When University of the Ozarks senior Emily Autry gave the sermon at the University’s weekly Chapel service in December, she shared a message of endurance that’s been in the works for the past three and a half years.
The senior religion and political science major from Hot Springs, Ark., gave the sermon to the campus community on Dec. 4, the final Chapel service of the semester. Her message, titled “Joy and Perseverance,” focused on overcoming trials and hardships and how to embracer obstacles that might come your way.
For Autry, who will graduate in May, giving the sermon was one of the capstones to her college experience. It was also an opportunity to let her classmates and professors know how much she has grown as a person since walking on campus as a freshman in 2015.
“I’ve always known that I wanted to do a Chapel sermon,” she said. “I have been a regular attender of Chapel since my freshman year and I’ve seen amazing speakers come through. I’ve heard and loved so many of our chaplain’s sermons and I knew that I wanted the opportunity to share in the same place that all that had come before me had done as well. I saw it as a way that I could leave my mark on our University.”
Autry said numerous conversations with the University Chaplain, Rev. Jeremy Wilhelmi, over the last few years helped her in preparing the message.
“We’ve spent hours talking about different challenges or questions that I was having about my personal life and discussing the meaning of life,” she said. “This specific message came to me before Thanksgiving, but it was many years in the making. It was appropriate for the season, but also something that I needed to hear from God as well.”
The combination of religion and political science majors might seem strange to some people, but it was a natural match for Autry.
“When I toured Ozarks my senior year of high school, I met with [Religion Professor] Dr. Dave Daily and after our visit I was very excited to major in religion,” she said. “During the spring semester of my freshman year, I took my first political science class, American national government with Dr. Mark Scully, and I fell in love with his teaching style and the content. I found out that I loved them both, so I soon declared a double major.”
With a double major and so many career options, Autry said she’s not sure where her future career path might lead.
“After graduation, I am planning to find a job working for a church or non-profit for a year while I apply for seminary school,” she said. “I am honestly not sure what my dream job would be. I love preaching. I love leadership. I am very interested in community spiritual development and political engagement. I guess my dream job would be to continue my education for the rest of my life. I want to do a lot of things. I would love to be a professor one day to share everything that I’ve learned.”
Just months away from graduating, Autry said she’s thankful for the professors at Ozarks for pushing and challenging her.
“The most beneficial part of my Ozark education is the deep questions about calling and purpose that have come from my professors,” she said. “They have always challenged me to learn with intention to do good with the knowledge that I acquire. This has probably been one of the hardest things about my education so far, but I know it has made it so much more meaningful. We have the best professors in the world. No one can ever take away all that I have learned and gained from them. I cherish my education greatly.”
Joy and Perseverance
James 1: 2-4: “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.”
If there is anything that I have learned in my time here at Ozarks from my beloved Political Science Professor, Dr. Stewart Dippel, it is this: “There is no finish line in our walk with Jesus.” And that’s the only credit I’m giving to the political science department for this sermon because obviously the religion department, aka Dr. Daily, prepared me for this day the most.
All jokes aside. The phrase, “There is no finish line in our walk with Jesus,” does speak a lot of truth to me especially when thinking about my time at Ozarks and this verse found in this letter written by James. Life will not be easy. Life will come with many struggles and hardships. This is normal. This is what it means to be alive. However, we have the ability to look at trials positively. They should be evidence of our perseverance of faith.
When asked to speak in Chapel, I knew that I wanted to talk about how my time at Ozarks has shaped my life over the past four years. Since I walked on this campus for the first time my senior year of high school until today, so much has taken place.
I have attended every Study Night Breakfast. I have run wild across campus in ugly sweaters in order to take pictures by the Christmas tree lights. I have endured too many Dr. Scully classes. I have been a part of the history-making cheer team. I have pulled multiple all-nighters. I have made some of the best friends in the whole world. I have participated in Interfaith work and spiritual life. I have written more pages than I ever thought possible. I’ve encountered heartache and sadness. I have laughed until I have cried. And, I’ve grown more in self-confidence than I would have never expected. Ozarks has taught me how to learn. Ozarks has taught me how to love. Ozarks has taught me how to be my best self.
As senior year has come, so has my stress and anxiety about the future. In some ways I have almost shut down at the thought of leaving this beloved stage in my life. I have learned that all of the trials of college, all the all-nighters, arguments, disagreements, brutal cheer practices, difficult concepts and exhausting days, I can look back at and smile. I genuinely have pure joy thinking about how God has used me and molded me in the past four years.
I am stronger because of these trials. I am more confident in myself and who am because of these hard days. I am more prepared for the world because of the time I have given to learning and devoting myself to this place. These are pure joy moments. These times are what have given me endurance to continue this journey to graduation and to what life will bring me next. Ozarks has taught me most that there is no finish line in our personal growth, just like there is no finish line in our walk with Jesus. We must continue every day to learn and grow and find joy even in the midst of our trials.
When I think about what it really means to journey with Jesus continually, it’s hard not to think of times when I got distracted or walked off the path. It’s not just our good times that shape our understanding of being in a relationship with Jesus, but it’s the bad times too. It’s the times when we get mad at God for our suffering. Or when we are put in a tough situation. It’s the times of worry and guilt. It’s even the times when we fall flat on our face. When we think our mistakes are too big to be forgiven. These times make up our walk with Jesus too.
