Monday, July 27, 2009

Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi

St. Francis' Sermon to the Birds

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.

Where there is hatred, let me sow love;

where there is injury,pardon;

where there is doubt, faith;

where there is despair, hope;

where there is darkness, light;

and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;

to be understood as to understand;

to be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive;

it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;

and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.


A Missed Opportunity

Once a month, I take a special day that I call “Wholey Day.” (I used to spell it “Holy Day” until I made the connection between holiness and wholeness.) It’s akin to a personal holiday (a word that comes from “holy day”), where I get away from everybody and everything, and spend the day in prayer, devotional reading, and whatever else builds up my spirit. I go hiking, wandering, whatever. Jesus needed to get away, reflect and recharge upon occasion, I figure it’s okay for myself as well.

I spent my last Wholey Day at the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville, reading at café tables, wandering the shops, and enjoying the outdoors. The Mall boasts a great array of unusual people, but that day I saw a very odd sight. Four monks dressed in albs walked by, backpacks and bedrolls slung on their backs.

I desperately wanted to talk with them. This being my “monkish” day, it seemed their presence was a puzzle piece that fit. I hailed them at a distance. “Brothers!” I called. They turned and waited for me to catch up with them.

It turned out that they were Franciscan monks who were hiking the Appalachian Trail. They had turned aside to see Charlottesville. They were spreading the message of Jesus as they went. They carried no food or money, but accepted donations for their sustenance, as St. Francis did.

I told them that, though I’m not Catholic, St. Francis is a great hero of mine. I said that I greatly admired the monastic lifestyle. Of course, with a wife and four children, it’s a lifestyle that I could never follow, but I told them that today was my once-a-month personal monastic day. During the course of our brief conversation, I told them that I was a Baptist minister. Before we parted, they asked if I would bless them. I prayed with them, asking God for strength and provision for their journey, and we went our separate ways.

What I’m reflecting on now, a month after the event, is my distinct inability to receive the blessing that these human angels had for me. While I was interested in them on some level, I think my real interest was in having them understand and appreciate me. It was in having the validation of my hero, Francis—albeit indirectly, from his followers. This, in its extreme irony, flies in the face of that famous prayer of St. Francis: “Grant that I may not so much seek…to be understood as to understand.”

I should have been seeking more, and speaking less. I had four angels show up in my life, and I was more interested in their understanding me than I was interested in understanding them, and the message they might have for me. I should have said, “Brothers, bless me, too!” But I did not. It was a moment in my life that I can never re-live. But I would, if given the chance. Perhaps on other occasions, if God sends angels into my life, I will listen.

We all have times when we should be listening to God’s Word as it comes to us from other people, but instead we choose to fill the conversation with our own thoughts. My prayer is that we all might not seek not so much to be understood, as to understand. And that by understanding, we might hear God’s voice.

Check out this Washington Post article about these monks. (Thanks, Paul, for finding this article for me online.)

That Summer Dry Spell

O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
Psalm 63:1 NIV
Summer is a wonderful, but a very crazy time! The kids are out of school, and we have the opportunity of spending more time with them. But, as a couple that’s comprised of a stay-at-home-mom and a work-at-home-dad, summertime can also be hectic. Far from the lazy break that we all envision as summer vacation, this season can be for us a time of juggling kids and work, over-activity and boredom.

The insanely busy relaxation of summer contributes to a spiritual dearth that leaves me feeling like the psalmist. I have not taken the time I need for spiritual rest and renewal. I have allowed my sermon and Bible study prep time to replace my daily devotional time. Sure, we’ve taken a vacation to the beach for a week. We went to Busch Gardens for a day. We’ve been swimming in the river, and visited friends a lot. But in all this “rest time” when did I take the time I need to nourish my soul?

“I have seen you in the sanctuary and beheld your power and your glory,” the psalmist writes in verse 2. Certainly a corporate worship event like going to church is a terrific way to sense God’s presence. Of course, for a pastor, that’s also work! So what other God-adventure can I have, independent of public worship? I imagine that many who are reading this ask the same question. You might not be a pastor, but you might be a musician, deacon, usher, lector, or have some other function in the church that makes you feel like at times like worship isn’t worship.

