God’s Plan for Trauma-Informed Reconstruction:

A Time of Reconstruction

All this week, I’ve been reflecting and meditating on this idea of rebuilding. 

I firmly believe that we find ourselves, here today, in a period of God-given reconstruction.  If you’re like me, perhaps you’ve realized that you need some renovations in your personal life.

Certainly, our church is in a period of rebuilding.

But it’s bigger than that.

Because, as much as televangelists and old-fashioned revivals might tell us different, faith isn’t just a personal matter. 

For God’s people, amazingly returned to the promised land with all that they need having been provided, it’s not just houses or city walls that need to be rebuilt.  The entire community needs rebuilding; the way people think, the way people care, the way people relate to one another all needs to be built up out of the rubble.

That was true in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, and I firmly believe it’s true today.

Thanks be to God: we don’t have the physical destruction that requires physical rebuilding.  But let’s be honest: we, as a community, as a nation, have been beaten down.

We see the light at the end of the Covid tunnel, and what do we find?  All of our systems are broken.  Government isn’t working; social services isn’t working; health care, education, the economy – it isn’t working as it should.  It needs rebuilding; and not just patching, like rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, it needs to be rebuilt from the ground up.

But I believe we need to acknowledge, together, the toll these last few years of our lives have taken on us.  If it’s not too painful, think back through these past few years.  Every time we begin to feel there’s a reprieve from Covid, our society has been faced with something else.  Civil injustice and racism brought to light by the Black Lives Matter movement; the discovery of thousands of unmarked graves at residential schools; protests, blockades, and now a war; and still in this country thousands on reserves go without safe drinking water, though it doesn’t even make the news.

In our own community we’ve lost friends.  For long periods we’ve been unable to gather to grieve together, as we’re now realizing just how very different Fort Smith looks today compared to this time in 2020. 

And now, in the same week that we’re adjusting to loosened restrictions, our own community finds itself dealing with absolutely senseless violence, as a family grieves, and police continue to comb our streets.

Nobody’s in the mood for rebuilding.  We’re tired and worn down.  This never-ending series of events has taken its toll. 

But for me, one thing is clear: we can’t just “keep on truckin’”.  When the path you’re on is leading nowhere good, the answer isn’t to just keep putting one foot in front of the other.

The truth is that all of us have experienced a chronic low-grade trauma. 

If we had experienced all of this at once, we’d be utterly broken.  But, as often happens with chronic traumatic experiences, the damage is done a bit at a time.  On the one hand that makes it manageable, or at least sort-of.  We learn to adapt with the terrible situations a little bit at a time.  The down side, however, is that we end up accepting the situation as “normal”; as a coping mechanism, we end up lowering the bar for what it feels like to be healthy and happy with each new traumatic experience. Finally our bodies and our spirits and our hearts are telling us that something is terribly wrong, but our minds are trying to convince us that the situation we’re in is “normal”.

We, our church, our community, our nation, needs to acknowledge the mess we’re in; and we don’t need to patch things up… we need to rebuild.

God’s Plan for Trauma-Informed Reconstruction:

Thanks be to God, scripture gives us a plan for trauma-informed reconstruction. It took science a thousand years to finally realize that trauma has an effect on the human person, but, not surprisingly, we read about it back in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah!

Now, I know what you might be thinking: after all that we’ve been through, we don’t have the energy to rebuild! 

But this is what we can learn from Ezra and Nehemiah.  You’ll remember that the people were divided.  They returned to Jerusalem in a heap of rubble, and the youth celebrated at the opportunity to rebuild, while the elders wept at all that had been lost.  This division became a barrier to moving forward, because everyone was concerned with their own interests. 

But God’s solution was for people to see the bigger picture, to see themselves as one family, one body, where the stronger support the weaker, where one shares memories to encourage the other, and where all realize that they need the other: that, in spite of the disagreements or weakness or sadness or pain, they are better together than they could ever be on their own.

And finally, once they are united, we see what I believe is a biblical pattern for moving forward through the pain and trauma we’ve all experienced in the past two years.

1. Do what you can do.

When Nehemiah set out to rebuild the walls, he ordered everyone to start carrying stones.  But what did he quickly realize?  Not everyone is called to do the same work.

Some were energized, strong, tired of being idle, and finding themselves in trouble because they didn’t have enough to do.  They needed to get to work.

But, through no fault of their own, others weren’t able to carry stones.  They were anxious, as rumors of wars circled around them; they were weakened by years of exile and division.  They became the defenders of the community. 

Now, what sort of defenders do we need in our rebuilding?  We need those who watch out for us, ensuring we’re taking care of ourselves.  We need those who can offer a word of encouragement, or just put on a pot of tea and share the sort of personal contact we all need to re-learn after two years of low-grade trauma.

But that’s huge: like the people of Israel, in our own rebuilding, we need to learn that it’s ok for different people to be called to be involved in different ways, as long as we’re supporting one another, following where Jesus leads..  Some move bricks, some care for and watch out for those who are moving bricks; all together, God uses his people to rebuild their community.

2. Read the Bible.

I’m struck in today’s lesson just how seriously they take the word of God.  Before the exile God sent prophet after prophet, but no one cared.  At best they smiled and nodded, they said ‘I’m spiritual, not religious: I like to have my Baal statue and my Ashtoreth pole, since there’s many paths to God’.  It wasn’t until their society collapsed that God’s people realized that they weren’t taking him seriously.

As we rebuild our personal lives, and this church, and this community and our great nation, we need to be serious about the Bible. 

Not to beat people over the head with it.  Certainly not.  But to submit ourselves to it. To acknowledge that it’s primary message is that I’m wrong, I need God, I can’t do it on my own, and that our one and only hope in life and death is that we are not alone but belong to God.  That’s our message.  And yes, that sort of dependence is utter foolishness to many in the world around us… until it isn’t.  Until it finally clicks, when their eyes are opened and they see how the last thing we really need is any sort of independence or progress on the road that we’ve been on.  What we need is to trust in the one who keeps his promises, who can do more than we can ask or imagine when we put our trust in Him.

3. Tune out those seeking their own good.

This is a tough one.  Remember when Nehemiah was rebuilding the walls?  The governors of the surrounding nations sent him letter after letter, they would send messengers and drop by unannounced… to do what? 

To discourage.

