Saturday, September 29, 2012

Healing, Prayer, Community and the Power of the Lord

The Letter of James, that great work about great works in the name of faith, ends with a pep talk.  It's the kinda stuff an inspirational speaker would use to get people off their butts and on the move:

"Is anyone among you in trouble?  Let them pray.  Is anyone happy?  Let them sing songs of praise.  Is anyone among you sick?  Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord.  And the prayer offered in faith will make them well, the Lord will raise them up.  If they have sinned they will be forgiven.  Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.  The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective." - James 5:13-16

There's several things going on here.  First is the fact that this is for community.  The questions are not for you.  Are you sick?  Are you happy?  Are you in trouble?  No, the questions here are about the community.  As you think about your community, can you think of anyone who is in trouble?  Are there those who are happy?  Is there anyone who is sick?  Notice, you are being asked to think about others and then given instructions about the instructions you are to give to those people. 

And those wonderful James instructions are to do something.  Let them pray.  Let them sing songs of praise.  Let them call upon the elders of the community to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord.  Let them confess their sins.  Let them receive forgiveness from the righteousness among them. 

Our basic needs as people have changed very little in 2000 years.  People get in trouble.  People express happiness.  People get sick and people need forgiveness.  God gives us all these things through Christ and we experience all these things in Christian community.

The community is where prayer is encouraged.  We are all capable of praying on our own, but we are terrible at remembering to pray in the midst of life's troubles.  Of course we are.  When we are in trouble we're not thinking straight and we're not seeing the hope.  It takes friends in community to remind us to pray. 

This past month my youngest son started Third Grade and was experiencing some pretty tough times with spelling tests.  Even after working on those words every day, he was still not passing.  It was a big frustrations for him, for my wife, and for me.  My wife could see the hope, however, not in a new way of studying or doubling our efforts; but in prayer.  The last three weeks, with prayer added to the equation, my son has gotten A's every week.  True story.  There is power in prayer and it took someone else to remind him and remind me. 

In times of sickness, we need community as well.  Oh sure we need doctors and medical professionals.  Twenty-first century Americans certainly understand that.  But we also need our communities of faith.  There is something sacramental about leaders in the community being called to pray over the sick and anoint them with oil.  (Jesus commands it in Mark 6 and we sure have a physical element here in James 5.  And it does look like there's a whole lot of God's grace bestowed through the act.)  The anointing of the sick is indeed a sacrament for our Roman Catholic friends. 

There is power in those words and in that oil... power because it is done in the name of the Lord.  There in the midst of community God shines the light of healing upon the sick: both physical and spiritual.  The power of forgiveness is offered as well and we are reminded by our coach James that getting off our butts and living these spiritual disciplines in community is powerful and effective.  Christ is with us in community and will act.

This is where James is such a gift to us for living faith.  It's so easy to forget.  We don't pray like we ought and so we starve ourselves from knowing the true hope that Christ has given us in times of trouble.  We don't sing songs of praise when we're happy and forget therefore who is the source of all our blessings.  We go to the doctor when we are sick but forget the prescriptions we need are not just found at Walgreens.  We need to be prayed for... we need touch... we need others... we need to be told about the gospel again. 

Remember... James' pep talk is for you to think about others and be that shepherd who guides others to these disciplines.  It's a pep talk for the community... for it is in community we experience Christ as we ourselves are the body of Christ.  

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Affirm Hope

After a lifetime of walking on eggshells, pretending to ignore the 800 pound gorilla in the room, it feels pretty strange to accept the reality that conflict is normal.  It is normal among neighbors and friends.  It is normal in families.  It is normal in churches and Christian communities.  Accept conflict.  If God made us all unique and has given us all free will, then its going to be normal to disagree.

Faith doesn't leave us at acceptance.  To accept conflict alone is to be doomed to a life of suspicion, caution, and cynicism.  To be stuck on point one of "Agreeing and Disagreeing in Love" is to be alone with no hope for action or change.  Which is why faith automatically moves us to point two: AFFIRM HOPE.  God will work with and through people who disagree so that growth can happen.

Christ is the embodiment of AFFIRM HOPE.  A world that was stuck in the darkness of sin desperately longed to get unstuck.  In Christ, God meets us in our conflict and disagreements and models a way to get unstuck by moving ahead and seeing the truth of God's light.  The cross is that model and it moves us from hopelessness to life.

The civil rights movement is the great example in twentieth century America of a nation stuck in conflict moving ahead to positive change.  A people stood up and said "no more.!"  The eggshells were broken as thousands marched for freedom.  The 800 pound gorilla called Jim Crow was named as the wicked, immoral lie it was. 

