September 28, 2008

The Sheik Hussein Border Crossing: Expect Adversity
James 1:2-4

Sermons dealing with adversity seem always to focus on the most pressing situations that we face in life and the theological questions that they provoke. “Why do terrible things happen to good people?” we often wonder. “Why does God allow such pain and suffering?” “Was the car accident in which my friend died a part of God’s will?” All of us have asked such questions at one time or another, and if we haven’t yet, we most likely will one day down the road.

But questions like these never entered my mind the day we arrived at the Sheik Hussein Border Crossing on our way back to Israel from Jordan. I wasn’t thinking about car accidents, brain tumors, house fires, military takeovers, or the eroding global economy. It’s not that matters like these are either unimportant or easy to cope with, of course. It’s just that, on this afternoon at least, I was more preoccupied with the smaller interruptions and set-backs in life that often catch us of guard and, if we let them, ruin our day—not to mention our relationships with family and friends!

You know the kinds of things that I am referring to, don’t you? You’ve experienced adversity in small doses, right? You have another problem with your Verizon bill, and you just can’t get a real, live human being on the other end of the phone. You drip juice from the cherry pie all over the seat of your car. The new storm door that you ordered months ago finally comes, and it is ? inch too short. A lengthy e-mail you’ve just finished writing somehow vanishes into thin air before you’ve had the chance to send it. Every light turns red at just the moment you pull up. The waitress returns to the table and informs you that they just ran out of the one thing that you most wanted. The pot on the stove cooks over while you are in the bathroom. The baby screams for the umpteenth time in the middle of the night.

Adversity in small doses—bite-size chunks. That’s the kind of stuff I thought about as we made our way through the Sheik Hussein Border Crossing on our way back to Israel from Jordan. And when the ordeal finally ended, I realized again: Adversity itself cannot harm us, but the way that the way we respond to it certainly can.

The Sheik Hussein Border Crossing is situated just south of the Sea of Galilee, and we arrived there just after noon, about 1? hours ahead of schedule. Thank God! We got off to a smooth start, had our luggage checked by the Jordanian authorities, paid the necessary exit fees, and sat down on a bench to wait for the next bus to drive us the short distance across the Jordan River and on to the Israeli customs offices. We ate the lunch that we brought with us and continued to wait for what seemed to us to be an unusually long time. Finally, the bus arrived and we all boarded. After driving a few minutes, perhaps half the total distance, the bus stopped at the border for yet another Jordanian guard to check our passports. As he flipped through ours, I grew a bit uneasy. Suddenly, my anxieties were confirmed. I had failed to have our passports stamped with the customary exit pass.

The air grew thick. We were tired after a relatively hot drive, and we were more than eager to get home. Now, we had to get off of the bus, pick up our luggage, walk back to the Jordanian customs agents, get our passports stamped, and wait for another bus to pick us up. How would we respond? At just that moment, I heard God whisper in my ear, “Adversity cannot harm you, but the way that you respond to it certainly can.”

James says pretty much the same thing here in 1:2-4, and he offers what I have found to be helpful, if not earth-shattering, advice. First, James assures us that adversity is a fact of life. “Whenever you face trials,” he writes, not “if.” Adversity is a given. If you get out of bed in the morning, and most of you did today, chances are that something will not go according to your plans. Even the most devout followers of Jesus are not exempt from adversity.

Secondly, James instructs us to take seriously trials “of any kind,” whether great or small. We often equate significance with size. The bigger, the better, we sometimes say. Conversely, if we speak of problems or difficulties, the bigger, the deadlier. In reality, however, the smaller set-backs are often more annoying and troublesome than some of the major ones. When adversity strikes in epic proportions, it often seems as though we either fall into shock or quickly recognize our inability to cope on our own and, as a result, experience more readily God’s grace. When people receive unusually bad news, they often embrace each other and pray. But when adversity comes in bite-sized chunks, we sometimes lose it.

And finally, James encourages us to make adversity our friend. How? By putting into practice the few simple suggestions that we find here. When adversity stares us in the face, we must first stop and think. “Whenever you face trials of any kind,” James writes, “consider it…” Catch yourself. Don’t just react. Think a little, and name what you are feeling. “I am frustrated because I’m going to be late. I’m anxious because of what people might think. I’m upset because I cannot control the situation, and I like to control things. I like everything to be neat and tidy.”

