James’s ending note: community life

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 the sick person 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.

Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.

My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.

James 5

James certainly talks about relationships in the community of faith in his letter. But community life is saved for last, perhaps because that’s where James’s heart is as a pastor.

It’s not like the community of believers are to take the place of God. As James notes, anyone in trouble should pray and those who are happy should sing songs of praise to God. All of this is dependent on God. There’s a dependence on God and from that, an interdependence on each other. God made us for him, and for each other. We can help each other as we receive help from God, or with the help we receive from God.

When someone in the community is sick, they’re to call on the leaders of the church to pray over them, anointing them with olive oil as a symbol of healing. And the leaders are to pray over them, and the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well, and their sins will be forgiven. This implies any needed confession of sin by the one sick. But includes those not aware of any such need for confession, except for acknowledgment of the everyday sins and weaknesses we all carry, which might be affecting us more than we realize. I think of James’s warning against judging each other, and how the Lord judges such. And all his words against loose, careless speech, particularly as described in James 3, straight from the pit of hell. The healing in the context seems to be more or less connected with confession of sin, though not necessarily so.

And then there’s the word of encouragement concerning our prayers, probably especially encouraging the elders who pray, but also anyone else in the community of faith. Elijah is seen as extraordinary, including his prayers and God’s answers, but as James notes, he was just an ordinary human being with the same passions and struggles as the rest of us. If God answered his prayers, God will answer ours. Being righteous in James is more the character of righteousness we receive and mature in, than the standing which especially Paul talks about along with its character. We are always in need of God’s forgiving, cleansing grace, but we are not to excuse ourselves and our sins, and then expect to be heard by God in prayer. But when we are confessing, and doing our best to be obedient people, growing in grace, then our prayers will matter much.

And then the closing word on rescuing the one who is wandering from the truth in the error of their own way. Nothing less than saving their souls from death is at stake here. The community is not to let them go, but to try to bring them back in. And what’s implied here is that we as individuals our involved. One of us from within the community can make the difference as we step in and reach out to help the sinner in need repent. This takes much grace, but we are called to this for each other.

Deb and I are part of an evangelical mega church in which is emphasized the row (weekend worship service), the circle (small group), and the chair (personal devotions). We plugged into a small group early on, and it’s been as great a blessing as all the rest. People can receive some of what James refers to in the weekend gathering, and especially so in smaller churches. But a small group of say eight to twelve people, committed to each other in love and prayer, can make the needed world of difference.

What James calls us to at the close of his letter. What we need, and what the world needs to see from us together. In and through Jesus.

one of the devil’s biggest lies (in my life)

Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.

Galatians 6:7-10

A long time ago (it seems now), I lost heart and gave up in my life. Somehow I had failed to step across the doorway, or more like the abyss, by faith, of what I perceived to be God’s calling for me. There are so many factors in this; it’s not all that simple. But the giving up part was one key part of what turned out to be the devil’s deception (not to mention self-deception: see James 1). There was more to the deception than that. But that was a major aspect of it. And I would add here, the act of faith required was not just a step, but a continual walk, plodding along day after day come what may. We are never clear of the possibility of the devil’s deception.

This passage in Galatians captures something of the heart of this, and important aspects of it. It’s a matter of not sowing to the flesh, but instead, to the Spirit. It’s one or the other. Destruction is what is reaped from sowing to the flesh. Eternal life is reaped from sowing to the Spirit. So we’re to not become weary in doing good, since we’ll reap a harvest at the proper time, if we don’t give up. And then the great application: We’re therefore to do good to others: to all people, especially those who belong to the family of believers.

It’s so easy even now, and it was so for myself at a key point in my life, just to think all is lost, or there’s no use. Really, one has to know better. But we are human, like sheep so easily led off the path, and especially so when we get off on our own apart from the needed help of the Lord through others (Galatians 6:2). We need to keep on keeping on. Which sometimes means getting up, dusting ourselves off, and proceeding. Yes, by the Spirit; the Spirit present to help us help each other in and through Jesus.

old sins

My wife and I saw Paul, Apostle of Christ yesterday, and we found it good. I thought it was outstanding in portraying Paul, good acting, good plot, faithful to the biblical text.

