"Faith For Those In-Between Times"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 12/26/1999
Psalm 148; Galatians 4:1-7
Author and lecturer, Wayne Dyer and his wife have six children. His wife was in Hawaii finishing a book for her publisher while Wayne was working at their home playing "Mr. Mom." He told a story that illustrates what happened to one of his daughters who found herself in one of those in-between times.
One morning Wayne was helping the children get their breakfast when he overheard his older daughter asking their 10-year old a series of questions. She said, "If you were like Dad and didn't have any hair, would you have any use for a hair brush?" The younger daughter said, "No, I wouldn't." "Suppose you didn't have any feet; would you try to wear shoes?" The younger daughter, somewhat agitated now by these questions, said, "Of course not!" The older daughter put her hands on her hips rather defiantly and asked one more question, "Why, then, are you wearing a bra?"
Ah, sibling rivalry! What family has escaped experiencing what children often do to each other as they each try to discover their identity within the family. The older daughter's line of questioning angered her sister, who found herself in the middle of those in-between years of being a school girl and becoming a young woman.
Boys also experience a time when their coordination, chemistry, and voices no longer work as they once did. We find ourselves very vulnerable as we naturally begin comparing ourselves to the boys who matured faster. When we interact with them during physical education classes, we believe they were naturally born with everything already developed and working. I was one of those boys who generally found himself left standing on the sideline as teams chose up sides for football or basketball.
Boys and girls experiencing these in-between times are openly marked as being among the "haves" or the "have nots." These are very challenging years. And because many of us tend to live in the moment, we experience everything as if this day, this event, or this experience is the most critical issue of our life. And, for that moment, it is! That is why it bothers us. As a result, young people seldom appreciate Mom's advice, "Oh, just wait. Be patient. In time everything will come to you too."
The problem with words is that they cannot heal us when we are filled with feelings of self-doubt. Yet the advice from Mother is very similar to what Paul wrote in our lesson today, "Because you are God's children, in time God will give you everything He has for his children." This is how Paul illustrated his point:
"The son who will eventually receive all his father's property is treated just like a slave while he is young, even though he really owns everything. While he is young, there are men who take care of him and manage his affairs until the time set by his father.
In the same way, we too were slaves of the ruling spirits of the physical world before we reached spiritual maturity. But when the right time came, God sent his own Son to lead us into our rightful inheritance."
The words that we are going to focus on this morning are the ones that deal with the issue of growth. In the "passion" of the moment, many of us do not take the time to consider that we are beings engaged in a process of growth. To repeat what Paul wrote, ". . . we too were slaves of the ruling spirits of the physical world before we reached spiritual maturity." One of the questions we will consider this morning is this: How can we escape feeling so lost and inadequate during those in-between times?
Some of us, as we have mentioned, are in the in-between times caused by the developmental phases of our physical growth. Some of us are in-between knowing and not knowing what we want to do with the rest of our lives. What about the level of life that Paul called "Spiritual Maturity"? What is that? What does such a life look like? And how do we get there?
The understanding that all people are engaged in a process of growth should end forever the debate that continues to this day in many Christian circles, the debate over who belongs to the "Haves" and the "Have Nots," who is "Saved" and who is not. Such labels have been crude attempts by some people to describe the human condition. Both labels are false. We are all learners here. We are all students.
However, it should be no surprise to any of us that we are quite capable of choosing not to grow. Some of us prefer to accept our lack of patience, our irritable attitudes, or our inability to move beyond certain habits and responses as a statement of who we are. We consider such qualities as a simple fact of life.
The greater truth, of course, is that this is the person we have settled on being. Some people settle on mediocrity and they call it living. And that is okay. The rule of the universe is that we reap what we sow, and if we sow sparingly, we reap sparingly. Still there remains the mystery of what separates people into these two categories. Why are some people highly motivated like the Apostle Paul, while others will not stoop to pick up a piece of trash that has blown on to their property? It makes us wonder if some of us need more incentive to achieve than others do.
Monica Lewinsky became a household-name not too long ago. Since her name became synonymous with a scandal that swirled around an American President, she will be remembered for that one episode for a long time. But, Monica has chosen not to stay in the mold that some people in our society have created for her. She refused to wear "the scarlet letter" marking her as a wayward woman.
Monica has written a book. And as many of you are aware, Jenny Craig has offered her a million dollars if she can drop her body weight by one hundred pounds. Will Jenny Craig's generous incentive be enough to inspire her to do something she may have felt powerless to achieve without it? We will see. Like all of us, however, Monica is a student in the process of growth, capable of learning from each of her experiences.
Is there some incentive that will motivate us to stretch, to reach with both hands toward something as undefined as "Spiritual Maturity"? What would motivate us to grow beyond the responses that do not serve us, beyond our underdeveloped communication skills and beyond old habits that keep sabotaging our relationships and our most carefully prepared plans?