Consider the adversity that you face. That is what I tried to do when I realized that I had failed to get our passports stamped and that we would need to go through the entire process again. I felt frustrated with myself for the oversight. I should have known better after traveling as much as I do. But more than that, I feared disappointing or even angering my wife and daughter. All I could imagine was deafening silence and a long car-ride home, and I sure didn’t want that.

I had enough of those silent, anxious moments when I was a child. My father, as some of you know, was a wonderful man—a man of great compassion and love. But he wasn’t always that way. I remember plenty of occasions when even the smallest things would set off my dad when I was a child, and he would withdraw from the family and not say a word for days. I hated those times, and I hated even more the thought of perpetuating them in my own family. I brought all of that to the table when I felt anxious on the walk back to the passport offices. “Consider your trials,” James suggests. Stop and think for a moment. What is really going on?

Then, after pausing, choose. In the face of adversity, we actually have a decision to make. We can simply react, complain and fuss, raise our voices, scream at those around us, put our fists through the wall. Or we can make adversity our friend. We can recognize that, rather than harming us, adversity actually provides an opportunity for us to learn and grow.

This is what James has in mind when he speaks of joy in adversity. Joy and pleasure are not synonymous. Neither are joy and happiness. Going through adversity most likely will not be fun. But joy—that is another matter. Because joy grows out of the realization that adversity cannot harm us. Joy is rooted in the fact that adversity, if responded to properly, stretches our spiritual muscles, weans us further from our obsession with things of the world, and enables us to demonstrate our devotion to Christ to the world around us. How should I react to the adversity presently before me?

As we made our way back to the Jordanian offices, dragging our luggage behind us, I first apologized for putting us in this mess. “I should have known better,” I said. Then, after we had our passports stamped and retook our seats at the bus stop, we decided together, not to mope around and complain, but to redeem the time. We’d been reading a book together during the week, so Julie pulled it out of her back-pack and turned to the page where we had left off. Before long, we had totally forgotten the aggravation of the afternoon and found ourselves instead enjoying the hour together.

Adversity cannot harm us, but the way that we respond to it certainly can. What a difference a simple decision can make, a decision to make adversity your friend. What happened that afternoon at the Sheik Hussein Border Crossing, though relatively simple in retrospect, was powerful for me. I still cherish the memory.

Needless to say, it didn’t take long to put the lesson into practice again. And again. And again! When we landed at Heathrow, we went immediately to pick up our rental car—lesson one: never rent a car in London! To accommodate our luggage, the car given us was a new, Ford station wagon with a six-speed manual transmission—lesson two: never rent a car in London with a manual transmission unless you are more coordinated with your left hand than I am! As we left the parking lot, I was of course sitting on the right side of the car rather than the customary left and likewise driving on the left-hand side of the street. Everything was backward.

Equipped with a print-out of directions, we made our way for no more than half a mile before hitting our first British round-about. Already confused and a bit flustered, I pulled into the parking lot of a hotel to regain my equilibrium, only to find a gate blocking the road. I turned around, pulled back onto the highway, and found myself sitting at a traffic light—on the wrong side of the road! I backed up to the nearest driveway, turned around again, and set off without a clue as to where I was going. Finally, we somehow managed to find the proper highway and made our way into London.

It didn’t take long, however, to once again encounter a series of round-abouts that left us thoroughly lost—in the congested area of London where you need a special permit to drive. For two hours, I tried to find my way out of downtown London, with no success. Finally, I stopped at a service station, spotted a taxi driver, and paid him to lead us to our hotel, several miles away in the northeastern section of the city! I never even touched his car, let alone get into it.

Was the experience a bit stressful? More than a little. Yet all along the way, I kept thinking to myself about the events at the Sheik Hussein Border Crossing. “Adversity cannot harm me,” I reminded myself, “but the way that I respond to it certainly can.” And everything turned out O.K. We made it to the guest house, not only in one piece, but with peace of mind.