Devotional – John 14.18

Devotional:

John 14.18

I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.

Weekly Devotional Image

I stood by the bell tower in my robe and I casually greeted everyone as they walked into the building for worship. Just inside the doors were greeters, ushers, and handful of other church members eagerly waiting to address those entering with greetings and salutations. I talked with individuals and families under the bell tower and when one particular woman stepped forward she was greeted by the small crowd with, “Happy Mother’s Day!” and she immediately grimaced; she is not a mother, and will never be one.

On Monday I spoke with a member of the church about a number of matters pertaining to the local community and right before we said goodbye she apologized for not being in church the day before. I asked if everything was okay, or if there was a specific reason she avoided church to which she responded, “I never come to church on Mother’s Day. It just hits too close to home.” She is not a mother, and will never be one.

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Mother’s Day is a strange Sunday in the liturgical life of the church. There is nothing in scripture about the need to have a specific day focused on the glorification of those who are mothers, but in many churches that is exactly what it becomes. And it happens to such a degree that while trying to be grateful for mothers, we often ostracize a sizable community within our churches who can’t be, don’t want to be, or never will be, mothers.

To so emphasize and value the roles of the presumed normative domestic situation does a disservice to the truth of what the church is called to be: the new family.

Jesus, near the end of his earthly life, promised to not leave his friends orphaned. In a sense Jesus’ promise is a prediction of his own death and resurrection, but it also speaks to the future existence of the community of faith. Just as Jesus’ friends were not abandoned after the cross, so too have we not been abandoned in our communities of faith.

Through the sacraments of baptism and communion we are grafted into a community whereby the common identifiers and labels of mother and father are no longer limited by their biological connections. Instead we become brother and sister and mother and father to the entire community that gathers together to encounter the living God.

Being a mother is a remarkable responsibility and should be lauded on a regular basis, but it is not the most important identity that one can have. Following Jesus Christ as a disciple implies a willingness to be maternal toward all people regardless of whether or not we are biological mothers.

In the community of faith we are called to open our eyes to the realities of those around us so that, rather than discomforting someone on their way in or ostracizing someone to the point that they don’t even come, we remember that God will not leave us orphaned, not even in church.

Strangers in the Sanctuary

Last Sunday I announced to my church that I am being appointed to a new congregation at the end of June. I am truly grateful for the time I’ve had at St. John’s and recently I’ve been thinking about the many ways they’ve let me experiment what it means to preach from the pulpit.

Back in 1992, Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon published a book entitled Preaching to Strangers. The book includes a number of sermons preached by Willimon at Duke Chapel with Hauerwas’ comments and critiques immediately following. And there is a line in the introduction that has stuck with me during my time at St. John’s:

“A congregation cannot be strangers to one another, not because they know one another well, but because they have all had the same baptism… [However] most preaching in the Christian church today is done before strangers.” [Willimon and Hauerwas. Preaching to Strangers (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991) 6.]

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How is it possible that we can have churches filled with strangers? Perhaps our worship prevents us from seeing the pews as avenues of connection and instead we see them as walls of division. Maybe we spend so much time facing forward that we forget to look left and right. Or perhaps we’ve let our faith become solely about our relationship with God and not about our relationships with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Regardless of the reason, I noticed from the beginning of my ministry that there were strangers in the sanctuary.

We did such a good job of welcoming and connecting with one another during the times immediately before and after worship, we even sat down and talked during fellowship events, but we didn’t really know one another.

And I didn’t do anything about it.

Instead, for the first 2 years, I got up in the pulpit every week and preached my sermon. I shook hands with everyone on their way out the door and started the process all over again. And again and again I would have people come up to ask me questions about the family that had just walked out the door, or someone wanted to know the name of the man who sat on the left side in the third pew from the back, or people would ask how long some particular individual had been sitting in that particular spot without knowing their name. But still, I did nothing.

I waited and waited until something happened back in 2015 that forced me to try something new, strange, and bizarre.

