Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. Galatians 6:2
It began back in May. Some members who had been struggling with health began to worsen. Then there was a death and funeral. Then another. And two more after that. Plus emergency room visits, hospitalizations, nursing home placements and hospice care, and it is not over. My congregation is again in the cycle of multiple illnesses and funerals. It happened last year as well, beginning early in the spring and going through the summer.
And as I reflected on all this, as I looked over some notes from years past, I’ve come to realize just how much this congregation has faced. We are a heavy “pastoral care needs” congregation. This is in part to the aging of the church, we, like so many small congregations, are aging. We do have some young families, but we are older. On the other hand, we have also had health crisis with the younger members as well. To be truthful, most churches go through the same things. We just tend to do it in clumps.
And so as I looked over pages of notes, plans and ideas that never came to fruition because of crisis ministry, as I sat down thoroughly exhausted trying to put together the weekly bible study, as I discussed the situation with my best friend and guide – my wife, I realized just how much this church needs God. And yes I realize how silly that statement sounds, but hear me out. Churches so often go through the motions of ministry, tending to the needs of the institution. Yes we worship and pray but there is something missing.
So this past Wednesday instead of studying chapter 17 of Revelation like we were scheduled to do, we stopped. I looked around the room and saw people who were grieving the sudden loss of loved ones. I saw someone whose husband was facing surgery. I saw someone with an ongoing family situation. I saw someone missing from the group – due to illness in her family. And I’ve seen these things before, but on this day, I saw through the eyes of Jesus.
I said “you cannot bear your burdens alone. I cannot bear my burdens alone. So today we are going to bear each others burdens and lift them up to God.” And suddenly, every eye filled with tears. We began with silence, just experiencing God’s presence. Then we acknowledged those gifts from God for which we are thankful. We turned to the word, reading a psalm and a gospel lesson, and just sat listening for God to speak to us. And then we lifted up our prayer requests. I began to pray and just asked for names of those we need to remember. The list grew and grew. It expanded beyond our congregation, into our extended families, into our community and even the world. We prayed for the sick. We prayed for the grieving. We prayed for the lonely. We prayed for those who have no one else to pray for them. And we prayed some more.
After prayer, we talked. We told stories, we shared burdens, and we supported each other. We were bearing one another’s burdens. It was, without a doubt, one of the most powerful ministry experiences I have ever been a part of. We were surrounded by the Holy Spirit, we were looking into the eyes of Jesus, we were being held in the hands of the Father. It was the church at its best.
The great mystic Teresa of Avila said these words: “Christ has no body but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours, yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world, yours are the feet with which he walks to do good, yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.” And when this happens, the church is a beautiful thing indeed.