Why were they set on discouraging God’s people?  Because they were profiting from the mess the world was in. 

This is a big one.  Part of trusting in God, in being serious about his Word, is learning to tune out those who are seeking their own good, those who are exerting their own power and control instead of learning to rely on God. 

Nehemiah, it says, simply ignored the letters.  That’s easier said than done, isn’t it!

But part of the work of rebuilding means learning that, if something is really true, we don’t need to justify it, or argue about it.  We can simply rely on that which is true, and let those discouraging voices wear themselves out. 

Again, this is where it’s important to have those defenders – those people in the family of the church who are encouraging and supporting and making a cup of tea for those who need it!

4. Be Doers of the Word

Finally, as we learn from the Letter of James, we need to be doers of the word, not just hearers.  The work of rebuilding our church; the work of rebuilding our community and our society means that we hear God’s Word and then do it.

We hear our need of repentance, so we repent.

We hear our own need for forgiveness, so we offer it to others, lavishly and with patience.

We hear the message – not that we’ve got it all together, but that we need to bind the broken, to build up those who feel beat down, and to call the world into a relationship with God and ourselves, so that all the nations can be blessed through us.  So we do it. 

For some of us, that means getting serious about the calling that God has on your life for ministry; as more than one person in this congregation is discerning a call to training and a greater ministry in the community.  But, for most of us, that means being serious about #1 – doing what you can do.  If you can’t do the heavy lifting, encourage those who can.  If the only load you can carry right now is to boil the kettle, pick up the phone, and invite someone over for a chat, do what you can do.  You never know, the person who looks busiest might really be longing for that invitation, and in need of some friendship and support themselves!

A Time of Rebuilding

Our world, our society, our church: we’re all in a time of rebuilding.

We need to acknowledge the trauma we’ve experienced.  We need to push back against lowering the bar of what is healthy, not to place demands on others, but to work together to rebuild a community that is supportive for us all, from the ground up.

God will build his Church.  He can heal our land.

For we know he keeps his promises.  With him all things are possible, and if we trust him, he’ll accomplish in us, weak as we are, far more than we can ask or imagine. 
To God be the glory now and forevermore.  Amen.

Note: With our bishop’s permission, we’ve set aside the Lectionary for this year and have been reading through The Story, a 31-chapter abridgment of the entire Bible aimed at increasing our awareness of God’s grand story of salvation found when we read Genesis – Revelation as a single proclamation of God’s love for us and his plan for the redemption of the World. Today’s readings at home were from Ezra 7, Nehemiah 1-2, 4, 6-8. We also read Psalm 147, James 1:22-25, and John 2:13-22.

David: Trusting God’s foolish solution.

For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

I want to do something a little different this morning.

I want you to put yourself in the sandals of one of those Israelite soldiers.  Just imagine with me – maybe close your eyes if it helps you put yourself in their place.

It’s late Spring – the time when kings go to war.  A messenger came to your town calling for every family to send their young people to fight for the king.  You left home with a sharpened pickaxe, the only pointed tool you could find.  You marched for miles over mountains and through valleys with your homemade sandals on your feet, a bit of grain and a skin canteen of water over your shoulder.

You’re following the king.  Saul is his name.  He’s a mighty man – feared through all the land, not least because he would kill your family’s livestock if your father hadn’t sent you to fight.  He’s an impressive man, a battle-hardened warrior who stands a head above everyone else in Israel.  You do as you’re told, following the king into battle.

But there’s rumblings in the ranks.  The king and his closest advisors have been at odds with the prophet – and Israel is weak.  The Philistines have armor and trained warriors, but you’re just a farmer with a pickaxe.  Israel needs God to fight it’s battles, but that doesn’t always work out.  You see, sometimes – well, a lot of the time – the king rushes in.  Saul’s impressive; Saul’s mighty; but Saul is impulsive, and you’ve heard he has these fits of madness.  And you and your comrades on either side are fully aware that Saul loses as many battles as he wins.

You’ve marched to the battlefield, setting up your tent as spring turns to the dry heat of the middle eastern summer.  On the other side of the valley are the Philistines – an incredible force, better prepared in every way.  In fact, they’re so confident that they don’t even want to waste their energy fighting – after all, it’s better to keep young men as slaves than to waste them on the battle field. 

Every day they send out their strongest warrior to taunt you.  And it works.  Can you imagine?  You’re a farmer barely 5 feet high, and you’re supposed to fight a trained warrior in bronze armor as tall as a basketball player, with a sword heavier than you could lift?  And you’ve heard the rumors in the camp – they’re all as strong as he is.  Everyone’s given up hope.  There’s no use.  You might as well go back home and prepare for life as slaves, growing your wheat to feed the Philistines while you live off the scraps. 

You look to the king – he’s easy to spot, he’s stands a head above everyone else.  He’s got the best armor, and even he’s shaking in his boots. 

Each day, the Philistines get up and start their battle cries.  Even the sound of their voices and drums and trumpets strike fear in your heart.  Then Goliath comes out.  He struts back and forth, your comrades drawing back every time he changes direction.  He doesn’t even want to fight – he just yells insults.  And, you’re ashamed to admit it, but maybe what he says is true.  You’re not strong.  You’re not mighty.  You’re just a farmer.  Goliath calls upon the names of his gods and curses you.  “Where is the God of Israel?” he shouts, as you hear the Philistine army behind him erupt with laughter.  “We have our god made of stone, but has anyone even seen the God that Israel thinks is on their side?”  After all, you remember, God used to go with you into battle with the ark of the covenant, but your grandfather was in that battle when it was lost. 

Forty nights you lie in your tent, listening to every sound, waiting for the Philistines to run you through.  Then you awake, hardly rested, to hear them laugh and taunt you, as even the king quakes with fear.  Why can’t they just get it over with?  If they’re going to kill us, why must they humiliate us first?  If they’re going to make us slaves, let’s just get it over with.

But what’s this? 

There’s a kid.  Look at him – he’s too young to grow a beard.  Who is he?

Look!  He’s breaking the line – he’s going out on the battlefield.

Somebody stop him!  He’s not even carrying a shield.  This is insane.  No, worse than that, this is embarrassing!  Listen to the Philistines – they’re roaring with laughter.  Come on, guys, somebody call him back.  This kid is going to get ripped apart.  They’re mocking us!

