On Our Way Study Guide – Christian Practices for Living a Whole Life

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This companion guide provides chapter-by-chapter suggestions for helping readers explore more deeply the twelve practices described in On Our Way.

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This Guide provides chapter-by-chapter suggestions for involving teens in thinking about and taking part in the eighteen Christian practices discussed in Way to Live.

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This is a companion study guide to the "Singing Our Lives" issue of "Christian Reflection: A Series in Faith and Ethics." (c) 2006 The Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University. All rights reserved. Permission is granted to reproduce these materials for personal or group study.

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This issue of "Christian Reflection: A Series in Faith and Ethics" features a collection of essays on the topic of singing our lives. (c) 2006 The Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University. All rights reserved. Permission is granted to reproduce these materials for personal or group study.

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This is the companion study guide for the book A Song to Sing, A Life to Live: Reflections on Music as Spiritual Practice, by Don Saliers and Emily Saliers.

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This meditation was presented at the Accompany Them with Singing Conference, January 2010.

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This sermon based on James 5:13-20 was preached at Providence United Methodist Church in Charlotte (NC) on September 28, 2003.

James 5:13-20

I was usually the first one at church, on Sunday mornings, but that day there was a car parked out front. I went in, began to make preparations for worship and then Marvin came in. I had seen Marvin around town before, but never in church. We had met at the local seafood restaurant, and said hello when we saw each other, but that was about it.

Soon other folks began to arrive, and they found their pews, like we would, like you have this morning. They began to whisper to each other, "There's Marvin," and they would almost point to him. They were surprised that someone new was in church — this was a small community — and they were really surprised that it was Marvin.

I made a note to go visit Marvin that week. No one comes to church, early on a Sunday morning, for the first time, unless something is going on.

I went by a couple of days later. Marvin and I began to talk. He said, "I was listening to the radio, and the speaker was talking about bringing the elders of the church to pray over the sick, and anoint them. Do you ever do that?" And then, more slowly, he asked, "Would you do that?"

I was a couple of years out of seminary and graduate school, this was almost twenty years ago. I paused. Then Marvin said, "I have cancer, and it's pretty far along."

So I told him I would pray about it, and call a couple of people whom I trusted, and who might know more about this than me, and I would get back to him soon.

And I did. A few nights later I took the lay leader with me, and we went to Marvin's house. This was a story he shared in the community, so I'm not telling you anything that didn't become public. The lay leader, Dale, was a little nervous. I'm sure this was not what Dale had bargained for when he accepted the nomination committee's invitation to be the lay leader!

We arrived. Marvin and his wife were there. I read this scripture, James 5:13-20. I then asked, "Marvin, do you have any sins to confess?" There was a long silence. In a small town everybody knows everything about everybody, and I had discovered that Marvin was a well-known and divisive person in this community. You were either for Marvin or you were against him. I had also learned that Marvin was estranged from his son, who was in the same business that he was in. I had picked up on the fact that Marvin had done his share of hard living. Do you know what I mean when I say "hard living?"

There was a long silence. Then it began to pour out, these confessions, in the presence of his wife, and the lay leader, and me, a middle-twenties just-ordained minister, thinking, "They never had a class on this at Duke!" And yes, I am convinced, that we were in the presence of God. Confessions about things he needed to make peace about. The time had come, and Marvin knew it.

We tried to do it as closely to the scripture as we could. We prayed. Marvin prayed. His wife prayed. Dale, the lay leader, prayed. I prayed. And then I anointed him with oil, and we prayed for his healing.

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.
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.
James 5:13-16 (NRSV)

People do read the Bible. I have discovered that over these years. Marvin was reading the Bible, studying it, trying to apply it to his life. It helps to look closely at the scripture for today, and begin by asking: Why was it written? This was an early Christian community, but they were struggling. Some were not honest in their speech. Some were suffering physically, maybe to the point of despair. Some were in need of forgiveness. Some were in trouble. You don't need confession, intercession and healing unless there is sin, trouble, sickness.

