Essential Practices for Living the Christian Life
Last week we began our look at faith practices, actions we need to take, if we are to live faithfully and fully our Christian faith. We challenged ourselves to have a life of gratitude, to seeing the good in every day, to face the sun instead of being content to live in the shadows. How have you done this week? It is hard to keep gratitude alive, especially in a time of social distancing and life-altering situations. You have to work hard to stay positive.
Today we are going to talk about how our faith challenges us to grow in wisdom, grace, and understanding. If we are at the same place next month spiritually as we are today, we have failed, at least a bit in our walk with God. Yet, growing in faith and in grace and wisdom is not as easy as we might wish to believe. Most important, growth comes in the midst of struggles and trials. Think about those days when you were still in school. Growth in learning came because of the required homework that had to be turned in, the tests that had to be taken, and the desire to graduate. If we had been left to our own devices, we would have probably spent all day playing with our friends. But because some adults thought we should learn something, at the end of recess we would grumpily turn from our games and trudge back into the classroom. I see this being lived out in this time of social distancing. Our granddaughter Sophi has required schoolwork to do each day in place of going to school. Does she want to do it? Not really. But she does it because she wants to be ready for middle school. She knows that there is a benefit to the work.
When we look at our lives, we will find that most of the great leaps we had in learning came in the midst of struggles. We gain wisdom and maturity as we tackle the challenging moments of life. I see how the trials in life have shaped me more than the joys. Looking back over my life I loved the vacations, times spent with family, and free time to explore my hobbies. My life has been blessed. I also realize that these fun and light moments did not produce much in the way of growth. Growth and wisdom came as I was coping with raising children, dealing with a particularly difficult moment in my ministry, or forced to make a difficult decision. So today, as we look at growth, we are going to have to see it in the midst of struggles and challenges. That is why I like the introduction to the Book of James.
James offered a realistic view of life: there will be hard times. Instead of being angry about them, James wants us, to ask, “How can our faith shape the way we view these trials?” James urged his readers to see the tests as “occasions for joy.” Now that doesn’t seem to make sense, does it? James didn’t mean the tests were pleasant, but rather that times that test us, in small or large ways, are chances to grow. God will use these times, James went on, to “complete its work so that you may be fully mature, complete, and lacking in nothing.” We must remember that James wrote these words to people facing persecution and even death because of their faith. He asks us to think about how the tests in life are helping us to grow, to mature, and, in God, realize we lack nothing.
This got me thinking. Have I seen all the changes and disruptions, that have been brought about because of the global pandemic we are living through, as an “occasion for joy?” The answer was easy. No, I had not framed it this way, and if I am honest, I am still struggling to see it this way. Yet, I get what James was saying. I am finding new levels of patience as I endure. I am gaining new wisdom and skills. I have deepened my relationship with God because the isolation has given me the time to worship that my busy schedule often pushed to the side. How about you? Can you see the positives that are occurring and celebrate them with joy? That is what I want to discuss today. I am going to share some of my learning in these times and I hope it is helpful to you.
The word we translate as trials or testing is the verb used to describe how a young bird is said to test its wings. When viewed in this way we see the positives in the kind of testing James is talking about. It is making us stronger so we can fly! We know the truth that all kinds of testing will come to us. There will be the test of sorrows as we try to comprehend why a loved one is now gone from our presence. Life will present us with the test of temptations, which seek to lure us from the right way. We will face the test of sacrifice, which could make us focus inward to our needs or make us more appreciative of others’ sacrifices. We will face the test of discernment when we come to a fork in the road of life and need to choose a path. We will face the test of aging and decline as we struggle to still find meaning for our lives. Yes, we will face testing. You can probably think of many other ways you have, or are being tested, today. I also hope that as you look at your life you can see ways that these testings strengthened you and at times made you a better person and Christian. I know that is true in my case.