The protests, conflicts, and disagreements of the civil rights movement were not comfortable for anyone, but God worked through the conflict.  It became an opportunity for growth and change.  God worked through the disagreements to lead an entire nation forward... and the journey continues.

Individuals who struggle are poised to have the Lord step forward and move them in amazing ways.  "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted."  Families and friends who struggle in their relationships have the opportunity to affirm their hope in each other and Christ if they stick it out and live according to love. "Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy."  Congregations that struggle with finances have been given the chance to bask in the light of Christ, being led for the sake of mission. "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God."

We can affirm hope as we live out our faith.  Affirming hope gives us the freedom to accept conflict.  It gives us the freedom to both speak and listen to our neighbor.  God will work with us.  God will lead us. 

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Accept Conflict

"There they go again."  Walking through the Gospel of Mark you find yourself saying that a lot when you focus on the actions of Jesus' disciples.  "There they go again."  Over and over again you see story after story of the disciples acting so... human.  They play out the truth that whenever you have two or three people gathered together you have two or three different opinions.  They mess up.  They misunderstand.  They say strange things that make you wonder if they are paying attention.  They argue.  Yes, these men were human.

Just look at Mark 9:33-34.  "Then they came to Capernaum; and when [Jesus] was in the house he asked them, 'What were you arguing about on the way?'  But they were silent, for on the way they argued with one another who was the greatest."  There they go again.  Traveling the countryside with Jesus, and what do they do?  They argue with one another about who is the greatest.  You just wanna shake your head.

But, considering just how human these disciples are, it really should not come as any surprise that they have disagreements or that they argue.  It is human nature and it does us a whole lot of good as community when we realize and accept that disagreements, arguments, and conflicts are a normal part of how groups of people interact with one another.

There is a document that was produced by the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center that has changed the way I view conflict.  It is called "Agreeing and Disagreeing in Love" and it lays out 12 points to help communities deal with disagreements.  There are points that lay out how you can come to a compromise.  There are points that encourage mediation.  There are points that affirm that even in the midst of conflict we are still one in the Lord: a reality that never changes. 

But at its most basic, it is the first half dozen of the points that get into the realities of who we are as humans and how Christ calls us to be in relationship with him and one another.  The very first point has changed my life.  "In thought... ACCEPT CONFLICT.  Acknowledge together that conflict is a normal part of our life in the church." 

Wow... accept conflict.  Conflict is normal.  All my life I have lived under the mantra of AVOID CONFLICT: Acknowledge that it hurts to disagree so lets walk lightly on those egg shells because its just to painful to experience conflict in a church.  How about that, avoiding conflict isn't actually a healthy way to be community.  Avoiding conflict forces you to be someone you are not because you will not share your views for fear of upsetting someone.  Avoiding conflict doesn't work because egg shells break really easy and when they do we all seem to end up with egg on our face. 

Instead, acknowledging together that disagreements are normal is so liberating.  No more eggshells.  You can express yourself.  You can have different opinions.  And its okay... even in the church.  The Gospel of Mark sure teaches us that as the followers of Jesus again and again model the fact that conflict and disagreements go with being community. 

But of course this list does not end with number 1: Accept Conflict... no more than Jesus lets it stand that his disciples argued with one another on the road.  As most of you know, a lot of people do a terrible job at expressing those opinions when conflicts arise.  The disciples did... and just about all of us have too.  Therefore in thought we also AFFIRM HOPE because God walks with us so we can work to growth.  In thought we also COMMIT TO PRAYER because we need God's help and we need to pray for a mutually satisfactory solution. 

James 5:16 puts it so well, "Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.  The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective."

When the disciples argued about who was the greatest, Jesus was disappointed about the very issue they were debating.  He makes it clear that the one who is greatest is the one who serves. He takes a little child in his arms says "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me (Mark 9:37)." 

This is first a model for service, but it is also a model for how we behave when we disagree.  Points 4-7 of "Agreeing and Disagreeing in Love" call us to "In action... GO TO THE OTHER IN A SPIRIT OF HUMILITY.  Stay connected to the one you disagree with and express yourself in a spirit of gentleness, patience and humility.  What emotions do you usually feel when you need to express to someone that you disagree?  When you live according to the rule of avoiding conflict chances are that you will be quite nervous or even angry about needing to disagree, after all we're supposed to be avoiding conflict.  It doesn't have to be that way, however.  Can you express yourself in a spirit of love and humility even when you disagree, even if the person you are talking with is getting angry?

When Jesus picks up that little child and speaks of welcoming that child in my name, he teaches us all that even the least in society should be served.  But I also think he teaches us that in all of our relationships, even when there is disagreement, you should be able to approach your brother or sister as if he or she was a delicate little child.  We should grant that child of God the respect of listening to them, even when the option they share is different from yours.

