and fears our uncertainty has created only when we step out in trust that the Holy Spirit is supporting us every step of the way.
By caving in to our need for security, we will never take that step. By craving security, we are admitting to ourselves that we have no trust that God knows exactly what we need. If we resist, God will not go against our will. We will be left only with our struggles, anguish and frustration.
God has patience, however. God knows that eventually the day will come when we will recognize that our struggles are actually taking us down the path to healing and wholeness. It is from that recognized wholeness that our discipleship is given its true meaning. Learn to celebrate all struggles. They are only opportunities in disguise.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Faithful and ever present God, we readily see the mistakes we have made when we have sought peace from experience in life that cannot produce it. We thank you for Jesus Christ, who made the source of peace so clear. Help us to remember that where our treasure is there will our hearts be also. Help us to understand that our daily responses and choices cannot help but expand who we are becoming. Encourage each of us to become like a river of kindness and hope. Keep the awareness in our minds that our words reflect the state of our inner world. Teach us the ease with which we may become more consistent healers. May the spirit we radiate enable us to remain attractive disciples who are willing to make your presence visible in all circumstances of life. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Loving and ever present God, thank you for centering our lives around the needs of the spirit. There are many times when life confuses us and we are left with no answers that satisfy. There are times when the comments of others appear to dash our spirits against the jagged edges of their insensitivity and again we find no healing even with the passage of time. We find our spirits searching and hungering for what seems to lie beyond our grasp.
And yet, when we come here and open ourselves anew to the healing of your presence, how peaceful we become. Somehow you become like a sponge that absorbs all our cares and you replace them with encouragement and hope. You never tire at giving us new ways to define our lives, new insights into our struggles and new resolve to restore our faith and trust in your eternal presence.
Teach us, O God, how to see with our spirits instead of seeking answers through our senses. Teach us to view life as a wonderful journey instead of a series of successes and failures. In truth, we do not know how beautifully our lives unfold as a direct result of experiencing both. And what is a success or a failure but a thought we have developed about an experience? Guide us to want above all other things, the peace of knowing that all is well because of your presence. Bless these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus Christ, who taught us to say when we pray. . .