One day our secretary discovered a man standing in our parking lot in the middle of the afternoon and approached to ask if there was anything she could help with. Without intending to, the man immediately began to cry and said, “I lost my wife a few months ago and today would have been our 49th wedding anniversary. 49 years ago we were standing in this church with hope for the future… These last few months have been the loneliest in my life.”

I couldn’t stand the thought of being part of a church where we did not know about a man’s 49th wedding anniversary. I didn’t want the sanctuary to be a place of loneliness of Sunday mornings. So I tried something different.

Instead of the typical ~15 minute sermon, I broke the church up into 6 groups during worship (each bulletin contained a number between 1-6) and sent them to different rooms throughout the building. I assigned group leaders with instructions (printed below) and provided a list of questions (also below) to help get the conversation flowing.

When I announced what we were doing from the pulpit that morning there were audible groans from the congregation. “Here he goes again,” they must’ve thought. And, begrudgingly, they filed off to their different rooms in silence.

But when the activity was over and they came back to the sanctuary, I couldn’t get them to stop talking!

In the years that followed that weird Sunday I’ve been blessed to see new friendships between individuals and families that had their genesis in those classroom conversations: A group of widows who were previously unaware of one another have lunch together once a month; a new family to the community connected with a long-time Stauntonian family and now regularly spend time together; people formerly divided by age are now connected over common interests like movies, restaurants, and even time travel destinations.

 

Sometimes it’s worth taking a risk from the pulpit, and not just in a daring or controversial sermon. Sometimes it’s good to get out of the way and let the Spirit do what the Spirit wants. Sometimes church can be the place where we combat the terrible forces of loneliness.

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Living in Harmony Activity

Directions for Group Leaders:

Thank you for agreeing to help facilitate conversations during worship. Below you will find step-by-step instructions to guide each group through their time together. In light of your willingness to help lead I will share with you the reason for our activity, but I ask that you do not share it with your group: Many of us attend church on a regular basis, we see the same familiar faces, and yet we don’t have an intimate knowledge about those we call our brothers and sisters in Christ. Each group will be asking and answering questions in order to learn more about our community. My hope is that we will begin to know more about one another than just where everyone sits in the sanctuary. The quality of the answers should be emphasized over quantity. I would rather you only get to one of the questions and really learn about each other than getting to answer all of them without really soaking up the answers.

 

  1. Reread the following scripture to set up the activity:
    1. Romans 12.9-18
    2. Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
  2. Ask everyone to share his or her name.
  3. Say: “For the next 15-20 minutes we will be speaking casually with one another about our interests. This is not going to be a densely theological conversation about “the last time you experienced God’s presence” or “sharing moments of great sinfulness from your lives.” Instead it will be focused on what makes you, you. By no means is this mandatory, and if there is a question that you do not want to answer, all you have to say is “pass” and let it move on to the next person. However, if you can answer the questions, it will allow for greater growth and fruitfulness in our church and in our community.
  4. Below is a list of questions to ask the group. You may read one aloud and then ask everyone to respond in a circle, or at random (the choice is yours). I have written more questions than you will probably be able to answer in the time allowed but that’s okay. I trust you to know what questions are working and which ones need to be left behind. Emphasis should be placed on giving everyone ample time to respond so that everyone will learn a little bit about everyone else. If a natural conversation begins in response to an answer please allow it to continue so long as it fits with the general nature of the activity. However, if someone becomes long-winded please ask him or her to conclude so that we can move on to the next person.
  5. Questions:
    1. What was the last good movie you saw (on TV or in the Theaters) and why?
    2. What is your “go-to” restaurant in Staunton, and what do you usually order?
    3. What is one of your most memorable birthday presents? How did you feel when you opened it?
    4. If you could have one super-power what would it be, and why?
    5. If you could recommend one book for all of your friends to read, what book would it be and why?
    6. When was the last time you felt pure joy and what were the circumstances behind it?
    7. When you were a child what did you want to be when you grew up?
    8. What is your favorite thing to do in the summer and why?
    9. If they made a movie of your life, which actor would you want to play you?
    10. If you could have an endless supply of any food, what would you get?
    11. Who is your hero (a parent, celebrity, writer, etc.) and why?
    12. What is one thing that you are extremely proud of?
    13. If you had a time machine, where and when would you travel?
    14. If you could have a conversation with one person from the entire history of the world, who would it be and why?
    15. If you had an entire vacation paid for, where would you go and why?
    16. What do you think is the greatest invention from your lifetime and why?
  6. Wrapping Up
    1. At 11:50 we need everyone back in the sanctuary. When your group comes to a time that naturally allows for a conclusion I ask that you pray the following words out loud, and then lead your group back to the sanctuary:
      1. Prayer: “Almighty God, you know us and have called us by name. In the midst of this community, we give you thanks for everyone in this group. We praise you for providing interests, opinions, and observations. We pray, Lord, that you might instill in each of us the beauty of community. Give us the strength to live in harmony with one another, and allow us to be people who can extend hospitality toward strangers. Amen.

