Faith in a foxhole

These notes are intended for distribution to members and friends of the Kirk
of Kildaire, Presbyterian family. While effort is made to give credit for work
done by other, the notes may use material for which appropriate credit is not
given. Also, the notes may differ from the actual sermon as it was delivered.
Remember, sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the
emphasis on verbal presentation; the written accounts occasionally stray from
proper grammar and punctuation.

October 14, 2007 

 

I wonder how long Timothy had been a leader of the church. We know
he was young leader. He and Paul had met when Paul was on a mission through
Lystra. Timothy’s mother was a Jewish Christian and his father was Greek. He was
raised by his Mother in the faith and he grew up in the church. He must have
been one outstanding youth… like some of the youth here at the Kirk. He was well
respected. Paul heard this and saw this in him. So Paul had invited Timothy to
join him on his mission trip. It must have been exciting times for them. The
church was growing throughout the known world. On the trip, they must have
developed quite a relationship. Timothy became like a son to Paul. Paul was his
mentor, I’m sure.

When I read the letter today from Paul (who is now in prison) to Timothy
trying to lead a church… it sounds to me as if Timothy is a bit discouraged and
struggling. I know that can happen to young pastors. It still does. The drop out
rate of pastors in the first five years of ministry is extremely high. You might
call them very critical years.

I remember as an associate Pastor in the first church I served becoming very
discouraged and disillusioned. I even preached a sermon called "Dear Professor"
in which I proceeded to share with the congregation in as kind a way as possible
the sources of my disillusionment. One kind elder came up after the sermon and
asked if I was "okay." Well… no!

Looking back I think I know what happened. When you enter the ministry it is
often because the church of your childhood and youth was very important to you.
In college, I was blessed to find another church that cared for me through a
campus ministry. You are surrounded by advisors and people who affirm you and
you find it meaningful. You begin to see yourself serving this church in the
years ahead. You’d like to be there for others. You go to seminary, become
ordained and there you are in your first call. Then you discover something. You
are not a youth anymore. You are a leader. And there are all sorts of
expectations out there. Some you can meet, some you cannot.

There are all sorts of people out there. Some inspire you. Others discourage
you. Some disappoint you. Some seem to make it their business to criticize you.
And you wonder, is this what you signed up for? What else can you do with a
seminary degree? It is easy to become discouraged in your early years of
ministry. You have to work through it and with mentors and friends like I was
blessed to have… I did. I’m thinking Paul was such a mentor for Timothy.

So I wonder if young Timothy was experiencing this kind of discouragement.
After all, things were changing for the early church. The days when 3000 people
joined the church in one day are in the past. The days when all the believers
were of one mind and shared everything, but a distant memory. Now the church is
facing conflict from within and without. From within there are dissenters who
are trying to change the gospel message and sowing seeds of doubt. From without,
the Christians are facing persecution for their beliefs. Even death. I bet the
new member classes weren’t quite as large anymore. In fact, they may have been
losing members. Brothers and sisters, do you know how Timothy feels? Perhaps he
wonders if it is worth it. "Is this what I signed up for?"

When things go bad it is easy to give up, you know. And what you need of
course is someone who understands… to encourage you.

I think of a coach for a normally successful football team I heard about that
had lost early games this season. This was going to be a long season. The coach
had been on losing teams himself as a player. He knew the frustration and
discouragement that comes with losing. When asked about the losing team and the
morale he said, "This is foxhole football. You find out who is going to be in
your foxhole, who is going to fight and scratch and claw to make it through….
You don’t want anybody in a foxhole with you that is not going to fight to win,
whatever the situation is… there’s no other way except just to keep
grinding…it’s tough… I really know what the guys are feeling right now, but…
this is a good group of guys. They are pulling together. Nobody is pointing
fingers…" One of the senior players said, "Man, it’s really heartbreaking… When
we went 13-0, everybody was on the bandwagon. Let’s see who is going to be on
the bandwagon when we are going through times of struggle…."

Perhaps Paul would want to know the same thing. Who is going to be on the
Christian bandwagon when there are times of struggle. To which I might add, who
will be the voice of encouragement and support to strengthen those who are
struggling.

The letter we have today is a very personal letter from Paul-trying to
encourage his young friend through a very difficult time. He’d do it face to
face but he is in prison. He tells Timothy to hang on. Be strong in the grace
that is in Christ Jesus… remember Paul knows what hardship is like-he has been
chained and locked up like a common criminal-but that doesn’t mean the gospel is
in chains.

Most of all, he reminds him that in the midst of suffering Christ is faithful
and is with us. Don’t’ give up on him or the gospel or the church. Christ will
be with us as we seek to be faithful to him:
"If we have died with him,
we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him… Do your
best to present yourself to God as one approved by God, a worker who has no need
to be ashamed…"

I love this letter from Paul. How blessed Timothy was to have a mentor and
friend like Paul to write to him at his lowest point. You know Christianity is
easy when the blessings are flowing and faith is clicking on all cylinders… but
then comes the difficulties and discouragement… and you can use someone like a
Paul.