Verses 6-8 say, “I remember you upon my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night….I sing in the shadow of your wings. My soul clings to you….” At times, I have to force myself to have moments like these with God. They do not come naturally. They come only when I carve out the time I need to seek God’s presence. Only when I do this can I survive the summer spiritual dry spell. Only when I do this can I truly say with the psalmist (verse 8), “…Your right hand upholds me.”

Summertime relaxation is a good thing, but it’s too easy to make recreation a replacement for spiritual nourishment. I remember one summer job, working with freezers full of dry ice. When things got hot, it felt so good to stick my head in that cold freezer. What I discovered, however, is that dry ice is not made of water, and the CO2 vapors of dry ice will take your breath away! Not everything that feels good is good for you. In the same way, summertime “rest” is not always refreshing. This summer, remember to refresh yourself with the Living Water, and not a substitute that steals the Breath of Life.

Thursday, July 23, 2009


Don't worry if this says it's for mature's only a Saturday Night Live skit.

A bizarre thing happened to me yesterday. I was in a store in the Downtown Mall, and the lady behind the counter said, "You sure look like Richard Dreyfuss. You even sound like him." Then, with all seriousness in her voice she said, "Are you Richard Dreyfuss?"

I played with her a little bit, but finally said no, I'm not Richard Dreyfuss, but that father-son resemblance is striking, isn't it?

It wasn't bizarre that she thought I look like Richard Dreyfuss. I get that a lot, actually. The bizarre thing is that she thought I actually might be him. He's my dad's age! (That gives me a complex about the white hairs I've been finding in my beard.)

So what do you think? Do I look like Richard Dreyfuss? Here's a video of him.

Another comparison I get: People think I look like Adam Savage, from MythBusters. What do you think?

I also get compared with Timothy Busfield. Here's a clip from Byrds of Paradise, with Arlo Guthrie and Tim Busfield. He was also in the cast of Thirtysomething.

This blogpost is a bit of a response to my brother's blog post some time back. People told Paul that he looked like Richard now the game's on, Paul! Which of us looks more like him? We're going to let my blog readers decide! Click here to see Paul's blog post about his/my Doppelganger.

So, Dear Reader, whether you know me or not--whether you know my brother Paul or not--I humbly ask you to cast your vote by commenting on this post. Which of us looks more like Richard Dreyfuss? And who do I look more like? Dreyfuss, Savage, or Busfield?

Inquiring minds want to know.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Speaking Their Language

Today, I went with our church's senior group to a nursing home. There, we sang hymns. I led a devotion. We heard a poetry reading. We probably spent about forty-five minutes doing that. Then, we greeted some of the residents.

Many of them suffered from Altzheimers, Parkinsons, and other age-related diseases. Some of them were physically challenged, and some of them were mentally disabled. Some were easy to interact with, while others merely stared and clutched their baby dolls.

One woman made an impression on me, that I think will stick forever. I introduced myself, and when she told me her name, I detected a slight accent that I couldn't identify. "Where are you from?" I asked her.

"Puerto Rico," she told me.

Immediately I switched from English to Spanish. She told me that she had a son and a daughter and a sister in Puerto Rico. She has lived in the nursing home for eight years. We spoke for only three or four minutes. There was no lengthy spiritual conversation. But when I said, "Que Dios te bendiga," [God bless you] in her own language, there was something on her face that spoke volumes beyond words. It became obvious to me that she probably never spoke or heard her own native tongue anymore. Maybe she hadn't in years. And here was somebody giving her a blessing in the language of her heart.

That three or four minute exchange probably meant more to her than the forty-five we spent singing and sharing in English.

Which makes me wonder--In all the ways we Christians try to share Jesus with people, how often do we take the time to make sure that we're doing it in their language? Maybe they literally speak another language, and it'd be better to share Jesus with them in the language of their heart. Or, maybe they speak our same dialect of English, but they come from a subculture or special group that we need to appeal to--and put Jesus into terms they can understand.

