Pastor Terry sets the table for our new message series exploring what it means to invite the Lord into our adversity so that we can experience growth.
The passage from James and James I, I want to read it. I want you to listen to the words. “Dear brothers and sisters,” he’s writing to believers, “When troubles of any kind come your way, I want you to consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow because when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect. That is mature, complete. Joy will be integrity about your life that will hold. Needing nothing, you’ll be able to sustain.” We look at that and think, “Wow. Did you just say that we’re supposed to be happy about problems and troubles with joy? Come on. You can’t be serious.”
Let me suggest at the very beginning what James is not saying. What he is not saying is that troubles and trials, problems, difficulties, and bad things in our lives, adversities as we might call them, are occasions for joy in and of themselves. He’s not saying that. Because you know why? It would rage against all sensibility. None of us would say, “Oh, this is bad, but I’m supposed to call it good.” No. When we go through bad things, people hurt us, or we have a really huge issue that is hard, that we’re working on, we’re not supposed to say, “Oh, it’s good.” No, it’s not. We don’t call something good that isn’t good. If it’s bad, it’s not good. He’s not saying, “Pretend.” He’s not saying, “Oh, deny that this bad thing is a good thing.” What he is saying is what is next. The reason we can look at something joyfully and embrace it, even though it’s hard, difficult, or adverse, is because of what it can bring into our lives the way that God can use it. If we welcome Him in as a means of formation, growth, expansion, or a deepening, then there’s something that the Lord can do that even in the ugliness can be made beautiful. That’s what God does.
The writer, James, says, “Listen, you need to shift your paradigm because we serve a God who, when He’s welcomed into things, can take even the worst of life and bring good from it. Therefore, we can even embrace some things that are awful with joy. Not because of what it is, but because of what God can do through it in us.” That’s a very different way of looking at things. I was thinking about this passage in the book of James. Some of you may know this, but it’s been over 35 years that I’ve been teaching the scriptures, Bible studies. In fact, I’m not exaggerating, but one of the first Bible studies I can ever remember teaching was James. I don’t know why this happens, you might do this every now and then, but sometimes I can’t remember what happened years back. I can’t remember details, but every now and then something will spark me and then I can remember exactly where I was. I can see it in my mind. Something happens.
I was reading this book of James and thinking about this message. In my mind, I went back in time to an earlier day when the world was a lot younger. I was doing one of the first Bible studies I ever taught. I was about 16 years old. I think I was a junior in high school. I was super excited about it, but also totally scared to do it. It was on the book of James. I can remember in my mind’s eye the room I was in. At the time, my mother, brother, and I lived together. I still remember that period in my life. My mom and dad had been separated when we were 12. That had an effect on us because we went with my mom. My dad, even though, in my mind, he caused the majority of the problem, ended up being the one most adversely affected by it. He essentially disappeared. My dad went AWOL. He was Absent Without Leave. He’d barely interact with us physically and emotionally. He was just nonexistent. I’ve shared that before. I know it’s not a big deal to some people. I’ve been there for all of my kids. If you play sports, do something artistic, or have an event at school or something, you want people who love you to be there. I can’t remember one time my dad ever being at one thing. I began to get used to that.
As I said, I was thinking about this period in my life, because years later, I would have a chance to pray with and talk to him. He’s gone now, but he did open his up heart back up to the Lord. That was a big deal to me. We didn’t have much of a relationship. I say that because I remember that period. I remember how it was in this building, this campus. I was about 13 years old. I had a real encounter with Jesus. I made a decision to follow Him. I committed my life to Him, and it affected me emotionally. I started following the Lord. But what had happened during that period is my grandfather filled that gap for me. He was a bi-vocational pastor, driving a minibus to help pay some of the church bills. The church was trying to exist as a community. My dad, battling his own wounds and demons, could barely take care of himself. He was such a mess, but my grandfather filled in for that gap in my life.