An interpretation, as I understood it from the film was one I can’t remember hearing of, intriguing, and which played through to the end. I really don’t want to spoil it for those who have yet to see it. So I won’t go into certain details. But namely, that Paul’s thorn in the flesh was his memory of all the Christians in whose deaths he had not only willingly participated in, but directed. He would often it seems be tormented in dreams, seeing those in Christ whom he had killed with no peace and joy.

This got me to thinking on old sins. We know they’re forgiven. But we also know, and sometimes experience their consequences. There is no question that we can be haunted the rest of our days. Whether or not this interpretation of Paul’s thorn in the flesh is correct, there has to be some value in trying to grapple with this subject.

Yes, as far as the east is from the west, so far has God removed our transgressions. But consequences remain on those who were hurt, as well as the one who sinned. The clearest biblical example of that of course is David’s sin against Uriah and Bathsheba, and all that followed surely the rest of his life. Uriah was cut off from this life in death, and others more or less followed David’s example. Surely, as I heard someone say recently, David was closer to God after this. Or at least we would hope so. Yet that can be a struggle. One can feel tormented, condemned. And God can seem far away. Yes, Satan can have a heyday wreaking havoc on someone’s soul.

In our day sins are too often seen as private affairs. The church should be involved insofar as that’s possible. All too often people escape to another church. It used to be you had one church, and that was it. But now we have twenty or more churches close enough for us to attend. God’s way for the best handling of sin is through the church, so that a frank, full, yet not unnecessarily detailed admission of sin can be made, guided by church leadership. And then a process of restoration can be undertaken.

Back to the film, of course Saul of Tarsus, later Paul the Apostle of Christ, did these things before his conversion to Christ. It does seem different than when someone sins grievously after conversion. Yet something one might take from the film, which I think is rooted in scripture, perhaps even in David’s story is that one goes on the best they can, in God’s grace and power to live and finish well. The sin makes that more of a challenge. But as difficult as this sounds, and is, there can be some good found to be taken out of it.

One can be more aware of dangers, so that they might possibly warn others. And in prayer for those who have been directly affected. And cast more than ever on God, since nothing can really undo the damage that has been done. Although God can redeem all that is lost. Through our one hope and Savior, indeed our life, as it was for Paul: Jesus.

damaged goods?

Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
    wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.

Psalm 51:7

Oftentimes, in fact, as a rule it seems, once someone commits certain sins they are largely finished as to serving in the ministry, be it a man or woman. Adultery comes to mind right away. See the superscription of the psalm cited here. And supposedly pornography is an ongoing issue even with some serving in ministry, probably particularly men. Or at least men come to my mind when I think of that problem.

But I think the heart of the problem lies in the general failure of the church, and my perspective is in evangelical churches, but I think this could well range across the board, to deal with these cases forthrightly and thoroughly, so that the offender truly is repentant, and goes through a time of dealing with the issues underlying the failure. One can’t just snap their fingers, then say it’s done, and all is back to what it was before. At the very least it can never be the same, since they can’t take back what they’ve done, and how it affected others, not to mention how it grieved God.

The problem of a sufficient response from the church here in the US is complex, yet the basic fault for that I would say lies at the feet of the church. If we were united like we ought to be, then we could deal with these problems better. Living in a democracy, within that culture, and having easy access to a number of churches, we can escape, and unless we tell the church, or the church has a policy which at least tries to uncover such problems, the sin will never be known. It can be swept under the rug, so to speak, and therefore not properly dealt with. While it probably is good to say that the fault lies mostly with the sinner, the church should not be left off the hook. Yet given our democratic culture, and legalities involved, the church being faithful here could prove to be difficult. But if the church is wise, there certainly can be a good attempt at doing so.

I’m not sure how the Roman Catholic practice of penance works, but it does seem to me that there ought to be a period of what frankly might amount to an assignment to both work through and work on the issues of one’s sin. Toward the goal of full restoration, even though, at the same time, the sin can never be erased. I’m not saying that one who has been a pastor should or should not be reinstated. I would leave that up for each church or denomination to decide. I have to admit, I go back and forth on that one. Maybe, maybe not, I’m not sure. I would like to think so, however there has to be a practice put in place to make that viable, so that the person being restored can be accepted and embraced by the church, and accept that embrace themselves.

