One of the lectionary passages for this past Sunday is written by James. He is believed to be the brother of Jesus. Imagine for a moment what he has witnessed in his life: His big brother, who was always a bit different from other kids, works in the family business alongside their dad. He never marries, which causes concern for his parents. At age 30 he leaves home to
begin a ministry with twelve other guys that draws crowds of people.
Word begins to circulate that Jesus, James’ big brother, is the Messiah.
Jesus is targeted by the very religious figures James and his family
were taught to respect. Ultimately, the authorities kill him in the most
torturous manner and the man behind the movement dies a criminal’s
Let James’ personal history sink in for just a moment. James would have reasons to wonder if his a dysfunctional family—or if God is at work? The answer becomes clear when Jesus resurrects from the dead and appears to upwards of 500 people at a time. The Holy Spirit fills the fearful disciples with courage and the Church is born. James becomes an active apostle of his brother’s movement. In this letter he writes to early believers who
are persecuted for their strange beliefs. Because they are living in such
a pressure cooker of controversy, they are easily misled by the
surrounding culture. James confronts the anger that is spreading in the
church, offering wise counsel that unifies. He offers more than one
hundred imperatives in this letter, trying to guide the Church with clear
boundaries of moral demarcation.
The two easiest responses to such pressure, which we’ve seen in our own culture this year, are violence or surrender to despair. Amidst human chaos, James assures the believers that the God they serve is unchanging. I think of the first verse of a traditional hymn: Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father, there is no shadow of turning with Thee. Thou changest not, Thy compassions they fail not; as Thou hast been, thou forever wilt
be…” Wondering where they can turn for support, James assures these
earliest Church members that God offers consistent care and guidance.
God instills a sense of purpose for otherwise aimless individuals. He reminds them that every good and perfect gift comes from God. Eugene Peterson, in his translation of this text, says it this way: “The gifts are rivers of light cascading down from the Father of Light.” God distributes these gifts equally to all believers. The rigid hierarchy of the Roman Empire has no place in the Early Church. This letter has come under fire over the ages
because Jesus is seldom mentioned. But, as we read this exhortation
from Christ’s brother, we find Jesus’ words and Spirit infused into the
The scattered Church is urged by James to persevere in living moral
lives even in the face of persecution. He doesn’t criticize the anger
among the believers. He challenges them to find constructive uses for it
so that the body of Christ is built up and kept pure. His words are as
relevant to us today as they were to this minority of Christians who
were under fire: Be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger. This requires great patience that is hard to come by when under fire. He reminds the church members to use their words carefully. Words have the power to build up or tear down. Like vows spoken between lovers, words have power to join us together for life or to destroy a relationship in a moment. We make choices by how we respond to our world. Will we have the discipline to put away wrong behavior and thinking? Will we receive the power of the Spirit? Or will we lash out against our neighbor without thinking? James calls on us to take our emotional and religious lives seriously. Those who are able to do that in the face of persecution become the leaders and, sometimes, the martyrs of a cause. The rules are given to offer safe boundaries in a threatening and changing society.
James urges the believers to be disciplined followers of Jesus who, to His dying moments on the cross, preached forgiveness of enemies. It was crucial that the followers of Jesus have a firm faith. Of necessity they were on the move, spreading the news further and further from home so that the Church could grow. They needed to be able to express their faith in different settings. It was impossible for them to get comfortable because the Spirit kept calling them to new ministry horizons.
This week I begin a new leg on my spiritual journey. I will report to Pine
Rest Christian Mental Health Hospital for my orientation as a chaplain resident. I will shadow other chaplains as they minister to patients whose lives have become unmanageable. There is much I don’t yet know about Pine Rest. What I do know is that it is the fourth largest behavioral health provider in the United States. It offers treatment programs for all ages and addresses different needs of different populations. As a year-long resident, I will go into all the different units, leading worship and group sessions. I will meet with individuals who ask for a chaplain and with those who have no desire to talk with me. Pine Rest is an avowedly Christian organization so I bring my faith with me into each situation. But there will be patients whose faith will be very different from my own and I will respect that. I will interact with many people just once, since patients are checked in and then discharged with some frequency. Some units house people for lengthy periods of time so I may meet with those folks more often. I will be exposed to many psychological diagnoses. I will seldom know if my words and presence have been helpful. After serving in this congregation for twenty-five years, getting to know you through the ups and downs of life, I feel a bit anxious about serving in this new setting. I wonder if my skill set
that has served me well in parish ministry for 36 years will transfer into
this itinerant parish?
