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September 2012

Pray for One Another

Pray for One Another

James 5:13-18

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

30 September 2012


[Read "The Story" from Frog and Toad are Friends by Arnold Lobel]


    Frog and Toad are friends. Friends who care deeply for one another, even if they aren't always certain how to provide that care.

    At the close of the Book of James, the author turns his attention to just this topic -- how we care for one another. And to find the answer to that question, we don't need to pace the porch, stand on our heads, or even beat them against the wall. According to James, the primary way we care for one another is prayer.

The letter of James has three principle concerns, according to commentator Mark Douglas – "taking care in how we speak, giving care to those in distress, and being careful about what we let into our lives." And all three of these come together in what James says about prayer.


"No one can tame the tongue," James wrote earlier in the letter. "A restless evil, full of deadly poison." Throughout the letter he cautions us against boasting, gossip, envy, and oath-taking. All of those ways that we harm one another by the things we say.

But, as I said a few weeks ago, James isn't simply worried with our imprudent and hurtful words. He is concerned with how our words create meaning and their impact upon the entire creation. James compels us to wonder if all of our language shapes reality in a Godly or an ungodly direction? Ask yourself these sorts of questions: Does our language include or exclude? Does it welcome or divide? Does it heal or harm? Does it create community or rupture relationships? What kind of world are we creating by the words we use?


In the summer of 1894 when he was twenty and had just come through a period of deep depression, G. K. Chesterton wrote:


You say grace before meals.

All right.

But I say grace before the play and the opera,

And grace before the concert and the pantomime,

And grace before I open a book,

And grace before sketching, painting,

Swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing;

And grace before I dip the pen in the ink.


    We learn from James that prayer is not simply saying grace before a meal or praying before we go to sleep at night. Prayer is not limited to those times we bow our heads, close our eyes, and hold our hands like this. Prayer is an attitude that permeates our life. All our words should be said with a prayerful attitude. Mark Douglas writes, "Wise speech simply is prayer. . . . The wise speak always as if before and to God."

     What if all our words were words of grace, said as if to God? That is the kind of prayer James advocates.


    For James prayer is not a private matter. It permeates our whole lives. It is one way that we give care to those who are in distress.

    James encourages the elders of the church to come and to pray over the sick and to anoint them with oil. Oil is not medicinal, but is a sign of God's blessing. In a way, it is a visible act of prayer. Despite your weakness and vulnerability, you are a blessed and loved child of God, a full and rightful member of the people of God.

    On Wednesday nights our spirituality group meets to learn about various spiritual practices. Currently we are reading a book on Tibetan Buddhism, which is generating interesting and lively conversation. But discussion is not all we do when we gather. We open each session with lectio divina, which is a practice of prayerful reflection on scripture. It's not bible study; we listen for how the scripture speaks to us and to the circumstances of our lives. I usually say, "How does this relate to what's happening to you this week?"

    And we close our sessions by sharing prayer requests and celebrations with each other and then praying for one another. When this group began, many were uncomfortable with this part. They were not used to praying publicly for the person sitting beside them. They were not used to making themselves vulnerable in this way. But what has happened over the life of the group is that now we open up and share so freely that we often run out of time. Because of prayer, we have built very close relationships among this group. During the summer, when we took a few months off, we all spoke about how much we missed the time with one another and were eager for the group to begin again in the fall.

    When we make ourselves vulnerable, we invite others to do the same. That openness can be a healing, transforming thing. James encourages the sick person to invite the elders of the church over. In James' imagination, those who arrive will confess their sins, giving evidence of their own vulnerabilities, and together everyone will find forgiveness and healing.

    Prayer strengthens our relationships, and it builds community. It is an act of solidarity with one another. Even in worship, during the pastoral prayer, when we mention the sick, those who have died, children who have been born, couples who have gotten married, and the events of the wider world, we are strengthening our bonds with one another. We are expressing our solidarity with one another.

    James is right, prayer is not a private matter; it is one way we give care to those in distress.