Wait.  He’s yelling.  …Oh, somebody stop him!  It’s bad enough Goliath mocks us each day, now we’ve got this kid out there ranting about God – a God we can’t see, who hasn’t come to help us these last 40 days.  Ugh, somebody make him stop.  Can’t anyone see how embarrassing this is?  I’m ashamed to be here with this army, let me go and be a slave to the Philistines.

For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise”. 
…Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?

We all know the story of David and Goliath. 

But put yourself in the sandals of those Israelites.  Be honest.

Would you have trusted in David when he stepped out in that field?

Would you have opened your ears and listened when David spoke about the power of God, or would you have wished someone would stop him, that he would just shut up?

I am a faithful believer in Jesus Christ.  I am a priest of the Church.  But I have to admit: I wouldn’t have trusted in David. 

And I don’t think I’m alone in that.

The Season of Preparation

Advent is a season of preparation.  Not a preparation for Christmas – God knows we don’t need any help or encouragement to spend money or bake cookies or eat too much and enjoy a nice holiday nap! 

No, Advent is a season of preparation for the coming of Christ; and, with that, a season to prepare ourselves to meet our maker whenever that time comes for you and for me.

But the hard truth is, I don’t think any of us would have been encouraged when we saw a shepherd boy with a sling walking out to what would surely be his death.  I don’t think any of us would have stirred with religious fervour when, after 40 days of quaking with fear, we heard this young man talking about God’s glory.

But that’s the message of God’s story.

God will not save us in a way that preserves our pride.  God will not save us in a way that we can pat ourselves on the back and say “Wow, didn’t I do well today”. 

No.  God will save.

God doesn’t ask for your strength; he doesn’t ask for your wisdom; he doesn’t ask for your power; he doesn’t even ask for your opinion: he asks for your trust.

And let’s be clear – that means trusting in some incredible things. 

All of our instincts say “this boy, David, is a fool”.  But what we don’t know is that God has already anointed him as king.  We need to be willing to trust in the solutions that  God has provided, not cast them off because we can’t see how it will work.

When we’re feeling overwhelmed, worldly wisdom tells us to retreat into our houses; cut yourself off from the world, put on a mask – a happy face – think positive, and bear it yourself.

But God says ‘When one is weak, when one is sick, when one is mourning, when one is simply worn down: take it to the church.  Bear one another’s burdens, pray for one another, be anointed for healing, taste and see that the Lord is good.  But we say “it’ll never work.  I need to do this alone”, rather than trust the solution that God has prepared.

When our minds are swirling, when we’re frustrated, when we just can’t figure out what’s going on, we say “where’s God?”.  But God says “faith is a gift”… but you’ve got to open it, you can’t leave it wrapped up under the tree.

When a sickness is spreading, when the waters are rising, when the mountains are literally toppling into the sea – yes, God has given us amazing minds and skill to create vaccines and levees and helicopters to evacuate those stranded by floods – but do we put all our faith in those man-made solutions, or do we use the gifts God has given us, and then turn to God in prayer?  Trusting that, though prayer might feel like a strange waste of time, the same God that sent a boy to defeat the Philistines also said that more is accomplished by prayer than this world will ever know.

Come, Lord Jesus

This advent, I need to be honest with myself.  I wouldn’t have trusted in David.  But, by the same token, what other incredible solutions does God have planned that I’m simply unwilling to accept?

This Advent, I invite you to reflect and prepare for the day that we will each meet God face to face, and with that, to pray for open eyes, that we may see that the God who raises up the humble and meek will do the same for you, and for me, if only we trust in the one whose wisdom passes all human understanding.

To Him, and to him alone, be the glory, now and forevermore.  Amen.

Sleeping through a storm.

And Jesus was in the stern of the boat, asleep on a cushion.  Mark 4:38

Today we learn what trust looks like from God’s perspective.

This is an amazing scene.  Jesus has been travelling the countryside with his disciples, teaching in parables, healing the sick, bringing hope and mercy to those who are lost.  All along the way, we’re told, he goes into greater detail with the Twelve, sitting quietly with them in the morning or evening and answering their questions about how the parables apply to life.  And then, one night after teaching about faith – you’ll remember the parable from last week, about the gardener who spread his seeds and then did what?  …went to bed, and got up, and faithfully went about his day, and went to bed again, and kept on faithfully going about his days until one day, without him knowing how or even really when, the seed of faith had sprouted.

So it’s evening, Jesus has just shared this last parable, and then he says “guys, it’s time for us to go to the other side of the lake”.  The ‘lake’ we’re talking about here is the Sea of Galilee, 13 km across, the same lake where Peter and Andrew and James and John had fished for years.  So they hop in a sail boat and head out into the dark night, along with the other boats also catching the evening wind as it changes direction. 

So there they are, bobbing about in a little lboat on the dark waters when the gentle breeze becomes a mighty storm, so big that the waves are crashing up over the side, as they start to notice the water gathering around their sandals.  And having just been taught about faith, what do the disciples do?  They freak out.  They’re anxious.  I imagine them calling to each other, passing around buckets or basins.  Having grown up around opinionated fishermen, I imagine them calling to each other in pretty salty language about whether or not they should turn back.  We know it wasn’t their boat, so I imagine Andrew or John, one of the guys who had called in a favour from an old fishing buddy, worrying how they’re going to pay for the damage to the boat since Jesus already had them give up fishing, so it’s not like they were earning any income.

The wind is howling, the waves are crashing as chilly water creeps up over their feet, they’re yelling, they’re worried, they’re scared and probably fighting amongst themselves. 

…and where was Jesus?

Mark 4, verse 38: “and Jesus was in the stern, asleep on a cushion”.

(Isn’t this fun?  The Bible is full of surprises!)

Now this might seem a little shocking.  It might even seem offensive, or wrong when we first think about it.  Our Lord’s closest friends aren’t just anxious – they’re fearful.  They’re scared to death: they yell at Jesus, “don’t you care that we’re going to die?!”  They’re scurrying about, talking about turning around, wondering about the damage that could be done, maybe even wishing that Jesus would get off his cushion and give them a hand bailing out the boat.

What’s going on here – in their moment of life and death anxiety, hearts pounding, wind howling, waves crashing, the Lord’s asleep! 

I think the disciples’ question is a fair one: does Jesus not care that they’re perishing?  It’s like the Israelites in the desert with Moses: “have you brought us here to die?  There were plenty of graves back where we came from!”

