Danger, Toils and Snares

Reward of the Present - New Hope Church, Castle Rock, CO

This is a transcript from the January 20, 2019 sermon, so it contains the character of live, spoken communication.

My friend Rich and I always plan our sermons for the next year in the spring after Easter. One of the hallmarks, people ask is, “So how do you know what to plan for?” Truth is we don’t, of course, that’s part of what that week is about, but there’s a couple things that we know we will always touch on, and one of them is always prayer. We will always do a series, somewhere, an emphasis on prayer, often in January, for a couple reasons. One is, that it is part of the lifeblood of faith and at the beginning of the year, what a great thing talk about and to instill the habits in January.

January is a time when people seem to want to make resolutions and are ready for that, so it seems appropriate. This year, we thought, “Let’s mine the good things that are part of the serenity prayer and the wisdom that is in there.” As we went on, it wasn’t very long before we said, “That’s really not enough. We like the idea of serenity, but what we really need to do is talk about it as a sanity prayer, something that keeps us sane. Something that keeps us on target in the midst of the year.”

Serenity is a nice thing, but it’s a byproduct of what prayer is all about. This is something that can keep us sane. In doing so, I want to just make a couple points. The first one is this, is that by having a prayer like the serenity prayer or any other prayer, this is not to say that there is a right way to pray or a wrong way to pray. Any way that we pray that is an honest expression of who we are to God, this is a legitimate prayer.

In fact, Emma Mart wrote a book. She says, “Here’s the three essential prayers, and you could boil them down to three words. You could say all the prayers we ever pray come down to help, they come down to thanks, or they come down to wow.” That’s true, they do. There is a lot of prayers that fall into that. By saying we’re going to study this prayer, or look at this prayer, or as I’m suggesting that we take the serenity prayer, it’s not a way of dislocating or dismissing any of the kinds of prayers that we want to at any given time.

In fact, prayers are fairly spontaneous. The whole point of a written or a set prayer, a formal prayer, is not so that we’re praying it right so that God will hear it. We don’t say formal prayers because somehow we think that’s going to get God’s attention or God’s favor. We say those prayers not for God’s benefit but for ours. It’s because those kind of prayers, these kind of prayers shape us, they form us. They can do more than just be an honest expression of who we are. They can begin to shape who we are.

That’s why we are using this prayer throughout this month. It starts with that familiar phrase, of course,

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can,

and the wisdom to know the difference.

That’s what most of us know. That’s what’s on the bumper stickers, and that’s the first part.

The second part, Jordan got to the first couple of lines of the second part last week talking about the presence and living in the presence of God.

Living one day at a time. Enjoying one moment at a time.

If there’s anything that’s going to ground us instantly, it’s being able to live not worrying about and trying to rehash and solve the past nor being anxious about the future, it is about living right now, faithfully, right here. Just as important is this part,

accepting hardships as the pathway to peace.

taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is,
not as I would have it;

Trusting that he will make all things right if I surrender to his will, that I may be responsibly, reasonably happy, and responsibly in this life, and supremely happy with him forever in the next.

This is the kind of prayer that can shape us. This is the kind of prayer that can prepare us. This is the kind of prayer that coincides with the simple guide for spiritual growth, this meets a couple of the requirements, and one is it builds a habit.

Simple Guide for Spiritual Growth - Castle Rock, CO Church

Habits are terribly important for spiritual growth. It helps to shape and form who we are. It shapes and forms our prayers. It begins to align me with what God is doing. It allows me to live, engage, and integrate my life with the world as it is. It is a prayer that prepares me for the week that’s ahead and doesn’t just respond to where I am.

This morning, I want to get to the part of preparation. Accepting hardships is the pathway to peace. Accepting, as he did, this sinful world as it is not as I would have it be. In the midst of this, if there was ever one part of this prayer that most people would love to take out, that I would like to take out quite honestly, it’s this part. Because isn’t the point of most of my prayers, maybe yours, too, is, “Lord get rid of all the hardships. This is hard I need something to change.” When I say that, I usually mean you or anybody but me.

Change the world. Bring peace and hunger. Stop that crabby person at work or at home. As long as it doesn’t affect the person in the mirror, because I don’t really want to have to change, most of my prayers have to do with the world as I would have it be, not as it is. There is this sanity, there is this way to engage the world, where I’m always trying to solve and I figure out the problem of the world, and it usually has something to do with you, or somebody else, or them out there, it has to do with the other, anything but with me.

If anything, I may pray for patience to put up with you until you shape up. If I’m being honest, that’s pretty much how that works, right? “Give me the strength to get through it until somebody gets their act together. Lord, help them get their act together really quick.”

Have you noticed, at least in my prayers, and again I’m just going to talk about my own at this point, you may have a different and much more mature way and you have shaped it differently, but most of my prayers start with me and how it affects me. It usually starts with, this is how the world should be, so Lord, get this in line; the world as I would have it be.

What I wished wasn’t in this prayer is this implication that somehow there is work for me to do. “Yes, give me serenity. Okay, great. I don’t like serenity. Courage? Okay. Wisdom? Yes.” All that. But now, there’s something that’s being asked of me, and it means getting myself out of the middle. It implies that maybe, just maybe, my ego might be part of the issue; that me trying to control things might be the issue. Now, what’s keeping me from engaging in the things that I need to have the courage, and the wisdom, and serenity for, is me.

If you were to take stock of the prayers that you pray, formally, informally, in the car, at home, at night, the 3:00 AM prayers that wake you up, what would you find? You might find that this is an invitation that helps shape and align you with what God is doing. It helps with the passage that we heard earlier. There is this sense that peace, peace as it truly is, is not the absence of conflict, it has to do with the wholeness in the midst of whatever is going on.

It’s like joy. Joy doesn’t mean there are no problems. Joy in the Bible has to do with a state of being, like gratitude, like love, like joy, like peace, like all the fruit of the Spirit for that matter, that exist in the midst of conflict. How do I live in a world not as I would have it be, but as it is?

1 Peter, our passage, talks a little about that. It says,

“In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, being more precious than gold, that though perishable is tested by fire, may be found to result in praise, and glory, and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Although you haven’t seen him you love him, and even though you have not seen him now you believe in him, and you rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy.”

Even though you haven’t seen him. Even though it isn’t completely apparent, you are living into that. It seems to me, before you can do that, there is this peace that he’s the shape in me that says, “Accepting, as he did, the sinful world as it is, not as I would have it be.”

Because as long as I am hanging on to the way I think it should be, it’s keeping me from actually doing anything about it. As long as I am starting with, “This is what it should be,” and if any time when I start with this sentence, “If only somebody else would shape up, if only it weren’t for,” if you have any of those prayers and thoughts what you’re doing is you are stepping back away from that and saying, “No, that’s as it is. Now, in this world, what do I need to be doing?”

The second thing it does, though is I get to release my need for a scapegoat. If this world is not as it should be, well, someone has got to be responsible. Someone is to blame if the world isn’t as it should be. Someone’s getting in the way; and so, you can name the political party that you are not, you can name the group of people, the part of the world you are not. You can aim at anybody, or any personality, or any ethnicity, or any affiliation that you are not, and say, “If it weren’t for them, this world would be better.”

Accepting the world as it is, not as I would have it be, means I don’t have to have a scapegoat. As soon as I don’t have to have a scapegoat, then I can get on with the real work of my life. As long as I am willing to have a scapegoat, someone who’s out there that we get to blame everything on, I’m off the hook. I don’t have to do anything.

As soon as I let go of that, now I’m living in a world as it truly is, as Christ did, and gotten onto with the work of life that makes a difference. Now, when I do that, what the power of this prayer is, is it begins to define who I am becoming.

In just a moment, we’re going to take a moment or two here, and I’m going to invite you to think about what are the things that are weighing on you? What are the things that are part of your life as it is not as you would have it be? I’m going to contend that that is the growing edge of your life. I’m going to contend that those things, as they cross your path, and some of them are terribly enormous, some of them have to do with great grief, and it has to do with health for you or for somebody else, great worry, maybe it has to do with economics and security.

We all have different things. The only thing that’s universal is we all have them. They all become insurmountable to the edge of our ability to do something about them. Now, they become the defining issue of our life. Rather than say, “Who’s responsible for this, if only that would go away life would be good,” this is an invitation to say, “No, this is the growing edge of my life. It is me interfacing. This is I Am Here. This is why I am here. There is work that I need to do.”

When I pray this prayer, when I am able to say, accepting this world as it is and not as I would have it be, I have just been invited to the work that’s in front of me, today, and I don’t get to wait until somebody else goes away. I don’t get to wait until somebody else stops acting poorly.

I love this insight by Rami Shapiro where he says,

“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief, do justly now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You’re not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it, because it is the work that has been given to you and to me.”

In the next few moments, I’m going to invite you to think about what is the enormity of the work, what is the edge, what is that thing that frustrates and has your full attention? What is that thing that you wish would just go away? What I want you to hear in that silence is what that is, and then maybe entertain that this is exactly why you are here where you are right now, is in this time, in this place, to give yourself to this. In so doing, it defines the world as it is not as we would have it, including ourselves. It defines who we are, and who we are in being invited to become.

Accepting hardship has the pathway to peace. This gets down to the crux of it, doesn’t it? “I don’t want hardship to be the pathway to peace, I want peace to be the pathway to peace. I want serenity to be the pathway to peace. I want joy to be the pathway to peace.” This prayer in this part is really not about hardship. It’s about peace and the ways that we try to get to it. The insane ways that we get to it, often it means we avoid all those things that are ultimately hard. Sure, I may give it a day or two, but if it’s not then let’s just move on.

There is a lie that exists in this world and it exists in the church. The church version of this lie, and the lie is that life should be easy, and if you are blessed your life will be easy; and if that if it isn’t easy then you aren’t blessed, you’re probably doing something wrong. We express that in a lot of different ways. We will say, “I knew it was of God, because all the doors opened up and I was successful, so obviously, it had to be from God.” We will say that because it is so hard, this must not be from God. Says who? Where in the Bible does any of that come from? Nowhere.

That comes out of our own fear. That comes out of my own ego. That comes out of my own reluctance to engage in anything. You take anybody in the Bible who did anything of significance, and it was always the hard and it was the hardship. It was always the long path, the way of journey is a big one in the Bible, and the word wilderness comes in.

We talked about this last week at our class with Bonhoeffer, and it has to do with, there’s this narrative of anybody who does anything in the Bible of significance always, always, always, always goes through a wilderness. Start with Moses. Actually start with Abraham, and Jacob, Moses before he took the nation who went into the wilderness to become Israel, David before he became king, prophets of every one of them, ultimately, Jesus, as soon as he was baptized went into the wilderness, Paul. You name it.

Reward of the Present - New Hope Church, Castle Rock, CO

Anybody who did anything in the Bible, they all go through this wilderness, and it’s not just the geography of it, this has to do with the geography of the soul, that anybody who’s going to do anything significant goes through hardship.

I wish that weren’t true. I wish I could say, “If you just come and believe in Jesus and give your heart to Jesus, everything will open up and everything will be great.” No. When you give your heart to Jesus, that’s when things start to get hard because it is there, then how you are having to wrestle with who is in charge of your life and you have to deal with what is on the inside, you have to go into a wilderness.

When we in the church, and it’s all throughout life, I mean just turn on TV and in the 32nd ad your life can be better because of your hair, your car, your insurance, your lawn, you name it. These are the things that are the quick fixes. If you do these things, then your life will open up and it will be worth living, and everything will be great. You will find peace. You will find wholeness. You will find the shalom that we all long for, except we don’t.

When that comes through the church, then people begin to believe that what we’re talking about is we’re just selling another product. We’re just marketing Coca-Cola. We’re just marketing the latest gadget, and it’s not trusted because we intuitively know it’s not true.

That if we were honest, we would say, “Hey, come on, be part of this journey. You’re going to go through a wilderness. You don’t have to do it alone, but when you get to the other side of this, something significant is going to change in you and maybe in the world, and that’s what prayer is about is to prepare us for, is so that we can do something.”

There’s this part of prayer that just offers myself, “And here I am, and I know it’s going to be a struggle.” “Change does not roll on the wheels of inevitability but comes through continuous struggle,” says someone who should know what he’s talking about, and he does, and we do.

