Have you ever felt helpless to comfort a friend who has lost a loved one? Have you groped for appropriate words that simply do not exist? Were you tempted to say emptily, “It will be okay,” “It was his time to go,” or “She is in a better place”? Did you say something that you wish you could take back?

As part of living and dying together in a community of faith, we struggle to find the right words to say to a bereaved person. Jesus’ words warn us that we are responsible for what we say and do. This is not a comforting truth. We prefer to be able to take back our mistakes. But we need to remember that others can benefit from our careful responses, or suffer from careless ones. When our friends experience moments of crisis, the words we speak are critical. We can help them keep their faith, or cause them to stumble and lose it. What we say or don’t say can make a huge difference in how they will face the coming days.

When friends need comfort in times of crisis, we can respond caringly by shedding our tears and speaking a simple, “I’m sorry.” We can lovingly listen as they share their feelings. We can take care of practical needs by cooking or cleaning their home.

Difficult times will inevitably come. If we carelessly react, unhappy results may follow. If our friends stumble because of us, we will carry guilt as deadly as a giant millstone around our necks. But if, as members of our community of faith, we envelop each other in love, we can encourage greater faith in God.

 Life Question:  What do you think is the best way to respond to a friend in crisis?

 Prayer:  God, help us to consider our words carefully before we speak them. Teach us to nurture others’ faith through our responses. Amen.

*submitted for publication to Reflections, may appear August 2010

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“Church language”

June 5, 2009

When I was eight years old, I accepted Jesus into my heart. I prayed to be born again, washed in the blood of the lamb, and I “raised mine Ebenezer” on that blessed day. I am a disciple of Christ, a believer, convicted, converted, saved from the devil’s trap, and equipped to win souls. Pleased to meet you, would you like to invite Jesus into your heart?

 Can you decipher these testimonial words? How can un-churched people comprehend their meaning? “Church language” sounds like nonsense to people who are unfamiliar with its obscure jargon. But how often do we speak using such language, taking for granted that others understand?

Christian identity is at the heart of who I am. My parents and the church raised me as a disciplined, compassionate, and justice-concerned individual. During my childhood, I learned to understand and communicate with “church language.” I maintained this language appropriately because the social environment of my youth consisted primarily of other Christians.

As a young adult, I volunteered for service as a Peace Corps volunteer. My “church language” resonated with the generally Catholic Philippines where I lived. Surprisingly, however, the challenge of communicating my faith occurred in relationships with fellow volunteers. I joined a service organization, dedicated to bridging cultural barriers and helping others sustain and enrich their lives. I found myself working alongside like-minded service-oriented peers. But when I identified myself as a Christian many of these people immediately resisted my offer of friendship. It became clear that I needed to be careful in my choice of words. If I couldn’t be a Christian without raising suspicion, it would be extremely difficult to communicate my authentic self.

I dropped the “church-language.” As it turned out, I already knew the language of my fellow volunteers. I spoke of my commitment to the welfare of all people and the care of our environment. I expressed my awe and appreciation for my relationships with them. Finally, I explained that Jesus was a man who exemplified these same ideals and lived life with goals similar to ours. And all that Jesus asked is that we follow his example.

Can you decipher “church-language?” If so, please do. Break down the relic words. Thin them with common but life-declaring explanations. Drop some altogether- perhaps “cleansing blood,” “Ebenezer,” and “devil’s trap.” Let us clarify what it means to be our authentic Christian selves.

Consider the Moth

June 4, 2009

Moths are not appreciated insects. They hide in the darkness of night. One might prefer a butterfly’s colors and daytime appearances to the shabbiness and nocturnal habits of this seemingly common creature. But moths should be more carefully considered. They are actually stronger and faster than butterflies. Additionally, they spin silk which people do ironically value. Moths, like butterflies, have to endure a struggle as they work to escape their cocoon. This struggle is necessary in order for them to gain the strength to fly when they finally do emerge. Likewise, we develop the strength to follow Jesus through the struggles of the processes of life. Once moths take flight, they use the light of the moon to navigate. Artificial light confuses them; this is why we often see them lost and fluttering around our windows. Again, like moths, we use the light of Jesus’ life to navigate our way. But we, too, are often confused by the attractive glow of falsities.    