    In his commentary Mark Douglas offered the following tantalizing idea,


Lives lived in the prayerful awareness of God's activity in the world may be as important to our physical well-being as advances in modern medicine and environmental science.


Can prayer really affect our health and well-being? Can prayer cure the sick?

    The third central concern of the letter of James is being careful about what we let into our lives. For James, prayer does treat the toxicities of life. Prayer can bring healing.

Now, lest you dismiss this idea as supernatural quackery, listen to the wisdom that Mark Douglas draws from James' words. Douglas reminds us that our moral choices do, in fact, affect our health. For instance, many health disparities are based upon race. Often the poor and especially the poor of various racial minorities, live in some of the most polluted and unhealthy regions of the country. They often do not have access to good nutrition, high quality health care, or preventive treatments. The social, political, and economic decisions we make do affect the environment and the health of others.

For the church, then, our ethics cannot be separated from our healing practice. The healing ministry of the church must be concerned with racial justice. It must be concerned with environmental decisions. It must be concerned with access to health care. With nutrition. Housing. Education. Etc., etc.

And what we learn from James is that all of this is connected to prayer, because prayer is about our entire way of life.

    Now, James very closely ties together illness and sin. I hope that he does not believe that there is a direct correlation between the two. Jesus himself rebuked such notions, that sickness is a sign of sin. Jesus' ministry actively attacked the purity code that excluded and isolated those with physical and mental illnesses and disabilities. Instead, Jesus, quite radically, invited them to share the table and to participate fully in the community of God. As followers of Jesus, we must reject any teaching that would exclude anyone from the fellowship of God, especially any exclusion based upon physical or mental difference.

    But is there any connection between healing and forgiveness? Barbara Brown Taylor, Episcopal priest, writes, "While illness is no sin, plenty of sick people carry guilt about their sickness. . . Anyone who thinks there is no shame to illness has not been paying attention." Sick people do often feel guilt, shame, or embarrassment. They wonder what they could have done differently. Or maybe they procrastinated before seeing a physician. Or maybe they don't want people to see them while they are weak and, so, they drop out of their normal routines. Part of the ministry and care of the church is to counter those feelings and assist people in casting those feelings aside.


    Today we held a breakfast to raise some funds for Cross Over Prison Ministry. This is one of the great ministries that has been birthed partially out of this congregation. It assists prisoners in making the transition back into normal life and has been overwhelmingly successful in achieving its goals. We are very proud of it.

    Cross Over is just the kind of ministry we have been talking about today. We join in solidarity with the vulnerable and work towards forgiveness and healing. Through caring, loving words, we speak new worlds into being for those we serve. To be involved in this ministry is to let the attitude of prayer permeate your life.

    Cross Over is currently in need of more volunteers who will help out with the Monday night ministry to prisoners. A committed handful of our church members have volunteered for many years and need some fresh new people. I hope that you will earnestly pray about whether God is calling you to respond.


    How do we care for one another? We don't need to pace the porch, stand on our heads, or even beat them against the wall. We need to pray.

    But to pray for one another is so much more than a few soft-spoken words before we go to sleep. It is the power of God's righteousness permeating our lives all day and every day – in the way we speak to one another, in the way we care for those in distress, and in how we heal the toxic things in our world.

    Our care begins in the simple acts we perform for one another. Gathering with a sick church member and speaking words of compassion. Singing songs of praise together in worship. Or, as Toad helped Frog -- by putting him to bed, by giving him tea, and, most importantly, by simply being his dear friend.

Mitt Romney

This Politico article strikes me as accurately describing Governor Romney.  I do not think he is a villain or that he would be an awful President, even if I do disagree with many of his current positions.  A decade ago I viewed him as someone I might support for President in the future, but he has changed his positions so.  
What the article doesn't question is if the failings they mention would in fact inhibit his governance not just campaigning, and I think they would.  A President must do more than problem solve, the must be effective political strategists and tacticians and able communicators and story-tellers.  Obama has clear limitations despite his great intellect, and I am certain that Romney would soon discover that you can't govern like a CEO.  
The article left me thinking that he might be a very capable Cabinet secretary or advisor.

