These Are The Times That Try Men’s Souls

I think I know every line by heart.

One of my favorite movies of all time is When Harry Met Sally… I’ve watched it more times than I can count. And there’s a part of me that’s admittedly a little like Harry. There’s probably a little Harry in all of us, and Sally too, which is why the movie is so relatable. But in particular I’m thinking of the scene where Harry and Sally are traveling together from Chicago to New York. Harry’s girlfriend and Sally’s friend Amanda set them up since they were both traveling to the same place, and Harry explains that he and Amanda got together because of his “dark side.” Sally says, “Your dark side.” And Harry responds, “Yeah. Why? Don’t you have a dark side? No, you’re probably one of those cheerful people who dots their ‘I’’s with little hearts.” And Sally comes back with, “I have just as much of a dark side as anyone else.” Harry turns to her and explains, “When I buy a book I always read the last page first. That way in case I die I know how it ends. THAT my friend is a dark side.” I have to admit I used to do that for a long time for just that reason. When I was a kid I heard that people became ghosts because of something unfinished in their life and I didn’t want to float around for eternity waiting for someone to finish reading that book to me. So after reading a chapter or two, I would flip to the end of the book so I knew how it would end. I don’t believe I’m going to come back and haunt anybody anymore, but once in a while I still flip to the end of the book. I find it gives me great peace of mind knowing how it ends up. I don’t read it in detail. I still want to be surprised, but when you know where you’re heading, you don’t mind the twists and turns you encounter as you go along. It’s the things you don’t know that cause you the most anxiety. It’s the things you don’t know that cause you the most anxiety.

Cassie surprised me on our 10th anniversary with a renewal of our wedding vows - this time with Emma!
Cassie surprised me on our 10th anniversary with a renewal of our wedding vows – this time with Emma!

Not knowing makes people do the strangest things.

Researchers did a study where they tested whether or not people preferred getting an electric shock immediately vs. maybe getting an electric shock later and they found that people preferred getting the shock now rather than go through the anxiety of waiting to see if it would happen.[1] Sounds crazy, right? But as human beings, we do not like the unknown. Now for some things – minor things – we’re willing to tolerate it and even find it somewhat enjoyable. Movies, books, surprise parties – most people find those things enjoyable (not my wife Cassie who told me when we were dating that I was NEVER to throw her a surprise party), and generally that’s because it’s a short-term anxiety usually with a satisfying end. Professor Fishbach from the University of Chicago said, “it’s exciting when the stakes are not huge.”[2] But for other things like medical test results or applying for college or a job, those things make us more on edge because more is at stake and sometimes the end is unknown. And when more is at stake, we do our best to manipulate the results, whether they are rational or not. People can go one of two ways when the stress of not knowing starts to become too much – they either work hard toward ending the stress or ignore it altogether, both of which can have disastrous results. Not going to the doctor because you’re afraid of the result won’t cure whatever you might have, and bugging someone constantly to get the results you want might just push them the other way. There was an episode of The Big Bang Theory where Sheldon went up to his childhood idol, Professor Proton and wanted to collaborate with him, but Professor Proton turned him down. Sheldon speculated, “It’s because I’m annoying isn’t it? Just say it. I’m annoying. Just say it. I’m annoying.” Trying to avoid being rude, Professor Proton said good night, but Sheldon wouldn’t stop. “Just say it. I’m annoying. I’m annoying. Just say it. I’m annoying,” until finally Professor Proton said, “You’re annoying!” and closed the door on him. Sheldon looked sheepishly and said, “Wow, that hurt.”

We are going through tough times right now.

Both in our nation and in our church and for some of us in our personal life as well. It seems like a storm cloud has quickly surrounded us and we are caught in the middle of it all. As Thomas Paine once wrote, “These are the times that try men’s souls.”[3] With the election of President Trump and his first few weeks in office, there’s a nervous tension running throughout our country. Some people are worried about whether or not they are about to lose their healthcare. Some are worried about being deported. Some are worried about not being able to leave the country. Some are worried about having their freedom to choose curtailed by the choices made by this administration. Those are big ticket items and you can imagine the stress and anxiety that is causing, especially when the end result is unknown. In our denomination, we are struggling with issues surrounding the inclusion of homosexual, bisexual, and transgendered people and what that inclusion looks like. Should we allow clergy who are in homosexual relationships? Should we allow clergy to marry people in homosexual relationships? For some it’s even more basic than that – should we support people who live a homosexual lifestyle? And the answers to that are splitting our church with people on both sides quoting the Bible to support their ideas and with seemingly no solution other than to split the church. When you add personal struggles to the list, the anxiety we walk around with on a daily basis seems insurmountable and people are reacting in strange, sometimes violent ways. “These are the times that try men’s souls” and how we react will say a lot about who we are. Our reading today talks a little bit about storms, and even though it actually happened, it is also a metaphor for how we should handle the storms in our own lives.

22 One day Jesus said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side of the lake.” So they got into a boat and set out. 23 As they sailed, he fell asleep. A squall came down on the lake, so that the boat was being swamped, and they were in great danger.