Yet, even through all these difficult questions, this is where we find an incredible lesson.

Faith is a gift; it’s not something we can drum up within ourselves. Like the gardener, our task is to faithfully rise and go about our day while God gives the growth.

But trust… well, that’s a different story.

Trusting God in the Storm.

Trust isn’t a gift – it’s something that must be exercised, it’s something that increases with use, just as we know that being found trustworthy with something small results in being entrusted with more.

Are the disciples’ worries and concerns and fears legitimate?  If you’re out at sea in a sailboat at night in a windstorm, you don’t have a lifeboat or any lifejackets, and your boat is taking on water, is it fair to be worried?  Yes.  The concerns are all legitimate.

But this is where trust comes in.

Whose idea was it to get into the boat this night?  Was it Peter?  Andrew?  Matthew?  No, Jesus set the course.  Jesus knew the starting point, he set the destination, and he knew the way to get there.

And, did Jesus send them off alone to fend for themselves?  No.  Now, you might say it doesn’t look like he’s very actively involved – he’s asleep on a cushion, after all.  But the question can’t be “do I see exactly how God is involved in this situation?”.  No, the question of faith is simply “is Jesus with me?”.  The same Jesus who said that when we go forth on his mission, he is with us always.  The same Jesus who said that wherever two or three are gathered in his name, he’s in their midst.  So maybe you can’t see what he’s doing – maybe it looks like Jesus is taking a nap – but is Jesus in the boat?  Yes.

So, out on the dark, stormy sea, is it right for those disciples to take action, to grab buckets, to bail out the water?  Yes, absolutely. 

Is it right for them to call out to Jesus and say ‘Lord, we need you!’.  Yes. 

Is it right for them to say ‘maybe we should turn back.’  ‘Maybe the cost is too high, who will fix the boat if this doesn’t work’.  Is it right for them to say ‘I can’t see a way out of this, this will be the death of me.’  No. 

Even when the storms are swirling around us, that’s where trust teaches us to draw the line.  My friends, hear this –

            If Jesus sets the course
            and Jesus is in the boat
            we will make it to our destination.

It’s far better to be in the raging storm with Jesus, following faithfully where he leads, headed with him and with our brothers and sisters towards the destination that our mission requires, than home, safe asleep in our beds, but going nowhere.

It’s an odd sort of encouragement, isn’t it?

How much easier it would be if, by having Jesus in the boat, we could just avoid the storms altogether.  But that’s not how it works. 

Jesus didn’t create the storm – the storm is just part of life in this fallen world, and we know Jesus didn’t purposefully make a storm come up to teach them a lesson or any other pious foolishness; after all, Jesus rebukes the storm – he wouldn’t rebuke it if it was doing what He wanted. 

But I believe Jesus knew the storm was there, he knew it was coming.  But can the storms of life separate us from the plans God has, from the destination to which he’s asking us to follow?  No, never. 

Jesus set the course.
Jesus is in the boat.
They’re going to make it to their destination.

But it requires trust.  Here’s the hard lesson: it’s not the storm that’s going to keep them from their destination.  The one who created wind and waves is with them, and He’s at peace.  The only thing going to keep them from their destination is if they give in to their fears. 

If they say “I know Jesus wanted to cross over, but this was a bad idea, lets go back”, they might try to blame it on the storm, but the decision to turn back was theirs.

If they say “I know He can walk on water; I know he can heal the sick and feed the hungry and raise the dead, but I’m scared, I’m running around franticly, and he won’t run around franticly with me”, we might blame it on the storm, but the decision to turn back is ours.

Rather, the question we can ask is: “are we going where Jesus leads?”  Did He set the course, or was this my plan?  If it’s my plan, turn back! 

The question we can ask is, simply, “is Jesus with us?”.  Am I going my own way?  Do I have the body of Christ, my brothers and sisters, carrying this burden, facing this storm with me?  Have I invited my brothers or sisters in Christ to walk with me, knowing that when two or three are together, Jesus is there; or, am I trying to face this alone, with no room for Jesus or anyone else?  If the only one you can trust is yourself, then yes, turn back.

You see, trust is knowing that the one who set the destination and is going with you on the way will complete the good work that has begun.  He will guard us, guide us, keep us, and feed us; he will guide the future as he has the past – because, really, no matter how anxiously we flail about, who else can be our helper?  If the waves are going to crash through the side of your boat, your little bucket isn’t worth trusting in.  Our only hope – in life and in death – is that we are not our own, but belong to God; and if we’re in the boat that he chose, on the course that he set, and he’s journeying with us, we don’t need to fear the storm.

Not just forgetting fear.

But this is not just about ignoring the storm, or bottling up our fears.  We are disciples.  We are the apprentices learning from our Master. 
And what is the goal of the Christian life?  The imitation of Christ.

“Jesus awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” and the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.  He said to them, ‘Why are you so afraid?  Have you still no faith?”

As we grow into the image and likeness of Christ, as our anxious mind is transformed by following God’s will, as our hard hearts are replaced with tender hearts of flesh, we not only trust God’s destination, but we, too, will learn to be at peace – maybe even able to sleep through! – the storms life throws at us.  Even more, when we trust the course He has set and are sure of his presence with us, we will learn, with Christ, to simply echo his voice which settles the storm and brings peace.

Have you met those people?  People facing incredible hardship, real pain, maybe even those for whom the dark clouds of death are closing in.  Yet, through a life of faith, they’re not afraid.  They know that Jesus set the course they’re following; they know that Jesus is with them; they trust they’ll make it safely to their destination, and that, my friends, opens the door to the peace that passes all understanding – peace that makes no human sense, apart from the sure and certain faith that God will complete the good work that he has started.

And Jesus was asleep on a cushion.  Should we fear?  No.  Put your trust in God, and remember:

If Jesus sets the course
and Jesus is in the boat
we will make it to our destination.

Languishing, Growth, and Direction

“I am the vine; you are the branches.” John 15:5a

As this pandemic wears on, all of us – in one way or another – are feeling the effects.  For many of us, the anxiety or fear of March 2020 has faded, having gone through cycles of frustration and tiredness, having set mental goals for when this would be over, only to have them come and go, and now finding ourselves knowing that, yes, this will one day be over, but not wanting to get our hopes up. 