I’m going to say this about my grandfather. I just want to point out even though he was in his sixties and a paster, he wasn’t touchy feely. This was not the highly affirming man who went out of his way. There was no coffee time or long talks. He was roughly-hewn on the edges. He wasn’t one to flatter, show affection, or vulnerability. That wasn’t him. He was a man of his generation. That generation was taught, “You don’t show how you feel. You don’t show your feelings. That’s weakness.“ As an older man, nearing his final decade, it intersected when I was moving into my teen years and had just accepted Jesus. I saw his warmth begin to break through that granite facing. There would come these moments where his affection would show. I started to sense that he was pleased. Especially after I had made a commitment to follow Jesus. Now we had something in common, and I could tell he was really happy about that. We would talk about things we couldn’t before.
The irony being is, I’m his son’s son. Yet there was this emerging relationship going on. I’ll not forget that because there were times where I could tell he was happy with me. Once in a while, he’d say something. Every now and then I’d get his sign of affection. About as far as he would go in terms of embracing was like a pat on the head. So I would think, “Ah, oh. That means ‘I love you.'” I could feel it. I could feel the warmth, bond, love, and hope. I think that was there, I would not commit to that someday I might consider the possibility of following the call of God in my life. Maybe even consider pastoring the church that he had. He and a few others had worked so hard to try to build a small core. The reason this comes up is that I could tell our bond was growing. I was moving towards 20. He was in his seventies and sensing his body’s decline.
The occasion in 2015 that I was thinking about was this message or series because I was really having a hard time. I’ll talk a little bit more about that in a bit. It was a hard period and I was hurt. I was hurting and felt like I was under a lot of adversity. Not just from a medical perspective, as some of you know, I had gone through vocal surgery, but there were all kinds of other things associated with that for me. I was told by the board, “You need to get away and take some time.” I remember the moment. I was sitting there feeling very sorry for myself. I was really hurting in a way I hadn’t really hurt before. Then in my mind’s eye, I was looking out at the water and writing things down. I remember thinking about my grandfather. I remembered what a model he had been for me. How I had watched him as an example of following Jesus when I watched him go through what I knew was a real pain.
In my mind’s eye, I started thinking back to some things. So I wrote a poem about him. Before I share it with you, I want to put up a picture of him. That’s my grandfather with my dad. There’s no family resemblance. I think you can see that. Years later, I flashed to a point may be less than a year before he died and I’m with him. We’re at a conference. This is the man I’m talking about. Here’s what is my heart.
“To the boy with no dad, with a hunger for God, you brought two things; a steady hand and a presence unfailing, a point of stability in a tumultuous sea of change, a living, breathing imperfect, but utterly authentic example; a man who loved God, no weak one he, no dabbler, no reed blowing in the wind that men come to see. No hardy, stalwart, passionate, prayerful, few letters, not highly educated, but full devotion. My hero in flesh and blood, the man I grew to love with a commitment true, and eventually grabbed the hand that held the baton that now I call my own. Although I have stumbled, failed, fallen along the way, face bloody, bruised, at times deeply wounded, wounded by my own doing, by my frailty, selfishness, unthinking, foolishness, but thus far in error, I would have it be to the end. I have risen to run again by faith in mercy, by grace in gratitude until the day I too release what was placed in my hand by more than a man to another who will carry it farther than me to a place I will never see. This too, I believe. Should I run to the end? My race till I see your face? Grace upon grace?” That’s my poem for him, for the Lord.
Now, at the end of my life, I watched my grandfather serve Jesus in great pain. That’s the connection. His 70s marked, roughly speaking, the 18th through 25th year of my life. I was only 25 when he died. That’s when I started pastoring. A few months after our oldest son Caleb was born, my grandfather was able to hold him. He was the only one he ever held of our four children. You can see him there. He’s dying right there, but he holds our boy. Who’s that other guy in there? I don’t even recognize him. It’s like, “Who is he?” Here’s the thing. For most of my grandfather’s 70s, he suffered physically. His last two years, he had what was known as congestive heart failure. It couldn’t be a worse thing for a preacher or a teacher. What happens is you get water on your lungs because the heart can’t pump correctly. You start having a hard time breathing. You feel like you’re suffocating.
Every time I would start to watch him when he was preaching, I could tell he was starting to labor. I could feel his pain. I saw it. There were times where it made it so hard for him to breathe that he seemed in such discomfort. I marveled at his capacity to bear it. But he did. “Oh, captain, my captain,” he did. I saw it with my own eyes. One time I said to him, you’ve heard me say this before because it’s kind of funny, “Hey, Gramps, How you feeling?” I could tell he was hurting. He said, “I feel awful.” Then I said, “Oh.” He said, “Ask me how I’m doing.” I said, “How you doing?” He says, “I’m doing great.” I said, “Wait a second. Didn’t you just say awful and now you’re saying great? I don’t understand what that means.” He was trying to teach me something.