James says that the end result of these times of testing are, if we let them, moments of growth which can help us soar to new heights of understanding and love. Just like a bird testing its wings the more we can positively handle the tests of life the better we will get at doing it. We need to remember that these tests are not given to us by God so we will grow. Our God loves us too much to deliberately inflict pain upon us, as some of this testing surely does. But when life events like these happen, we can realize God is with us and helping us and we know they will make us stronger. This is why we should rejoice in the midst of them.
We are also told that this kind of testing produces endurance. This is how the NRSV translates a Greek word that is really untranslatable into English. This Greek word does not say that we are to simply grit our teeth and bear the challenges of life. We are to live in a way that we can turn the trials into greatness and find glory. It is that quality that makes a person able to rise above the moment of struggles and focus on the future.
Going back to our school times, endurance of this type meant a willingness to learn those math facts because of the belief that you would use them later in life. In our current circumstances, it is the willingness to remain isolated in the belief that it will bring about a greater good. It isn’t a begrudging acceptance of life but instead one where we lean into the moment, learning from it, rising above it while celebrating all the good and positive things that are happening in the midst of the testing. This is the meaning of this kind of endurance. Going back to our bird on the edge of the nest. It continues testing those wings, getting stronger each day because it has the desire to soar. Don’t you want to soar? Don’t you want to celebrate how some good and awesome things can come out of these challenging times? I know I do. It is part of what gets me up each day. I want to see how God is at work in this day to make me, make life, better.
Let me share two examples of this positive enduring. One of those is a story I recall hearing before COVID 19 dominated the news. It was about a young girl who had been diagnosed with cancer and had spent much of two years in the hospital or at home battling this disease. She had lost all of her 4th and 5th grades. Yes, she had kept up with the academics, but the social stuff and joy of childhood were gone. For some of that time she had endured, not the kind of endurance that leads to growth but that gritting your teeth and getting through one hard day knowing that tomorrow is going to be equally as tough. But she endured. As they interviewed her she talked about how she began to think about what she wanted to do on the other side of all the treatments. As the news got ever more positive for her, she began to focus on who else was in the children’s wing of the cancer center. Finally, the day came when she got to ring the bell. This is how this center celebrates that you are done with treatments. She was rolled down a hall flanked by doctors and nurses applauding as she rang the bell. But it was what she did afterwards. She started a drive to provide needed things for children in the center. Some needed iPads for schoolwork. She was lucky in having one, but she recalled how others had to wait their turn for the few that could be borrowed. She started a fundraiser for them. She remembered how she wished she had art supplies and asked for donations. She was doing bake sales, lemonade stands and more to raise funds to help others. That is the kind of endurance we are talking about. Moving from gritting your teeth to get through it to rising above it and growing and learning.
Moving from pain to joy, and back to last week’s sermon: gratitude.
Here is a story from our current situation. I was visiting with one of you who was talking about your testing and growth. They admitted that they had not embraced the new technology and had been a bit scornful about their children and especially grandchildren’s use of and, to their minds, dependence upon it. When they had been encouraged to join the technological revolution, they had rejected it. They were too old to learn. Then COVID-19 happened and sitting at home the walls began to close in. A grandchild offered to help walk them through getting a Zoom account so they could connect more readily with the family. Slowly, and she admitted painfully, she was coached through the process. When she finally connected and saw her grandchild’s face on the screen, she wept tears of joy. Soon, the family learned grandma was Zooming and they joined the party. She is now committed to learning more about how technology can help her. She is now encouraging a friend to embrace the new so they can zoom together!
Our faith is not a stagnant one but one of growth. Life will cause us to adapt and to change whether we want to or not. Do we accept that reality in the way God wishes and grow? We do this by seeking daily for the strength and wisdom God offers? It is hard to live this way but knowing God is with us, we can embrace the challenge to grow, which means change and often struggles. We will face trials. Life can be hard. As a Christian, we are to ask, how do we approach these moments? Do we only grit our teeth and wish it was behind us? I hope not, because we believe God can take these moments and turn them into something good and positive.