"Keeping Touch"
Scripture - Philippians 4:4-14
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, July 13, 2014

Have you ever avoided someone because his pain was too hard for you to handle? Perhaps his body was rife with cancer and you felt anxious in the presence of someone who was down to his final weeks. Or perhaps her daughter had died and there was nothing anyone could say or do to change the cruel fact that her precious child was gone. So whenever you saw her, you turned and walked the other direction because her agony was so upsetting to you.

When Julie Harley was a 28 year-old chaplain in a nursing home, she avoided Marie, a 50 year-old with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. ALS leads to death within two to five years. The body wastes away, but the mind remains clear, forcing the person to be acutely aware of each step into the abyss.

It is no wonder that Marie had become bitter watching her limbs waste away, but Julie did not know how to be a pastor to her. Marie's anger and hopeless situation were intimidating. Julie could think of nothing to ease her pain and could offer no healing words. Although she felt ashamed for skirting past her room, she found plenty of excuses for avoiding Marie.

Twenty-five years later, a neurologist sat down with Julie and told her that she had ALS. Julie knew all too well what the next few years would bring. She also knew that if she allowed bitterness to consume her, she might end up all alone.

Julie was single with two daughters away at college and no family living nearby. As the senior pastor of a large, vibrant congregation, she had never been happier in her vocation. How would she handle her creeping helplessness? Who would be there for her as her health declined?

Soon after the diagnosis, she made a decision not to be defined by ALS. She has accepted that she has a terminal illness, but, she says, "I have chosen to be fully alive each day." Fully alive.

To the church in ancient Philippi, the Apostle Paul wrote, "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice." Julie embodies Paul's words. It is important to keep in mind that Paul was not writing to trouble-free people encouraging them to celebrate their good fortune in life. He was writing to Christians whose city was controlled by the Romans. The emperor was to be worshiped, not a Galilean peasant whom the state had crucified. To claim that Jesus, not Caesar, was Lord, was to expose oneself to persecution. Yet, despite their precarious situation, Paul expected people of faith to be joyful. He urged them to "Rejoice in the Lord always," regardless of circumstance.

Paul had the authority to provide such counsel. He was writing to them from a Roman prison. And Paul not only encouraged the Philippians to be exuberant in their faith, he went on to say, "Do not worry about anything."

You cannot be serious, Paul. Who has no anxiety about anything?

Pastor and popular author, Frederick Buechner, writes, "Is anxiety a disease or an addiction? Perhaps it is something of both. Partly, perhaps, because you cannot help it, and partly because for some dark reason you choose not to help it; you torment yourself with detailed visions of the worst that can possibly happen. Your nagging headache? Probably caused by a malignant brain tumor. Your teenage son fails to get off the plane you've gone to meet and you imagine you will never see him again."1 Sometimes anxiety seems impossible to avoid, but how many times do we create our anxiety by constantly imagining the worst?

It is incredible that Paul could write, "Do not worry about anything" when he knew firsthand that life can pummel you. He was flogged and imprisoned numerous times. He survived a stoning. He was whipped with 39 lashes five separate times, beaten with rods by the Romans on three occasions and once he was shipwrecked and adrift at sea for a day and a night.

With such harrowing experiences, Paul had to have known anxiety. He had to have known fear. Yet, he penned these words: "Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God."

Paul did not say that suffering was God's will or God's punishment. He did not say, "Buck up, people of faith, God is testing you." Paul knew that life could be harsh and unfair, so he called on people to pray.

Julie turned to her community of faith for prayer. She asked the elders to pray for her and to anoint her. She was not expecting a miraculous cure. She did not think prayer was intended to work magic when medical science reached its limits. Rather, she wanted prayers for healing in whatever form healing could occur - renewed strength to endure her illness, deeper emotional ties with friends, a clearer sense of God's presence, the satisfaction of knowing that she had helped others when their lives were imperiled.

God presents us with the best possibilities given our situation. God knows our deepest needs and offers pathways toward wholeness. It is up to us to choose the best paths.