What I didn’t know then and I barely know how to understand now, is how truly difficult it is to not go by how you feel, but to live out of the context of real-life in Christ. When our doing is more dependent on the light of Jesus burning inside of us like a joyful flame, or if that seems too much, a flickering candle of joy deep inside of us, that is stronger than how we feel or how difficult it is. What we’re really doing is we’re touching on what James is getting at. I remember how, as a younger man, I had experienced some disappointment. Some of you have too and are feeling it right now. I remember how I read this passage. I was still relatively unscathed by pain. I didn’t have a lot of loss in my life. I had stuff happen, but other people have stuff happen too. As the years have gone by, I’ve come to realize that the person I was reading this is a very different person now.
Once you experience, watch, witness, and have things happen when you lose things, experience weakness, know suffering and sorrow and watch it happen, it changes your perspective. On God’s Word, it can change with you along the way. It’s part of the beauty of it. Don’t ever lose touch with these words. They will carry us through every season of our life. Every season they will meet us exactly where we are. There’s power in them. “My words,” Jesus says, “Are power. They are life to you.” I’m looking at this passage right here, and the thing that it teaches us here. It teaches us that we are to look through even the worst that life throws at us through the prism of opportunity.
One of the questions that I’ve been asking myself and people more rhetorically, a lot is when adversity hits you or we run into things, if we welcome God in, what is the opportunity in the adversity? Where is the opportunity in the adversity? That’s what we want to get at. Where is the opportunity in the adversity? Look back at this passage at the one that’s in the second column there. This is from The Message translation. It tweaks it a bit, but I think it opens it up in a different way. Look what James says. You can see it yourself right there. “Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides.” Sometimes things hit you, hit us. It’s one thing when something hits us, but while we’re trying to deal with that thing, something else hits us. Then we make an unforced error. All of a sudden, we’ve got stuff coming at us from all directions. We feel the pressure.
When you feel the pressure, it’s hard. It is hard to move forward and live with joy. He’s saying, “Look, when you feel this, when you’re getting hit from all directions, under pressure, you have to consider it a gift.” What are you talking about? A gift? You got to be kidding me. No, because your faith-life is forced into the open and it shows its true colors. It can open up. So then what he says is something that almost seems like, “How? What do you mean?” “Don’t try to get out of anything prematurely.” Again, you can’t be serious. When we’re suffering, hurting, under pressure, and when things are hard and a struggle, what do we say? “I want out of this now.” That’s why people do all kinds of crazy things. When we’re in pain, we’ll do anything we can.
We get it. “I want out. I want out. I want out. I can’t take it.” You know, this is what we’re talking about right here. He says, “Don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Don’t do that. Let it do its work, so you become mature, well-developed, and not deficient in any way. This is the wisdom of God’s Word.” I think when we’re under that kind of pressure, we do. We’re like a fish wriggling on a hook and we want off. He’s saying, “No, no, no, calm this down. There’s something here. There’s an opportunity here.” I was reading about the Giant Redwoods because sometimes they’re called sequoias. They’re here in California. They’re amazing. Here is a picture. They are huge. Look at the guy. You can see it. It’s massive. It’s a beautiful shot.
The largest ones can tower up to 300 feet and up to 30 feet in diameter. Their cones can carry up to 200 seeds, and they can take up to two years to mature. Once mature, the seeds in the cones sit there and wait. Once the seeds are in the cone, they await something to let them out. Sometimes a beetle might bore a hole or a squirrel opens it up, but the majority of the time their resin is so hard and contained, that, honestly, the thing that opens them up is the heat of a forest fire. It is the heat of a forest fire that causes the cones to open up and their seeds to spread as nothing else can. The heat from a fire melts the coating and makes it possible for the cone to open up again. The fire burns away the growth, allowing for more sun to come in. At the same time, the uniqueness of this tree is that it’s so thick it can endure most fires. So the very thing that could be consuming, ends up releasing the life. Here’s the thing. Some things can never open up and be released in our lives unless they’re forced to open up.
