Every time I read through the Book of James, there is a feeling of both optimistic encouragement and a punch in the stomach. Preaching through James over the past few weeks has been a rather humbling experience. There have been moments in my quiet time, personal study and sermon preparations that the Holy Spirit has “checked” me over feelings and areas in my life that aren’t quite healed- we all have them and mine are no different than my fellow pastors or those in my congregation. These unhealed areas represent uncertainties, broken relationships, misunderstandings, and the temptation to maintain relevance… I could go on, but I feel you get the picture and that you’re already thinking of some of your own things.
In all honestly, there have been moments where I’ve felt prideful when the conviction has hit and I’ve wanted to argue with God about how I’m right and all of the other things that led to how I feel are fully wrong and terrible and are the reason for how I’ve felt and that I deserve the justification in how I’ve handled the feelings. I’ve literally wanted to hold on to everything because sometimes the temptation of being right feels more appealing than having to give something up and admit that maybe I’m not always right in the first place. Ouch… Okay, God- I hear you.
The opening verses of this weeks’ passage contrast as the last I checked, suffering and cheerfulness do not tend to go well with one another. Yet this pairing provides an eye-opening reality check that reminds me as a pastor that both are going on in the life of my congregation and not to forget this or let it be unbalanced in the way I approach ministry and worship.
One person just overcame a great illness and hospitalization that gave them a wake-up call to God and they are rejoicing at the awareness of God’s presence and their renewed sense of faith because they experienced God with them in their suffering. Other congregants can’t seem to catch a break with employment, debt, and a cyclical series of broken relationships that have a hold on their lives.
James’ mention of suffering and prayer with cheerfulness and thanksgiving reminds me as a pastor to make space for both in worship. What if both lead to healing through the prayers we pray individually and corporately? Being intentional in a safe place and space for sharing laments and praises is important though it is not always easy. I have found through our Word and Table Service on Sunday Evenings that the structure of the liturgy allows for praises and laments to co-exist and so far the response of my congregation in their growth and understanding has been both beautiful and exciting to witness as they have grown in their ability to extend love and grace to one another as they listen, gather and intercede in prayer for one another.
Sickness is a word that doesn’t always sit well with me. It’s easy to ascribe sickness as a physical condition such as the flu, yet sickness in this passage draws me deeper. What is the root of the sickness- perhaps it is bacteria or a virus that causes physical symptoms or contagious symptoms. Sickness can also be linked to unchecked emotions that root deep within us that lead to emotional unwellness or spiritual unwellness. Worry, anger, fear, jealousy and bitterness can sneak into our lives through various circumstances and suddenly we find ourselves experiencing restless nights, racing thoughts, and weary hearts. This eventually takes a deeper toll and our outlook on life becomes skewed by these lenses to the point that its they only way we can see situations and circumstances around us- we’re sick and we lack the peace that passes all understanding that only God can give.
The community of faith is both a beautiful and powerful thing. We need each other. When we gather together for worship we acknowledge the greatness, goodness and power of God the Creator. We also acknowledge our need for the deeper intimacy with Jesus, the lover and nurturer of our souls. And we also unite as a community who is a reflection to the world of the Holy Spirit that moves and draws us into the powerful bold faith we proclaim in word and deed. Worship keeps us active and accountable to both God and one another.
Confession is not always an easy practice, yet the most healing and freeing thing is when we unload the baggage that has been holding us down. It takes vulnerability to share deeply on both an individual and corporate level. Confession is what sets us free because none of us can address and properly handle what we do not know. Once the ability occurs to name what it is that has been holding us hostage, it suddenly becomes real and perhaps less scary because it’s known.
Confession is liberating because we acknowledge that we are no longer hiding areas of our lives for the fear of being found out and are instead handing it over to God and to a community of faith who will help us walk through the hard moments to break away.
As Christians, we need to be praying faithfully and asking God for things we may not typically think of asking for. Sometimes I wonder if we talk ourselves out of praying for things and if God thinks our prayers are anemic? I get skeptical at prayer sometimes when I see various religious groups out on the streets praying for things and for people they don’t know. I can’t say that I agree with them on every point theologically- yet I can say that they are exercising faithful prayer in their way of understanding. James reminds me as a pastor that I need to put aside some of my skepticism in the areas where I am reserved in prayer. I need to lead my people deeper into patterns of prayer on the individual and corporate level. What could God be doing that is currently not happening because prayer is lacking? This is a question I am left to ponder with optimism and awe.
Faith in community again reminds us that we are responsible for one another. When we are practicing confession and prayer together it helps us to remain open to the truth about who God is and who we are in Christ. When we stay in that pattern and hold each other accountable, it’s harder to wander off and do our own thing. There are times we make the decision that we are on our own and that we don’t want to be in a posture of prayer or confession and that can have an affect on how we approach God and the community- sometimes we just stop, and our faith becomes stale or non-existent. James speaks to this encouraging the community of faith to continue to pursue and extend love and grace to those who get caught up in wandering. The Community of Faith holds a large responsibility to be hearers and doers of the Word. People get lost and mislead when there is no demonstration in living a life of faith through hearing and doing what God says. God is our ultimate source.
As I’ve preached through the Book of James, I am appreciating the practical approach of the texts. My congregation benefits from the practical approach of James and in the coming week I will be presenting them with some of the questions I’ve pondered in this time of reflection. May God bless you as you walk with your congregation.