 The key to discipleship is in the time spent inside the cocoon. Inside a dark cramped space, we find moments of development, which come through different means and at different times for different people. Various emotional experiences, sorrowful or painful events in our lives, serve as tutors for training our hearts to mourn with others and to be compassionate. Also, barren seasons teach the necessity of perseverance and hope for tomorrow. During these times, spiritual exercises including study of scripture, prayer, meditation, worship, recreation and even sleep give us the opportunity to renew our energy, to look inward and to express ourselves outwardly. These practices make us strong and able to face the days when we will spread our wings and see the path Jesus illuminates for us.

 Baptism is one time that marks our readiness to emerge. Great growth will continue from the challenge we tackle when we determine to follow Jesus. There will be more cocoons. Unlike a moth, a person does not emerge just once. Rather this process continues throughout life. A disciple of Jesus is one who continually learns from testaments to his life, strives to be like him, and follows the path that he took. This follower seeks awareness of his/her relationship with other people, creation and God. This one lives life intentionally, carefully considering potential action before performing. At the appropriate time, this disciple awakens and emerges again, ready to help others find the authentic light of the path that Jesus taught.

 Consider for yourself: Recall a cocoon-like experience that has helped you to know and follow Jesus. What was your struggle? How did this time change you? Finally, how can you use this experience to help others?

 The emergence of the moth and our own personal growth encounters are everyday glimpses of new life that point clearly to a future Christian hope beyond our experience and imagination. God continually does new things in and through the dark, cocoon-like times in each of our lives, preparing us to participate in the coming of the kingdom of light.

An Ordinary Ritual

June 2, 2009

Early on Sunday, when I walk into the sanctuary at Trinity Baptist, I find myself aware of the expectant stillness of the cooled air, the natural light of the sun sneaking through the slits in the shutters, the quiet that will soon be filled with voices. I note the simplicity of the room- just pulpit, pews, choir loft, baptismal pool, balcony, all sparsely decorated. A plain cross and two lit candles sit below the pulpit. Today the flowers in the sanctuary are placed in honor of… This setting encourages sincerity and openness of heart and mind.

 As the congregation trickles in, some take their seats, some talk about sports or who is/isn’t here. Others compliment each other on their clothing or chat about what they did on Saturday. The beginning of Sunday morning worship finds us often in surface-level conversation, taking no risks in our swapping of words. Many of our conversations bring up important topics as well, but is this the best time and place? Few contemplate the natural quiet of the morning or the PowerPoint of nature scenes and Bible verses, which encourages meditative preparation. Those who try to embrace this mood cannot focus long as they are jolted back by the interruption of frivolous chatting that has won control of the sanctuary once more. Even the addition of inviting music with lyrics pleading, “Come and Listen” does not help.  The decibel level of the babble simply increases so that people can hear themselves. These signs point to the ordinariness of this gathering.

 After the choir enters and everyone settles, I consider the purpose of this time:  Why are we here? To gather as a community of Christ-followers, to express our awe, thanks, questions, complaints, and requests to God and each other, to sing songs from our hearts, to listen to testaments of the history between people and God, to hear stories and wonderings that attest to God’s continuing work. It is an important intention for which we congregate. Why do we approach this occasion as though it were an everyday, trivial, even boring activity?

 Some Sunday morning, as the sanctuary prepares for our presence and God’s presence among us, sneak in a bit early and consider the expectancy and hope in the still coolness, the natural light, the quiet simplicity. Our worship space inspires us to approach this time as intentional people filled with wonder at our being, awe at our world, and concern for our future.  It can open our intentional, Christ-centered community gathering to more meaningful worship experiences with God and each other.