There are some things, spiritually speaking, that can only happen through the fire of adversity. We’re so resistant to some things God wants to do in and through us, so tightly wound up by the resin, that the the only way to change and experience the new growth that God wants to bring us is when we’re forced under pressure and the heat of adversity to open up ourselves. A lot of times there’s stuff and we’re just not going to do it on our own. We’re not going to do it. Maybe we’re comfortable. Maybe we got used to it. Maybe it’s the way our family did it. But, it could be bad, but we’re just not going to do it. When it starts really getting bad and that heat starts melting away, oh, all of a sudden, we’re more open to things than we ever were before. All of a sudden, pain’s got my attention and I’m listening differently. I was talking to somebody last night and I said, “Maybe the gift that’s coming right now is it drops our pride and opens us up in humility. God, He cannot resist the humble.” What seemed so bad breaks us down so much that now we’re open to the Lord in ways we would never have been open to you before. That creates the possibility when pride is stripped away and I’m really honest with you. Now, all of a sudden, you can move in my life in ways you couldn’t move before, and you can begin to do something that couldn’t before.
My second point is that adversity is the tool, the mechanism that God sometimes uses or allows once in a while, rarely, but sometimes sends our way to melt away things that are hindering our faith life and open us up into new things. God wants to break us out into open spaces and new graces. There’s liberation and learning that can only be found in pain and loss. It has to do with God opening things up. Just like that fire on that cone. It melts away the stuff and allows for something to open up. That’s something I learned about two years ago when it was really hard for me. I was telling you I was having a very hard time. I was in pain. My pain was physical, mental, and emotional. That period disabused me of my sense of control and my identity. I had to learn to wrestle with that. It hurt. It hurt a lot. I do remember that. Yet what happened out of that is it forced me into new possibilities, new ways of seeing, new ways of being with God that I hadn’t really been open to before. So, “Growing Through Adversity” where the word ‘Growing’ is the keyword.
I think God wants us to grow. I know He does. In fact, I think this is the year we receive Jesus. This is the year we grow and open up our hearts to Him. This is the year when it happens. It could be this month. It could be this week. It could be this day. It could be in this service here that our heart really opens. For some of us, that’s the new thing. We’ve been following Him. We haven’t been growing. Nothing new is there. Just kind of there. God’s saying, “This is your time to grow.” For others of us, it might be that He has a completely new branch that He wants to grow in our lives. A part of our character or a shift that He wants to occur. Something that can bear fruit in a very different way. Still, for others of us, it could have something to do with something that’s been there for a while, but it’s not bearing anything. It’s just kind of dormant. He’s saying, “Ah, this branch will bear life again.” Growing.
What’s the other word? Adversity. It’s the one we’ve been talking about. All of us experience this at some point. We get it. Some of us are experiencing it right now. Adversity can come in many forms. It can be external. It can be with our health or have to do with relationships. It could be stuff at work. It could be the lack of a relationship and we feel lonely, or the pressure to have one, or a companion or someone to understand. Sometimes our most powerful things do not have to do with our money or stuff outside, or problems we’ve got to deal with. There’s a lot of stuff going on. It might have to do with people. Sometimes the issues aren’t people or stuff. It’s stuff inside of us. That sometimes is the hardest stuff, the stuff in our minds, the way we feel. That struggle of “Who am I? Can I let go of this wound? I get this tendency to get depressed, to become my own worst enemy, to tell myself I’m no good, to accept things in my life that God’s saying, ‘I don’t want you to have those. I didn’t give them to you. You’ve taken them on yourself.'” Adversity.
Sometimes we do stuff to create our problems. I’m not trying to blame my dad, but I think about that. I point the fact out that the very thing that hurt him the most, he created. We can do that. What do we do? There’s a shame that goes with that. There’s guilt that goes with that. That’s adversity in our lives. Sometimes things will be going okay, but we’ve got stuff going on inside and it’s ruining everything. We can’t let go. We’re jealous. We’re finding our value in things that shouldn’t be defining our value. We don’t know how to get free of it. We feel like we’re in bondage. Who do we talk to? “How do I get better? It seems relentless. It never stops. It’s just on me all the time. How do I get out of this?” That stuff. But there’s another word, isn’t there? Growth, adversity, but what is that middle one? ‘Through.’ Through. “So you mean like getting through something?” Yeah. Partly.