Why to not vote for Obama

A post on argues why one should not vote for Obama.  That is his record of transgressing human rights in the first term is unacceptable.  

I must say that I share many of these objections.  I wish there was a serious alternative.  But I do not think that there is.  I'm fully aware of voting for the lesser of two evils, understanding the meaning of that phrase.  That the continuation of these policies under an Obama administration is in fact evil.

Since 2002 I have been appalled at this nation's war policies and its response to 9/11/2001.  I was then a Republican and began to vote against the war policy.  My first act, of which I was quite proud, was to vote straight-ticket Democrat in 2002 (while still a registered Republican).  Over the ensuing years, I wrote and spoke often against the Bush administration and its policies.  I was, like many, very depressed when he won re-election in 2004, but hoped that we could marshall a new governing majority that included disaffected Republicans, like myself, and win back our country.  I was encouraged by the Democrat victory in 2006 and the dismissal of Donald Rumsfeld the next day.  I was further encouraged by the campaign of Barack Obama.  It seemed maybe we would break through.

We did not.  And, frankly, despite still being critical of Obama, I have not been as critical of him, as I was critical of Bush.  I have grown more cynical (never before one of my sins) and resigned.  

We are caught is a structure of sin that will not be defeated by an election.  The author of the post is naive (as I once was) to think so.  We need a fundamental revolution in this country.  Awaiting that, I must vote for the candidate that advances other causes I care about.

More on the Good Life

Read a little more Cicero tonight.  Some excerpts and comments.

When these [understanding of nature, the art of the good life, accurate discussion and analysis] are the themes a wise man spends his days and nights contemplating, what exaltation they will bring to his heart! . . . To men immersed day and night in these meditations comes understanding of the truth pronounced by the god at Delphi, that the mind should know itself; and there comes also the perception of its union with the divine mind, the source of its inexhaustible joy.

I clearly find some affinity with this description of contemplation and the intellectual life.  But, in our post-Marxist world, we should see the elitism in such remarks, as many never have the opportunity to develop such a life.  That doesn't, however, detract from the idea that this is the best form of life, if one can live it.  And it is much better than an argument that life is about pursuing riches or stuff, as sometimes even a poor and disadvantaged person can find some opportunity to enrich the mind.

Epicurus scarcely differs from an animal.

Okay, that is an excerpt.  The opening phrase of the sentences is "Taking this attitude," but either way, it is very clear Cicero does not like Epicurus or Epicureanism.

I do want to get away from Stoic hyper-subtleties

Quite right, old chap.

But the most formidable obstacle to adopting a moral standard seems to be pain.

Ah.  I'm studying Job for an upcoming sermon series, and this line might just appear.

Happiness, I say again, will not tremble, however much it is tortured.

I just can't accept this view of the ancient philosophers.  I wrote more about it recently here.

This is the sort of person a truly wise man has to be.  He will never do anything he might regret -- or anything he does not want to do.  Every action he performs will always be dignified, consistent, serious, upright.  He will not succumb to the belief that this or that future event is predestined to happen; and no event, therefore, will cause him surprise, or strike him as unexpected or strange.  Whatever comes up, he will continue to apply his own standards; and when he has made a decision, he will abide by it.  A happier condition than that I am unable to conceive.

I am both attracted by and somewhat repulsed by this vision.  On the one hand, we should aspire to someone of such consistent and clear action.  On the other hand, this person sounds awfully close to the proud person, a vice in Christian ethics.  I have long been torn between, as has Western thought, the Greco-Roman and the Judaeo-Christian visions of the good.

Suppose one can fully embrace this mode of living (and reconcile it with other ethical narratives that have some force over you), it is also clear that someone living this way will generally be ill-regarded by many in our contemporary society.  He will be thought of as arrogant and unresponsive to the desires/needs of others.  While he lives according to what he views as right and wise, others will attack him.  This does not mean the way of life is not right, but does raise interesting questions both about society and about whether the good life should include getting along with others, even others who are not aware of the wisdom that guides one's life.

