Text: James 1:1-4
It would be an understatement to say that this has not been a typical week. On Monday morning I picked up all the sticks in the yard and mowed the lawn. And it looked really nice. It was getting darker in the west and I was glad to get it done before it rained. Then we heard about a strong storm coming, and it got really dark. We checked the weather on TV but the satellite went out, and the sirens went off, and we went downstairs. And the winds blew and the power went off.
I went upstairs briefly to check on things and saw that there was definitely something down in the neighbors’ backyard. But the winds were still pretty strong and it was hard to see - everything was a kind of grayish green - so I went back downstairs. When we finally came back up to check things out, we had a good bit of tree damage and I could see that what was down in the neighbors’ backyard was the roof of our shed, with various other pieces here and there. There was also a massive limb from our next door neighbor’s tree down on the power lines that run at the back of our yard.
Other than those of you who are joining us from out of town, most of you probably had similar experiences. In fact, even some of you from out of town had this kind of experience. Just when you thought 2020 could not get any worse or any weirder, a derecho comes along. At least we learned a new word this week.
I haven’t had a chance to check, but I expect that we have fewer people with us this morning because I know that there are folks who still do not have power and there are more who don’t have internet service. Such things did not used to be necessary for worship but in this strange time in which we live, at this point they are.
We have been making our way through Acts but given the week we have had, I thought we might switch things up this morning. I’m mostly going to be reflecting on this past week. Our scripture is from the letter of James, traditionally attributed to James the brother of Jesus.
We actually came across James a few weeks ago in Acts 15 – James was the leader of the church in Jerusalem and it was James who, speaking for the sense of those gathered, said that Gentiles coming to Christ should not be burdened, as he put it, with Jewish law.
As he begins this letter, James says “Whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy.”
Well, there’s a contrarian viewpoint for you. And we have certainly faced trials over these past months. In what way can trials be reason for joy? And if trials make for joy, does that make 2020 the most joyful year ever?
Well, let me tell you about my experience this week. Monday afternoon, people starting assessing the damage and cleaning up. I looked at our backyard and wondered how I would ever manage the mess. Tree limbs down and besides the bigger stuff, sticks just covered the ground. Instead of a snowstorm it was a stickstorm.
I had an electric chainsaw, which was pretty useless at that point, and a hand saw that was not in good shape, but I had some good loppers and I started cutting limbs down to size as I could and dragging them out to the street. And a bunch of neighbors just appeared to help, including a couple of friends visiting the high school kid next door and a guy who had spent the night visiting the new neighbors who had moved in behind us – I actually met them when we were all out surveying the damage. We waved and I said, “Well, welcome to the neighborhood.” With 8 or 10 people working, we pretty well cleared two yards. Then the new neighbors behind us helped me carry pieces of our shed from their yard back to our yard.
A shared crisis brings out the best in many people. There was a community spirit that afternoon that we rarely experience. We were in it together. There was actually some joy in it.
Without air conditioning, we ate outside and hung out outside more this past week. For me it was a reminder of a time when folks sat outside on the front porch to escape the heat, and people would visit. I remember front porch swings like my grandma had at her house. We had a little bit of that vibe this week, as folks were outside and neighbors had a chance to visit. I’ve talked to some neighbors more this week than I had in 6 months or a maybe a year, I’m embarrassed to say.
This week also reminded me of mission trips. I thought of our trip to Puerto Rico last summer. We worked in the heat there, and somehow you get used to it. There was no hot water for the showers, and you manage. And it occurred to me that we were without power for a few days, but there are lots of places where power outages happen almost every day. And then, while this week has not necessarily been easy, I think about the community we worked in and that church in Luquillo – they were without power for 6 months. Can you imagine?
And that Puerto Rican church, despite the difficulties it faced, took a mission team to assist in a community harder hit than they were.
This week has been a reminder, perhaps, not to take things like dependable electricity and good clean water for granted and to remember those who face the kind of conditions we dealt with this week all the time. It was also a reminder to be thankful for utility workers and all those who make our electrical grid work and all of the conveniences we enjoy possible. There was gratitude and with that, joy.
And then there is technology. Never mind not having air conditioning: we had to suffer without internet! It was actually a good thing, maybe, to give up TV for a few days, to spend less time on our screens and devices.
When we are all facing storms, our impulse as followers of Jesus is to think of others. The neighbor who needs help cleaning up. The friend who could use a cooler of ice. We were touched when a friend and colleague offered us the use of their generator after they had regained power. It was too late to save the food in our refrigerator, but we appreciated them thinking of us as much as the generator itself. (Or close to as much, at least.) In that sharing and caring for one another, there is joy.
After the storm we thought about college students. Imagine that you were a freshman - I suppose some of you may not have to imagine - and that Monday was your move in day. It it is exciting, but still, there is anxiety as you get ready to move in to college. And at least as much anxiety for the parents. You have to go to Lied to get a COVID test before getting your room key, and then in the middle of everything there is a torrential storm, hurricane force winds, and a massive power outage. What a way to begin at Iowa State.
It’s been a tough week. But again, James says, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because these trials lead to growth.
It is tempting to see this as simply a pious platitude. And it would make more sense to say, whenever life is super easy, consider it all joy.
But then it occurred to me: when has life ever been super easy? Even pre-2020 life had its share of storms. We don’t have to be in a global pandemic or experience a Midwestern hurricane to experience trials. If we are honest, there are derechos all around, and there always have been. There are health derechos that can come suddenly. Many are facing a formidable economic derecho. There are family derechos and certainly school derechos. There are derechos of injustice and derechos of need. And all of these can be tests of our faith.
So how can we say, when you face these derechos, consider it all joy? Well, it’s been a tough week and I am not going to answer that for you. Partly because I’m not sure I can, at least not very well, and partly because this is perhaps worth our reflecting on for all of us. But it does seem to me if we are unable to find joy in the midst of storms, we may have a hard time finding joy, period, because we are all the time facing storms of some kind. So maybe joy is not entirely dependent on the circumstances in which we find ourselves.
Frederick Buechner wrote words that speak to the storms we face, from God’s perspective:
Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.
It has been a hard week, and it may be a hard week ahead, but I pray that you are able to find joy and glimpses of God in the midst of it. Amen.