Julie's illness forced her into retirement. She now lives in an apartment located near her church. The deacons formed Team Julie, 150 people who take turns caring for her. Each day a member of her faith community visits to share meals, do her shopping, drive her to doctors' appointments or to pray with her. The anticipation of these love-filled visits gives her a reason to wake up each morning.

Paul writes to the Philippians, and by extension to all people of faith: "whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things."

Where we focus our attention determines the quality of our lives. Our culture provides numerous opportunities for a shallow existence - we can fritter away too much of our lives on entertainment, sports and shopping. Many are hesitant to go beyond superficial relationships - their conversations are filled with little more than gossip, mindless blather and bemoaning the state of the world. Paul says we can drink deeply by focusing on what is essential, enriching and inspiring.

Julie reaps the benefits of what Paul encourages when seven members of her church show up in her apartment every few weeks to pray with her. They patiently allow her to shed tears; they join together in laughter; they listen together for God's Spirit. They have created a home worship space for Julie and decorated her walls with inspiring words and images.

If you were Julie, what words and images would lift you?

I would want to be surrounded by photographs of loved ones, both those living and those who have gone before me - especially pictures from birthday parties and Christmas and family vacations at the beach.

There are so many inspiring words in scripture they would need to be rotated. "The Lord is my Shepherd," "Nothing can separate us from the love of God," "Blessed are the peacemakers." Each of the fruit of the Spirit would have its own colorful sign: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

I would also want music to fill the room and art - I am imagining great masterpieces - such as the artwork of our grandchildren that hangs on our refrigerator and kitchen cabinets.

Julie admits that with each physical loss, comes lament. She felt humiliated when she needed a cane to officiate a wedding. She was shaken when she found she could not walk up the stairs into the pulpit. When her physical therapist measured her for a wheelchair, she burst into tears.

She has discovered that one of the greatest gifts people have given her is to simply listen to her, to wipe away her tears and to not be afraid of her suffering. As never before, she realizes that empathy is much more helpful than advice.

She also refuses to drown in sorrow. Despite the limitations and despite the downward spiral, she keeps an eye peeled for reasons to celebrate. She is proud to say that her retirement service was a celebration, not a memorial service. They laughed more than they cried and their sanctuary was brimming with love.

Julie's illness has had a life-changing impact on her daughters. One evening when Julie was dissolving in a puddle of tears, her daughters tried cheering her up by telling her the good things that have resulted from her illness. Twenty-one-year-old Rachel said: "Mom, I used to hate the church, but now I love it. I see everything the church is doing for our family. I have learned to reach out to them. I've even started praying again."

Julie's hope is that her daughters will see this experience as more than a tragedy. She says, "Young adults who would normally be totally focused on themselves have become her caregivers and make her laugh every day."

Julie regrets that when she was a 28 year-old chaplain, she was unable to minister to Marie. She would do things so much differently today. She would allow Marie to spew her bitterness and she would weep with her. She would remind her that God is with us in our suffering and shares our pain. Through her own trials, she has learned that when we share our vulnerability and our fears, we open ourselves to the power of God's Spirit.

Julie finds the Apostle Paul to be a great inspiration. Knowing the suffering he endured, she notes that Paul never asked, "Why me?" Instead, he celebrated the joy of being in Christ, he focused on commendable virtues, and he found in God, the grit he needed to endure the adversities he faced. When Julie is frustrated by no longer being able to move or speak, and when she feels that her energy has drained out of her body, she recites this sentence from Paul: "I can do all things through him who strengthens me." It has become her daily mantra.

Julie has discovered that the key to being fully alive is to keep in touch with God, to keep in touch with other people of faith and to remember Paul's words in Philippians 4. Paul says, "Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you."

For Julie, sometimes that peace is palpable, sometimes it is fleeting, but she clings to the hope that one day, she will fully know God's perfect peace.2


  1. Frederick Buechner, "Anxiety," frederickbuechner.com
  2. Julie Ruth Harley tells her story in "My Life with ALS," Christian Century, July 24, 2013, p. 23-25.