And here’s where maybe the biggest rub occurs. The person sees themselves as damaged goods, and think they can never be right with God or others again, not just in position, but in their heart. And the devil gets in there, and has a hay day, piling on guilt and condemnation, which makes one feel lost and at a loss to know what to do. Even dirty, of no use, not fully received by God or others, damaged goods.

I think there’s a better way, but the church along with the one who has committed the sin, must be fully engaged in it. There is no reason that after a period of time a person can have a return to a new normalcy in Christian life and service, even if it can’t be the same as it was before. Again, Psalm 51 is great in helping us walk through this. It offers great hope, but in the midst of ongoing contrition, it seems. A certainly deepened humility seems possible. All of this against the lie that God no longer is merciful, and that the life no longer matters, or can contribute to much good. In and through Jesus.

temptation to doubt God and God’s word

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

Genesis 3

A basic problem Christians and just people in general face is the temptation to not really believe what God says. Christians and surely others will have some kind of belief or faith in God, but they don’t really take what God’s word says seriously. Maybe they don’t listen, or it just seems too good to be true, and not real to life. I should say we, because I face the same struggles, temptations, and at times, just plain blindness, and frankly the darkness which comes with that.

In the story of early humankind, Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, the serpent either inhabited by the devil, or else simply the devil himself, disrupts everything by putting into question God’s word, and thereby God’s character in terms of goodness, as well. God’s prohibition I think was a heads up not to succumb to the temptation to be independent of him, God dealing with the basic temptation he knew humankind would face. Eve listened, ate the fruit of the forbidden tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and then Adam her husband followed. And they were driven out of the garden, out of shalom, because of this act of disobedience. And lacking that basic faith in God, humankind has been in dire straits ever since.

And now we follow in their train doing the same thing over and over again, and inclined to keep doing it. And that’s true even after we come to faith in Christ. Romans 7 talks about indwelling sin, and apart from grace and the Spirit, under the law, that sin inclines us entirely in the direction of going our own way rather than in the way of God’s will, his good, loving intention for us. But the gospel in Jesus by his death sets us entirely into a new possibility bringing forgiveness and new life with the beginning of the new creation which is to be fulfilled when the new heavens and earth become one at Jesus’s return.

I am still so tempted time and again to doubt God and God’s word, but in ways that are surely subtle and not readily obvious. It’s like sometimes that God and God’s word is not relevant in the discussion or consideration of real life. But that’s the problem: we are so used to living apart from God and God’s will. That’s like second nature to us. And when it comes right down to it, we even can doubt God’s goodness and the gospel.

We need to return again and again to scripture, and especially the fulfillment of it in Jesus and his death and resurrection. And see that God’s commitment to us is one of complete love, that what he gives to us in creation now broken because of “the fall,” he wants to restore in the new creation completely with much more. Into a full, complete relationship with him by the Holy Spirit in and through Jesus.

The good news in Jesus is the heart of this. And Jesus’s death and the life that comes out from that is at the heart of that good news/gospel, taking us back once more to God as God really is. The God we can entrust our lives too, the lives of our loved ones, and indeed even the world itself. Believing fully in that God, and learning to rest in him and his word in and through Jesus.

be on the side of mercy, God’s side

Mercy triumphs over judgment.

James 2

There is plenty of evil in the world. It can be found most anywhere, even in our own hearts at times. We long for justice against evildoing and evildoers. And for those who have been victimized, hopefully some kind of reparation that could be done. And if we’re of a Christian persuasion, we should want no less than restorative justice when that is possible. That the one doing evil will be held accountable, but also exhorted and encouraged, yes helped to do better, so that they can go back into society and live productive lives.

Mercy, especially in this broken existence, needs to be the watchword, indeed the passion for us who follow Christ. Just as we have freely received mercy from his hand, we’re to extend that mercy to others. The mercy of the gospel, yes, but also the mercy that comes from the gospel, or we could say is a part of it.

