St. Francis Visits a Contemporary University…

St. Francis was allowed to visit a 21st century university, which housed a chapel bearing his name. He was both honored and confused by the opportunity. Walking about the campus, he was amazed at the number and variety of students rushing to and fro; they were not looking at the grounds or the sidewalks or at each other– they were focused on their devices. It was a noisy campus, full of the sounds of buses and other traffic, music and podcasts playing, people arguing… Finally, St. Francis arrived at “his” chapel. It was a beautiful building, quiet and simple in its design. It was empty, except for a single student, saying her prayers. At the entrance, there was a plaque with a well-known prayer:

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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. 
Amen.

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Francis took a seat, absorbing the peaceful stillness, yet wondering at his assignment. Why had he been sent here? Why this moment in time? Taking his cue from the student, he also spent some time in prayer. Then he walked back outside.

He was struck again by the students– they were everywhere, but they were isolated. No one noticed him or stopped to speak. He tried to talk to someone–anyone–but they were all busy and not inclined to pause or interact. He noticed a coffee house across the street. Carefully avoiding speeding buses and weaving bikes, he crossed and entered the shop. It was a little quieter than the commons, but most of the customers were sipping their drinks and staring at screens–personal devices or the huge screen above the counter, streaming the latest news. War, scandal, protests, mud-slinging politicians, all made their appearance, only to be replaced by a commercial break and the next headline. No one stopped in horror at the litany of injustice, death, greed, or duplicity. They simply sipped their lattes and went back to scrolling through their Instagram accounts.

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The door opened to admit the student he had seen earlier in the chapel. She glanced up at the big screen, shook her head, and ordered a coffee. She found a table, and sat down. The coffee house was busy; it was the last empty table. She smiled as another student came in. She invited the other student to sit with her. She started a conversation. At first, the other student was jumpy and disinclined to talk. But soon, the two students were chatting. The sound of it attracted attention. Some customers were bothered by the new noise; others were intrigued by the sound of real conversation– even laughter! Two other students brought their chairs and drinks over and joined the conversation. They spoke of missing their families, of struggling with certain classes, and enjoying others. They spoke of future plans, and the obstacles that stood in the way. They spoke of fears for the future, as well. Francis noticed that one student listened from a distance, but did not join the others. He seemed weary and despondent. Francis walked over and asked if he could just sit at his table for awhile. The young man was startled, but said, “Suit yourself.”

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Francis sat in silence, his head bowed. Finally, the young man spoke quietly. “I saw you watching that girl. Just a word of warning– she’s a nut job. She comes in here about once a week, talking nonsense. She’s not even a student here.”

“And yet, I saw you were also watching her. She intrigues you.”

“I don’t know how she does it. She comes in here, talking about love and joy and faith, and people listen to her. They eat that stuff up. Don’t they know it’s all garbage? Look at the news! But she comes in, all smiling and happy– she’s crazy.”

“But she still intrigues you. Could it be that she is at peace, and you are not?”

“Peace?! Peace is nothing but an illusion. Power is what counts. Action. Look at her– she’s not doing anything to make the world better, and yet she acts like she’s got all the answers. It’s sickening!”

“Why do you keep watching her?”

“I don’t even know. She’s so stupid. She’s all wrong, and she acts like everything is fine.”

“Have you spoken to her? How do you know what she thinks and feels?”

“I’ve told you. She’s crazy. I don’t want to talk to someone like that.”

“Are you afraid?”

“Afraid of what?”

“That she’s not as crazy as you think. That she might laugh at your thoughts, the way you laugh at hers. That she won’t talk to you, like she talks to the others… Maybe you’re afraid of what you would say.”

“What do you mean?”

“What would you say to her if she spoke to you? Would you listen, or would you argue? Would you wipe the smile off her face and take away her joy and faith? Would you make the world a better place by winning your argument with her?”

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The young man was at a loss for words. He suddenly noticed that other conversation had stopped. People were looking at him– even the young woman he had been talking about. His face turned red, and he jumped out of his seat and dashed out of the coffee house. The group dispersed, and Francis was left alone with the young woman.

“He may be right, you know,” she said with a wry smile. I don’t think I do enough to make the world a better place. I just sit and talk with people, and listen, and pray. It’s not much. Not enough to make a real difference.”

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Francis put a hand on her shoulder and shook his head. “It is enough in God’s economy to be available. To be humble and willing and faithful. Keep up the good work. And may God bless you.”

Interrupted Prayer

I sat down to pray this morning.
My phone rang.
Somewhere a dog barked.
I suddenly remembered I had to swap out the laundry.
I got distracted by the breakfast dishes…

And yet..