On a conference call this past week, I was introduced to the term that some mental health professionals are now using to describe where we are.  We’re not in crisis mode anymore, but we’re certainly not flourishing or moving forward.  The term, I’m told, is “languishing”.  Languishing.  Now, I said to myself when I heard it, “that sounds kind of dire… and maybe a bit dramatic.”  But when you look it up in the dictionary, it fits.  “Languishing” means, simply, “to lose or lack vitality, to grow weak, to suffer from remaining in an unpleasant situation”.  I, for one, find it helpful to have a word to describe that sense of “blah” that so many of us are feeling.

The Branch is Invigorated by the Vine

Today’s gospel is a familiar one: we’ve all heard since Sunday School that Christ is the vine and we are the branches; we’re to abide in him so that we can bear fruit.  But as I read this lesson with the fresh – or maybe tired – eyes of our current situation, something jumped out at me for the first time.  The branch only has one job.  The branch is to be invigorated by the vine. That’s it. Think about it: the branch has no roots of it’s own, it can’t pick itself up to find a better source of water.  If you’ve ever tried to train a vine – whether it’s grapes or peas and beans or an ivy on a trellis – you know that the branches can sometimes have a mind of their own, and need to be gently bent back in the direction that they should go.  But, really, the branch’s job – all it has to do to thrive – is to receive what it needs from the vine – to be invigorated by the vine – and to trust the gentle hand of the gardener.

And that jumped out at me this week.  Jesus doesn’t say, ‘get your act together, figure out some plan to multiply 10 or 50 or 100 times’.  He doesn’t say, ‘get creative and come up with a scheme to bear fruit’.  What does he say?  Four times in today’s short lesson, Jesus repeats again and again exactly how it is that we are to bear fruit: abide in me.

The work of the branch is simply to be invigorated by the vine.

It’s the vine that is connected to those life-giving roots, that supply of fresh and life-giving water.  As the branch sends out feelers, looking for something to grasp on to, the branch needs only to trust the gentle correction of the gardener.  You see, that’s the remarkable thing in what Jesus is saying today: all the branch has to do is be invigorated, accept the life flowing from the roots of the vine, to be content to simply abide in the abundant life that the vine provides.

So what does that look like?  In this season of languishing, what does it look like to be invigorated as a branch on the Lord’s vine?

The Invigorated Life

I think our lesson from Acts today provides a fabulous example of the invigorated life, a life, a way of being that receives it’s vigor, receives it’s vitality, receives it’s drive from abiding in what God provides.

We heard this morning the wonderful account of Philip, who noticed a politician reading the Bible and engaged him in conversation that led to the glorious question: “why can’t I be baptized, too?”, as another branch was added to the vine that day.

I think the first obvious lesson about a life that receives it’s vigor and drive from the abundant life that Jesus provides is simply about the energy that the branches receive.

It says in our lesson that an angel said “rise and go toward the south, to that road through the desert”.  And then that key, short sentence: “and he rose and went”.  If we’re abiding in the vine, if we’re well-connected and receiving what the vine provides, we’ll have the energy to do what is expected.

And, I have to say, that’s something I believe is universally true.  There are so many things in life that suck out our energy and leave us drained; but the actions, the conversations, even the sacrifices that bear fruit aren’t like that, they’re life-giving.  There’s plenty of days I feel ‘done in’ by the demands of every-day life: laundry, picking kids up, dropping kids off, a never-ending pile of dishes.  There’s plenty of days I’d like to haul on my pyjama pants, grab my book or put on whatever I’m watching on Netflix, pour up a glass of wine or a beer, and ‘refresh myself’ by lounging on the couch.  And, to be honest, I get that feeling on Wednesdays after supper, with Celebrate Recovery scheduled for 8pm.  But, when this church started Celebrate Recovery, it was made clear through prayer that it was a direction that God wanted us to go, it was where God was telling us to “rise and go”.  And, you know what?  No matter how tired or ‘ready to relax’ I might be on Wednesday nights, when I let myself be energized by the vine, when I trust the direction the gardener is gently directing me, that work becomes life-giving.  I leave 9:30 or quarter-to-ten on Wednesday night more energized, more ‘vigorous’ than I went in.  Even when we’re tired and ‘languishing’, we’ll know if what we’re doing is fruitful, because we’ll find ourselves invigorated, energized by the vine with deep roots and abundant water.

Now, as Philip follows that road south, he overhears a powerful politician reading aloud, as people did in those days.  And, amazingly, the Spirit of God says “go over and jump up with him!”.  Do you ever get those?  Ridiculous promptings to do something out of the ordinary, but which is going to make a difference in someone else’s life?  Let me tell you, that’s part of the invigorated life that God provides if we simply abide in Christ.  I’ve never actually heard the voice of the Holy Spirit, though there are some people who say they do; I know for me, when God’s giving me an opportunity, when I know that an idea or a conversation isn’t my own, I get a little tingle on the back of my neck.  It could be the smallest thing: I pass someone in the store who I know is having a hard time, I say “hi, how ya doin’?”, they say, “living the dream” or “oh, one day at a time”, and I’ll be ready to take the next step towards the milk when I’ll feel a little tingle on the back of my neck, an invitation to let the person know that, if they ever need to talk, my door is open; or to offer to add them to our prayer list.  To abide in Christ, to receive the life and energy and fruitful vitality that the vine provides – and, practically, to do the work of bearing fruit and adding more children of God to the Body of Christ – it’s really just a matter of accepting what Jesus offers: when we have a life-giving opportunity, go for it; when we have that feeling, to talk, or act, or offer, to make that one extra step outside our comfort zone, just do it; it may well be that the feeling you have is the hand of the gardener gently guiding you in the direction where you’ll bear the most fruit.

Vines are a long-term investment.

I want to leave you with one other observation this morning.  At least for me, even with all the great things we’re doing, this sense of ‘languishing’ as we’re 14-months into a pandemic doesn’t leave me feeling very fruitful.  Don’t get me wrong, we’ve done a lot of great work together, but it’s harder to see in a time when we’re not allowed to gather all the harvest in to one room to fellowship together.