Sometimes, I think, we have an ideal of what a Christian community must be like. Actually, whenever two or three Christians gather together, or maybe a few more, there will be sin, and trouble, and sickness. There will be gossip and pride. There will be a teenage situation that boils over. There will be a workplace issue that lacks integrity. There will be disease.

James wrote to the early Christians, and to us, to see our sin and trouble and sickness in a new way, as occasions for God's gifts, gifts of confession, intercession and healing.

These are what we might call spiritual practices. Verse 16 reads, "Confess your sins to one another." We are sinners. This is our human condition. Sometimes we sin against someone else, by what we say, or what we think, or what we do. You and I share this in common. We are sinners. There is only one way out of sin, and that is confession. I John 1:9 says, "If we confess our sins, the Lord is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness." Confession is naming the sin, before someone else, in the presence of someone you trust, and then claiming the forgiveness as a reality.

Another spiritual practice is intercession. Intercession is praying for others. If you have ever known that others are praying for you, you will know how powerful that is. Samuel, of the Old Testament, said, "God forbid that I should sin against the Lord in ceasing to pray for you" (1 Samuel 12:23, KJV). To intercede is, in the words of Augustine, to pray for the well-being of others before God.

I am thinking of a wonderful woman, a member of a congregation that I served, who died a few years ago. Each time I would visit, as I prepared to leave, she would say, "I want you to know that I pray for you, and that I pray for the church, every day." She could no longer be physically active or even present in the church. There were many things she could no longer do. But she could intercede. I would always say, "That is the very best thing you could do."

A third spiritual practice is healing. I understand the bad reputation healing has acquired in our time. The hucksters who prey on the weak, the gimmicks of those who want to profit at the expense of the desperate. The healing in front of television cameras that seems, to the reader of scripture, to be so foreign from the One from Nazareth who healed and then would say, "Go in peace. Your faith has made you well. Don't tell anyone about this!"

I understand all of that. But perhaps we have gone to the opposite extreme. For a few years I taught a class a semester at Greensboro College, Old Testament in the fall and New Testament in the spring. It was a discipline to come up with an hour and fifteen-minute lectures. Now before I say anything more about that I want you to relax — those lectures are safely filed in an out of the way place!

In reading the New Testament again, for a different purpose, something became clear to me: Jesus came among us to do three things — to preach, to teach, to heal. I was always more comfortable with teaching. I liked school, I like intellectual questions; the preaching part I grew into, I could see it. The healing, now there was the puzzle. I learned that it was not possible to take the preaching and teaching portions and dispose of the healing narratives. They were woven together: Jesus said that he was the light of the world because he had healed the man who had been born blind. Jesus said that he was the resurrection and the life because he had raised Lazareth from the dead.

And so Jesus instructed his disciples to be preachers, teachers, healers. And he calls us in his name to be, in the marvelous phrase of the late Henri Nouwen, "wounded healers."

How we do this is very important. I commend to you the United Methodist Book of Worship's statement on healing ministry:

"It is not magic. It does not replace medicine or psychotherapy. It is not the same as curing. It is a mystery. It is relational: the relation of mind, body, and spirit. Our relationship to each other. Our relationship with God."

Authentic healing is the work of Christ, who is the great physician. I am aware that it seems like an odd subject to some. And yet, there it is, in the book. At least the book that Marvin was reading.

Back to Marvin. We prayed for Marvin's healing that night. He did live about six more months. During that time he was there, each Sunday morning, in worship. People began to warm to him. He became more than the object of their curiosity or focus of their gossip. He became their brother in Christ. Some would have honestly told you that they had never expected that. Marvin went to his son, and they reconciled. All was not perfect — it was never a Kodak moment — but often, when I would stop by to see Marvin, his son would be there. And then, one day, Marvin died. It was not unexpected.

What was happening there? We had prayed for his healing. And yet he died. I go back to the scripture: The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up. That verse has two meanings. When Jesus healed, he would sometimes say, rise up and walk. But there is another meaning: the Lord will raise them up may also refer to the resurrection, which is, through the eyes of faith, the ultimate healing.