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My call was from someone I love– someone I was going to pray for anyway.
The dog probably belonged to my neighbor– someone else to lift up in prayer.
Which reminds me of the woman at church who just lost her beloved pet…
I hung up my new sweater; a gift from my husband. How blessed I am!
Our dryer is old, but it still works– another blessing.
And the dishes–well, we had food to eat this morning.
But they can wait until I finish spending time on my knees.

Prayers, like life, get interrupted. But we can see those interruptions as excuses or opportunities.

Peace on Earth

Christmas is a joyful season– for most people. And it is a giving season; a busy season; a bright and noisy season. But for most of us, it is NOT a peaceful season. Our small city had a lighted parade the other night. It was festive and bright; there were a lot of happy people cheering on marching bands, floats, dancers, decorated fire engines and tractors, horse-drawn carriages, and other entries. People were eating, drinking hot cocoa, enjoying the entertainment, and even singing carols. The whole downtown was decorated with brilliant lights and banners and festive plants. But before the parade started, and after it ended, there were angry drivers trying to find (or leave) parking spots, bawling toddlers, rowdy people who had more to drink than just the cocoa, and several others who were just tired, and cold, and overstimulated.

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While parades and festivities, parties and pageants have become part of the seasonal celebrations in many parts of the world, they are not what Christmas is really about. Jesus did not come to the world to bring “fun.” He did not come to bring toys or games, parties or feasts. He did not come to bring cheerful songs and fragrant holiday decorations, or hot cocoa and cookies. The angels who announced His arrival did not bring good tidings of candy canes, flying reindeer, or twinkle lights.

We sing about “Peace on Earth.” We talk about it, send greeting cards about it, and pray for it. But what do we MEAN when we talk about Peace on Earth, Good will to Men (Humankind)? For many, it is a wish or a prayer that wars would end, or that the petty differences between rival political factions or even rival churches would end. We speak of global peace or universal peace– peace between men (and women). And it is good that we should want such peace. But is that really the kind of peace Jesus brought with Him? He didn’t put an end to wars and disagreements during His ministry here. He didn’t “settle the score” for those who experienced oppression– the Roman Empire remained; the tax collectors still took more than their fair share; there was still slavery and abuse; greed and adultery and murder did not cease. And the world has been noisy, and messy, and angry and depressed in the two millennia since. And yet…

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There IS peace on earth–it is the profound peace that comes with “Good will to Men.” God’s good will found its ultimate expression in the gift of the Savior. There may still be wars and pestilence, angry drivers, bad hair days, injustice, confusion, grief, and pain among people. But there is power to be at peace in the midst of it all– the power of a Peace that passes all understanding (Philippians 4:7); the power of Peace with God (Romans 5:1).

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Jesus came to a world that knew only the rumor of such peace. Even King David– a “man after God’s own heart,” a man who wrote songs about peace and safety and joy in God’s presence–knew this kind of peace as something that had been promised. David could know the immediate peace of God’s forgiveness; he could know the blessings of obedience and the restoration of the joy of salvation (Psalm 51:12). But the everlasting Peace that has been accomplished by the Advent of the Christ– David, Moses, Abraham, and all the prophets had longed to know it; to experience it from within.

And THIS Peace we can experience– not just during the Advent and Christmas Season, but throughout our lives. Chaos, loneliness, grief, separation, injustice– it HAS BEEN defeated. It has no power to separate us from God’s Good Will or from His Loving embrace! The noise and anger and clutter and abuse is still real. We should not ignore it, and we certainly must not contribute to it or sanction it. But we no longer have to live without hope; we no longer have to fret and live in constant fear or defeat.

There is no parade tonight as I write this– there are still lights and occasional noises downtown– a door closing, a dog barking, a car passing. But there is Peace within– no matter how loud or bright, how festive or even forlorn things seem.

Keep Silence

We have entered the season of Advent, and as we prepare our hearts for the coming of the Christ Child, one of the first steps should involve quieting our hearts.

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This can be difficult in the daily noise and bustle around us– particularly in this season! We have filled Christmas with sparkle and glitter; the ringing of bells and endless songs about reindeer and jolly fat men and decorated trees. But this is NOT Christmas– not yet. The bright lights of Christmas, the joyful songs of the angel hosts, all need a proper context. And that means a cold, dark night more than 2000 years ago. It means an emptiness. A heavenly silence that stretched over 400 years. Silence from heaven; silence in the earth; silence in the soul.

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In silence, we ponder. We wait. We anticipate–perhaps even dread– what may come. What will God say when He finally speaks again? Will it be judgment–severe, holy, deserved, undeniable? Will it be condemnation? Will it be that final pronouncement of God’s Holy Sovereignty, and our utter failure to measure up?