Apparently the reward of eternal life has not been successful. For centuries the Church has placed that promise before us as the carrot, i.e., if we believe and act a certain way, we will be rewarded by God with the ability to live forever. If such a reward has not inspired us to grow, what will? What is out there that can provide us with the navigation skills to guide us through those in-between times?
The answer may come to us when we catch a glimpse of the big picture of the universe and God's role in it. That glimpse will not come when we have convinced ourselves that the safest and best way to live is to maintain control over our lives. Many of us are into control and we do not realize it. There is perhaps nothing more cruel that we do to ourselves than to have an unrecognized belief that guides our decision making. When we try to control everything, we see only the accomplishments we ourselves have achieved. It is only when we cannot control what is happening that faith has the opportunity to reveal its power.
Once a father was returning home from shopping with his 3-year old son. The two entered the house through the basement. As they were coming up the stairs, the unthinking youngster fell through the space between the banister and the stairs and landed on his head. Within minutes, the police, the ambulance and curious neighbors were on the scene. The father, caught in one of those in-between times, wrote the following about his experience:
"As I followed the ambulance to the hospital in my car, I experienced some of the feelings people must have when their child dies. It never occurred to me that our son would live and eventually be fine. His skull had been badly fractured and blood was everywhere. What swept over me was the feeling that there was absolutely nothing I could do about what would happen. Nothing!
During those long, awful moments of uncertainty, I sensed how quickly my defenses left me. I learned again how much I needed people. I wanted my wife next to me. I wanted my family with me. I wanted everyone and anyone who could to pray for our son. I wanted God to help. And he did!
God whispered to me about his love. I cannot describe it, but I knew with a knowing deeper than any understanding I had ever had before, that God cared about us and that he cared about what was happening to our little boy who was in surgery behind those closed doors."
When we try to control every phase of our lives, where does our faith have the opportunity to be useful? The letting go of control in order to experience faith is what inspired the words found in Footprints In The Sand, the piece that reminds people of who carried them during the periods when they could no longer control their lives.
We have to greet all of the in-between times with trust that our circumstances will not stay as permanent as we first believe. The process of our growth never ends even though our fear tells us otherwise. What confronts us has purpose. What stands in front of us gives us the opportunity to trust God. The miracle is that God can provide an outcome that far transcends anything we might attempt to create through our control. Life does not have to work out according to our desires for God to shape destiny. By working through us, God can achieve an outcome we could never have envisioned. Jesus showed us this in the garden during one of his in-between times.
When we learn that the growth process is a matter of trust, faith actually has little stress to it. Our trust in God has the power to conquer our uncertainties and fears. Such faith will guide us through all of those in-between times. We have to understand that we are always in a process of growth. Eventually we get there. The adventure, however, is not found when we arrive at some destination; it is experienced as we live when trust is the vehicle that transports us.
Throughout his life Jesus was telling his listeners that you cannot arrive in the Kingdom by yourselves. Your fears are too great. Your eyes will deceive you. Your minds will play tricks on you. You have no way of knowing what anything means or where your experiences will lead you. When you surrender your need to control your destiny, each of you will discover your true identity. As we learn to understand this process, we will begin approaching the "Spiritual Maturity" about which Paul wrote. This is what faith for all those in-between times looks like.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Eternal God, we thank you for times of great anticipation and times of reflection. You created us so that we could imagine where we want to go while recalling where we have been. You also gave us the ability to trust that the unfolding of our lives has been designed to help us discover purpose and meaning. We stand in a place that is both ordinary and extraordinary. The New Year is merely another day. Yet the New Year is also a time of challenge and opportunity for us to begin again. Help us, O God, to consider our habits, our thought patterns, and the quality of our dreams. Help us develop new ways to stretch and aspire so that the door to our next level of faith-awareness might open. May we understand that we become all that we willingly give away. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Eternal God, each of us savors in our own way the many traditions associated with the Christmas afterglow that we experience. As always, we experienced the rush and haste associated with preparation. Some of us so exhausted ourselves with last minute details that sometimes we felt we were among the least-prepared for what we were celebrating, the arrival in our world of the Prince of Peace.
O God, create in us a new heart, one that sees through our fleeting moments of celebration to the permanence love can communicate. Prepare our personalities to be more affirming instruments through which may come our caring, our attentiveness, and our friendship.
This morning, we have no idea what silent pains and frustrations, what unspoken fears or life-threatening issues face those who are seated next to us this morning. We realize that often our mission field is standing right in front of us. Yet as for the inn keeper of old, it is disguised. We can so easily pass by and not notice.
Bring us into the New Year realizing that you have sent us to be the light to the world, healers who have become the mouth, the hands and feet of your Son, Jesus Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . . .