Spiritual Tools for Difficult Seasons

Twenty years ago I ran my first and only marathon. I have managed to mention it about 10,000 times. In order to run all 26 miles you have to stay hydrated. Even elite runners break their stride enough to slurp down a gel pack and pick up a sports drink.  Around mile 14, I started feeling a hot spot on my heel. I did not want to slow down my tall athletic cousin and running buddy anymore than I already had. I decided to gut it out. Learning of my heel, Tom said firmly, “You don’t want to let a little blister derail all of the hard work you’ve put into this.”  So at the next water station, I sat down, took off one shoe and let a volunteer trainer apply moleskin. Tom jogged in place. His willingness to wait helped me finish the race. We took hands and crossed the finish line together. In the official results I finished a hundredth of a second faster. Sometimes- it’s just not fair!

 

Life brings difficult seasons: social distancing, divorce, grief, storms, quarantine, illness, oppression, injustice, and evil. Many students are rightly deeply disappointed as they miss games, concerts, award banquets, proper goodbyes, and friends.  Let all theologies remember that Jesus wept and the Psalms are full of lament.  In Luke 19:4, Jesus wept for a city’s systemic injustice. In John 11:35, Jesus wept at the loss of a friend. These seasons hurt. In the midst of our marathons, we need to keep our souls hydrated. 

 

Matthew tells us flatly that Jesus was starving. We might ask “why?” Why do we suffer?  “Why” is a good question. We need to invest in sound research and policy around viruses, climate events, social isolation, healthcare systems, and the economics of disasters so that we might plan for a better future.  However, our desire for “why” can lead us away from solutions and towards the assigning blame.

 

Theologically, the  why of suffering has no easy answers.  So may I suggest another question: How do we get through seasons of suffering?  Christians believe Jesus came to show us how to live. If Jesus came to show us how to live- then Jesus also came to show us how to pass through seasons of suffering.    

 

Jesus’ 40 day wilderness quarantine was not the only test Jesus endured. In Luke’s telling, Jesus leaves the wilderness on a triumphant spiritual high. (Luke 4:14) Jesus heads home to preach and maybe a home-cooked meal! The good folks at First Methodist Nazareth generally enjoy Jesus’ first sermon. Jesus preached from Isaiah about Good news for poor people, prisoner reform, opening blind eyes, ending oppression,and God’s favor.  However, Jesus’ sermon hit a little too close to home. Before the chapter ends, his home church attempts to throw Jesus off a cliff. We so love Jesus, we think everyone always did. Jesus’ home congregation clamored to toss Christ off a cliff. The cross reminds us that Jesus understands suffering. Jesus knows rejection. Christ comes as God’s suffering servant, well versed in hum grief. 

Jesus was led by the Spirit to spend 40 days fasting, focusing, and prayerfully facing temptation. These 40 days prepared for 3 years of ministry.  Luke 5:16 tells “But Jesus would withdraw to deserted places for prayer.” 

Every morning, if I wake up early enough, I will find Connie in our living room reading the Upper Room  (www.upperroom.org/devotionals) and the Disciplines (www.upperroom.org/disciplines) by the glow of her phone.  Connie makes a sacred space. She pulls this prayer shawl over her shoulder, maybe for warmth.  She lights a candle. She creates a little sacred space, a home altar is a good practice any time, but may really bolster us, during these times of social distancing.   

Before the crucible of the cross, Jesus spent the night in prayer   In the midst of difficult seasons, prayer reminds us who God is, reminds us who we are,  and centers us in God’s Love. Did you notice in our story how the devil is the one offering solutions? “Turn these stones to bread! Jump off the Temple spire! Grab the power!” When we learn the spiritual discipline of tuning our hearts to God’s hum, we build a sanctuary within our souls. Wesley called prayer the chief means of grace! Prayer is our first tool to pass through a difficult season.  

 

Our second tool is the Scriptures. I I will never have a Bible as worn out as this one. It  has a duct tape cover, twice broken spine, has been re-glued three times, and a coffee stain throughout the Sermon on The Mount! You can see that I read too much from the New Testament. I now use an app.  However, I would recommend a good study Bible, like this CEB Study Bible. www.cokesbury.com/9781609262167-The-CEB-Study-Bible-Hardcover?refq=CEB%20study%20bible

 

Next week Darren’s sermon will share how both Jesus and the devil quote the scriptures in the wilderness. Today, let’s just consider how Jesus overcame temptation through a deep relationship with the God of the Scriptures.  Jesus meets every test saying “It’s written.”  It is written: life is about more than your immediate needs. It is written: don’t try to test God. It is written: worship the Lord and serve God alone.” The Bible can be confusing, but inside it’s stories, people, parables, teachings we encounter a God who longs to be present with us.  You may have a little more time over these next few weeks, resolve to dig into the Scriptures. Read a Gospel. 