Less Preaching, More Praying

Psalm 119.33-40

Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes, and I will observe it to the end. Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart. Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it. Turn my heart to your decrees, and not to selfish gain. Turn my eyes from looking at vanities; give me life in your ways. Confirm to your servant your promise, which is for those who fear you. Turn away the disgrace that I dread, for your ordinances are good. See, I have longed for your precepts; in your righteousness give me life.

 

I’ve mentioned The Circle in a number of recent sermons, and for good reason. Every week, our youth gather together as a witness to the loving nature of God made manifest in their lives. While others their age are consumed by that which they consume: the Internet, social media, attention from co-eds, false identities, and even politics, our kids are consumed by another thing they consume: the body and the blood of Jesus Christ.

But I don’t want to lay it on too thick. I love our youth, but they can be miserable at the same time. I have never been more self-conscious about my balding head than when one of our boys insists on bringing the subject up every single week. (Honestly, I think he does it not because he cares about my lack of follicles, but because he enjoys watching my reaction to his provocation.)

Another one of our youth will miss a meeting (too much homework, play practice, or some other obligation) only to have her brother tell me that she’s not at The Circle because a recent sermon I preached made her lose her faith.

Another one of our youth will purposely pretend like he can’t find a particular book in the bible, forcing one of us to flip through and declare the page number only to have him smile diabolically in return.

Like I said, we’ve got wonderful and miserable youth at this church.

Anyway, as I’ve mentioned on a number of occasions, we follow the same formula every week – we gather around the table for communion, fellowship, and bible study. Communion looks a lot like it does in this room whereby we pray together for God to pour out the Holy Spirit on us, and on the gifts of bread and the cup. And after we feast we go to the box.

The box contains a random assortment of questions designed to get all of us to share and reflect on what it means to be faithful. An example: “Who do you trust the most and why?” The question propels us to think about the value of our friendships, and implores us to be thankful for the people we trust.

One of the more frustrating questions is: “When was the last time you shared your faith with someone?” Everyone always sighs deeply when that one is pulled, but one by one they’ll each struggle to share a moment from the last week or so when they talked with someone about their faith.

But recently we read a new question: “If you could change one thing about the church what would it be and why?” Without hesitation, my follicle-conscious friend said, “I’d get rid of the preacher!” Another youth however, took the question seriously and said she would make the youth group larger so we could share the stories of Jesus with more people.

One by one each youth got a chance to reflect about a particular change to the church, and we ended with our adult volunteer for the evening. You see, everyone has to answer the question from the box whether you’re in the sixth grade of you’re sixty.

After giving the question some deep thought she said, “I’d get rid of the preaching… I’ve always thought that preaching in worship was okay, but it’s not the most important part of what we do. Sometimes you go on a little too long. But I would definitely increase our prayer time. In fact, what if all we did was pray?”

I got burned.