This work takes many forms. Sometimes there is physical healing. I believe that has occurred in the lives of some folks. I have no other way of explaining why they are still with us, and I rejoice that they are. Sometimes there is relational healing — healing within families, among friends, within a church. Sometimes there is spiritual healing — God comes into our lives, and our sins are forgiven, and we are made whole.

  • Some of us have done something, said something that we later regretted, and we need to put all of this in our past. God calls us to confess.
  • Some of us are in some kind of trouble. God invites us to intercede.
  • Some of us find that illness or suffering is a part of our lives, or the life of someone close to us. God offers to heal us.

Marvin and I shared very little in common, but I think God sent him into my life to teach me something, to broaden the horizons of my narrowly educated mind, to help me toward a sign of the kingdom. And maybe God's gift for us, this day, is an inbreaking of the kingdom, in the presence of One who came to preach and teach and heal. The church that bears his name will surely remember the practices of his first followers, ones that seem as relevant as when they were first written:

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.
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.


Sources: The United Methodist Book of Worship (Nashville: Abingdon, 1992), page 613.

This text is provided here for personal use, and is not to be redistributed or otherwise reproduced without permission of the author.

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This sermon based on Matthew 9:18-26 was preached at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in Asheville, North Carolina.

Matthew 9:18-26

As many of you know, this past fall my mother was very ill. In fact, she almost died. For over a year and a half, she bled every day because her colon was diseased. She became weak and exhausted from almost constant anemia. She tried all of the available drugs in an effort to get the disease under control. She saw doctors — got second and even third opinions. Her life became more and more limited as her condition worsened.

For her, there was no miracle cure. So in November, she had major surgery. And now she is adjusting to a significant change in the way her body functions. We give thanks that her health is improving and that, slowly, she has begun to adjust to the newly-altered routines of life.

The text for today is also about a woman with a flow of blood whose life became limited. And it is a story about a girl who fell ill and died. Their stories are forever intertwined. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all link the woman's story to the girl's story. Though they may not have known each other — may never have met — their stories meet one another and Jesus one day in the street.

The girl is not there in the streets, of course. She is at home, surrounded by family and friends. Close to death in Mark and Luke, already dead according to Matthew. Instead it is her father who has come to those crowded streets. He is a leader of the synagogue. A man of some importance who does not hesitate to walk right up to Jesus and ask for his help. Mark and Luke say his name is Jairus. The woman is a no-name female. She is alone and cannot go up to Jesus so boldly and ask for the healing she needs. She keeps her distance — and others keep their distance from her, too. But she is as desperate as the father is for help — for healing. For she, too, is very ill and she has endured a kind of death of her own.

The girl, according to Mark and Luke, is the same age as the woman's disease. She is twelve years old. Only twelve short years and now she is dying — may already be dead. For those same twelve years, this woman has suffered from constant hemorrhaging. To her, the years have been long, unbearably so. You see, while the girl grew and learned in the embrace of family and friends and synagogue, the woman wandered lonely. Cast out. Cut off from family and friends and synagogue. Because she bleeds. And the law says that since she bleeds she is unclean. And anyone or anything she touches is also unclean. So, long ago, she lost her family and her community. And for her there seems to be no healing, no cure. That is until this day, when both of their stories get caught up in the great Gospel story that is being told in the person and presence of Jesus.

And their stories do get caught up in the person and presence of Jesus. I believe the woman eventually would have bled to death and the girl would have been buried by sundown if Jesus had not come to town that day. I am awed by the powerful healing he brings. And yet this passage also gives voice to the power of faith expressed in ordinary people. There is something powerful indeed about the sheer stamina and the confident faith of both the father and the woman that also catch our attention.

Did you hear what that father said? "My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live." And that woman — did you hear what she said? Perhaps you did not hear it because she said it only to herself since she is alone: "If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well."

Imagine the stamina and the faith it took for each of them to make such a claim. The man's daughter was dead. The flute players and the mourners had already gathered announcing death at his house. And yet he dared to believe that the hand of Jesus could raise her up. And the woman was utterly cut off from others. No one had been able to cure her for twelve long years. Yet she dared to believe that if she could only touch — just touch him — there would be healing for her in even the fringes of Jesus' life.