One way of thinking of through is, “I want to finish this. I want to get past this stage or situation in my life. I want to get through. I want to learn how to grow through this.” Part of what we’re going to be talking about in the coming weeks is, how do we learn how to persevere through things that aren’t good in our life and stop letting them define us? How do I learn how to grow past this, get through this? Through as in putting it behind me, turning the page, moving on. Getting past the finish line. “Next stage! I got past that thing!” There is value in learning how to persevere. Some of us are going to gain tremendous wisdom and equipment for how to endure, persevere, and prevail when part of us wants to run away, quit or accept the false things that are flying at us. There is a value in learning how to grow through adversity, in persevering, but through also means something else. It’s how something happens. It is a mechanism of formation.
What we’re saying is, “This happened because of this.” This is a forming mechanism. This is how this occurs. We’re saying is, okay, we’re going to learn how to persevere. Yes, we’re going to learn how to do that better. We’re also going to learn how God can take the adversity, stain, and shame, and if we work with Him and allow Him to work in our lives, He can use that as a mechanism for forming things in our lives, growing us into places we could have never gotten in any other way. In other words, it’s not just like getting through it. It’s about growing through it. They’re both true. They’re both good. I’m convinced that there are things that happen amid our adversity, whether it comes from something we’ve done or done to us, something that we’ve experienced, has happened, is happening, or may happen. God, if we bring Him in, cannot only teach us how to get past it without blowing things up, but He can grow us in ways through it that would not have been possible without it. Or would’ve been less likely to even happen. There are dimensions of who we are that He wants to unravel. It’s the heat of the adversity that breaks the resin that lets the thing open up. All of a sudden life is flowing. That has to do with the effect of our life on others. Whenever God works wholeness in us, even through the struggles, it doesn’t just affect us. It affects other people.
The imagery of the closing song is called Stained Glass. The lyrics are there, on the column on the inside, the far right-hand column. Stained Glass. I asked them specifically if they would do this song at the opening of this series. The reason was that the words, “All my days, I’ve been wearing my mistakes, I’ve made a coat I could have thrown away. I should have brought this to you, Lord. Why am I carrying this stuff? All my pain, like a fire burning in the rain, like a stain, I couldn’t wash it away. I should have brought it to you. All my fears. Oh, how those fears worked their way into our lives. I’ve got one for every single tear, like a flood that’s rushing in through these years. I’ll bring it to you.” The writer uses this analogy that God uses mistakes, pain, and fears to say that’s what I am like. He basically says, “It’s like stained glass to you. That’s what I’m like.”
What is stained glass? It’s cool. We have some stained glass in the sanctuary. Stained glass is interesting because it’s broken pieces of glass. It’s broken pieces that are discolored. They’re stained. Out of that brokenness and stain, when it’s put together in a certain way and light shines through it, it creates a beauty that most would say surpasses clear glass. At certain times, it can even tell a story. The glass itself tells the story. It’s beautiful. I keep thinking, in so many ways, that’s exactly what the Lord wants to do in our lives. The worst things, the broken things, the shameful things, the stained things, the discolored things, He takes them, If we let Him. We may not get it all right all at once, but we’re letting Him. He takes it and shines His light of grace through it. All of a sudden, beauty comes from it. A beauty that could not have happened with just the clear glass. It’s the beauty of the stained glass.
Pray with me. Later on, any of us who feel like it, just keep hammering this in the ground. Some truth is like a nail being hammered into the wood. You tap it once, that’s good. You might get it in there. You keep hitting it, drive it down. Drive the truth down into the wood. Let it hit us. You’ll have traction. “Lord, I know you love me. Help me to live unafraid of things in life that are hard, painful, and uncomfortable. Shape me, make me, grow me. Like light shining through the shards of broken and discolored glass, shine your beauty through the brokenness. Whatever it may be, use the things I would despise for a greater purpose and greater design. Show me what you can do with the broken, the discolored, and the stained. Let me be a testimony of your grace. This is what we pray. In Jesus’ name. Amen.”