He quotes Socrates, "What a lot of things there are that I don't feel any need for!"

Amen to that.

The people who run hardest after pleasure are the least likely to catch what they are after.

Wise words.  The pleasure-seeker cannot be satisfied, whereas the person who lives simply will find pleasure more easily.

A life so wholly lacking in reason and moderation must of necessity be highly unattractive.

That I can agree with as well.

Over a few pages he begins to argue the virtues of "poverty," though I assumed he really meant simplicity, as real poverty is an evil.  Then, when I read this next excerpt, it confirmed that his view of poverty is one of a rich elite:

What a lot of trouble one avoids if one refuses to have anything to do with the common herd!  To have no job, to devote one's time to literature, is the most wonderful thing in the world.

Nietzsche was correct that the Judaeo-Christian worldview turned ethics upside down, as in the Greco-Roman world, the good person was the excellent person who avoided entanglements with what is common.  Whereas in the J-C worldview, one must live in solidarity with the poor, the despised, and the common.  The goal of life becomes compassion not excellence (as previously understood).  

As a philosophy grad student, I fully embraced virtue ethics.  When, during that period, I read Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship I wrote many times in the margin that what he was describing and encouraging was in fact a vice.

So, I have worked to figure out how to reconcile and apply both in my pursuit of what is good.

The same applies to whatever assaults fortune may launch against you.  If you are unable to face them, there is nothing to prevent you from running away.

This comes in his argument for suicide, and on this I do embrace the classical view over the traditional Christian view.

"The Contested Color of Christ"

A good essay on the history of race and the representation of Jesus in America.

As is often true, both the rhetoric and the silence speak volumes. Time and again throughout American history, what has been said about the color of Christ (and what has been left unsaid and displayed through art) highlights some of the most profound struggles within the nation.

How is it that a Jewish prophet from the Roman era could become so entangled with the American obsession with race? How could the color of Christ be invoked throughout American history to justify some of the worst atrocities of white supremacy as well as to inspire some of the most heroic civil-rights crusades?


The Courage to Teach - Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life

The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's LifeThe Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life by Parker J. Palmer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Despite this book being written for educators, it was first recommended to me almost a decade ago by a Christian educator in the congregation I was serving. A few years ago a ministry colleague loaned me her copy (and I'll finally be getting it returned to her).

There is good material that I can apply to the church and ministry and specifically to the teaching function of the pastor. Reading the book opened my eyes to some things I was doing incorrectly while also giving me insight into how to do some things better. Palmer is a Quaker and there are significant touchstones with theology and spiritual practice in this book which is not directly religious.

Of course there was much I skimmed over as not being completely relevant to why I was reading it.

For Palmer teaching is a pursuit of truth that the teacher and student engage in together. It is not about conveying a lot of information, but opening up horizons for students to discover things on their own. The teacher must develop the inner strength and trust to allow for exploration.

I would highly recommend it to all the teachers I know and think it is worth skimming for all the clergy I know.

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The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, GentlemanThe Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne

The edition I was reading was published in 1935, and the introduction by Christopher Morley discusses Tristram Shandy as a book most often read in college. He clearly indicates that it should be read by young readers. In fact, he gave this advice, "Perhaps Tristram Shandy should be read first at not over 20 years, and again at not less than 40."

I didn't follow the advice, and maybe I should have. I bogged down in reading it and have finally concluded, on page 168 that I'm not going any further. Instead of enjoying my bedtime novel reading, most evenings I found something else to read or do. That simply won't do.

This 18th century, stream of consciousness, absurdist humour novel is simply not for me. And I can't imagine it would have been when I was under twenty. By page 168, I had found no character or story all that engaging, nothing very funny, and most of it rather boring. I'm not sure why it has a great reputation. One of my friends, who has never read it, said, "It is supposed to be brilliant, but a mess." I can concur with the latter description.

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