I know people like that father — like that woman. People with sheer stamina, with confident faith that keeps them going in the face of enormous obstacles, even when they have been shut out, cut off, left for dead. People who have encountered the living Christ and therefore know that the death the world pronounces does not have the last word. People who have encountered the living Christ and therefore know that our tightly closed circles can be reconfigured into circles of new possibilities. Here and there in our world, there are God-drawn circles that include the ones whom society — and sometimes even the church — shuts out. Here and there, there is evidence of God-drawn circles that make room for new life beyond our human imagining and experience.

That day, the woman pushed her way through the crowd and encountered the living Christ. There she received more than physical health. For too long she had been known as "the hemorrhaging woman" or "the woman with the flow of blood." But in this encounter with Jesus, he not only restores her to health, he restores her to relationship and to community, too. Jesus called her "daughter." He re-placed her in the family of faith that had cut her off — cast her out.

And suddenly their circle of exclusion is reconfigured by this encounter with Jesus. Now the community gathers around the woman and together there is the possibility of a new circle where everyone might be restored to health. It happens again at the girl's house. The crowd has gathered itself around death. Matthew even says the mourners have to be physically put outside, so tight is their circle. Then there is the encounter of the dead girl and the living Christ and when they touch — connect — life springs up. A moment before, the text tells us, some had laughed and some, no doubt, had continued to mourn. But their former circle may be reconfigured when the girl and Jesus step out of the house and into their midst. The crowd that had gathered around death is invited instead to become a circle of new life unimagined before.

When I was growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, the social lines were firmly fixed: white/Black, male/female, affluent/poor, able-bodied/disabled, adult/child. These lines were not drawn in sand or even carved in red clay — they were forged in steel. And the church of my childhood lived for much of that time with hard and fast rules, too, and only grudgingly made its way into a new day. A day when the church allowed, but did not encourage, the presence of African-Americans in its "white" pews or the leadership of women in its "princely" pulpit.

Change has come slowly and there is yet a long way to go. But still our stories get caught up in the great Gospel story that God is telling in the person and presence of Jesus. People of faith are still encountering the living Christ, who is able to reconfigure the circles of our stories and our life together — as individuals, as a church, as a world. By the power of an encounter with the living Christ, our closed circles of exclusion and death may yet be reconfigured into circles of unimagined possibilities.

There is so much that happens in this text. And yet I am aware that there is still more healing that was needed in that community — as well as in our own communities today. I am glad that the woman was healed — but what if Jesus had re-placed her in the community, blood disease and all? And what if he had called her not just by her role but by her name?

And this girl — I am glad she was raised to life. But the life she was raised to was still a life where, when her own bleeding begins, she too will be called unclean. It seems to me that the community itself needed to be healed as well. I suppose that kind of healing would have required major surgery. And it no doubt would have radically changed the way the whole body functioned. Still, it is something we Christians may hope and pray for.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said: "Let us be dissatisfied until those that live on the outskirts of hope are brought into the metropolis of daily security...And when our days become dreary with low hovering clouds of despair, let us remember that there is a creative force in the universe — a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows."

In a sense, even when we have come to the end of this story, we do not know the end of the story. Oh, the woman is healed and the girl lives. And there is miracle enough in that for sure. But was the community healed in some profound way, too? Did they welcome Jesus' healing or did they — sensing its radicality — try to cut it off, cast it out? The last sentence of this text may be more ambiguous than it first seems. Verse 26 reads: "And the report of this spread throughout that district."

I have a hunch that this was one of the stories that made its way to Jerusalem, to the palace of the high priest Caiaphas. And a version of it may have made its way into the sheriff's office in Birmingham. And it seems like I may have even heard this story when I was a child in the pew of my church. I have a hunch that somewhere a version of it is being told among the faithful even today.

This text is provided here for personal use, and is not to be redistributed or otherwise reproduced without permission of the author.

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This sermon based on John 5:1-9 was preached at the Chapel of the Resurrection, Valparaiso University.