The joy of Christmas comes, not because of seeing light shows and snow glistening on trees, or listening to jingle bells and laughter. It comes from knowing that God’s Word is Peace! It is reconciliation and restoration. It is Freedom and Victory over Sin and silence and eternal Death! It is not first felt in the blaring of anthems and resounding of carols. It is in the soft cooing of new Life coming into a dark and silent world. Of everlasting love being wrapped in rags and gently laid in straw.

God delights in turning earthly things upside-down. And so He comes to us, not with fanfares and regal procession, but in stillness and gentleness, in the middle of a dark and silent night.

Alleluia! Alleluia!

Oh, Be Careful, Little Tongue

13 Suppose I speak in the languages of human beings or of angels. If I don’t have love, I am only a loud gong or a noisy cymbal. Suppose I have the gift of prophecy. Suppose I can understand all the secret things of God and know everything about him. And suppose I have enough faith to move mountains. If I don’t have love, I am nothing at all. Suppose I give everything I have to poor people. And suppose I give myself over to a difficult life so I can brag. If I don’t have love, I get nothing at all.

1 Corinthians 13:1-3 (NIRV) via biblegateway.com
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We run a small shop, my husband and I. The other day, a sweet-looking elderly lady came in looking for antique buttons. She was delighted to find a few that would suit her purpose and she came to pay for them. We struck up a conversation, and I was appalled to hear the words coming out of her mouth. It was like listening to an R-rated stand-up comedian–filled with profanities and bigoted remarks–all delivered in quiet, honeyed tones. I was stunned!

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Such talk becomes habitual. Most people don’t even notice how often they say offensive words or off-color remarks. In this situation, I simply kept a kind of stony silence– I neither exploded with offense, nor nodded in compliance. She stopped talking and made her exit, knowing she had somehow displeased me, but likely unaware of how she actually sounded. I felt guilty for not having challenged her, but I truly think she was oblivious. She had not been swearing in anger; she had not used obvious slurs, but to me, her language was like a cesspool. My ears felt dirty just listening.

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But after I had judged her harshly, I turned the lens on myself. How often do I offend others with my language? I don’t mean with obvious swear words or racist language, but with careless statements or unkind sarcasm? Or with selfish empty boasts about how wonderful my life is or even how good God has been to me? How often do I sound like a clanging, clamoring “noisy cymbal?”

I love to talk, but do I talk with Love? Do I speak words of truth and beauty; blessing and encouragement? Do I speak words of conviction out of love for others, or out of my own contempt? Do I pray with a heart of grieving for those who struggle, and those who are lost? So I assume, as this woman did, that my ugly words will be accepted because I speak them in polite and dulcet tones to someone who looks like me? Or because “everyone else” I know uses such words or spreads such opinions? Do I choose to listen to celebrities, or neighbors, or family members whose speech is filled with hatred and filth? Do I add my nervous laughter when others make careless remarks– worse yet, am I developing bad habits in my own speech or in my social media interactions?

Oh, be careful, little tongue!

This Little Light of Mine…

Last Friday night, my husband and I watched fireworks in honor of Independence Day. They were spectacular– bright flashes of light, followed by loud, thunderous booms–red, green, blue, purple, orange, gold, and white. Some sizzled and screamed as they threw their light across the darkened backdrop of the night. Others were almost silent; just a “whizz” and a “poof.” Some were so bright, they lit up the whole sky, showing clouds and smoke trails.

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Fireworks are exciting and flashy. But I wouldn’t want to live in a world of continual fireworks. While their light is bright and exciting, it is not steady, and it is quickly swallowed up again by night’s darkness. We don’t even light fireworks during the day, because their light is not brighter or better than the sun.

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Sometimes, I try to be a “Christian” fireworks display–I try to be flashy and impressive, or sizzle, scream, and boom. That’s not entirely a bad thing– after all, we are to let out light shine, so that people can see our good works and glorify our Father in Heaven (see Matthew 5:14-16). But we should be careful. Jesus never called us to be like fireworks; He spoke of our “light” being more like a lamp or a candle.

