For the Long Haul
First Baptist Church Laurens
I have only been snorkeling one time in my life. It was a half-day excursion off the coast of the Florida Keys on what is called Sombrero Reef. Honestly, it wasn’t a very pleasant experience. The water was choppy and I felt seasick most of the afternoon. While the fish and the reef were absolutely beautiful to see so close up, my thoughts were elsewhere, namely on getting back to dry, stable land as quickly as possible.
The one thing that I remember most vividly from that day is the speech that our guide gave us before we jumped into the water. Most everyone on board was an amateur at best and as I recall no one had ever snorkeled in that particular area before. This led to one primary word of advice. “Here is the big thing,” said our guide. “I want you all to know right now that there are fish down there that are as big or bigger than you are. But, they are all harmless. So, when you see one, don’t be afraid, just know in advance that they won’t hurt you.”
Well, you can imagine how that affected our little group. Everyone, humbly and generously invited the others to be their guest and enter the water first with the words, “Don’t worry, I’ll be right behind you!”
Of course, that was a frightening little piece of advice to receive before jumping into unfamiliar and deep waters. But, it was a needed word. Without question, it was far, far better for us to have that piece of advice ahead of the game than it would have been for us to have seen such a fish up close and personal without having had any prior warning of their presence.
I feel similarly about the words that greet us in James chapter 1. They are good words as we stand on the bow of a New Year with choppy waters around us too. The writer of James wants us to know, just as he wanted his original audience to know that difficulties are not a possibility but rather a certainty in the road that lies ahead in our lives. This passage, in essence, becomes our spiritual fair warning if you will.
James’ reason for making this clear is similar to the rationale of our guide on that snorkeling trip. James wanted believers to know that difficulties are a given so that we can be prepared for them and so that we can approach them as life situations not to fear but merely as obstacles to overcome.
James’ takes the perspective that when it comes to troubles in our lives the question is not if they will happen but rather how will we respond when they happen. And, James’ goal is that when difficulties do come our way that we will stand firm or persevere.
It is very interesting that the Greek word used in this text that we translate as persevere was actually a military term. The idea was that of a solider who maintained their ground in the midst of battle rather than retreating. The goal is for us not to throw up the white flag of surrender but rather that we will stand our ground.
So, how do we do this? When the inevitable life issue arises in 2016, how do we stand our ground? How do we put our faith into action in the midst of life’s worries, stresses and struggles?
James insinuates that we need to adopt two basic perspectives. First, we have to develop the perspective that says that we can learn something from and grow in the midst of hard times, and second, we have to maintain the belief that God is going to be with us and provide us with divine wisdom every step of the way.
First, standing firm, means believing that we can and will emerge from life’s difficulties on the other side as a more mature person.
The Christian writer Warren Wiersbe tells the story of going with his wife to see a world famous weaver at work one day. As they watched her work, Wiersbe recalled that he wasn’t all that impressed. The pattern was hard to figure out and loose ends seemed to be dangling everywhere. Eventually, the person who was accompanying them said, “listen, you can’t appreciate the work being done here by looking at the wrong side!” at which point Wiersbe realized he was looking at the back not the front of the rug that the weaver was making. (James: Be Mature, Warren Wiersbe, Word Press, 1982, page 23)
Wiersbe went on to say that this is our problem with life. So often we look at the wrong side. Problems come our way and we become consumed with all of the issues – what they are costing us, how our reputation has suffered, how it has affected our family, what it has cost us financially, how fearful we have become and how much sleep we are loosing as a result of this trouble that we are facing.
But, as people of faith, we must see this perspective as being the underside of the rug. The top side is the opportunities that even life’s greatest challenges and that our deepest fears bring our way. How do they call us to rely on God and deepen our faith? How do they draw us closer to our spouse or our children? What is it that they teach us about our true selves? In what ways can they help us to get our priorities in a better order or help us to understand what is truly important in life.
James says to consider our troubles an “opportunity for joy” in verse three. We may say it this way using the modern phrase – we must see our troubles not as problems, but as opportunities.
The other thing that James says in verses five through eight is that we must develop the belief that God is going to be with us every step of the way. This means that once a problem emerges and once we have resolved we can grow through it, then, we must invite God through His Spirit and wisdom to begin to help us understand what our next steps are going to be.
When I was in Middle School, I had some struggles one year with one of my classes. Trying to be helpful, my parents provided me a tutor in the form of a young lady who was our church pianist and who had majored in that particular subject in College. Once a week I met with her and we worked through my issues and struggles academically. As much as anything, what she really became was someone to share my academic challenge with me. At the time, I was very been prone to become quickly frustrated and pessimistic. And, while I really don’t remember how good her teaching abilities were, I do remember that she had a great, calming demeanor. Every week, as much as anything, she reminded that I was perfectly capable of handling what was in front of me and that she would be as helpful as possible each step of the way. Of course, in the end, she was right.
In essence, this is what God offers to us. Faith is not about possessing an invisible shield that protects us for all of the pain out there. It is about knowing if we will simply ask and open ourselves up to God, then he will take great pleasure in walking with us, loving us and seeing us through. It may not happen exactly as we want it to or when we want it to but that is not nearly as important as we think. What really matters more than anything is God’s ability to get us to the other side and to teach us important life lessons along the way.
Once we have developed a confidence that we can grow through what we are facing and once we have reaffirmed our belief that God will be with us through the Spirit and with wisdom each step of the way, James invites us to one final action step. That final step is a willingness to move on with our lives even as our issues continue to fester.
Our tendency is to continue to stew over and wallow in our tragedies but this is not what God want. Resilience and steadfastness is found in our ability to say, I will learn something here and with God’s help I will get through this and so I am choosing right now that I am going to move on. Even before this situation has completely resolved itself.
One of the really fine accomplishments of our church is 2015 was the solidifying of some small group opportunities for men and women. We have long offered quality studies for women from time to time but last year, we added three small groups for men that meet on Sunday evening and then also on Tuesday morning and Tuesday at lunch. In fact, this evening, our ladies and our men’s groups will be starting back after their holiday break and it would be a great time to get involved.
The men’s groups read two books by a man by the name of Phillip Morley this past year. In the second book, called Man Alive, Morley tells a very personal story about a conscientious decision that he made for the betterment of his family. He said that he found himself constantly bringing his business life home with him at night. If he was mad at work, his was mad at home. If he was wrestling with a problem in the office, he couldn’t stop thinking about it at the dinner table. He was frustrated by the grip his work had on his mind and his family life. In the midst of this he recognized that about a mile from his house, he always drove over a little creek. It was part of his daily trip home. This creek becomes a part of a daily discipline he created. Morley said that when he left work, he began to allow himself to continue to stew, worry or ponder about whatever was happening at work from the office, until he reached that creek. Every evening, when he reached that creek, he forced himself, to put the issues of the day, in a mental box and he would throw them in the creek. It was a mental way of saying; I have got to move on. (Man Alive, Patrick Morley, Multinomah, 2012, page 153)
Ultimately, we have to do the same. Sure, we need time to lament where we find ourselves and sure, we need some time to get our bearings. But once we come around to the truths that good can come from even this and that God is going to go with us through it all, we have to take our issues, put them in the box and throw them in the creek. We have to move on with our lives.
Troubles are coming. But valuable lessons, God’s help and the ability to move forward with great steadfastness are also on the horizon too. And for that, thanks be to God. Amen.