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When the Going Gets Tough

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A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on October 17, 2010.                            

Psalm 119:97-104; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:

An article in the latest issue of The Christian Century is entitled “No Shows.” It seems that, since 2001, there has been more than just an economic recession; there is a recession of churchgoers as well. And it’s true not just for what are considered the mainline churches. Evangelicals report that there has been a “retreat for America’s congregations.”

There are reasons given, of course. Worshipers attend less frequently, perhaps because they simply feel they have better things to do with what little bit of personal time they have left in the week. Worship doesn’t seem to be as sacred to us as it used to be. Churches are aging. Young people just don’t see the importance of attaching themselves to a family of faith. And there is a general growing lack of interest in things religious.1

What is your reaction to that? How do you feel about it? After all, you are in church, so this article is talking about someone else and not you. Right? However, you’re not terribly surprised, are you? I mean, just look at the empty places in our pews and that’s all the proof you need. Perhaps a better question than asking how we feel about this is to inquire as to what we plan to do about it. One thing we could do is wring our hands and feel sorry for ourselves. But that’s not really an option, is it?

Is there any advice out there that we can follow? Oh yes, there’s lots and lots of advice. In fact, I receive several offers every week in the mail, slick advertisements telling me about this conference and that, this book or that CD, this dynamic speaker or guru who will – guaranteed – reveal to me all the little secrets that will grow my church. There’s plenty of advice out there, let me tell you.

There’s nothing slick, nor even guaranteed, about what Paul wrote his young ministry colleague Timothy in our reading of a few moments ago. But I do believe it is timeless, and I think it is the best advice we could possibly get. Paul knew there were going to be some lean times for the church. He knew how immature some people could be. They would not put up with “sound doctrine” is the way he explains it. They’ll have “itching ears,” he says, which means, I suppose, that they’ll always be looking for a better deal somewhere. There will be those, he says, who “will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.”

It’s tempting to wander away, especially when life gets a bit rough and throws us around a bit. There are times when we’d all like to find a dark place somewhere to be by ourselves, sit down, do nothing, pout for awhile and maybe just give up. When you feel like that, church is often the last place you’d like to be, if for no other reason than, if church is doing its job, it’s encouraging you to get back up and try again with the grace and help of God. Church, if it’s doing its job, doesn’t let you feel sorry for yourself.

My good friend Ray Higgins, who many of you know, tells about his younger son Ryan. Ryan’s first semester in college was rough, at least as rough as it can get for an eighteen year-old first-year college student. And it had nothing to do with bad grades. No, it was worse than that. It seems that in the span of a very short time, Ryan’s girlfriend broke up with him and his dog died.

His dad, as all good dads do, tried to commiserate with his son. But finally, Ryan said to him, “Dad, if someone steals my truck, I can write a country-western song.” It was that bad.

Except that Ryan didn’t have a truck.

I wonder if Timothy’s girlfriend had broken up with him and his dog had died. We don’t know, but we do know that when Paul wrote to his young colleague in the ministry, he found himself like Ray Higgins trying to help his son Ryan. He’s attempting to buck Timothy up, make him feel better, and providing some advice that would hold him in good stead.

I have a feeling there’s a letter out there somewhere that has never been found, that perhaps has been lost to us. I can’t help but think that Timothy has written to his older, wiser, more experienced friend Paul, telling him about the difficult people he’s been having to put up with. It seems that at every turn, there’s someone looking over Timothy’s shoulder, scrutinizing his every move, criticizing him, seeking to undermine his ministry, making it difficult for the young pastor every time he turns around. Timothy feels like he’s having a full-court press put on him, and in the process his ministry has been difficult, if not impossible, to maintain.

In the letter we do have, Paul refers to “wicked people and imposters.” And he talks about how they “will go from bad to worse, deceiving others and being deceived.” I can’t help but think that Paul’s remark is in direct response to something Timothy has told him. Maybe Timothy has suggested to Paul that what he’d really like to do is find a dark place somewhere to be by himself, sit down, do nothing, pout for awhile and maybe just give up.

He, Timothy, has tried to be faithful to Christ, to do ministry with integrity, to hold true to the teachings that were handed down to him through his grandmother and mother, the two people other than Paul who have had the major influence on his life. But it hasn’t been easy. There have been wicked people standing in his way.

I don’t know if I would describe them as wicked, but there have been other times and other places that I’ve felt this way… when there were others who challenged me at every point and made life in general, and life in ministry, very difficult. I know how Timothy feels. I too appealed to older, wiser, more experienced friends in determining what I should do in response. That appears to be what Timothy has done.

Okay, so what did Paul tell Timothy to do in the face of his difficulties? Well, I’m not much of a three-point preacher. You’ve noticed that, haven’t you? But if there was ever a passage that called for three points, this is it. Paul told Timothy to give his attention to scripture, to stay focused, and to do the work to which he has been called.

Boy, that sounds simple… until you try it. Scripture, focus, work. Scripture, focus, work.

Let’s start with scripture.

We buried one of the good ones Friday as we said good-bye to Eloise Hamilton. In the funeral service I referred to Eloise as “the lady with the lamp,” a reference to the verse in Psalm 119 that says, “Your word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.”