As we move out of our comfort zone and into new settings, questions
arise. Who am I? What is my finished work and what is in process?
What are my giftings and what attributes make me who I am? How has
my family shaped me and what do I need to release in order to face
forward? Do I have to make peace with my past so that I can move
ahead unencumbered? Through his letter, James tries to prepare the
earliest followers of Jesus to be ready to serve wherever God leads
them. He names the ordinary elements to daily life that add up to a
lifetime. He reminds us that our words have power, our generosity is
contagious, and the need for patience will always confront us. Archie
Smith writes that such small acts “are the nuts and bolts of everyday
life, holding together the scaffold on which we build community and
the social order.”
The name of the training I will pursue is Clinical Pastoral Education or
CPE for short. One of the CPE educators offered an image for ministry
that is helpful to me. Rev. Dr. Lisa Taylor stated that our pastoral
identity is like a tipi. Tipis are dwelling places where our life happens.
Our affiliations, like denominational and church ties, influence where
we find ourselves. Tipis are equipped for the journey. They are built
with the assumption of a transient lifestyle. They are durable and easily
assembled. Our sense of calling that leads us to pursue new adventures
strengthens us to switch jobs and still be competent. Tipis are mobile.
They can be relocated and reconstructed easily. Living in a tipi requires
us to be both staked so we are protected but also mobile. How do we
thrive in that sort of split calling?
When we are sent into a new setting, our Tipi is the framework that
shapes our ministry. This isn’t referring just to me as an ordained
pastor. All of us are summoned as Christians to be ready to pack up and
bring our faith to new people at a moment’s notice. Do we limit our faith
expression solely to Sunday mornings? Can we live it out in line at
grocery store or at the school board meeting? Does our tipi support us in the hospital room as doctors poke and prod and don’t always give us the
answers we need? Alistair Campbell said, “Pastoral care is surprisingly
simple. It has one fundamental aim: to help people know love, both as
something to be received and as something to give.”
Exploring the image of the tipi was enlightening to me. I realized that I
carry my ministry in my heart wherever I go because I’ve invited Christ
to dwell within me. Borrowing from Eugene Peterson’s translation of
John’s prologue, “The Word became flesh and moved into the
neighborhood!” Another translation I like states, “The Word became flesh and pitched a tent among us.” Jesus established residency with us and travels with us no matter where we go. Having a clear understanding of who Jesus is for us, we will be able to care well for others. It will not matter whether they are receiving in-patient care at Pine Rest or grieving the death of a loved one in our home parish. We listen closely to the stories of others, asking God to help us discern what they are trying to tell us about themselves through these stories. The key to effective pastoral care toward our neighbor is good listening. We talk less and we listen more.
N.T. Wright, in his commentary on James’ letter, praises the author for
getting practical about being a follower of Jesus. He suggests that James’
response would be along these lines: “Follow God in this way. There are
people who need your help; and there’s a messy world that will try to
mess up your life as well. Focus on the first and avoid the second.”
As I experience my own version of the “first day of school” this week, I
feel certain that I can set up camp where God leads me because I have
a strong sense of who I am and whose I am. I will strive to be myself in
this new setting, remembering that my tipi dictates that I am both
staked and mobile. I may not always get that balance right but I’m not
called to be perfect. Like Jesus, I am called to look at my world both
inside out and upside down. Looking from the same vantage point at
every juncture will hamper us from seeing the truth. As we interact
with different people in new settings, we will understand our own
theology better. We continually explore who we are. When we humbly
commit to this sort of self-examination, by God’s grace we find that we
are blessed, in Peterson’s words, with a “religion that passes muster.”