Several weeks ago after my church’s Tuesday morning prayer time, I asked one of our participants how she was doing. Just a few months ago she had suddenly lost a very close cousin, also a member of our church. Her answer was a short two words, “I’m struggling.”
For some reason, her answer really got to me. Part of it was her authenticity. She had the sincere courage to tell me how she was really doing beyond the typical, protective “I’m fine” blanket response. But the other part of it for me has to do with the kind of person she is. This woman is a wonderful Christian with a deep faith and a true Christ-like love. And yet, she struggles.
That conversation lingered with me for a while and has since then become the impetus for a series of sermons I’m sharing next month called “The Faithful Struggle.” I purposefully left that title a bit vague, as in the words faithful and struggle could be read as different parts of speech. Now just in case your grammar skills are a bit rusty, let me help you out a bit. We could read “the faithful struggle” as “our struggle defined by faith” or “faithful (people) struggle”. Truth be told, it means both things.
Struggle. So often that word is synonymous with failure. We hear of struggling people, struggling sports teams, struggling churches, struggling communities, and we know the implication. It’s a roundabout way of saying that failure is probable, if not imminent.
But I would venture to say that struggle is how most of us would define our lives, if we’re honest with ourselves. (I know I do!) Life is hard… very hard! Life is patently unfair and unjust. Things rarely go according to plan. We live with a degree of pain we didn’t ask for and don’t deserve. Mistakes and regrets checker our successes. None of this is a cynical “half-glass full” view of life. It’s reality— one we don’t admit very often for fear of looking weak or pessimistic.
Nevertheless: the faithful struggle. The faithful do indeed struggle. And our struggle brings true definition to a life of faith. I would say that this struggle defines the terrain of the entire biblical story. The biblical story is born in struggle, carries forward in struggle and ends with a great struggle that gives birth to a new heavens and a new earth. In this sweeping narrative of the Bible we find our own struggles affirmed and defined. Then we know we’re not alone. Our personal struggles are both unique and universal. We do not struggle by ourselves, and more significantly, there is always hope for better things.
On a personal level, it seems like struggle has defined most of my life, especially my adult life. Words like victory, achievement, conquering, winning don’t mean as much to me. It’s not that I haven’t had a good share of victories and successes. I have. But they are high-rise markers on a much larger map, a map shaped by hills and valleys, muscle-aching climbs, back-breaking, steep falls, thick marshes, and dense forests with scant paths.
Those things, to me, are the defining moments of my life, not the summits themselves. It’s the struggles— the broken relationships, devastating losses, depression, life stresses of familial, professional and financial demands, inner battles, and health ups and downs— that define the real contours of my life. The dirty, nitty-gritty of everyday living. It’s there, mired in those struggles, where I’ve learned to love, to believe, to trust, to grow and mature, to strengthen, and to learn through failure.
So where do we go from here? My sermon series is in five parts:
1) Accept where you are. We will never grow or improve unless we take an objective, sober look at where we are and accept it for what it is. Note: that doesn’t mean we stay here. But we won’t get very far with any degree of success unless we name our place. In naming it, we also may find that a better life is not as far away as we may think.
2) Struggle to pray. I’m a pastor, but let me admit: prayer is tough. Yes I pray, but it never seems like I pray often enough or deeply enough. Sometimes we make prayer more difficult than what it is, but the nature of connecting our minds and hearts with God can be a challenge, especially in the heat of struggle. Yet without this vital connection with God that only prayer can provide, we will never see the road ahead or have the strength and wisdom to take it, even if we do get a glimpse of it.
3) We have a future with hope. God always promises that our future is one with the hope of restoration and blessing. Granted, we do not know what shape our restoration and blessing will take, this promise of God can be the source of so much creative impetus in the now of our lives.
(on the other hand…)
4) The struggle is step by step, only in this day. Crystal balls are over-rated and they don’t work most of the time anyway. As much as we desire to know what tomorrow brings and worry about preparing for it, most of it is a fruitless endeavor. Truth: we simply do not know what the next moment holds. Period. That truth sets us free to live fully in the moment we’re living right now.
5) Struggle with the cross. The cross of Jesus is the ultimate sign of the faithful struggle. It’s there on the cross that God faces and achieves the struggle of all humanity for reconciliation and life. Jesus makes clear that the cross takes center stage within each of our lives, too. It defines and shapes our lives of struggle and offers us our path home through Jesus, who promises to be our Way, our Truth, and our Life.
I anticipate that these series of messages will be some of the most important I have ever shared. They are part autobiographical and universal enough that I’m confident anyone can find themselves in what I will share. So, I hope you can join us at Trinity UMC starting on Sunday September 2, 2018!