Spurring One Another On

January 9, 2014

Cancer treatment varies depending on the type and stage of one’s particular disease. The protocols tend to be repetitive and cyclical. In my case, chemotherapy runs on a four-week cycle:  one week plus one day “on,” and the remainder of the four weeks “off,” recovering. By the time Week Four rolls around, I am feeling pretty good, almost normal! This is one of those weeks, and I am getting a lot of things done around the house as a result.

I’ve been through two complete rounds, and Round Three of chemo begins next Monday. I can pretty much plan on feeling sleepy and tired the first and second week of the cycle, and for this reason someone is with me most of the time. Under these conditions, it is not wise for me to drive, for instance, since I have discovered I can fall asleep sitting up. And a rotating roster of friends sits with me each afternoon until my husband gets home from work, to make sure I drink enough fluids and take my anti-nausea meds on time. Another friend on the schedule brings dinner over. What they all do is encourage me, bring me news, pray with me, and it has been a wonderful blessing over the last two months to have their ministrations.

But on a week like this one, I (supposedly) need no help, so it has just been me here at home. Yes, I can get out to run a few errands or meet someone for lunch (I still avoid crowds in public places, though). And no, I don’t feel alone. But I also am not having much interaction face-to-face with people, and this propels me into today’s topic.

You notice I took a couple days off from blogging. The reason for that was not that I was feeling sick (quite the contrary) or even that I was busy (my definition of that word has changed in the last few months). It was because I had nothing to say. Shocking, I know, but “I kept trying to think, and nothing happened.” I realized last night, as I attended my first small group study amongst church friends in months, how much I thrive in the interactive environment of Christian fellowship. The topic of discussion was one dear to my heart and the subject of my doctoral dissertation, so I was thoroughly engaged, entertained by the others’ stories, and enjoying the book we were using as a conversation-starter (Right Here, Right Now by Alan Hirsch and Lance Ford). All of a sudden, my mind is stimulated and I am reminded how much the teaching/learning dynamic fuels my soul. I have missed teaching this fall and interacting with students either at the seminary or in my church family. Even on my new ministry assignment, the past two full weeks by myself, without any medical appointments, has had its own side-effect: a bit of withering on the vine for lack of missional teaching engagement.

I do not see this as an issue unique to me. I think pastors, for all their activity—and January is a very busy month for most—wither for lack of edifying intellectual stimulation in fellowship with the saints. Further, church members who become shut-ins or isolated for medical reasons need some soul-tending that may be overlooked by their church families.

The writer of Hebrews captured what I am trying to say, this way:

And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10:24f)

In the context of the letter, the writer is making a case for adopting some habits that enable the saints to persevere through their difficulties. These habits include regular approach to God’s throne in prayer, a rehearsal of Jesus’ acts of redemption and forgiveness that keep us clean spiritually, and holding fast to the hope we profess. All three can be done in times of personal devotion. But the fourth habit, meeting together to encourage love and good deeds, must be done in Christian fellowship.

Pastors can become isolated in their business and soul-tending of others. Who reaches into their lives to spur them on? What about people like me who both need and want this “spurring” but for one reason or another cannot get out to fellowship with others? The church family is called upon to bring the fellowship to them, I think. This is why it is so important to organize callers to keep in touch, to bring Communion, to sit down with the home-bound for substantive conversation about the faith and how one might live out one’s Christian calling, even while confined. People need this, and historically Christians have been very good at providing it. Let me emphasize: it isn’t only comfort people need. They need encouragement to live out their discipleship “right here, right now,” presented not as a demand (because there are times when comfort is all that can be received while one is sick or really busy) but as a faith-builder and affirmation of a person’s gifts for the good of the whole body.

Years ago, I was teaching a class on Christian discipleship, and an elderly person raised her hand and said, “You know, I get what you are teaching us, but my strength and ability to get out are so limited, I don’t think there’s anything I can really do now in ministry.” She said this with some resignation, even sadness, in her voice. You should have seen the other fellowship members gather around this lovely lady to “spur her on to love and good deeds.” They gently asked her a few questions about her lifestyle and limitations, and then they said, “But Mabel, we know how much you love to pray. What if we made sure you had the up-to-date prayer list for the church? Could you be one of our intercessors?”  It was a beautiful thing to help her see the value of what she could do!

My action-plan now is to make sure, on these chemo-“off” weeks, that I have some sort of spiritually-oriented interaction with a saint or two at least every other day. I need the spur in my side to keep me involved with the teaching/learning dynamic that is central to my discipleship. You teach me, or let me teach you, but let’s get together to encourage one another in faith and ministry!


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