"Why Life Is A Struggle"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - March 26, 2006

Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21

     A couple of years ago I had the privilege of cutting the ribbon on a new Continuing Care Retirement Community in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  A group of us had the opportunity to go on an extensive tour of the facility.  When our group entered the physical fitness complex, I met the athletic director.  She was a 28-year old who was exceedingly fit.  She had just finished a class in water resistance training with a group of seniors.  

     Later I happened to be with her at one of the social events and I could not resist asking, “Do you ever use your sensuality to motivate the residents?” Without hesitating she answered, “You bet.  The men hold in their tummies when they are around me and the women are working very hard to recapture what they see in me.”  Then she added, “I try to make their struggle fun as they work on their fitness. So far it works.  Most of them never miss a class.”  The one class I observed was made up of three quarters men.  It was not difficult to understand why.             

     When we typically find people struggling with life issues, we would seldom characterize their experience as being fun.  In fact, on a number of occasions we can tell that our friends are wearing pain on their faces and in their spirits.  Their personalities are depleted of the energy they once exuded because their lives have become unmanageable.  Even though we have countless metaphors that create healthy images for struggling, we still often miss their truth.  

     We know that the caterpillar struggles to free itself from its cocoon so that it can become the butterfly.  We know that a lump of carbon must first be subjected to intense pressure and heat before it becomes the diamond.  We know that the grinding of a sander makes the wood smooth.  We know that doing hundreds of abdominal crunches each day will eventually flatten our tummies.  Why do our struggles cause us to create such negative, frustrating and discouraging attitudes?  Today we are going to examine not only why struggling is important but also why it is essential for our growth.          

     Right now we live in a culture that caters to the customer. We demand and get instant gratification.  When getting what we want when we want it becomes our steady diet, there is no need to struggle.  We do not like waiting in lines at checkout counters.  We debate whether or not we should see a movie when the line of people is wrapped around the block.  We find the commute the worst part of our day.  We have little tolerance for conflict in our families.  We have little patience for even the smallest inconveniences.  We become hurt when someone disappoints us.            

     We are no longer teaching ourselves that struggling is beneficial.  That athletic director had it right.  Few coaches are teaching us that without struggle we can easily become lost in countless ways.  We have misplaced our understanding that no one grows, matures or develops skills without engaging in disciplines that refine everything about us.   

     Instead of caving in and responding with frustration, suppose we understood every struggle as God knocking on our door inviting us to go to the spiritual gymnasium.  In other words, put a new spin on your struggles so that now they motivate you to develop a skill rather than remaining frustrated that people, the world and our personal circumstances are not as we want them to be.  If we were parents looking at ourselves, we might conclude that we are spoiled children.  And you know what?  We would be right.           

     This past week I was having a conversation with a person who was having trouble with a co-worker in her office.  She said, “Dick, I really like her but she has a mouth on her that won’t quit.  When I ask her a simple question, she responds with a put-down.  She enjoys doing that to me in the presence of other staff.”             

     I asked her, “Do you want to get even or do you want to develop a skill?  She said, “A skill?”  I said, “Yes, the reason you are hurt by this woman is because you lack a particular skill.  Once you have this skill, it will be impossible for her or anyone to hurt you with their words.”  She said, “Really?”   

     I said,  “Yes, but such a skill requires considerable work.  The next time you experience her sarcasm remind yourself that it is her character on display and not yours.  Never ever personalize other people’s smallness of character or their inability to communicate effectively.  Make this process a game that will give you a skill that will serve you for the rest of your life.  You will not change her, but you can turn her into a coach who will help you develop this skill.” She said, “I’m going to try that.”             

     Struggles are always a sign that we are being asked to grow.  If we stand still and do nothing, we will always travel down the road of frustration and resentment. When we allow our pain to persist, it is because of our inability to interpret correctly what our pain is asking of us.  Soon our identity will be pulled into the pit of despair because we believe that we have no coach to warn us that we have developed the wrong approach.            

     Our Gospel lesson this morning not only illustrates this point perfectly but also tells us where a coach can be found.  We all know John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he sent his only Son to live in our midst.  Whoever believes what he taught will not die but have eternal life.”  Verse 17 says, “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn it, but that through him the world’s people might be saved.”  Saved from what?  Jesus came to show his followers the way through life’s maze. He came to teach us a better way to interpret life.  “To save us from our sins” sounds far more familiar, but the Greek word for “sin” is to miss the mark, something we do constantly.             

     The next verse explains the process.  “Those who believe and follow what I teach are not judged, but those who do not believe have already been judged.”  This is as accurate a statement as anything could possibly be.  Jesus came here to teach us skills of spirit and if we do not learn the skills, we are the ones who are sinking our own ship.            

     For example, have you ever encountered something that carried you out of this universe?  Perhaps it was a concert.  Maybe it was a play or a movie that touched your spirit to the extent that you wanted to share the experience with everyone.   Perhaps it was a book that was so penetrating that it read as though God were communicating directly to you.           