"In thought... BE QUICK TO LISTEN and SLOW TO JUDGE."  Seek as much to understand as to be understood and suspend the labeling, name calling and threats.  

How many times in our families and in our workplaces and in our churches have we found ourselves saying: "There they go again?"  How many times have you argued over the same stuff?  How many times have you felt you were not listened to, even as you shut out what the other person was saying?  There we go again.

The disciples did and we do it.  But we don't have to follow the same patterns over and over again.  In Christ we have been given life and hope, which extends even into our relationships with others.  Accepting conflict helps free us from the bonds of fear that prevent us from being truly ourselves in community.  Among friends... among brothers and sisters in Christ... we can talk about anything and move forward to growth. 

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Changes... It's All Good

My kids started school last week and I am in awe about how time changes things.  Not only did I turn 40 this summer, but now I have two kids who are in 5th Grade: their last year in Elementary School.  I have a son in 3rd Grade... and I wonder what happened? 

Today is the sixth anniversary of my first day as the pastor of my congregation. 

Tomorrow is my twelfth wedding anniversary.

My twins will turn eleven on Friday.  Where has the time gone?  And as time has moved on nothing has stayed the same.

It works that way in faith.  There are always changes.  In Mark 7 some Pharisees and scribes come all the way from Jerusalem to see Jesus and they are flabbergasted to find that his disciples do not wash their hands before they eat.  Now I know this would flabbergast many of you as well.  With all the germs that you can pick up in the strangest of places, washing hands before eating is important part of healthy eating habits.  The Pharisees are interested in such unclean habits both as a matter of hygiene but also as a matter of faith.  The Law and traditions of faith have always stated that its done this way.  "Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders (Mark 7:5)?"

What we learn in both the disciples' actions and Jesus' response is that in all matters of life change is constant.  It may have been that the ritualistic washing of hands and products used in the preparation of food was the right way for people to live out their faith at one point.  But now that is not the case.  Jesus "declared all foods clean (7:19)" in this text because what the Word reveals is that any act of faith or tradition much be done in light of the love God has for us and the expectations God has placed on upon us through this love.  Tradition never out weighs love.  What comes out of your mouth and out of your heart should be refection of the love God has placed in you.  All too often however, our actions reflect the sin that is always with us and constantly a part of us.  Because sin is unchanging we need to be careful and aware of dark directions wickedness will take us.  Thankfully God's love is unchanging as well.  And in order to live your life as a reflection of that love it means allowing your response to love to change.

Has my relationship with my kids changed over the years?  You bet it has.  I cannot live the same rituals as a father of 5th Graders as I did as a father of preschoolers, no matter how much I would like to pull out that Thomas DVD to calm my kids down

Has my relationship with my wife changed over twelve years?  You bet it has.  The ups and downs of life impact how we work as partners and how relate to each other. 

Has my congregation changed over the decades as well?  You bet it has.  My church would hardly recognize the work that was done in the name of this church over the years... nor would they recognize what is done today in the effort of making Christ known to all.

Serving Christ and going to Church has changed.

But this is certain: though my work as a father is different today than seven years ago, if it all has been done in a spirit of love, then it was right!  And God blessed the effort.

Though the ministry happening in my congregation is different today than it was in 1982, if that work was done in a spirit of love, then it was right and God blessed the effort.  If it was done solely in a spirit of "we-have-always-done-it-this-way" then chances are the motivation is off and the results might be as well.

Changes are constant because people change, contexts change, needs change, and techniques change.  The Word remains... it doesn't change.  But the way we interpret Scripture does change.  The message of God's love for us through Christ remains... it doesn't change.  But the way we express that love needs to change because the world is always in flux.  A different world will not hear us if we don't switch up the song when necessary.

Isaiah poetically reveals that the grass withers and the flower fades, but the Word of God remains forever.  This is true.  But through the years this constant truth about God's love revealed in the Word has moved the church to change its view on slavery for example (even though many passages taken out of context could still be used to support slavery).  As we see in Mark 7 as well, faithful people has even been moved by Christ to change their view on the dietary laws: laws so important in some parts of Scripture.  For the sake of the Word, the Gospel, and the mission to sincerely live out God's love, change had to happen.  To fight off our natural tendencies to sin... to divide... to judge... change had to happen.  It had to happen, has to happen, and will need to happen.

Look at your life. Change has happened all around you, weather you like it or not.  But the Word remains!!!  Alpha and Omega is ready to lead us in change... and comforts us through the change with the arms and hands of hope and joy: which never change.

Finally: Change we can believe in.