The preaching on Sunday is a little long? Seriously? You all should be grateful! I get you out of here before the Baptist churches in town every week, and we want to talk about the length of the sermon?!

I’m only teasing. But maybe she’s on to something. What if we prayed more, and I preached less?

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The psalmist, at least the author of Psalm 119, was a praying poet pleading with God. No preaching, no pontificating; only praying.

Teach me Lord, give me understanding, lead me in the path of your commandments, turn my heart to your decrees, turn my eyes from looking at vanities, give me life.

Where does this life of prayer come from? Praying like the psalmist requires an awareness of God’s presence. We can pray like the psalmist when we poetically plead with God, not to show that we are above anyone else, not out of arrogance, but with remarkable humility and hope – we ask God to give us what only God can give us.

And we can dispense with polite trivialities. No more do we need to start our prayers with a listing of God’s divine attributes, no more do we need a long list of adjectives before we begin to converse with the Lord. We need only pause, breathe, and then declare our faith in the Lord who hears and responds to our prayers.

Teach us, O Lord, your ways and we will follow on the path to the end. Give us understanding God, so that we can observe your will here on earth with our whole hearts. Lead us on your paths and we will delight in traveling the way that leads to life. Turn our hearts to your commandments, and not to our own selfish and arrogant ambitions. Turn our eyes from looking at vanities, the things that fade away, the things that do not give life, and instead give us life in you. Confirm to us your promises God because we are worthy when we fear you. Turn away the disgrace that we are ashamed of, for you are forgiving. O God, we have longed for your will; nothing more, nothing less, nothing else. In your righteousness, give us life.

When those words become our words, when we can utter them with true faith and humility, when we can ask for God’s will to be done and mean it, then our prayers will always mean more than my preaching. As Karl Barth said, when we clasp our hands together in prayer, it is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.

Because this is what we need God to do for us. We need God’s help to empower our uprising against the disorder of the world. We need God to teach us, to lead us, and to turn us. We cannot do this stuff on our own.

God, thank you for gathering us together in this place, at this time, with these people to call on you to make us into your people. Come to us now! Awaken us! Give us your light! Be our Teacher and our Comforter! Speak to us through the scriptures, through the prayers, through the hymns, through the sermon, so that we may hear just what we need and what will help. Preserve us by your Word; protect us from hypocrisy, error, boredom, and distraction. Give us knowledge and hope and joy.

We can pray like that. We can pray like the psalmist. We can do it from the comfort of our bedrooms when we wake up and right before we fall asleep. We can pray from the depths of our souls in this holy place whenever we gather together. Our prayers can be as long and as profound as the entirety of Psalm 119, or they can be as short and as simple as: Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.

Praying to God is a good and right thing because it actively makes us participate with the divine. Praying calls us to question the status quo, and to wonder about what could be. Praying challenges us to see ourselves for who we really are and to ask for God’s help to be better. Prayer changes things, and more often than not the thing that prayer changes is us.

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But sometimes we need to be prayed for, more than we need to pray for ourselves. Do you hear the difference? It is good and right for us to pray to the Lord like the psalmist, but at the heart of being a disciple of Jesus Christ is a willingness to share our burdens and needs with others, and to receive their prayers for us when we cannot pray on our own.

Years ago, I helped lead a mission trip to Costa Rica. We went for a week, and I was responsible for keeping track of the youth at our different work sites, and led devotions each night. A large focus of the trip was partnering with the local community in order to empower them, rather than helping with something only to disappear a few days later.

Every day, whether we were working on construction for a new school building, or we were helping young children in a day care program, the whole trip was about creating relationships with people.

Of course, for some of us, myself included, this was quite a difficult task since there was a language barrier. We quickly learned to speak with our hands and with the few words we knew of each other’s languages, and we did the best we could.

At the end of the trip I asked the youth to each pair up with someone they connected with during the week, but not someone from our own team. The kids quickly dispersed to find the friends they made over the week and I watched my sister Haley walk over to Jose. Haley and Jose were the same age; both had wonderful and loving personalities; but they couldn’t have been more different.