Lest we forget, we’re all in need of mercy everyday, and in a sense at every moment, since none of us in ourselves is worthy to stand before God being stained because of our sin. And we actually prove ourselves unworthy everyday by attitudes and corresponding actions, even if they’re only words under our breath. Unworthy of God’s mercy, justly judged to have fallen short.

But that’s an essential part of the Christian message, the heart of the gospel, that in Jesus there is always mercy and forgiveness extended to us, and to others. We are to accept that mercy for ourselves, and then live out this gospel by extending it to others, so that they can see that our faith is not about judging them, but extending mercy to them when they are undeserving. And of course mercy is not just about showing love at random to everyone. It is purposefully showing the same love to the undeserving that we ourselves receive through Christ.

Does this mean that others aren’t held accountable? Of course not. We all are. Mercy always takes seriously the sin that is being forgiven, or in love, covered over (1 Peter 4). We may need to gently confront or come along side those who are sinning (Galatians 6), or for those who do not know the Lord, we may simply need to show them the way of Jesus, which was love for his enemies, a pathway in which we’re to walk and live in our following of him. The way of the gospel. Not easy, but a picture of the good news in Jesus in which we live, so that others might see and believe, in and through him.

the promise of the restoration of the years the locusts have eaten

“I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten—
    the great locust and the young locust,
    the other locusts and the locust swarm[f]
my great army that I sent among you.
You will have plenty to eat, until you are full,
    and you will praise the name of the Lord your God,
    who has worked wonders for you;
never again will my people be shamed.
Then you will know that I am in Israel,
    that I am the Lord your God,
    and that there is no other;
never again will my people be shamed.

Joel 2:25-27

One needs to read the entire (short) book of Joel to really appreciate what is said here (above link includes entire book). God’s judgment had been on his people, there was a call to repent, and then God is moved to make this promise. After that there is the well known promise Peter echoed on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2) of God’s outpouring of the Spirit. And then the final judgment to come when a good God roots out evil.

The promise of restoration and somehow being paid back for all that has been lost due to sin is certainly great. It is given not to an individual, but to the people of God as a whole. It certainly touches individual lives, but is corporate. We have to see that somehow we are part of the sin of our group, but upon repentance how we are part of God’s blessing given to his people, as well. We can be complicit in the sins of others, by ignoring or somehow even excusing it. Or we might participate to some extent in it ourselves perhaps without even realizing it.

We are in this together, and even the remnant which may have done better ends up suffering due to the unfaithfulness of the people. But I think we have to be careful lest we kid ourselves and think we are so far removed from the sin of our people. For most of us that probably won’t be a problem; we know all too well our sin, what we have done, or perhaps even what we’re doing. Even the faithful Daniel included himself in his petition to God of repentance in anticipation of Israel’s restoration to the promised land in keeping with Jeremiah’s prophecy (Daniel 9).

And then the promise. Overwhelming to be sure, but God wants his people, and really all of humankind to flourish. God is the God of blessing. Judgment is God’s “strange work,” but God’s goal and the end is always about blessing. And God blesses his people that they might be a blessing. Israel was to be a light to the nations, that being ultimately fulfilled by and now in Jesus himself.

And so even if it’s the eleventh hour for us, we need to take full stock, and in spite of everything find God’s blessing with his people in and through Jesus. To ask God to search us and know us so that come what may, together we might be led in the way everlasting.

 

rest and quiet

Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”

Mark 6:31

Although this is in the pericope of the feeding of the five thousand, it is noteworthy in that our Lord encourages his disciples, and by extension, even us, to break away from service, from ministry, from our work, and get some quiet rest.

We live in a society which lives for its weekends, but little knows, I suppose, the rest Jesus talks about here. We need time and space to gather our thoughts, to gather ourselves, since we get so enmeshed, worked up and worked in the bundle of necessary and even good, healthy in its place as long as it has some balance, but the normal everyday workaday world. Unlike so many societies in the past and present, we have plenty of time for diversions along the way, for entertainment and plenty of distractions. But how much of the kind of rest the Lord was pressing on his disciples, do we really get? Do we know much at all about such rest?