24 The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Master, Master, we’re going to drown!”

He got up and rebuked the wind and the raging waters; the storm subsided, and all was calm. 25 “Where is your faith?” he asked his disciples.

In fear and amazement they asked one another, “Who is this? He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him.”

Lake fishing on June Lake with my dad
Lake fishing on June Lake with my dad

That must have been one BIG storm.

It also must have been one BIG lake. I’ve gone lake fishing many times and I can’t imagine a storm so violent that I would ever be in danger. Especially not in a boat filled with a bunch of fishermen. Now maybe none of the disciples who were fisherman were actually in the boat, but since Luke simply said “the disciples” and not “some of his disciples” it sounds like they probably were. And these would have been seasoned fishermen who have been out to sea, so the fact that they were scared enough to believe they might drown means it must have been a massive storm. I had to look up a couple of the terms, but a squall is “a sudden violent gust of wind or localized storm, especially one bringing rain, snow, or sleet”[4] so this would have taken them by surprise, Especially if there were in the middle of the lake, there would be nowhere for them to go. And when the Bible says the boat was being swamped, that’s not just waves of water crashing down on it. It means that the boat was being drenched or submerged.[5] That’s how much water was rushing into it. They were literally fearing for their lives. These kind of storms can become extremely violent. A 92-foot ship called the Albatross sank suddenly when it encountered a “white squall” where winds whipped up to 150 miles per hour.[6] And the boat that the disciples were on likely wasn’t that big. We don’t know how bad the squall was or if it was even a “white squall” but even the disciples who were experienced fishermen were panicking when they woke Jesus. But Jesus calmly stood up and quelled the storm and he asked them “Where is your faith?”

Storm clouds rolling in - beautiful to look at but can be destructive too
Storm clouds rolling in – beautiful to look at but can be destructive too

In the middle of the storms of our life we need to put our trust in Jesus.

When we focus on him, he will calm the storm raging around us and quell our anxiety. In the story, the disciples literally focused on the being of Jesus, but for us today we need to focus on the promises of Jesus and the lessons he taught us. What just happened at UC Berkeley this week was a tragedy. And even though most of the people involved were not violent, it only takes a handful to cause even more panic and anxiety. In a short amount of time these protesters were able to cause over $100,000 in damages. Perhaps the man they came to protest said it best, “I’m just stunned that hundreds of people … were so threatened by the idea that a conservative speaker might be persuasive, interesting, funny and might take some people with him, they have to shut it down at all costs.”[7] Is this how we resolve conflict? By resorting to violence when things don’t go our way? Do we have so little faith that we feel this is the type of action we have to resort to? It is certainly not the route that Jesus ever talked about. When people did things Jesus didn’t agree with, he didn’t condemn them or curse them. He ate with them. He got to know them. He invited them into a relationship with him. And Jesus asks us to do the same.

We don’t need to turn to the end of the book because we already know how it turns out.

God wins. God wins. So why are we worrying so much? I’m not saying we should sit around and do nothing and just hope for the best. Rick Page once wrote, “Hope is not a strategy.”[8] When God presents the opportunity, it’s up to us to step through the door and pursue it. But it’s hard to know where God is leading when we’re filled with anxiety and fear. If we can’t be still in the storm, we can’t follow where God is leading. Moses’ example of crossing the Red Sea speaks to this exactly. The escaping Israelites are in complete panic, yelling at Moses that he should have left them in Egypt. Better to die a slave and live out your life than to die on the run. But Moses tells the people, “The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.” We can’t listen for God’s direction when we are caught in the middle of our anxiety. We have to allow God to quiet the storm inside us and then take action. Allow God to quiet the storm inside us and then take action.

There are still times when I let the storms of life get the better of me.

But through experience and my own stubbornness, I have learned that the very best way to handle them is to have faith in God and allow him to guide me. It has led me to have a peace about life that I know I didn’t have before. You’ll often hear me say I don’t know how things will work out, but I know they will, and I believe that. I trust in God to guide me through. But I’m still working on it. One day I hope to have a peace about myself like Cassie’s grandparents who remain for me a model of Christ’s love in the world. Or like some of you. In each place I’ve served there have always been people who have what Paul calls the “peace that passes all understanding (Philippians 4:7).” I pray we all can share in that peace. I pray for our country and I pray for our church, but I know God will be there no matter whatever else happens. And I still flip to the end of books sometimes, but I don’t worry anymore about dying and coming back as a ghost. Instead I am learning to enjoy the journey and turn to Christ in the storm. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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[1] https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/03/how-uncertainty-fuels-anxiety/388066/

[2] Ibid

[3] http://www.ushistory.org/paine/crisis/c-01.htm

[4] https://www.google.com/search?q=squall&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8

[5] https://www.google.com/search?q=swamped+boat+meaning&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8

[6] http://www.nytimes.com/1996/03/10/nyregion/the-day-the-albatross-went-down.html

[7] http://www.cnn.com/2017/02/01/us/milo-yiannopoulos-berkeley/

[8] Some have credited coach Vince Lombardi as having said it first, but I couldn’t find any record of it. However, Rick Page actually wrote a book on it (and Cassie knows Rick). http://amzn.to/2kaEqKH

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