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