 

Years ago in a group study or during a sermon, a leader shared how Jesus was praying Psalm 22 on the cross.  That little bit of context transformed my understanding of the cross. 

My God! My God,why have you left me all alone?

 Why are you so far from saving me— so far from my anguished groans?

My God, I cry out during the day, but you don’t answer; even at night my tears don’t stop.

All who see me make fun of me—they gape, shaking their heads:

“He committed himself to the Lord, so let God rescue him;let God deliver him”

 But you, Oh Lord,  are the one who pulled me from the womb.  You’ve been my God. 

 Please don’t be far from me, because trouble is near and there’s no one to help.

My heart is like wax; it melts inside me.

But you, Lord! Don’t be far away! 

You are my strength! Come quick and help me!

If your soul feels weary of soul, Jesus knows that feeling.  God is never far away.

 

In December of 1997, Connie laid in a hospital bed with a drip line holding off her contractions. The Advent readings spoke of Elizabeth and Zechariah “both righteous” with “no children”.  Zechariah was overcome with fear. “How can I be sure of this?” Somehow even the angels rebuke of Zechariah brought me comfort: “because you didn’t believe, you will remain silent until.” God, who gave us the Scriptures, found purchase in my frightened soul as I read over and over again about Zechariah’s anxiety and doubt.  What Wesley called “searching the Scriptures” can hold us together when life seems to be pulling us apart. 

 

So our first tool is prayer. Second is a relationship with the Scriptures, We add to that community. I keep in my office two snow globes that my boys made in Sunday School class over 20 years ago. We can be Jesus to one another. The spiritual life requires community. Jesus was never a monk retreating into the monastery.  Jesus called together a community of disciples, asking questions and unpacking difficult teachings. And within the 12, Jesus kept an inner core of Peter, James and John. Jesus found refuge with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. 

 

So how do we maintain spiritual community in times of social distancing?  We will be working on that, but perhaps we could dare use these wonderful phones to create a prayer circle?  Or maybe we dare text some friends and ask them to zoom or Facetime with us as we work through Kate’s Field Guides? 

 

Finally, we add worship.  Luke 4:16 tells us Jesus’ normal practice was to go to the synagogue and worship every sabbath.  Weekly worship reminds us who we are in Christ and what is of eternal value. Worship resets our lives to sacred rhythms centering us in God and reminding us who God created us to be.  When worship becomes our highest priority, it brings order and peace to our lives.  

 

Weekly worship, christian community, daily prayer, along with searching the scriptures build the foundation. Jesus speaks of in Matthew 7, a foundation able to hold us together during life’s worst storms. We add to these four tools, the practice of faith.  James thunders, “faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity.” (James 2:17) Let’s put that into positive terms.  “Faith is made complete by faithful actions” (James 2:22)  Let’s put that into positive terms. In doing good our souls find an inner goodness. In giving we become generous. Forgiving produces a deep sense of forgiveness. (Matthew 6)  Loving others perfects God’s love in us (1 John 3&4) Our practice of being the hands and feet of Jesus, helps others and ourselves get through difficult seasons. 

 

We live in an age of amazing speed and delivery. The other day, I opened my closet and there by my gym bag was a white plastic envelope with a blue smile on it. I could not remember what was in it. Inside I found a new pair of swim trunks.  A few weeks before I ordered them after I got out of the pool and saw a small tear.  I could tell you a funny story about ignoring swimsuit rip, but I will save that for another venue.   It was so easy to order new trunks, I had forgotten I had them. I wish I could tell you that spiritual living is that easy. But the hope that endures is not often downloaded in one quick prayer.   Jesus tells us that we have to build a spiritual foundation by the application of the sermon on the Mount! (Matthew 7).  An enduring faith grows through the steady application of spiritual practices. And so let us break our stride and attend to souls, let us pause and re-hydrate. Let us remember these pillars and practices: 1) Daily prayer or quiet time with God, 2) regular thoughtful searching through the Bibles stories and teachings 3) weekly worship 4) weekly connecting to Christian community, and 5) service to God and neighbor. These refuges will carry us through life’s storms. Amen. 

 

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