John 5:1-9

I don't think Jesus' question to the invalid man in this passage was an idle one. Did you catch it? His question was, "Do you want to be made well?" At first glance it seems obvious. It did to the man who had been ill for 38 years. He answered in the affirmative, saying that he had no one to bring him into the waters which were supposed to have healing properties. So why did Jesus bother to ask? Anyone in that situation would want to be healed, wouldn't they? Isn't it obvious?

My father's death several years ago left me bereft of personal strengths I had always taken for granted. His support and approval of me throughout childhood were so constant and predictable that I rarely acknowledged them and less often understood their importance to me. And, at the age of 40, I thought I had long grown out of the need for his constant encouragement and attention, though he never failed to give them. My bewilderment turned to depression as his loss settled in on me. I began to question myself in ways that I never had before, wondering if I was really who I thought, or if I were perhaps just a projection of my parents' wishes for me.

My tried and true spiritual resources dried up on me one by one during this time. Prayer and scripture reading became as flat as the paper they were written on. Worship didn't speak to me. I felt doubly hypocritical being in worship because I had to be there. Others came out of their free will. I wouldn't have been there if I hadn't been paid to be. To say I was feeling sorry for myself is only a faint glimmer of the force of my feeling at the time. I felt unprotected by a God who had always seemed as supportive as my dad. Now God seemed as remote to me as my dad's physical presence.

It was during this time that I began to take regular notice of my dreams. I have kept a dream journal on and off through my adult life. Now, however, my dreams began to be the only avenue that helped me understand what was happening to me. My terrors and fears gradually became visible to me as I saw their recurring patterns. From the distance of my own dreams, I began to understand some of the barriers I had erected in my life to keep myself safe, to keep myself protected. Ever so slowly, I began to face those fears and find feelings of well-being, safety and approval.

I also had a husband, son, brother, and two friends who wouldn't give up on me. I must have been a real downer to be around during those months, but they stood by. During that time when I was unable to hold up my end of being a mom, wife, and friend, I felt the true grace of others' faithfulness.

Ever so slowly, I learned to see God's presence in places I had never noticed it before. I saw the faithfulness of my friends and family as tangible signs that God had not left me utterly alone. I saw my dreams as places God could give me some help and insight. Ever so slowly, I accepted the healing that God was offering through these new and uncharted waters.

So it wouldn't have been an irrelevant question if Jesus would have asked me the question he asked the man in our story this morning. Sure, I would have wanted him to take away the pain of my grief and loss right away. But Jesus' healing also demanded a response on the man's part.

In accepting Jesus' healing, the man simultaneously gave up his dependence on others to attend to him. Did you notice that the healing which Jesus commanded included that the man pick up his own mat? From now on, he would not be getting attention by getting others to help and attend to him. Jesus gave him wholeness, including the ability to care for himself. So we, too, who know our own failings and infirmities, might ask ourselves, "Are we ready to give up our dependencies in order to allow God to make us whole?" What would Jesus heal you from? What would you be living without if you accepted Jesus' healing?

Those little things we use to make ourselves feel better, seemingly harmless, may be the very things that block our healing. It might be a relationship from which we demand too much. It might be a pleasure we get from someone else's failure. It might be a right we reserve to feel critical of others. Or being good Lutherans, it might be the right to feel guilty if we want to. Whatever it is we use "to get through our day," these are the things that bring us to our knees as Jesus asks us, "Do you want to be healed?"

Healing is gift, pure grace. But from it we are forever changed. Accepting our healing and taking our place in the Christian community is the follow-through in which we find ourselves in being healed. Whether we have been victim or perpetrator, violent or passively aggressive, mentally, emotionally, or physically scarred, those become no longer our identity. Healing includes our willingness to leave those behind and accept the new creation Jesus gives us. It is no surprise that we often cling to our infirmities long after they have served their usefulness. So think twice as you bring your wish for healing to Jesus. Make sure you are willing to take up your pallet and walk.

This text is provided here for personal use, and is not to be redistributed or otherwise reproduced without permission of the author.

About this article

This meditation was presented at the Accompany Them with Singing Conference, January 2010.