"Learning To Recognize Our Tests”

Sermon Delivered By Rev. Dick Stetler – April 27, 2014

Centenary United Methodist Church

Psalm 16; I Peter 1:3-9


    One of the most challenging lessons that people need to learn is a simple understanding that comes from the thought, “This is a test.”  Every time something painful occurs that is outside our routine, we need to repeat these four words to ourselves.  These four words can empower us to develop a more objective perspective from simply responding with hurt or frustration.

    One day a man called and asked if I would talk to his teenage daughter.  He and his wife were having trouble communicating with her.  The extent of that miscommunication was beyond anything I had imagined. When they came to my office, he was carrying his daughter under his arm like a rolled up carpet.  He threw her into my office where she landed on the floor in total humiliation.  He said, “Please see if you can talk some sense into her.”  Then he said to her, “You listen to him you little witch because God knows you don’t listen to anything your mother and I say.”

    That was quite an introduction to this young lady and her dad.  Obviously the father was at his wits end and the teenager was filled with anger, bitterness and resentment that was impossible to measure. There was no way I could untangle their relationship during a one evening session.  I could only offer tools that she could use to help her grow through her adolescence and surface with some skills. 

    My principle tool was teaching her that “This is a test.”  And secondly, I told her that she had the ability to prevent her father from turning her into a vengeful, resentful and bitter person simply by changing her responses to him.  She was the only person that could change her pain into gain.  No matter who her father and mother had become, Cindy still had the ability to be the person she wanted to become. 

    If people want to paint outside the lines with their behavior and goals in life, that is fine.  In fact, most significant advancements come from the people who choose to enter unchartered territory instead of taking the well-traveled paths created by others before them.  However, they first have to learn where those lines are.  She had the rest of her life to perfect her life-skills.  

    Just as it happens for millions of people, Cindy and her parents never got the memo that life is filled with unpleasant moments.  What we want in life is often missing from what comes up for us.  If we continue to personalize everything, we can easily develop attitudes filled with intense, hostile emotions.  The other side of the emotional equation is that we can become clinically depressed. 

    Life from the embryo to adulthood is all about change and development.  Maturity of spirit is up to us. You have often heard me say from this pulpit that the world’s population is filled with people that appear to need a crash course in anger management.  Why?  Maturity is not among their list of priorities.  Getting what they want now is at the top of their list.

    I performed a wedding ceremony for a young man that had survived the training for becoming a Navy Seal. I asked him what kind of mental gymnastics he used to stay in the program.  He said,

Many times during my experience, I thought I would die.  The thought of dropping out crossed my mind many times.  However, my desire was to become a Navy Seal ever since I can remember and that goal forced me to endure everything my trainers threw at me.  When my goal was reached, I knew I had paid an emotional price while on the road to fulfilling my lifetime dream.    

    In our lesson this morning, Peter was using this same reasoning for helping a wide variety of newcomers to the faith to deal with the pain of persecution resulting from being followers of Jesus.  Peter told them to be joyful while experiencing such trials.  He told his readers that such tests would demonstrate the power and genuine quality of their discipleship. (I Peter: 1:6f)   Peter then added that their perseverance would give them a great blessing after they died.

    Jesus provided a different understanding of such tests in life.  In fact, Jesus used an agricultural image to illustrate how he developed his skills of spirit.  He had taught himself not to personalize any responses from other people.  Such ability does not come because he wanted to love everyone. These skills develop by constantly practicing them. He taught,

I am the vine and God is the gardener.  He breaks off every branch in me that does not bear fruit and he prunes every branch that does bear fruit, so that it will be clean in order to bear more fruit. (John 15:1f)

    What makes the words “This is a test” so excruciatingly difficult to master is that they will not generate the instant justice and fairness we feel we deserve.   Little episodes in life can really become annoying, inconvenient and irritating.  Saying “This is a test” will help us gain a perspective on life’s events. We cannot know what our future will look like until we get there.

    For example, when the two airliners slammed into the World Trade Towers, a reporter followed up and compiled stories of people that did not make it to work on time.  One woman was late because her alarm clock failed to go off.  Another person was stuck in traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike because of a traffic accident.  The CEO of a company did not make it to work because his son started kindergarten even though he was in the midst of merger negotiations.  Another man was wearing a new pair of shoes and had developed a blister.  He stopped to buy a band-aid for his big toe. 

    Not in our wildest dreams can we determine where our present journey and all its detours are taking us.  Think of it, we may be stuck in a lackluster marriage, in a work environment where power-struggles are commonplace, in a marginal relationship with family members, or remaining a committed care-giver to someone who is unappreciative.  What a difference it would make if we could say, “This is a test” before we make a response.  We are being prepared and trained for something we cannot see, or we are providing a visual lesson for someone still maturing in spirit.  

    During Irene’s memorial service, I used an illustration about how diamonds are created.  I had clipped an article that provided some interesting information about how these minerals were formed.  Most diamonds are 3 billion years old.  If you are wearing a diamond this morning, the chances are good that your diamond is half as old as the earth.  

    The majority of diamonds were formed 100 miles beneath the surface of the earth by heat and pressure, producing a crystal from carbon. Through the eons of time, these minerals have worked their way to the surface of the earth where they could be mined.  Eventually the crystals are placed in the hands of skilled diamond cutters that bring out each stone’s brilliance. This is how many sparkling personalities are created.

    Most of us wish and pray for a more fulfilling environment, but God may be saying, “You are being pruned so that you can bear even more fruit.  If you can become peaceful and energized for each day’s tasks right where you are, you will be ready for your future that is coming faster than you realize.”   This directive is not a reference to our going to heaven; rather it means being prepared for what will be coming up for us in our earthly lives.

    Most of us want the world to change so that we will feel happy, be accepted by others, and remain popular among our colleagues and friends.  The big pitfall of such desires is that the world cannot provide any of these feelings for very long.  We will always fail if we try to anchor our personality and spirit to anything in the constantly changing world. 

    Years ago, I read an interview with the popular singer John Denver.  In that article he was quoted as saying, “I don’t know who I will become when the applause from my audiences stop.”  Placing the quality of our spirits into the hands of strangers who love us for the moment is nothing more than sabotaging our growth.  We are the only people that can produce and bring the skills of self-confidence to the table in our relationships, at the office, and even during the moments of betrayal and personal failures.  Those qualities are developed only by the choices we make.

    Consider the tests that came during the ministry of the Apostle Paul.  He once 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 24 hours in the water.  I have gone without sleep.  I have been hungry and thirsty.  I have often been without enough food, shelter or clothing.  (II Corinthians 11:24f)

    Why was it that Paul did not give up or feel abandoned by God?  More than likely, it was for the same reason that Peter did not dwell on his cowardice after telling people three times that he did not know Jesus.  Both of these men and countless others before and after them did not have their identities anchored to anything in the material world.  They had to gain experience with life and death issues before the training wheels came off of their bicycles. 

    All of us have known tests and failures in our own experiences, but we are still making a difference in the lives of others.   Developing these skills comes from learning to recognize our tests.   The world’s influences have no design to deliberately hurt us or to reward us.  They have no value until we assign one.  Every area of life has the ability to test our character and values.

    Jesus faced life trusting that what came out of him during moments that were creating absolute terror would somehow make a difference in the lives of people in the present and future.  For many of us, he succeeded in doing just that.  He passed his tests.  How are we doing with ours?