But, I noticed this week for the first time, that Jesus intentionally uses the image of a vine and a vinedresser here.  He’s not talking about a harvest of wheat or carrots or zucchini; he’s not talking here about something that you plant in Spring and dig up in Fall.  Branches on vines aren’t an annual crop – they’re a long-term investment, they’re something to be tended year after year, decade after decade.  Some of the best vineyards have vines with roots going back over a century, carefully tended, fertilized some years, pruned other years, often with new shoots lovingly grafted in along the way.

A vinedresser would tell you that each season is unique: the flavour of the vintage varies year to year, but as much as the vinedresser wants a good harvest each season, He’s equally concerned with the long-term health of the vineyard.  Because the final product in that bottle of wine isn’t the fruit of a single branch of grapes, the final product is the sum total of the whole vineyard together.

Jesus is the vine and we are the branches, each of us: yet, we’re to be invigorated by the vine to be fruitful together.  When it’s time for a gentle pruning or push in the right direction, we’re being changed from glory into glory not so that you or I bear fruit, but so that we bear fruit.  It will take all of us, abiding in Christ, receiving the energy and direction He provides, if we’re to bear fruit as the hands, feet, and voice of God here in Fort Smith.

So this week, when you find yourself “languishing”, as I know I will, take the Lord at his invitation.  Simply abide in him; take those life-giving opportunities that He offers; when you feel the gardener’s gentle hand – and you will, if you look for it – follow in the direction He’s guiding.  And together – even in a difficult season – we can trust that God’s long-term investment in us will indeed be fruitful.

To God be the glory, now and forevermore.  Amen.

Looking back, Worrying Forward.

People everywhere are obsessed with endings.

I think it’s part and parcel of life in this messy world that our focus naturally tends to be on things coming to an end.

As we go through struggles – big and small, as communities and as individuals – our minds and hearts drive us to ask “when will this end?”

Ugh. When will this pandemic be over so life can get back to normal?”  “When will the news finally talk about something besides the election and the virus?”  Or, “with nations so divided on politics, race, and economics, what’s going to happen?  How will this end?

When will our struggles be over?

And it’s not just struggles that cause us to focus on endings. 

When something that is great, something that we’ve enjoyed and has done much good is coming to the end of it’s course, our first instinct is to focus on the ending.  Our gut reaction is to cling on to things until the bitter end, to become defensive or maybe even put on a mask of denial, as we become so focused on preventing the end of a good thing that it’s no longer good anymore.  So often we become so wrapped up in clinging on to good things that they’re no longer enjoyable, and our human instinct turns the victory, the “well done” at the end of a race into a bitter, dreadful defeat instead.

Our human instinct is to focus on endings; our human instinct is to grasp at things, to cling on to things that are passing away.

And sometimes we become so focused on the ending that we miss the blessing right in front of our eyes, like someone with their family gathered around the table, laughing and telling stories over a feast of good food and wine, yet the host is so focused on the end that they can’t help but to get up, rush to the kitchen and do the dishes, rather than enjoy the real blessing of family, friends, and food that is right in front of them.  Focusing on, even worrying about endings always draws us away from the blessings – and opportunities – that God has given us today.  I was going to insert a Bible verse about not being anxious about tomorrow, but there were just too many to choose from – at least 24 times in scripture we are told not to worry about what the future will bring, but to instead focus on being faithful today, here and now.

We like to focus on endings.  But God isn’t the God of endings. 
No, He is the author of new beginnings.

A Lesson from Thessalonians

In First Thessalonians chapter 4, the church there had written to Paul, anxious about endings.  Some of their members had died, their mortal lives had ended, and that was consuming their energy.  They wrote to Paul with great anxiety, consumed by grief, and when they came together, their focus, their conversation, their only concern was thinking about the good old days, and longing for the day when they would see those loved ones again. 

Their obsession with endings became a temptation, as they turned away from the blessings God had given them – and the work they had been given to do – and instead became a people gathered to look back and worry forwards.

And Paul writes to them and says, ‘yes, grieve – absolutely!’  “But don’t grieve as those who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13).  Of course endings are painful, but we’re not a people of endings.  The entire story of Salvation – your Bible, cover to cover – is the story of those who have messed up, who have missed God’s blessings, who have forgotten their God-given task of drawing others in, who have gotten themselves into a situation where the only earthly response is to dig in, put up your defences, and wait for defeat.

But if we read scripture as the message of God presiding over endings, our eyes have been clouded by our human instinct to look back and worry forwards. 

No, “behold, I am making all things new”.  “Even heaven and earth shall pass away, but my word will not pass away”.  Crowns and thrones may perish, kingdoms rise and wane, “but the word that proceeds from God’s mouth will not return to Him empty; it will accomplish what God desires, and it will achieve the purpose for which He sent it.”[1]

God gives new beginnings – time and time again.  In every situation we may see an ending, and yes, it may be painful, but if we can focus on the moment in which God has called us – not yesterday’s successes or failings, not grasping on to tomorrow, but trusting God and, most importantly, living faithfully here and now, we will come to see that yes, this sinful world and the consequences of past actions bring endings, but God presents us new opportunities each morning, if we’re willing to change our focus.

…and that proper perspective changes everything.

Even this week, as we celebrate Remembrance Day, there are those who would follow that human gut instinct, and focus on the dwindling number of veterans, on the shrinking number of people who are willing to serve their community in even the smallest ways, let alone answer the call of duty and lay down their lives for their friends.

But when we look to the past, we only become defensive and lose the opportunity God has given us in the present.  Remembrance Day – originally Armistice Day – was never about the end of fighting; it was about the beginning of peace.  We don’t need any help to focus on fighting, but to begin to work for peace – that’s a different matter, and one that calls all of us to put aside past glories and past differences, give up defensiveness about tomorrow, and instead, make a difference today.

The Gospel, God’s story of salvation, is a story of new beginnings, new opportunities every day, with every step as we follow.  But only if we’re willing to re-focus.  As Jesus calls us to scatter seeds and grow his kingdom, he gives a stern warning.  In Luke 9 he says straight up: “anyone who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is not fit for service in the kingdom of God” (vs. 62)

Our instinct is to see – and fear – endings, but God offers new beginnings.

Finish Lines and New Beginnings

My friends, this church is entering a season when we are called to re-evaluate and re-focus our mission and ministry.  What have we built on the foundation we inherited, a foundation once so overflowing that they poured a new one to expand, but which now, on the best of weeks, welcomes in 1.5% of our town… or, to put it another way, doesn’t reach 98.5% of our neighbours.