There is this struggle, and anything of importance doesn’t just inevitably happen, it happens because somebody gave themselves. One of my favorite people growing up, was a woman named Henrietta Mears. Henrietta Mears was this pioneer in the 20th century of Christian education. Everything you experienced in Sunday school, probably has some roots in Henrietta Mears, and there’s over 400 to 500 different missionaries and ministers who point back to her as being critical to their life.

Her challenge, and one of her great statements is that for any significant project, many people have to sweat but at least one person has to bleed. Been part of a significant project, you know what we’re talking about; everybody has to give a lot, somebody has to give way more than enough. That’s the struggle.

I think it’s Richard Rohr who talks about, after age 30 or 40, success has nothing to teach anybody, you’ve learned all the lessons you’re ever going to learn about success. The only real lessons now start to come with failure, with doubt, with death, with grief. These are the things that now begin, and suffering; these are the things that now start to teach you about life. It doesn’t mean that you don’t like success, but all the things, all the formational character things that come with success, you’ve learned them. There’s a journey, it’s a struggle, and it defines you. It defines who you are. It will define your character.

If I were to ask you in a group, and maybe you want to do this in your groups or maybe just around the table this afternoon with the friends and family around there, you might want to ask, “What are the defining moments of your life?” My guess is, if you were to name those, many of them have to do with struggle, have to do with doubt, have to do with tragedy, have to do with great times of despair and wonder, and those became the formational events in your life.

Hardship is the pathway to peace, we don’t avoid it. We don’t have to go looking for either it, it will come, but we don’t avoid it once it’s there, because the things we really long for are things that need to be struggled with.

At this point, this sermon is going to take a different angle based on yesterday and based on some of the things that we all saw on TV yesterday. I’m not going to spend a lot of time, but if you saw this, and I don’t know how you could have avoided it, this scene at the Lincoln Memorial, a Native American who was chanting and Vietnam vet, and confronted by a group of young people who were fairly affluent and very entitled, and this badgering that went on.

If you’re saying, “Oh, we shouldn’t be political,” yes, I’m going to be political, but life’s political. I don’t want to be partisan, but everything we do is political. If we’re going to be involved with anything, it has to do with people and how we function together. This just seemed to me to sum up so much of a struggle that is ahead. Here, we have a Native American who is a Vietnam vet, who’s coming to give honor to those vets, and being confronted with a group of young people who are young people and are chanting, “Build the wall,” in front of a Native American.

The irony and the tragedy of that just seems overwhelming. I would love to turn the channel. My guess is, if we are looking for peace in this nation, this seems to be the epitome of the work that’s ahead. There are different ways to get there, but good Lord, we can’t just turn our head and say, “As if that isn’t theirs.” We can no longer say that isn’t us, of course it is. What will determine who we will be is how we respond. This is not easy.

The world as it is, is encapsulated in that picture, today. Who we will be has a lot to do, in part, with how we will respond. Will we do the hard work that’s in front of us because that is the work that’s going to define us, that is the work that has been given to us, not because we wanted it, because there it is. Because there it is.

I want to close today. I want to close today with the prayer that Cindy started us with this morning. Here’s someone who understands struggle and offers this prayer. Martin Luther King Jr.

“Help us never to let anybody or any condition pull us so low as to cause us to hate. Give us strength to love our enemies and to do good to those who despitefully use us and persecute us. We thank you for our church, found it upon your word that challenges us to do more than sing and pray, but to go out and work as though the very answer to our prayers depended on us and not upon you. Then, finally, help us to realize that humanity was created to shine like the stars and live on through eternity.”

These are the struggles that make us. These are the struggles that define us. They create who we’re going to be. They reveal who we are. They reveal the world the way it is. They show us who we could be. They also reveal God, because it’s in those places, those places especially, where God becomes especially real. It’s those places that we get to point back to and say, “God was there, so we have the courage to walk out here.”

“Through many dangers, toils, and snares,” that old hymn says, “Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come. It’s grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”

The beginning of the year has to do with prayer, and it has to do with how we align ourselves, and what, and to who we give ourselves to. This day, the invitation is together, let’s promise that we will take this world as it is, not as we would have it be. That’s not what God did. That we will join with God and we will continue on in the struggle, because it is through those hardships and those tough paths that we will realize the peace, the joy, the wholeness, the home, that is calling us to be.