On February 4 of this year, reported:

It was the 1980s and Van Zan Frater was a young Texan relocated to Los Angeles. One night he was driving in South Central Los Angeles and needed to use a pay phone so he pulled into the parking lot of a liquor store. As soon as he exited he saw a group of toughs. They were young, none older than seventeen and out to prove themselves. As Van Zan walked to the phone they set upon him. As Van Zan remembers there were at least 12 of them and they surrounded him and began to ask him questions like where he was from and other questions that let Van Zan know he was dealing with a street gang.

One of the younger boys struck him and Van Zan fell to the ground. It was then the young gangster put a gun to Van Zan’s head. The other boys were telling the young man to pull the trigger and take Van Zan’s life so they boy cocked the trigger. Van Zan pleaded and pleaded but nothing could sway the boy. Then Van Zan looked around and then back to the boy with the gun. Eye to eye he looked at the boy and said, “Jesus is my homeboy and don’t you know that Jesus is your homeboy too?” The message was passed.

The message was withdrawn from his head. He had connected with the boy living inside the gangster. That boy looked at the next one and one by one each boy felt the message, that Jesus was their homeboy as well. Van Zan left there unharmed but the message still rang in his ears.

Van Zan Frater now heads a foundation inspired by Jesus is My Homeboy dedicated to helping innocent victims of gang violence.

How will we learn to "speak the language" of those around us? First, we need to listen to them.

That's not always easy to do, because we often bypass those who don't already speak our language. We're lazy about witnessing. We want people to come to us, on our terms. When will the church learn to bless people in their own language? It's so simple, and so much more effective than expecting them to come to our services, and learn to speak our language, just so they can hear.

Dee & Van Zan Frater recently read my blog post, and left a comment. Please click on "comments" below to see what they had to say.

Monday, July 13, 2009

“Fear and Rejoicing – Undignified Worship”

Last time, we saw how Uzzah’s tragic irreverence kept David and the Israelites from experiencing God’s blessings in worship. It is possible for you to ruin the worship experience of others around you, if you let your irreverence and bad attitude spill out into the church service. Instead of being brought into Jerusalem, the ark had to be kept under lock and key until a later date.

Months after Uzzah’s tragedy, David got over his fear, and again led a joyous procession to bring the ark into Jerusalem. It was a time of extravagant worship. David recognized that our whole bodies can be employed in worshipping God. He stripped off his kingly garments and danced before the ark wearing only a linen ephod. Later, his wife rebuked him for it, saying, "How the king of Israel has distinguished himself today, disrobing in the sight of the slave girls of his servants as any vulgar fellow would (2 Sam 6:20)!”

David’s response was, “I will celebrate before the LORD. I will become even more undignified than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes. But by these slave girls you spoke of, I will be held in honor (vv. 21b-22)." When you enter worship, are you more concerned with what other people might think of you, if you worship God the way you feel led? Or, like David, do you choose to give your whole self to God in worship, holding nothing back so you can praise your Lord?

I have a confession to make. I’m a closet hand-raiser. Yes, when the spirit moves me, I like to raise my hands in worship. The problem is, that’s not typical for my church. For years, I have allowed my fear of their judgment to keep me from raising my hands in worship. That’s pretty bad, since I’m supposed to be their leader! The funny thing is, I’ve talked with others who have felt the same way, yearning to raise their hands in worship, but feeling restricted. I’ve decided to give up phony concerns like this, and just worship God the way I feel led. By doing this, I’m creating more of an atmosphere of acceptance, and removing the restraining spirit that once held many in our congregation bound.

The March 10, 1993 edition of Today in the Word says, “Deeply immersed in meditation during a church service, Italian poet Dante Alighieri failed to kneel at the appropriate moment. His enemies hurried to the bishop and demanded that Dante be punished for his sacrilege. Dante defended himself by saying, ‘If those who accuse me had had their eyes and minds on God, as I had, they too would have failed to notice events around them, and they most certainly would not have noticed what I was doing.’”

True worship is when fear (reverence) and rejoicing meet. Just as the wings of the angels touch on top of the ark, so the twin wings of fear and rejoicing have to meet for true worship to take place. It’s possible to have so much reverence for God that you never really worship. It’s also possible to come with so much rejoicing that you forget the awe of the Incomparable One. May you enter worship with both fear and rejoicing this Sunday.

