They didn’t want to add to our current, stressful situation. My husband, their son, owns and operates residential Alzheimer’s care facilities and each day the state government was changing rules related to COVID-19. The staff were worried, residents’ family members were worried. And true to my in-law’s gracious ways, they didn’t want to pile on more bad news.
You see, my precious mother-in-law had been diagnosed with uterine cancer. When we talk about angels on Earth you’re talking about her. When I picture her I see love. I see goodness. She is one of my touchstones. She’s a lot of people’s touchstones. During the last 32 years she has quietly guided my faith journey. And she has cancer.
James leaps from the starting gate in his letter to the church with a challenging statement:
A few years ago, that statement might have received the response, “Are you ‘cray, cray’?” Meaning you’ve got to be kidding. Not only “joy” but “pure joy.” It reminds me of the scene in the movie Animal House — a pop culture film about a college fraternity. In it, actor Kevin Bacon is being initiated into the fraternity. He is required to be harshly paddled by its members. But not just paddled, he must also request the beating each time by yelling, “Thank you sir! May I have another!” The pain is evident on his face with each whack. Yet he knows he must ask for more to achieve his ultimate goal — membership.
While I don’t believe God wants us to be begging for trials, He knows in the course of our existence they will naturally come. In Mark 10, Jesus tells the disciples that not only will they receive a hundred times what they have given up to follow Him but also persecutions. Throughout the Bible we are encouraged to embrace our trials, whether from persecution, loss or affliction, so that our faith may mature.
A few years ago, I started hearing the term, “baby Christian.” The implication being that we are born with our commitment to Christ and then grow with our faith. We can choose to stay “baby Christians” just like we can also choose not to become mature adults. It seems more obvious to the world when we see people who have opted to not get a job, educate themselves, learn to live on their own, have a solid bank balance, and take care of themselves. You might have someone like that in your own family. Or you might be aiding in someone’s stunted path to maturity. What doesn’t always seem obvious is our stunted Christian spiritual growth. It takes much of the same concerted effort to grow in our faith. To be at the place James calls us to — finding Pure Joy in the difficult times.
With James’ simple opening salvo he blasts us into paying attention. We can either 1) scoff and choose to ignore him as a crazy person or 2) say, “tell me how.” In Luke 22:28 Jesus listens to a dispute among the disciples. They are arguing who is the better disciple (sounds like one of my PTA meetings). He interrupts and tells them, “You are (all) those who have stood by me in my trials.” His trials. You see, Jesus was sent to not only verbally teach us our Father’s ways but to experience our earthly ways to show us how to handle them. We mark our spiritual growth chart with each trial when we turn to Jesus and say, “you’ve been here, show me what to do.”
There’s lots of self-help books out there to guide us to being mature adults. But the best book to read for both spiritual growth and worldly maturity is the Bible. Every single book of the Bible talks about trials or persecution. And without fail the solution is prayer. Not just any prayer. A personal plea. A demanding of God’s blessing to rain down on us. A clearing of our eyes to see the joy. And then listening. He will speak to you.
God rarely just throws us first into the fiery pit. And even if he does, he is always with us. That alone is a blessing for which to be thankful. With each trial, each persecution, He expects us to grow more trusting of Him. Yes, expects. Dr. Charles Stanley’s Life Lesson #7 says, “The dark moments of our life will last only so long as is necessary for God to accomplish His purpose in us.” So, my advice to you, accept and learn early and as quickly as possible.
With each trial thrown in your path you gain perseverance, patience and clarity of God’s presence. But we must do the work of asking Jesus, “Show me.” I once told my Bible Study group we need to shorten the “ah ha moment gap” from years, to months, to days, to instantly. We all can look back at situations where maybe we didn’t get the job we’d hoped for or maybe even got fired from a job. Or a loss of a home due to fire, a friendship that soured, a marriage dissolved. How long has it taken you to accept the way God was working in that time? Have you seen it yet? He was there. He spoke to you.
Why is all this important? We know there will be trials so that means we can’t do anything about them, correct? When we dread what we think is to come, when we are poured into concrete boots of fear during trials, we’ve taken our eyes off Jesus. And if we are to grow in this project called Us we need a strong foundation of keeping our faith and trust in Him alone. This is not an easy task. For some of us it takes every minute of every hour re-focusing our mind on Him – especially when we are afraid. I’ve come to use the term, “Perspective Change Moment” with some of my friends. When we start in on our ills, fears, anger, dread it helps to have someone say to us,” Yes, that’s awful and…..”
With the same practice we put into doing our hair every morning or working out or learning how to use our smartphone or figuring out how late we can sleep and still get to work on time we need to attack the devil that keeps trying to pull our eyes away from Jesus. Show me, Jesus. Speak to me, God. It’s not enough to tell yourself, or others, “don’t worry” or “don’t be afraid.” We must fill our minds with something other than that fear and worry. In Luke 11, Jesus tells the story of an impure spirit coming out of a person and goes looking for a better place. When the spirit doesn’t find it he returns to find a nice, clean, empty house. And you know what that impure spirit does? He invites a few more friends to join him! Our lives end up looking more like a Weight Watchers check-in session – we have a week we are up and a week we are down and on and on. Had that person cast out the spirit with Jesus’ help and filled that home with God’s Word, Jesus’ love, and the constant presence of the Holy Spirit you can bet the evil spirit wouldn’t make it past the garden gate!
I have a good friend who was laid off from her church position about 3 years ago. It has been difficult for her to find the joy in that trial. For me, I can remember how unhappy she was in that job. But no matter how many times I told her how miserable she was, she still couldn’t accept it. Until she finished one of her journaling books. One day a week or so ago she started reading through her old journals from that time. In them she found her old self praying for God’s intervention constantly. Each workday entry was a distraught woman praying for God to fix the problems swirling at work. She finally had her “ah ha moment.” God was there, telling her to leave. But she kept holding on. That day she made a new mark on her spiritual growth chart. God had spoken to her and she had to joy of knowing He was with her. She could release all the negative emotions surrounding losing that job. It wasn’t where God wanted her to be.
So, here I was, working on being the best team member I could be for my husband as we waded through the throes of the COVID-19 lockdown and my in-laws finally decided we needed to hear the news. Cancer. Just a year ago this would’ve put me in a tailspin. But in just that year’s time, I’ve gone through a family death, putting on a distance wedding, accepting the fact that I’m not going to work anymore, and much more. With each trial I leaned into my Rock a little more. With each trial I started finding the joys. So, after the news I took my dog for a quiet walk in our nearby canyon and asked Jesus, “Show me.” I cried out to God the great Counselor, God my Comforter. I first pleaded and said, “You can’t take her.” I raised my hands high and begged for mercy for my sweet mother-in-law. I reminded Him she is a faithful servant. She is His loving daughter. And then I listened. He reminded me we all must pass one day, just as her own mother did a year ago. He told me He loves her more than even I do. He told me to just keep loving her and living out joy moments right now, today. He showed me that when her time comes, just as mine will too, she will join her mom in glory at God’s card game table. The battle of who is the best 31 card player will continue into eternity. And I laughed.
Are you going through a trial and need prayers? I’d love to pray with you. Have you gone through a trial and had your “ah ha moment?” Please share.