One grew up with all the advantages and privileges of an American who grew up outside of Washington D.C. The other lived day to day without a clear understanding of what the future held.

And yet, even though they spoke different languages, and had different hopes, and different dreams, they sat down together and prayed for each other. Haley went first, she prayed for Jose and lifted him up to the Lord. I only later realized it was the first time that Haley had ever prayed for another person out loud. And after Haley said “amen” Jose grabbed her by the hands and prayed for her.

Haley could not understand a word he uttered, but she wept as Jose prayed for her.

I know this is going to drive some of you crazy, but I am here not just to comfort the afflicted, but also to afflict the comfortable. So, in just a moment, we are going to pray for one another. You will feel tempted to find one of your friends in the congregation, someone you are comfortable with, but we all need to resist that temptation. We are going to stand up, and move about the sanctuary until we find someone we are not as familiar with, and they will be our prayer partners. And we’re going to talk to them. We’re going to listen to them. We’re going to pray for them. And they are going to do the same for us.

Remember, God does not need ornate and complicated prayers; God only needs our hearts. Pray for one another as you feel led, and then I will lead us in a congregational prayer. So, let us pray.

We are afraid, God, and we believe we can and should hide ourselves from you. We did it in the Garden, we did it in the wilderness, and we still do it today. We even think we can hide from ourselves. For better or worse, usually for worse, our desire to hide scatters and shatters our identity in you. As a result, we begin to hate ourselves, our families, our neighbors, and even You. We hate ourselves, and one another, because You refuse to believe that we are the masks we wear. God, help us learn to trust your love. Help us to learn we do not need to pretend to be something we are not. Help us accept that we are who we are because of You. Forgive us God. And as forgiven people, help us follow your Son in this world shaped by lies and deception. As your forgiven people, make us your salvation, that the world might see how good and great it is to be who we are, your children. Amen.

On Reading Sermons Online

I preach from a manuscript in the pulpit every Sunday. During the week I carefully craft the words that will be proclaimed and I humbly pray that the Lord will show up through, and even in spite of, my sermons. Personally, preaching from a manuscript allows me to articulate how I believe the Lord continues to speak through scripture without going off on tangents in the middle of the proclamation. Because I use manuscripts, I have a copy of every sermon I’ve ever preached from the first one as a teenager at Aldersgate UMC in Alexandria, VA to the one I preached at St. John’s UMC in Staunton, VA last Sunday.

By my cursory calculations I have preached over 200 times including Sunday sermons, special occasions, funerals, and weddings. Each of these sermons contain, on average, 2,000 words, which added together, comes to about 400,000 words on God’s holy Word. With the exception of funerals, all of these sermons are available to read online at any time via www.ThinkandLetThink.com

And the sad thing is, more people read my sermons online than come to worship on Sundays.

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I spent some time today going over the data points and statistics for the blog and I realized that on any given day nearly twice as many people read my sermon from Sunday than were in attendance in worship. Moreover, if the number of people who read the blog every week attended church on Sunday, I would be leading one of the larger churches in the entire Virginia Conference of the UMC.

I want to be clear that I am humbled by this kind of readership and I hope what I have posted has been fruitful for the people who view this blog. But I also want to be clear about another thing: reading a sermon online is not a substitute for gathering in worship.

Throughout the last century, the American Protestant Church has elevated the role of the sermon to the highest of worship elements. Just look at any bulletin on Sunday morning and the whole service usually builds up to the proclamation, and then people are sent home. More than prayers, and hymns, and God forbid the Eucharist, the sermon has come to define what it means to worship.

On one hand, sermons are important. They are the moment in worship whereby the Word of the Lord is proclaimed in a new and exciting way and becomes incarnate in the way that we live out what we hear. But the sermon is unintelligible without the rest of the service. The prayers and the hymns and the silences are what lend light to the words striving to resonate with God’s Word. What we preachers offer from the pulpit mean little, if not nothing, without the other parts of the worship experience.