“Your word,” the Psalmist calls it. Scripture we call it. The Bible is a guide book, that when we give our attention to it, comes back to us over and over again and provides the necessary light along what can often be a dark and difficult journey.

I like the way Fred Craddock illustrates it…

You get up in the morning and you say, “Boy, this looks like a nice day!” You have your list of things to do, and then one of your children says, “There’s something wrong with the dog.”

“Well, let’s get it in the car. I’ll take it to the vet.”

Then, as she pulls out to go to the vet, one of the kids says, “Mama, I have a red throat. My throat is sore.”

“Okay, I’ll take you and the dog.” She puts the sick child and the dog in the car, and she goes to the doctor and she goes to the vet and she stops downtown, but then the car stalls. It must be the battery. She calls home, “I’m going to be late. The battery’s dead or something. I’ve got to get somebody to fix it.”

“Mama,” says a voice on the other end. “One of the commodes is backed up.”

“I’ll call a plumber,” she replies, and she does.

“I can’t get there till late today, lady,” the plumber says.

“But I’m all backed up, and I have company coming. They are going to spend the night.”

“Lady, you’re not the only one backed up. I’m backed up a week. I can’t get there.”

She goes home. Her company is coming, and she thinks about how the day started. Such a beautiful day. What happened?

Craddock offers an explanation for what happened…

Life happened. If you’re going to have any joy, he says, any purpose, any peace, you are going to have to put it together out of fragments, because you are not going to get twenty-four smooth hours in a row. It does not work that way. But the wonderful thing about it is that the Bible understands that. Jesus himself understood that.

The Bible was not written by some relaxed person, all lathered up with sunscreen under an umbrella by the beach drinking lemonade. The Bible was written by people who had to put life together with short pieces of string.2

When you find yourself tugging on those short pieces of string, a strong relationship with scripture, that points you to Christ, will hold you in good stead. Paul knew that. And that is why, when Timothy found life getting a bit tough, his friend urged him in the direction of the scriptures.

The words you’ll find in that book on your lap do not offer magic formulas for every contingency of life. But they will offer encouragement and guidance, they will reach down into your heart and soul and speak to who you are and suggest what you might yet become. Scripture has a way of showing the way, offered to you as a gift from the one who continually seeks to gift you with his grace.

Paul urges his young friend Timothy to hold true to scripture.

He also tells him to focus.

 

I’m not telling you this to invoke sympathy, but early this past week I didn’t know how I was going to get everything done. There were appointments to keep, people to see, and, as we discovered about noon on Monday, a funeral to plan. Two weeks ago I began my sermon by asking, “Have you ever been overwhelmed by the immensity of the task before you?” Well, that’s the way I began to feel Monday. So be careful what you pray for, even what you talk about. It might come back to you sooner than you think.

That night, just prior to our Church Council meeting, Mike Turner asked me how I was doing, and my reply was, “I’m trying to take it an hour at a time.” Not a day at a time, but an hour. And that is pretty much what I have done. Yes, I did find myself working – especially on this sermon – at some rather odd times during the week, at least not at the times I usually do it or want to do it. But here we are, and for better or worse, the week is behind us. And I am able to say that I got most of my work done by staying focused.

That is what Paul tells Timothy to do, so I decided to take Paul’s advice. I commend it to you.

And, oh yes, he advised his young friend to work hard at that to which he had been called. “Carry out your ministry fully,” is the way he puts it. Or, as Eugene Peterson interprets it in The Message, “…keep your eye on what you’re doing; accept the hard times along with the good; keep the Message alive; do a thorough job as God’s servant.”

I once heard a minister described this way: “His sermons were eloquent, his presence compelling, his theology imaginative, his ministry compassionate.”3  Wow. What a wonderful thing to have said about one’s life in ministry. It makes you wonder what his secret was, doesn’t it? Well, I’ll tell you one thing: it didn’t happen overnight, nor did it come to this minister without effort. My guess is that over the years he gave attention to scripture, he stayed focused, and he did the work to which he had been called. In short, he kept Paul’s advice.

Easy for Paul to say, right? Well, maybe not. You see, when Paul offers this advice to Timothy, he is in prison. Yep. When it comes to difficulty in ministry, what Timothy is going through doesn’t hold a candle to what Paul has experienced because Paul has literally written the book.

If I want advice about keeping my car running smoothly, I’ll go to a mechanic. If I’m concerned about my health, I’ll talk to a physician. If I want to know how to deal with adversity, I can do no better than to consider the words of Paul and the life of the One to whom Paul gave his life. So I think I’ll listen again to what Paul told his young friend. Scripture, focus, hard work.

I don’t think you have to be ordained to follow Paul’s advice. And if that is true, I commend what he says to you as well. In fact, why don’t we try it together, especially when the going gets tough.

Lord, the going does get tough from time to time. Walk with us, we pray, that even in the midst of difficulty we give ourselves fully to you. Through Christ our Lord we pray, Amen.

Notes

            1Lovett H. Weems, Jr., The Christian Century, “No Shows,” October 15, 2010, pp. 10-11.

            2Fred B. Craddock, Cherry Log Sermons, (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), pp. 20-21.

            3Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1993), p. 22.