“Fear and Rejoicing – An Error in Delivery”

What is your attitude when you come to worship? What style of worship services fits you best? What does the Bible have to say about the way we approach God in worship? These questions can be answered by a close look at 2 Samuel 6. In this passage, King David leads a procession to bring the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem. This procession has all the earmarks of a great worship service.

Verse 3 says that they set the ark on a new cart. They didn’t put the holy chest of God on some dilapidated piece of farm equipment. Instead, they gave God their best. When we come to worship, are we prepared to give God our best? Too often we’re tempted to say, “Here’s something that’s old and used up, and I have nothing to do with it anymore. But I need a tax write-off, so I think I’ll give it to the church!” How often we come to worship, prepared to give God less than our best! When we worship God, we need to do it with dignity, giving God the honor He deserves.

Verse 5 tells us that they were worshipping the Lord with all their might, with a variety of musical instruments. Does your church insist that only one or two kinds of instruments are holy enough for worship? Your praise team might be incomplete without David’s band of harps, lyres, tambourines, sistrums and cymbals. Loosen up a little, and learn to enjoy a variety of musical expressions that give God glory. Worship as David did, with all your might, and not half of it. At our church, we all bring different talents into the worship service. Musicians play. Artists decorate the sanctuary with artwork that fits the theme off our service. Amateur florists design special arrangements. Those with the gift of hospitality serve as greeters. With all our might, we bring our talents and give them to God. Is this how you come to worship?

The gaiety was interrupted by Uzzah’s irreverence, which ruined the worship service for everybody—especially for him. The oxcart tipped, and reaching out to steady the ark, Uzzah forgot that the sacred chest was never to be touched by human hands. He didn’t show proper reverence for the power of God, and paid for it with his life. God’s power hit him like lightning, and immediately he fell down dead. After that, David was afraid to bring the ark up to Jerusalem. I have to admit that I’m not always in the mood for church on Sunday morning. It’s easy for me to allow my lack of reverence to ruin the worship service for me. Even worse, my irreverence can destroy what God is trying to do in other people’s lives.

When we worship God, we need to remember to reverence Him, and remember His power. Even good intentions like Uzzah’s can be wrong. This Sunday, I hope you’ll evaluate your intentions and attitudes as you learn to worship God.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Weak Leadership

Right now, our church is beginning the process of selecting new deacons. Our nominating committee is also busy making phone calls, asking people to serve as teachers, and on committees. Every church has different requirements for leadership, as well as varying methods for selecting their leaders. Perhaps your church is also in this process of looking for leaders. What kind of leaders do we need in the church today?

In his book, Wind and Fire, Bruce Larson draws a parallel between church leadership and the flight patterns of sandhill cranes: "These large birds, who fly great distances across continents, have three remarkable qualities. First, they rotate leadership. No one bird stays out in front all the time. Second, they choose leaders who can handle turbulence. And then, all during the time one bird is leading, the rest are honking their affirmation. That's not a bad model for the church. Certainly we need leaders who can handle turbulence and who are aware that leadership ought to be shared. But most of all, we need a church where we are all honking encouragement."

The apostle Paul, arguably the greatest church leader in the first century, spoke of himself in the third-person when he said, “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven…This man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell. I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses (2 Cor 12:2-5).” We need leaders of spiritual vision, like Paul. Like Moses, who said to God, “Show me your glory (Exodus 33:18),” we need leaders who seek God more than anything else. But we also need leaders who are humble about their faith, not exalting themselves over others because of their deep spirituality.

In verse 7, Paul says, “To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.” We don’t know what this “thorn” was. Bible scholars have suggested various physical impairments. The point is that God was trying to keep Paul humble, lest he think too highly of himself. Leaders can have a temptation toward pride. But what we really need is weak leadership—leadership that admits its weaknesses and relies on God for strength.