Additionally, the sermon should not be the pinnacle of worship, but instead one of the integral parts that make the totality of worship life giving and fruitful. To equate all of worship with a sermon prevents the Holy Spirit from moving among the people in such a way that they can respond to God’s great word. To equate all of worship with a sermon implies that our words about God are more important than God’s Word about us. To equate all of worship with a sermon makes the preacher the focus of the worship rather than almighty God.

I am grateful that thousands of people have read this blog over the last few years. I am hopeful that the words found here have given life and meaning to the people who read them. But more than that, I hope these words have inspired people to gather with other Christians at least once a week. What we do, and who we are, is made incarnational in the practice of worship, not by reading sermons online.

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Devotional – Psalm 23

Devotional:

Psalm 23.1

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
Weekly Devotional Image

I’ve done a lot of funerals. In my short time as a pastor I have presided over more services of death and resurrection than baptisms and weddings combined. And every funeral, much like every baptism and wedding, is contextual and different. Some families come in with a service already planned out in their minds with specific hymns and scriptural texts, and some families come in with their eyes glossed over and have no idea what they want the funeral to look like. I’ve read scripture from the recently deceased’s bible, I’ve been handed a tear stained eulogy to read aloud because the emotional strain was too high, and I’ve even been asked to sing a solo during a service. But one thing that has united every single funeral I’ve participated in has been the reading of Psalm 23.

Unlike other readings during funeral services, we print out the entirety of the 23rd Psalm in bold in the bulletins. When the time comes, I ask everyone gathered together to read the beloved words out loud and as we take a collective breath we begin, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…” An amazing thing happens when this psalm is read out loud in the context of grief and loss. You can audibly hear the anxiety in the air as the first words are read aloud; people read at different tempos and take breaths at different moments. But as the psalm progresses, so do the voices. It is as if the entire congregation, through the psalm, is able to take a collective breath of fresh air and release a profound sigh of comfort. The 23rd Psalm is a beautiful reminder of the powerful presence of the Lord in the midst of death, and encourages those of us who remain to live as faithfully as the person we have gathered to remember.

This week, no matter what we have going on, let us take a moment to faithfully proclaim the words to the 23rd Psalm with the knowledge that even after we’re gone, people will use these words to mark our Services of Death and Resurrection:

 

Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even through I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

 

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When Should We Pray? – Sermon on James 5.13-20

James 5.13-20

Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. 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. Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest. My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

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Sunday morning: 11am. The gathered community of faith was sitting patiently in the pews waiting for the worship service to begin. Week after week the people sat in the same pews with the same expressions on their faces. Year after year they listened to preachers come and go telling the same stories about Jesus from different perspectives.

It was just like every other Sunday morning. Mr. Smith sat all the way up on the right hand side in the front pew with his notebook and pen in hand ready to take notes on whatever he heard. Jimmy, John, and Josh were midway back on the left quietly giggling while drawing stick figure battles all over the bulletin. And Miss Ethel, old and frail, was still slowly making her way up the center aisle while the first hymn was being played.

Worship is repetitive; for nearly two millennia Christians have gathered once a week to say the same prayers, hear the same stories, and sing the same songs. Worship is just like any good habit, and the longer you have it, the more fruitful it will become.

The congregation sat attentively while the pastor preached on the power of prayer. The seasoned Christians had heard sermons like this one before; they could almost imagine how the preacher would tie it together before he even spoke the words. The newer Christians were getting a little tired of hearing about prayer week after week, they wondered about when the pastor would call for them to lead a revolution to turn the world upside-down, they wanted to hear about power, not about prayer. And the youth, bless their hearts, if you had called their names from the pulpit in the middle of the service they would have looked up with bug-eyed expressions as if their teacher had singled them out in the middle of class.