     In wanting a friend to have the experience, you took her to see the play that had inspired you.  During a very touching moment in the drama that produced tears, you glanced at your friend and discovered that she had nodded off.  Almost as soon as you sat down, it became apparent that she was fidgeting, restless, looking around the theater and was disinterested.  She did not want to be there.  She came because you invited her and gave her a free ticket.

     This is exactly the way it is with Jesus’ teachings.  Not everyone is interested in learning skills of spirit.  Many of us are not aware that when we cease climbing, polishing and struggling, we are not capable of greeting life’s challenges with anything other than responses like resentment, a desire to get even or a feeling that we have been abandoned.   We often do not understand how to interpret what our struggles are inviting us to become.            

     One day a man went to a metropolitan art gallery to get away from the absurdities of the world.  He was so stressed and frustrated with life that he went to the gallery to experience a piece of Heaven, a moment of rest among the whirlwinds of the business world.  A touring collection of paintings created by the masters had been placed on display.  As he walked among these timeless pieces, absolutely nothing touched his spirit. 

     As he left the gallery he said to an attendant, “I came here hoping to have my spirits lifted by these artists.  I honestly don’t see anything in the gallery today that did that for me.”  The attendant thought for a moment and then said quietly, “Sir, I would remind you that these paintings are no longer on trial.  Those who come to see them are.” That attendant held up quite a mirror to that businessman.      

     When we look to something in our external world to bring us peace, it will only perform the role we have assigned to it when we are open to be fed, when we bring to the table a spirit yearning to learn or a desire to be drawn into the light instead of the darkness.  Otherwise the Scriptures will not interest us.  A walk in a forest of redwoods will do nothing.  Without an open spirit, a magnificent sunrise, a sunset or a starry night may never be noticed. We become imprisoned in the darkness that we create.  

     We struggle but, without the insights into life from Jesus, the only resolution many of us come to is that elements in our world must change before we are happy again.  The world is a classroom that was designed to offer us opportunities for growth.  The world is not going to change in what it offers.  It has offered the same curriculum for thousands of years.  Our pain offers us guidance on what we need to correct within ourselves.  We are judged by such behavior because we created such darkness with our decisions.     

     The story of the Prodigal Son lifts up this timeless theme of internal struggle that has been recited in different forms in every generation’s sojourn since the beginning of time.  Last week I concluded in my message the lyrics of a song entitled, I Hope You Dance.  I have found another song that encompasses the same theme as the story of the Prodigal Son but it contains none of the symbols or imagery of Jesus’ parable.   As you listen to the words, see if you can pick out the theme.  The song is called, Crossing Over, a cut on Grace Griffith’s latest CD, My Life.  Gracie was Fred Sisson’s sister. 

I remember the woods, a sweet bite of green where I would go as a child

And I spoke with no tongue, flew with no wings

Then at the edge of the bite the sun would unfold, the soft earth would sing

The summer would turn in my hand.

And I dreamed of a pond strewn in bright leaves slept in the arms of the land

Crossing Over

It was later I learned to walk concrete fields and I couldn’t fly anymore

The sharp winds of time ruined the years, left them in piles at my door

Now deep in the woods, the dark sky has wept

And I heard its gentle tears

And I dream of the forest

Whispered in trees quietly drawing me near

Crossing Over, Crossing Over, Crossing Over, Crossing Over 

     When we take our minds and hearts off Jesus’ teachings, teachings that help us remain tethered to God, we learn that our lives slowly revolve around concrete fields. We do grow tired of the commutes and the competition among colleagues at work.  Our dreams can leave us as our romance with life fades.  As Jesus said, we have already been judged.  However, he would hasten to add, “If you ever need a coach, know that I am always near.”   

     The Apostle Paul wrote, “We boast that our struggles produce endurance, our endurance brings God’s approval and God’s approval produces hope.” (Romans 5:3)  When our spirits are open to Jesus’ teaching, we will once more draw near to the forest where we can dream again and fly without wings, or, as the prodigal son learned, we can come home and once again find love.           

     Remember, pain is not a punishment; rather it is a teaching device.  It is an invitation to let go of what we believe is so important in this life so that we can develop skills that really are. This very lesson is what Jesus modeled as he hung on the cross.  During these Lenten days, perhaps we can learn that struggling is another secret passage to uncovering our wholeness.  Amen.


     Loving God, we ask this morning that you guide us through the maze that our world represents.  So often we find ourselves trying to serve two masters.  We desire to have what the world offers, yet we also want to develop the skills of spirit.  We find our generosity being tempered by greed.   We want to stay young and attractive while aging is calling us to a higher wisdom. We find calls for justice challenging our patience and peace.  We wrestle with causes that label us as complacent when we do not respond aggressively.  So many aspects of life try to define us.  Guide us, O God, to remain faithful in our trust of you.  May our decisions always reflect your loving spirit within us.  Amen.