As those called to make disciples, as we look around this very room at our 3 services today, who have we raised up who will not just carry on, but grow and expand the spread of the Gospel in Fort Smith 10 years from now, or even 5 years from now? 

And there’s real grief in that: some of us, some who have done so much, won’t be here.  But as Paul says, don’t grieve as those without hope.

This is not about the past, and it’s not about the future, but who are we forming today to build on our foundation, to pick up the torch, and continue our God-given task as we as individuals come to the end of our race.

These are important conversations, and they challenge us because our instinct is to focus on endings.

Our instinct is to look back and cling on with all that we have to put off the ending that clouds our vision.

Our human instinct tells us that we need to balance the budget, so we should fundraise: but God never called us to fundraise for the Kingdom: he called us to grow the Kingdom.  Fundraising is looking back and worrying forwards, a distraction – or even an excuse – to avoid carrying out the work God has given us to do.

Our human instinct tells us to draw someone younger in so they can learn to do what we do and keep it going.  But again, that’s looking back and worrying forwards. 
God’s will is that old people would dream dreams of a future bigger and brighter than we could even imagine; not that the young carry on in our footsteps, but that they have a vision and follow in Christ’s footsteps, and we rejoice as each generation of faithful followers reach out to a confused and changing world and draw them in, not to rebuild what once was, but knowing that the God of new beginnings will always do something more glorious if we can stop worrying, get out of the way, stop looking back, and follow where he leads.

…But we have to be willing to put aside our focus and fear of endings, and instead trust that every day, every moment, is an opportunity for a new beginning.

An End of an Engagement or the Start of a Marriage?

In Matthew 25 there were 10 maidens going to a wedding.  Five of them were focused on endings – they filled up their lamp so they wouldn’t get lost in the dark, walked to the banquet hall, and focused on when the wait would be over and they could go in.

Five of them were focused on new beginnings.  They came with their lamp, but they knew it wasn’t about the wait.  Their focus wasn’t on the engagement being over; no, their focus was on the all night party that the master had planned.  They brought their lamp, but brought an extra flask of oil so they could party all night long in the light!

Those who focused on the ending got the ending they were hoping for, but weren’t prepared for the reward.  What should have been the victory at the finish line became a bitter end as the lamp went out and the guy at the door couldn’t even tell who they were anymore.  Those who knew that the Master always goes over the top and does more than they can imagine didn’t get an ending, but the start of something amazing, not just through the night, but spilling over into the bright new day that followed.

Friends, as we look around, as we come to the end of the budget year and prepare for an Annual General Meeting in January, we begin a season of conversations, not about budgets, buildings, traditions, the past, and the fear of endings, but about mission and ministry, about an inheritance that we received, and our task to raise up and grow the Church so that God makes it even more than we can imagine; as we do that, I call us, as your Rector, to remain focused.

Let’s not look back and worry forward.  Let’s not defend what we have and work to prevent endings.  No, let’s get to work, let’s enjoy every new opportunity.  And when something nears the finish line, as will happen to each of us, and every program, and every group, and every kingdom and nation under heaven, let’s celebrate what God has done, and grow from strength to strength as those who know, with full certainty, that God is the author of new beginnings, and it’s He who makes all things new.

To God be the Glory, now and forever more.   Amen.

[1] Revelation 21:5, Matthew 24:35, “Onward, Christian Soldiers”, Isaiah 55:11

Photo from BeachFellowship.com

Is anyone sick? Call the presbyters, pray, and anoint in the Name of the Lord.

One of the core messages of the gospel is healing: God’s law to love him fully and to love our neighbours as ourselves is itself a plan to heal our relationships, to heal the wounds of sin that separate us from God.  The Prophets speak of the Kingdom of God as a place of healing, with nations streaming in to see the glory of God, finding healing for what ails them.[1]  Throughout the Gospels, our Lord displays the mighty power of God and teaches us to understand God’s will through dozens of healing miracles, and those examples of healing continue through the apostles and through the Church, even to our own day, as God continues to heal, as he continues to make a way where there seems to be no way; doing what we thought was impossible; reminding us that, just when we think we have it all figured out, we couldn’t be further from the truth.

Healing of the whole human person – body and spirit together – is central to our faith.  Indeed, our faith in the resurrection – our hope of eternal life – is not that we would be freed from our creaky, cranky old bodies, but that they would be made new, and be able to reflect the Image of God, no longer subject to pain or hunger or exhaustion, but being perfectly satisfied by union with the source of life itself.

And, though we’re not great at expressing it, faith in the healing power of God is – and must be – one of the marks or signs of the Church.  Where the Spirit of the Lord is, wherever two or three are truly gathered in the Name of the Lord, we should expect to find healing: if we’re the Church, if we’re the Body of Christ, if Christ is here as we know he is, then part of the evidence of that are lives that experience freedom from the despair of pain and suffering, bodies and souls that reflect the glory of God here and now.[2]

…but, then again, in a time when it seems the only ones talking about healing by faith are the multi-millionaire preachers asking for money on TV, and at a time when – by God’s grace – we’re able to understand and treat physical and mental illness better than ever before, what is the place of healing in the Church?

Why do we pray?

About 5 years ago, I was leading a discussion on this very topic with a group of students who were preparing for ordained ministry; we were discussing how each discovery of science and medicine further reinforces just how awesome and powerful God is, if only we can stop trying to make God in our own image and accept Him as He’s revealed Himself in the scriptures through the Church as wiser and more gracious than we could ever imagine.

And then, one of the students, who had become really quiet and looked pretty distraught, finally piped up.  “Fr. Alex”, he said.  “I believe it, I really do.  But there’s one part that I just don’t get, and I’ve never told anybody, because if the bishop found out, I guess I’d never be ordained”.

…uh-oh, I thought, what are we in for now?

“If God is merciful and good, if God really wants to work all things together for good for those who love him, if Jesus wants to draw the world to himself to share in his risen life, then why do we need to pray?  If God’s so good, why do I need to convince him to do something?”

(That, my friends, is why clergy need to go to seminary, to ask those deep questions before they find themselves in a pulpit, or worse, at your bedside!)

But it’s a fair question, perhaps one that you’ve asked yourself one way or another. 
If God is so good, why do I have to convince him to help me?

Right off the bat, though, I’d suggest that question shows that we haven’t appreciated just how great God’s love for us really is.