Paul continues in verses 8-9. “Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’" What should we, and what should our leaders, do when we encounter “thorns” in life? As Paul did, we pray, and we pray, and we pray. But then we listen to God and receive His grace. We realize that when we are weak, then God is strong in us. So pray that God does something radical. Pray that God gives your church some weak leadership.


Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Same River Twice

Photo: Heraclitus of Ephesus

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus (540-480 BC) said, "You can never step into the same river; for new waters are always flowing on to you.” No doubt a different version of the same quote, he is also purported as saying, "No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man."

I found this to be true on my 37th birthday, last Sunday, when a group of friends from high school got together to share a picnic meal in the park. Most of us hadn't seen each other for almost 20 years. How could I expect that everything would be just the same as it was before?

Most of us had gained weight (congratulations to those who didn't). We have lost hair, or gained it in places we should never have it. That hair doesn't look quite the same as it once did, either, with tinges of gray found on most of us. Some who were meatitarians are now vegetarians. All of us were single, and last Sunday there were spouses and gaggles of children running around.

Heraclitus also said, "There is nothing permanent except change." That couldn't be more true! I guess, since the mini-reunion coincidentally coincided with my birthday, I let it affect me more than most. While I enjoyed the company of my friends, I have to admit that seeing them made me feel old. As everybody changes around us--we watch our kids grow, we watch our spouse change--somehow we picture ourselves as remaining the same. The impact of that is greater when you see someone you haven't seen in almost two decades.

"Boy, you guys sure got old," you want to say. "It must be you. It couldn't possibly be me."

But the river continues to flow. It changes and shifts, making us acknowledge that the philosopher was right. You can never step into the same river twice. So if it's true that you can't go back again, the only question remaining is How can I make today's river more beautiful? And that's a better thing to focus on, than the fact that I'm getting older every day.

How Far Would You Go For Your Child?

We just celebrated Father’s Day last Sunday. Lately, I’ve been thinking of all the things my father has done for me—things I can never repay. My dad has certainly gone the extra mile for me through the years. Which makes me wonder: How far would you go for your child?

In Mark 5:21-43, we read about a man who was willing to set it all aside for his child. Jairus’ daughter was gravely ill, and he was willing to set aside all his responsibilities at work, and as the synagogue ruler, to meet her needs.

First, he sought Jesus out. That’s something that more men need to be willing to do. He didn’t sit on his hands and wait for Jesus to come to his house. He was proactive for his child’s sake. When fathers seek Jesus, miracles follow.

Next, he was willing to humble himself before God. He knelt at Jesus’ feet and literally begged for help. Most men would never humble themselves like that—because it means giving up control. It means trusting God to do what you cannot. I wonder—men who are reading this column—are you man enough to humble yourself?

Then, he was willing to ask for help. Most men would rather die than ask for help, because we’re taught to be strong and self-reliant—like the man who drives until he runs out of gas when he’s lost, rather than stopping to ask directions. We’re men—we don’t need anybody—right? Wrong! We need Jesus, and need to ask Him for help.
Along the way, a woman who needed healing distracted Jesus from following Jairus to his house. Jairus was willing to wait on Jesus. Are you willing to wait on Jesus, when prayers aren’t answered in your timing, or in the way you’d like? Waiting on Jesus yields our own lordship to His Lordship, and truly puts Him in charge.

Once they resumed their journey, messengers told Jairus that his daughter had just died. The Lord said, “Don’t worry, just have faith.” Later, Jesus said, “She isn’t dead, only sleeping.” Jairus chose to listen to Jesus, rather than listening to the voices of despair and hopelessness around him. When it comes to your children and their problems, whose voices do you listen to—the world’s, or God’s?

Jesus didn’t put Jairus in a waiting room and say, “You’ll have your daughter when I’m done.” No—he invited Jairus to accompany him in prayer. Jairus was willing to act with Jesus in faith. Jesus invites you to do the same for your children. The result was that he received his daughter back alive.

How far are you willing to go for your children? Are you willing to set everything aside, and seek Jesus? Will you humble yourself before God, and ask for help? Are you willing to wait on Jesus, and listen to what He has to say? Will you risk everything for your children, and act with faith on their behalf? Only when we do these things will we see the wonders of God.