Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Who You Gonna Call?

James must have been an experienced pastor. He must have dealt with disappointed parishioners. He must have known what it felt like to have someone say, "I really needed you last week, but you weren't there." In Sunday's reading from James 5, the author lets us know that he's dealt with people in need and that he's learned to place the burden of action on them instead of the pastor.

James writes, "Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord." Although that spirit of self-empowerment is contained from the beginning, it's the last bit that really gets me: "Is anyone sick? They should call for the elders and have them pray over them." James doesn't write, "Is anyone sick? The elders should go and pray over them," implying that the leaders in the church should intuit that someone is in need. James wants his readers to know that those who are in need are to reach out and ask for help.

Words cannot describe what an honor, privilege, and pleasure it is to go and pray with someone who needs prayer. Whether sick, discouraged, anxious, or facing hardship, when someone calls and asks me to come to their home, their hospital room, their office, or out for coffee, I leap at the opportunity. I did not go to seminary to manage staff and budgets. I may have gifts for that, and I may be better at that than I am at making house calls, but I felt God calling me into ordained ministry to offer the ministrations of the church in the name of Christ to those in need. Nothing makes my day, my week, like getting a phone call and being asked to come and pray.

Similarly, words cannot describe how discouraging and disappointing it is to discover that someone I care for, that someone I love, is upset because I did not come and visit, did not call, or did not check on them when they were sick, in the hospital, or mourning the death of a loved one. It touches deeply on a distinct personal failure in a place of love and care and duty. It is the very reason I have given up a secular career. It is the very reason I have dragged my family into this peculiar challenge that is a clergy family. To know that I have failed in that way makes me angry with myself even though I know that I am not psychic, even though I recognize that I cannot intuit everyone's needs, even though I trust that I am trying my best to be a faithful pastor. James, I like to imagine, understood what that felt like, and, inspired by the Holy Spirit, encouraged his readers to take the responsibility for themselves and reach out to their clergyperson and ask for prayer.

It isn't always easy to make that phone call. We don't want to bother our clergyperson. We don't think our needs are important enough to warrant a special call to the church. But James seems to understand that as well, and he doesn't really give us a choice: "Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church..." Not "really sick" or "should consider calling." Part of what it means to be a member of the Christian community is to recognize that our concerns are tied up with those of others. We call not because we are desperate but because we are united in concern and in prayer.

Yes, it is our own duty to pray for our own needs. Yes, it is the responsibility of the one in need to reach out to the elder. But the power of prayer is a communal expression. As James writes, "The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective." We must take responsibility for our own needs, but we must also accept that the needs of others are our responsibility, too. The elders are representatives of the whole community. Their prayers aren't any better, any more magical, than the prayers of everyone else. But, when the elders come, they bring with them the prayers of all who are united in the body of Christ, and they bring the concerns of the individual back to the community.

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