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Some thoughts to remember:

  • We are to let our light shine for a purpose greater than display. Our lives should be a reflection of the true Light of the World. Jesus was not flashy and bombastic. He was humble, gentle, and kind. People were not amazed and impressed by Jesus’ appearance. And He didn’t draw attention to many of His miracles– He often healed people “on the road” as He traveled between towns; some of His most spectacular miracles, like walking on water, were done in front of only His closest disciples. Jesus didn’t lead others by clever arguments and flashy displays– He led by example and service.
  • Lamps and candles are steady sources of light. Our lives should not be momentary flashes of brightness, followed by clouds of smoke and a return to darkness for those around us. A quiet life of integrity may not be flashy, but it can, over a lifetime, inspire others and leave a lasting legacy that shines far longer and brighter than any fireworks display.
  • Occasionally, God will put us in a place where our light can shine a little brighter or sizzle for a bit– for His Glory. We should not be afraid to sparkle. But we must not let ourselves “burn out.” And when we see others shine in this way, we should not be envious or try to quench the Spirit; however, we must continue to reflect God’s glory, rather than trying to bask in another person’s glow.
  • Far greater than any fireworks display is the promise of God’s glory, revealed in the fullness of time– an eternal display of pure light, with no darkness to follow!
  • Our “little light” is not insignificant– it is God’s purpose. It pleases Him to see us glow, not explode!
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Lord, help me to shine in ways that point others to You. Help me to reflect Your gentle, faithful, and righteous light, Your Love, and Your Grace as I travel through a dark world. Amen.

Just Another Haunted House?

He said to them, “It is written, my house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of thieves!”

Matthew 21:13 (Christian Standard Bible, via Biblehub.com)
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It’s October. Time for apple cider, falling leaves, pumpkin spice cookies, bonfires, corn mazes, and “haunted houses.” I don’t know about other parts of the world, but in my neighborhood, we usually have dozens of local charities decorating barns or old factories or houses, and charging people to visit in the nights leading up to Halloween. They hang cobwebs and mirrors, create mazes and special effects– creaky doors, moving floors, glowing objects, eerie moans, flashing lights, and pop-up creatures , along with volunteers dressed up as ghosts or mummies or zombies to guide them along the way. Hundreds of people tromp and shudder, laugh and scream, as they travel through the house. They come back and bring their friends, eager to watch their reactions, and see if they can remember all the “surprises” to come.

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I’m not a big fan of haunted houses. I don’t like being frightened for “fun.” And I don’t like giving money, time, and thought to making “fun” of death and evil spirits. This year, with COVID still a factor, many of the haunted houses are closed or operating very differently. So are many other venues, including churches.

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Which brings me to a startling thought–have some of our churches become nothing more than a kind of haunted house? People come to be entertained; to feel their pulse beat faster, or get excited about a particularly good worship sequence. They may even come to be “frightened” a little by sermons about hell and death, sort of like watching a spooky movie or listening to ghost stories by the campfire. They meet up with their friends, and go out together afterwards to their favorite restaurant. The service is filled with special effects– lights and videos, booming bass lines and dynamic guitar solos, volunteers dressed up to greet visitors, serve coffee and donuts, collect money, and take attendance; sometimes even gimmicks, and props, and prizes.

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I’m not saying it’s wrong for churches to be warm and welcoming; I don’t think they have to be gloomy and boring. But we’ve spent so much time making our churches “attractive;” put so much of our time and effort into making worship thrilling and fulfilling, that we’ve lost our focus. This isn’t “the people’s house.” It isn’t a “fun house.” It is God’s house. A house of prayer. A house of honor and reverence. A Holy place. We’ve made our churches places of basketball courts and coffee bars; playrooms and gift shops; social networks and small business incubators…

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We read about Jesus chasing the moneychangers out of the Temple, but we erect huge signs in front of the church tracking our fundraising efforts for a new roof. We are not a “den of thieves.” But are we a “house of prayer?” Are we meeting together to pray, or to be entertained? To meet with God, or to meet up for fellowship? Are we creating a maze of mirrors and gimmicks, instead of calling out in urgency and humility to Almighty God? Are the pews, or chairs, or stadiums, filled with the (spiritually) walking dead?

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Jesus created a stir when He rebuked the money changers. They hadn’t suddenly appeared and set up shop. They didn’t see themselves as “thieves.” After all, they weren’t stealing from anyone. They were buying and selling items connected with the Temple worship–animals for sacrifice, incense, food for hungry travelers… They weren’t stealing money– not exactly. Maybe they charged extra for their services; for the convenience. Maybe they had bribed someone or used their influence to get a prime marketing spot inside the Temple perimeter. But that’s just business. And, until Jesus kicked up a fuss, no one seemed to notice or mind.

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Jesus wasn’t upset about money– He was upset about those who were stealing from the Father. Cheapening His glory, crowding in on His House, bringing the noise of everyday commerce into the court of contemplation. Bringing dust and pettiness into His Holy presence. Trading the Awe of His Majestic Temple for the “aw, shucks” of a day at the mall– or a trip to the Haunted House.

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We have a real opportunity as “The Church” to take a close look at what we have become, and how we want to adjust to “life after the pandemic.” If Jesus were to visit our church, would He find it a House of Prayer, or a Haunted House?

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