If we’ve made God in our own image, if we follow our society’s vague idea of an old king set apart on a distant throne, we end up with an image of prayer in which we are the poor peasants who must cry out and beg for the king’s mercy.  But, read your Bible cover to cover; not once will you see God described that way.  That’s simply not what we believe.

No, in the one prayer that Jesus Himself taught us, how do we, poor, struggling, often-disobedient mortals address the almighty Creator of heaven and earth?  How do we?

Our Father.  But, even that translation has become too formal over the years.  Throughout the New Testament, Jesus and St. Paul refer to the Father as abba – “dad”.

It’s a purely human invention to imagine prayer as begging a distant King to hear the cries of a poor peasant – and no wonder prayer becomes such an unpleasant experience if it’s approached that way. 

No, Jesus teaches us not to plead with a distant king, but to speak, to share with his dad, who has adopted us as his own.  Prayer isn’t a dry, lofty ritual; the God who makes himself present in bread and wine invites us to pull up a chair at the great thanksgiving feast and commune – meaning to “talk over” or “discuss” – with him.

Prayer is the furthest thing from convincing God, as if we had any power or ability to plead our cause before the Almighty.  No, it’s so much more – prayer is our opportunity to pull up a chair at the kitchen table, where a loving dad offers you your lunch – your food for the journey – and asks you, patiently, ‘my son, my daughter, how is your day?’

Tell me what’s on your mind.  Get it off your chest. 

And as we name our concerns, as we cast off our burdens, as we thank our loving dad for being there having the food ready, even when we were late, or wandered off and didn’t come home at all, do you know what happens?  We commune – that talking things over – goes both ways.

If we’re waiting for a grand messenger from a lofty palace to come with the king’s message, we’ll miss it – because, when we pray to our dad who has adopted us as brothers and sisters in Christ, he speaks directly to us, in that still small voice.

And, just as prayer isn’t us attempting to convince Him, God’s response to us isn’t just a set of “approved” or “denied” stamps.  No, the amazing part of prayer – throughout scripture – is that, as we pray, as we simply speak to God, He reveals his will. 

As we simply name our concerns to our loving father, his quiet response allows us to see things as he does; problems are put into perspective; the frustrating failings of another person become our own opportunities for mercy; the life-shattering news that shatters every plan we had for our lives, the hopes and dreams that fall apart, become opportunities to learn to trust; and, as we learn to trust, as we learn to live one day at a time, as we learn to recognize every breath in this weary world as a blessed gift, as we learn to live for his glory as faithful, loving children, not begging, not wishing for things to go back to how they were, not clinging to yesterday, not trying to earn a favour, but simply trusting in the goodness of God, we find that our prayers are answered in the way that are best for us, as through that conversation, through that communing – that chatting, that talking over, that communion – with God, we learn to understand his will.

What about Healing?

If prayer isn’t about convincing God of anything, then why should we consider taking the church up on it’s offer of healing prayer?

In short, whenever any of us brothers and sisters in Christ are sick, we should request the healing prayer of the church simply because our father tells us that we should, in his word.

In the Epistle of James, we’re told, straight-out:

Be patient, then, brothers, and sisters, until the Lord’s coming.  See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains. … Is anyone among you sick?  Let them call the presbyters of the church [that is, priests and elders] to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord.  The prayer offered in faith will make the sick person whole; the Lord will raise them up.  If they have sinned, they will be forgiven.[3]

James 5:8; 14-16

We don’t anoint with oil or ask for healing prayer as a last resort; we don’t do it as an extra boost of spiritual power; we certainly don’t do it as an alternative to medical treatment, since all healing and knowledge and science are gifts from God for our benefit.

No, we simply do this because God says we should; and obeying his word is one of the ways we demonstrate, and live into, our trust in Him.

Think about it – how often do we pray about, chat with our loving dad about our health, our physical and mental and deep spiritual concerns, perhaps hoping for a miracle or some grand display of power.  Yet, he has already said, right there, in black and white, for us all to read, when Christians are sick – yeah you take your medicine, yes we remain patient, yes the Body of Christ, the Church comes around the sick person and helps you do the things that you’re not well enough to do yourself, but what does God say we are to do?  Call the priest and ask for prayer and anointing with oil in the name of the Lord.  As far as interpreting the will of God goes, it literally couldn’t be more straight forward, spelled out in three simple steps: call the priest, ask for prayer, and anointing in the name of the Lord.

We must be careful, as we pray for healing, not to reject God’s plan because it seems too easy or too simplistic.  Remember Naaman, the great general who sought healing from God, and was told to bathe in the Jordan 7 times, but wasn’t going to go because it was too easy; he’d rather have a prophet come and say some words or wave his hands.  Remember those whom Jesus healed, for whom the healing came in a simple: ‘get up’ or ‘go show yourselves to the priests’, and the healing came as they obeyed.

If we’re going to pray for our own healing, we must also be ready to obey the simple response that God has given: ok, now call the priest, ask for prayer, and be anointed.

What happens when we’re anointed?

Once we’ve been anointed, what happens?  Does that then convince God to heal us? 

No, and if we think that, we’ve missed the point about what it means to have a loving dad who wants to discuss, chat, commune with us about our journey.

Rather, anointing is the outward and visible, physical sign of our willingness to obey. 

Like baptism and repentance, we can say we’re following Jesus, but the first thing he tells us to do is to be baptized and repent of our sins – so if you haven’t done those things, you can say you’re following Jesus, but your actions don’t match up with your words.

It’s the same thing with healing.  If we say we’re trusting God for healing, then our actions have to show that.  If we’re praying for healing of body or soul, we must also do as God directs. 

So this morning, we’ll have that opportunity to simply do what God says.  After the Prayers, as Isabel leads us in song, any who are praying for their own healing – it could be physical, it could be spiritual, it could be the healing of an anxious or burdened mind – come to the end of your pew, and I will come around and do as our Lord directs. 

We do so not to earn any favour with God, but simply to be obedient, to put our faith into action, to show God – but also to show ourselves – that we are ready and willing to listen. 

Are any of you sick?

Call the priests and elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord.  The Lord will raise them up.   To God be the Glory.

[1] Isaiah 58:8, Ezekiel 47:12

[2] An application of 2 Corinthians 3:15-4:1

[3] James 5: 8; 14-16