The church is blessed with Paul-like people you know. You don’t have to go it
alone. There are those Stephen ministers ready to be a friend, ready share the
journey of suffering or discouragement with you. Some of you have developed
relationships over the years through a Sunday School class, small group,
fellowship meals, mission trips, choirs, committees, the Session, workdays, -so
many ways… and then one day, you discover you have lost your job or you have
cancer or you’re going to have surgery. Guess who calls you. One of your friends
you met in one of those church ministries. There they are, like Paul ready to
offer a word of encouragement. And you say to me or someone else, I don’t know
how I would have made it without my faith and my friends. That’s what Paul is
doing.

But can I push you a little more and push us all to think a little bit beyond
the Kirk and ourselves? Think for a moment about your brothers and sisters in
the world who are suffering for the faith these days? It’s easy to forget them
as we worship with comfort and ease in America.

Around the world fellow brothers and sisters are struggling. I think today of
the 2000 Christians living in Palestine in the midst of the conflict on the Gaza
strip. What was their Sabbath like today?

I think of the Christians living in Iraq-how alone they may feel. There are
only 3% of them. Their churches have been bombed. Pastors attacked. Some have
been kidnapped by Al Qaeda and ransomed for their unwillingness to convert to
Islam. Ask them if they’ve got commitment. You bet.

Our Ethiopian brothers and sisters at the Kirk who escaped the persecutions
in the 70s and 80s can tell you what it is like to live under hardship as
Christians. I am guessing they still have friends struggling back home. Ask them
what it was like to hold on to faith. I bet you will learn a lot!

Add to the list of those who suffer… the Christians in Sudan or India or
Somalia or North Korea or China… There is a long list of Christians in foxholes
trying to hold on to their faith.

And even if you aren’t in a foxhole for your beliefs… how about holding on to
faith when you are trying to feed your family or simply struggling to survive. I
think of brothers and sisters I’ve met in Africa… in Guatemala… Mexico and
others in so many 3rd world countries trying to be faithful under very difficult
circumstances. Every day is a foxhole.

I’ve been wondering how we might encourage them. Maybe the most important
thing about mission trips is the encouragement we offer by offering our personal
support face to face.

One of the roles of our mission co-workers is to go on our behalf to offer
encouragement. We are blessed at the Kirk to have people like David and Jeanine
in Guatemala and Dan and Elizabeth Turk in Madagascar and so many other
missionaries who have left the comfort and prosperity of the US to try to
support fellow Christians. It’s not an easy life and I got to thinking, how
might we support them?

There are many ways… our prayers… our presence when possible… our support.
Today I am inviting you to support them in a very tangible way… there are
envelops on the communion table already addressed to missionaries serving the
church. I encourage you to take an envelope and write a letter of thanks – that
can be very encouraging- and support. If you prefer email, the link is in the
bulletin today. It would mean more than you can imagine.

I have a friend who I think survived on the letters of support from another
friend. In this case, he wasn’t a missionary … but was a church musician who had
lost his way. He gave me permission to tell his story.

I met Jim over 30 years ago when we both worked at Camp Greenville. He was a
counselor and a very gifted organist even back then. He simply had the gift. He
could play anything we threw at him and play it well. I lost touch with Jim over
the years as I went through college, seminary… the life thing.

One day I got a call from Jim. It turns out that Jim was now in recovery from
substance abuse and drug addictions. He was practicing one of the 12 steps in
which you apologize to the people you let down. He went through that… but would
still struggle for years… becoming addicted again… becoming a conman in order to
raise money to feed his addiction… being in and out of prison and recovery a
couple of times. I’m proud to say that I am most encouraged about his future
this time. This time Jim, has a church organist position at a large Catholic
church in South Carolina. Think of what it meant for that church to give Jim
another chance-knowing his history. Since he has been out of prison, we have
regained contact. Recently Jim sent me a sampling of letters that sustained
him.

What surprised me was to discover who wrote to Jim. Stanley Hauerwas– a a
world renowned scholar at Duke Divinity School. Who was Jim to him?

Jim had written a letter from prison to him in response to an article in the
newspaper. Dr. Hauerwas wrote back and then the chain of letters began. During
his time in prison and recovery, Dr. Hauerwas wrote letters to Jim … encouraging
him… exchanging ideas of books to read…

My friend told me
"During my incarceration (which I consider a time of
discernment and rehabilitation) I could not have had a better friend than Dr.
Hauerwas. I saved all of his letters to me-there are well over 100. I know that
someday I will read them with more gratitude than I even feel now…. "

I read the letters and I can see why Jim holds on to them. For in those
letters during his time of deepest struggle and suffering… he was given a gift
of grace, support and encouragement that was just what he needed. Now, my friend
has another chance at life. And a chance to use his gifts for the glory of God.

Perhaps one day, someone will say of us what Jim said of Dr. Hauerwas.
"During my time of suffering, I could not have had a better friend than —
you!" [1]

Perhaps that is why the church held on to these personal letters from Paul.
Perhaps, those who preserved them wanted to show us how one Christian can
support another one in the most difficult of times. I don’t know. I’m just glad
we held on to them. For in them, I hear Paul trying to encourage us. For that we
can be grateful. Amen.

[1]
This story was used with permission from "Jim." The real name has
been changed to Jim to provide anonymity.


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