Of course in the case above, life came pressing in on Jesus and the disciples, so that the plan was thwarted, a multitude coming to be fed not only from the five loaves of bread and the two small fishes, but from the mouth of the Lord himself. But there were surely times when they were able to get some of that rest.

I need that kind of rest. I used to enjoy complete solitude and would often want to get away to wooded, scenic places to be quiet, read scripture and pray, to simply enjoy the scenery. I still like to get away, but preferably with my wife. I still like some solitude, but I prefer company, easily getting lonely, so that I would long for human companionship. In the case of Jesus and his disciples, evidently they would be with each other and him, but apart from the crowds, the noisy throng of people who clammered to the Lord to be healed and to hear just what he would have to say. So it must have been a highlight to the disciples, and to the Lord himself, to actually find such spaces, though in the gospel accounts, we find such withdrawals interrupted.

I look forward even to breaks from the normal routine, ideally two weeks away, although we usually have just around one week away. Whatever time we can get in quiet and loving fellowship or communion with our Lord and each other, is a good time. We probably need more of it. Especially some of the poor, who because of the evil of the day, do not have a job which gives them a living wage, not to mention, good healthcare. Both ought to be a given, not because they’re a “right,” but because these people are made in God’s image and loved by God, and should be loved by all, their personhood and needs met.* Instead too many of them work more than one job, sometimes two or three, and barely have enough time to rest at all.

Yes, everyone needs and deserves, being made in God’s image, and loved by God, some rest from their work. We all need to make that a priority for ourselves and encourage others to do the same. So that we can find ourselves and each other and the Lord. To hear his voice, to be renewed and refreshed. To know that we are loved, as we love each other. Quiet. Rest. May we know some of that this summer, and this year. And in so doing, find new strength, new vision, maybe just new quiet, and know more and share the love God has for us.

*From Public Faith in Action: How to Think Carefully, Engage Wisely, and Vote with Integrity by Miroslav Volf and Ryan McAnnally-Linz, a book I would highly recommend.

confessing sin and thoroughgoing repentance

I think a compelling article by R. Kent Hughes and John H. Armstrong, stating the case for not restoring fallen pastors to the ministry, except in rare cases within a stringent rule, I find convincing scripturally and it seems to be upheld by the tradition of the church. The idea that all one has to do is confess their sin, and the sin is not only forgiven, but gone flies in the face of so much. Restoration as it is called in more evangelical circles involves so much. The adulterer’s spouse and the victim. The families, the church. And not least of all, the adulterer themselves. Not to downplay the messiness and difficulty as well as the time needed to work through everything, restoration to the church should be immediate upon confession and genuine repentance. The issue here is restoration to the ministry.

Psalm 51 is evidence of the need for thorough, deep repentance so that not only does one leave the sin, but the sin leaves them as well. Change of heart and practice needs to take place. We’re not talking about sinless perfection, of course. But we are talking about a course of heart and life when such an act would be considered unthinkable, as the NIV renders it (Ephesians 5:3), when there is not even a hint of sexual immorality.

This is not a one time thing, but a sustained repentance over time.

Maybe not the best read for a weekend, but important. If you are interested, read it in its entirety. And a good complementary article from Jack Hayward, another servant of Christ who is always worth reading.

meditation for the fifth day of Christmas: an unexpected promise (for Feast of the Holy Innocents transferred from Sunday to today)

I failed to see that our denomination, the Anglican Church in North America, transferred the Feast of the Holy Innocents from yesterday to today. But in so doing, I found something more, which was quite encouraging. The promise in God that there will be a judgment which not only destroys the hand of the wicked, but actually restores and even somehow redeems the suffering of the victims. To be sure we often can’t see that in terms of this life. And so we await in and through King Jesus the life to come. When children who have been murdered can be reunited with mothers and fathers. With the realization that no tear from tyranny goes unnoticed by God.

Thus says the Lord:
A voice is heard in Ramah,
    lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
    she refuses to be comforted for her children,
    because they are no more.
Thus says the Lord:
Keep your voice from weeping,
    and your eyes from tears;
for there is a reward for your work,
says the Lord:
    they shall come back from the land of the enemy;
there is hope for your future,
says the Lord:
    your children shall come back to their own country.