The preacher was getting to what he imagined was the pinnacle of his proclamation, the words were flowing accordingly, and he no longer needed to look at his notes to drive the point home. As he stood up in the pulpit, gazing out over his gathered flock, he lifted up his fist for the final paragraph and froze in mid-sentence when he saw Miss Ethel slowly slump over in her pew having taken her final breath on earth.

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When are we supposed to pray? James would have us pray all the time. Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.

No matter what is going on in life, whether we’re on a mountaintop of joy, or in the bottom of a valley of sorrow, we should pray. We pray in celebration and in defeat, we pray during the mundane, and we pray during the extraordinary.

The end of James’ letter is a favorite among preachers because it explains itself. There’s no need to go digging through the grammar to exegete a strange or divergent meaning. James means what he says:

We should pray all the time.

            Prayers of deep faith will bring about salvation on earth.

The Lord will raise us up.

            Through prayer, any sin can be forgiven.

            We should confess our sins to other people, and pray for others to be healed.

            Righteous prayers are powerful and effective.

            Elijah was just like us, and he prayed for a drought for three years and it did not rain, and as soon as he prayed for the rain to fall, it did.

            If anyone begins to wander away from faithful life, we do well to reach out and bring them back out of love.

            That’s it.

So, then why is prayer such a last resort for many of us?

James clearly outlines that if Christians do anything, they should pray. As individuals and as a community we are defined by the fact that we believe in relying on something bigger than ourselves being active in the world. Yet, more often than not, Christianity has been compartmentalized into just having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ (something you can do without the church). But having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, though wonderful, is not what Jesus wants from us. Instead, we are called to be people of prayer who live like Jesus in community with our brothers and sisters in faith.

James clearly outlines what prayer can accomplish: it keeps us humble when life is full of success, and it keeps us hopeful when life is full of disappointment; it encourages us to open our eyes to the ways God is moving in the world, and it encourages us to be active participants in God’s kingdom here on earth.

Prayer is about relationship; it’s about connecting with God through the people around us.

The pastor stood in the pulpit and did not know what to do. He was trying desperately to string the final thoughts of his sermon together when Ms. Ethel fell over in her pew and died. He could feel all the eyes in the sanctuary look from her pew, to him in the pulpit, expecting him to do something. But he panicked and froze.

This was not something they covered in seminary, there was no class on ministering to the dead in the middle of a worship service, so the pastor stood in the pulpit and stared back at the church.

One of the ushers immediately called the rescue squad, but the rest of the church slowly stood up from their pews and began to gather around Ms. Ethel’s pew. No directions were offered, no specific pages of the hymnal were referenced, but as if God’s was orchestrating the entire thing, the congregation gathered around her lifeless body and began to pray and sing.

The words of faith came pouring from their mouths, thanksgivings were uttered, and intercessions were demanded. The great songs like Amazing Grace and How Great Thou Art were sung and hummed by the church. And by the time the ambulance had taken Ms. Ethel away, the pastor and the entire church were holding each other in tears of pain and joy, recognizing the loss of life while acknowledging the hope of the resurrection.

When asked later about the moment of prayer, the parishioners simply explained that in the midst of something so profound, the only thing they could do was pray.

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Prayer can be beautiful, but it can also be uncomfortable. We don’t like having to wrestle with our finitude, we don’t like having to admit that one day we will die, that’s why weddings are much more crowded than funerals. But prayer, done rightly, is the most faithful thing we can ever do as Christians.

If James had it his way, we would spend more of our time confessing our sins to our fellow Christians. Talk about uncomfortable. When I encouraged all of you to take time to walk up to the pulpit and proclaim your sins, I did so in jest, but it would make us a more faithful community.

Look around the room: you all are beautiful. On the surface you’ve got the right outfits and dispositions. But on the inside, everyone is facing a battle that they rarely share with anyone else. It is a mistake to assume that we are eager to surrender our privacy to the church, but imagine (if you can) what it would be like if we trusted each other enough to do so.

