February 10, 2008

"Fearing to Trust"
Scripture: Psalm 32
Sermon by Rev. Kathleen Groff
Dundee United Methodist Church

  Phillip Gulley writes that he had an old neighbor named Dr. Gibbs when he was growing up. When Dr. Gibbs wasn’t busy saving lives he was busy planting trees. His house set on ten acres and his life’s goal was to grow a forest. He never watered his new trees which went against the conventional wisdom of horticulturists. One day Phillip asked him why. His reply was that watering new trees spoiled them and that if you watered them, each successive generation would grow weaker and weaker. So you have to make things rough for them and weed out the tiny trees early on. He said that watering trees made for shallow roots because they did not have to go far to find water. Trees that weren’t watered had to reach deep to find the moisture they needed. So he never watered his trees. He’d plant an oak and every morning instead of watering it he would take a rolled up newspaper and beat it about. Phillip asked him why he did that and he said that he wanted to get the tree’s attention. A couple of years after Phillip left home Dr. Gibbs died. When Phillip returned home he walked by Dr. Gibbs’ home and noticed that the trees he had planted twenty five years ago were granite strong, hearty and robust. He said, “Those trees wake up every morning. Beat their chests and drink their coffee black and strong.” Phillip later planted a couple of trees in his own back yard. He carried water to them for a solid summer, sprayed them, prayed over them, the whole nine yards. Two years of coddling those trees resulted in trees that expected to be waited on hand and foot. Whenever a cold wind blew they shook and chattered their branches. They had become sissy trees. The trees of Dr. Gibbs had fared much better. Adversity and deprivation seemed to have benefitted them in ways comfort and ease could never have. Then Phillip says, “Now, every night I go to bed, I watch over my two little children. I often pray for them. Mostly I pray that they will have easy lives, ‘Lord, spare them from hardship!” But lately I’ve been thinking it’s time to change my prayer. I know my children will encounter hardships and my praying they won’t is naïve. There’s always a cold wind blowing somewhere. So I’ve changed my evening prayer because life is tough whether we want it to be or not. Instead, I’m going to pray my sons’ roots grow deep, so they can draw strength from the hidden sources of the living God. Too many times we pray for ease but that’s a prayer that seldom is answered. What we need to do is pray for roots that grow deep into the Eternal God, so when the rains fall and the winds blow, we won’t be swept away.” (More Stories for the Heart, Alice Gray, 1997, pp217-218)

  The problem with not having deep roots of faith is that we fear to trust God in all things. We live in a self centered generation that believes it can fix its own problems. So when we encounter those storms in life we think we should be able to fix ourselves. Often we do not trust God enough to allow God to work with us, or we are disappointed because God didn’t fix us right away. We don’t want to confess that we might not be strong enough to ride the rough waves of the rocky turbulent waters that come with the grief of loss or injustices acted upon us or our sense of failure or a deeper sense of our own sinfulness. We don’t want to confess that our faith is not strong enough, that we fear to trust or that we doubt and think we are the only ones that can fix things. We think that God cannot possibly love us after we have committed a grievous behavior or that God must not love us because the world had been pulled out from under us. We forget that it takes time and patience to work through grief. We forget that our reactions will be up and down for quite some time and ease of pain can only come after we’ve worked through all the awful feelings of pain. We forget that God is still with us even when we feel so distanced from God. We forget that God’s love and mercy is deeper than our sin and despair. We fear to trust God because we forget that God is so capable of providing the healing we need through the thick and thin of things. We forget that God cares for our wholeness and well-being. We forget that God wants our roots to grow in deep trust, trust so profound that we can say in midst of deepest pain and despair, “God will see me through! I will draw on his strength!”

  The Psalmist speaks of one aspect of our being, that of the well being that comes with forgiveness. The Psalmist knew that it takes energy to cover our sins, to keep them buried deep within us, festering away, draining our resources. Likewise hiding our grief or despair or resentments zaps us of our strength and energy and sense of well-being. The Psalmist speaks of an answer to our fearing to trust in God. He says, “Let all who are faithful offer prayer to (God) at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters will not reach them.” That does not mean that water will not reach us, but the rush that bowls us over cannot topple us or draw us drowning into the destructive torrents. We will make it through the storms and our roots will grow ever deeper with each passing experience. The Psalmist goes on to say, “steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord.” Trusting God means confessing that we need God, that we need God’s forgiveness, that we need God’s reassurance that the storm will eventually end, that we need God’s presence and cannot fix ourselves. Trusting God means knowing that God is with us in the midst of the storm and in its aftermath.

  Making the decision to retire was a deeply disturbing decision, made over a long period of time. I love what I am doing and I love sharing my love for God. There were moments of deep pain and a great sense of loss as I’ve struggled with my health and the possibility of not being in ministry. Sometimes I forgot that God was in the decision, prompting me through all the yeses and no’s of making such a decision. At those times I felt bitter and abandoned and alone in my decision making. But there came a time when I finally prayed, “God I trust you to help me with this decision. You have led me down the right path so far. Why should I doubt your wisdom now?” In those moments I realized that God was leading me down another path, that my ministry was not finished, that perhaps God had been leading me in a certain direction all along. I am putting my trust in God that He will continue to lead me and will continue to help my roots of faith go very deep indeed.

  It’s not necessarily about thinking that God will make life easy, or that the path ahead will be a piece of cake. It’s about having the reassurance that God will be in our lives ahead, helping us to weather the storms so that we will be able to offer God’s hope to others and fill this world with God’s light and love through what we say and do or write and pray. It’s about trusting in God’s goodness enough that we know we can with His help. We don’t have to go life alone. No matter what the circumstances God will walk through with us.

  Charles Swindoll tells this story. A plane was headed for New York—a routine and normally very boring flight. But this time it proved to be otherwise. As they were on their descent pattern the pilot realized that his landing gear was not engaging. He messed around with the controls, trying again and again to get the gear to lock into place…without success. He then asked ground control for instruction. As the plane circled the landing field, the emergency crew coated the runway with foam and fire trucks and other emergency vehicles moved into position. Meanwhile the passengers were told of each maneuver in that calm, unemotional voice pilots do so well. Flight attendants glided about the cabin with an air of cool reserve. Passengers were told to place their heads between their knees and grab their ankles just before impact. There were tears and a few cries of despair. Then, with the landing only a few moments away, the pilot suddenly announced over the intercom, “We are beginning our final descent. At this moment, in accordance with International Aviation Codes established at Geneva, it is my obligation to inform you that if you believe in God, you should commence prayer.” Scout’s honor that is exactly what he said.

  Now what prayer would that be? It could be a prayer that God would save the plane and all who are on it. That would be the natural prayer to pray. But the prayer that comes to my mind is the prayer that Jesus prayed at the end of his life, “ Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” That is a true prayer of trust. No matter what the outcome the prayer is to have God that outcome.