Think back on a time in your life when you were facing a trial. What did it feel like to have your faith tested? Often times we fall back into old bad habits. Or we distract ourselves and act like nothing is wrong. It’s much more difficult to stand firm in our faith during these times. But that’s what God asks us to do. We are called to lean on God even more during these hard time. It is when we push God away that we often struggle the most. Pure joy comes when we put all our trust and faith in God. The text is asking us to look at our trials and consider them pure joy. James says that “the testing of our faith produces endurance.” We literally can’t continue on our walk with Jesus without endurance when faced with hard times.
So what is endurance? The first definition of endurance is “the fact or power of enduring an unpleasant or difficult process or situation without giving way.” The second definition, which is the one that I love, is “the capacity of something to last or withstand wear and tear.”
The evidence of our faith often comes with how we face our trials. This is where we can begin to talk about enduring with intention. We want to be able to have faith that lasts or withstands wear and tear.
I read an article recently titled, “One Thing that Wholeheartedly Happy People Have in Common,” by David Baumrind. His marriage was failing and he found himself in a time of complete dissatisfaction with his himself and his life, wanted to re-evaluate what it meant to be happy. What Baumrind found is that “consistently practicing gratitude can actually rewire our brains to search for the positive first instead of the negative.” He goes on to explain that “When we begin to see the positive we are able to learn from our experiences, even the bad ones.” I think Baumrind is right. Practicing gratitude is one way that we can endure trials well. It gives us the ability to withstand. It doesn’t make the problem go away. It doesn’t allow us to avoid the problem. Rather, gratitude can be the remedy we need that helps us endure the tests of life.
There’s a really great story that my mom tells about this idea. The story is titled, “Grateful for the Thorns,” and in the story a young woman named Sandra loses her pregnancy due to a minor automobile accident. As if that weren’t enough her husband’s company threatened a transfer. Then her sister called saying she could not make it to Thanksgiving that year. How could she even think of being thankful for anything this holiday season?
Sandra is in a flower shop looking for an arrangement for Thanksgiving. The clerk asks Sandra in conversation if she is looking for something that conveys gratitude this Thanksgiving?
Sandra responds with, “not exactly,” and goes on to explain that everything that could go wrong in the past few months has gone wrong. The clerk insists that she has the perfect arrangement for Sandra. The clerk suggests a customer’s favorite called the “Thanksgiving Special.” She brings out an arrangement of 12 thorny long-stemmed stems with no roses on them. Sandra was puzzled. The clerk goes on to explain that three years earlier she too felt like everything was going wrong. She had lost her husband, assumed complete responsibility for the flower shop and for the first time spent the holidays alone. The clerk said, “I had no children, no husband, no family nearby, and too great a debt to allow any travel.”
Sandra said, “what did you do?” and the clerk’s response was, “I learned to be thankful for thorns.” The clerk goes on to explain that it takes thorns to show the beauty of God’s comfort. It takes having our own thorns to begin to ask how we can comfort others during their thorns. Even Jesus wore thorns so that we might know His love. We can’t spend time resenting our thorns. Instead, we must embrace and be thankful for our thorns. Sandra resisted the thorny stemmed arrangement at first, but by the end of her time spent talking with the clerk she walked out of the store with 12 long-stemmed thorns. And attached to the arrangement was this prayer:
“My God, I have never thanked Thee for my thorns! I have thanked Thee a thousand times for my roses, but never once for my thorns. Teach me the glory of the cross I bear. Teach me the value of my thorns. Show me that I have climbed to Thee by the path of pain. Show me that my tears have made my rainbow.” — George Matheson
So be thankful for the trial. Be thankful for the ability to go through the struggle or circumstance in life that you have been given. I know some of my greatest struggles in the past four years have been due to being in college. But thank God I have the opportunity to go to college. Thank God I had the ability to be a college cheerleader. Thank God I have a bed to sleep in, even if it was with a roommate that got on my nerves. Saying thank you sounds so simple. But like Baumrind explains, it reminds us of the positive. It takes us out of the mindset of selfishness, pity, and sadness. It opens our eyes to the possibility of seeing the world differently. In the midst of this spiritual practice, I believe we begin to see God more fully. We mature in our faith. We begin to endure intentionally.
So if you’re having a hard time finding God in the midst of your trial, then what if you just start with saying thank you? This practice may begin to cultivate endurance with intention; Intention to live into the trial, to embrace the trial. And you might even decide to do something about the trial. That is endurance with intention.
God wants us to find joy. God wants us to act in faith and to face life with endurance. I truly believe that we will be joyful when we choose to live more deeply into our faith in Jesus. I believe we’re called to be thankful for our thorns and truly reflect on them with God. I believe this is what God wants from us all the days of our life.
So don’t wait until you’re a senior to learn these things. Don’t rush to the end. Don’t wake up halfway through your senior year and realize all the joy that’s been there all along, even in the trials. Stay planted firmly in the journey. Don’t give up. Actually engage in each opportunity that you have every day. This is where real life happens. Living a full life isn’t marked when your life is over. It’s not about checking off the boxes.
Be aware and fight for the maturing of your faith right now.
Stay engaged right now.
Find joy right now.
Be thankful for the thorns.
And, remember, there is no finish line, but there’s plenty of joy on the journey.