If we could find just one person to confess to, we would make ourselves vulnerable and ready for healing. Confession is the beginning of transformation.

How are we, as a church, shaped by prayer?

Worship is structured around prayer. We pray for God’s presence to be made known to us in this place on Sunday mornings. We pray collectively for the world toward the beginning of the service. We pray silently from our pews lifting up our own joys and concerns. We pray for the offering that is collected by the ushers. We pray through the hymns we sing and the creeds we confess. The best sermons we hear are the ones less about our lives and more like prayers offered to and about God. And we end worship with a prayer.

In addition to worship we pray before our bible studies and youth meetings. We pray before every committee and before the church council. We are a people of prayer… but are we being shaped by prayer?

We are now going to try something that will probably make us uncomfortable.

In a few moments I will ask us to find someone else in church and ask for their prayers. We tried this on Wednesday night at The Circle meeting and it was a challenge. I asked for the youth to give me just one thing that I could pray for regarding their lives. Immediately I heard about friends or family members that needed prayer, but that wasn’t what I was talking about. I asked, “How can I pray for you right now?” and I want each of us to ask that same question right now.

So, as your able, I encourage you to find someone else in the church, you don’t have to wander too far, but find someone that is not in your immediate family. Once we’ve paired up, I want both people to take an opportunity to share something they need prayers for. This doesn’t have to be an ultimate confessional moment, maybe the thing you need is more patience with your children, perhaps you feel confused about decision and you could use some discernment, or maybe you’re unsure about what God is doing in your life.

Whatever that thing is I want you to share it, and the person who hears it will pray about it. The prayer can be as simple as “Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.” Or it can be filled with other words. The point is, I want everyone in this church to have the opportunity to share a need they have, and have someone in this church pray for them right away.

I know this is uncomfortable, but sometimes the most faithful things we do as disciples are born out of discomfort. So, let’s give it a try….

In the words of James: Are any of us suffering? We should pray. Are any of us filled with joy? We should sing songs of praise. Are any of us sick? We should call for our brothers and sisters in Christ to come and pray over us. We should confess our sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that we may be healed and transformed. Amen.

Devotional – Proverbs 22.2

Devotional:

Proverbs 22.2

The rich and the poor have this in common: the Lord is the maker of them all.

Weekly Devotional Image

The way a community responds to a particular event demonstrates where they place their priorities. In the wake of the shooting at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, a group of Christians gathered in Staunton to pray and mourn for the lives lost. After a fire that broke out in an apartment complex on the other side of town, the community rallied together and raised money for the families that had been displaced. When a community, regardless of theological differences, can join together in harmony it is a reminder of the power of God’s kingdom here on earth.

However, many of us are often quick to respond to certain events with: “What does it have to do with me?”

I remember hearing a wonderful sermon from a peer of mine about our overwhelmingly insatiability during the holiday season, in sharp contrast with Mary and Joseph making their way toward Bethlehem. Yet, while people were departing from the sanctuary, I listened to numerous Christians making quick comments about all the Christmas presents they had already purchased, or were looking forward to receiving.

Scripture constantly reminds us, and implores us, to look at one another the way God sees us. Yet, more often than not, those of us with stable economic futures look down upon people of lower socio-economic statuses. We do things like avoid the particular streets corners with people begging for money, or we are quick to assume that if they only worked harder, they would be able to pull themselves our of their current situation.

The writer of Proverbs has a good reminder for all of us: “The rich and the poor have this in common: the Lord is the maker of them all.” We, whether we like it or not, are caught up in this great mystery called “life” together. As human beings we are part of God’s great community regardless of socio-economic situations, races, genders, sexual orientations, and any other identifier that we use to divide, rather than celebrate.

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John Donne, the famous English poet, puts it this way: “No person is an island, entire of itself, every person is a piece of the continent, a part of the main… any death diminishes me, because I am part of humankind…”

This week, let us remember that God has created us in God’s image, that we are all connected in the body of Christ, and when something happens in the world, it has everything to do with you and me.