BEING AN INSTRUMENT

tiger swallowtail butterflyBlessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. [Matthew 5:9 (NIV)]

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.

We’ve come to know this prayer as “The Prayer of St. Francis” and usually attribute it to Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), the founder of the Franciscan religious orders. The patron saint of ecology and animals, Francis often is portrayed surrounded by animals. Stories first recorded by Thomas of Celano in the 13th century tell of the gentle man taming a wolf that had been terrorizing the town and preaching to the birds, rabbits, and fish (who both listened and obeyed).

Francis, however, was much more than a man who loved animals; he loved Jesus above all things, preached a gospel of simplicity, repentance, and radical obedience to Christ’s teaching, and put into practice the gospel life he preached. His contemporaries claimed that Francis lived out the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount better than anyone other than the One who originally spoke those words. It’s easy to see how this prayer might have been penned by this godly man who endeavored to have the mind of Christ, but its origins are more recent.

Originally written in French and titled “A Beautiful Prayer to Say During the Mass,” the prayer was published anonymously in 1912 in a small French Catholic magazine. In 1915, a French marquis sent the prayer to Pope Benedict XV and, in 1916, it appeared in Italian in L’Osservatore Romano (the Vatican’s daily newspaper). In 1920, titled “Prayer for Peace,” its original French translation was printed on the back of a prayer card bearing the image of St. Francis. The prayer circulated through Europe and, in 1927, it was attributed to St. Francis in print by French Protestants. Translated into English in 1936, the prayer was widely disseminated and, wherever it went, the name of St. Francis went with it.

This peace prayer became popular in an era not much different from ours. We may be able to travel from New York to London in seven hours rather than five days but we still are without peace! In spite of advances in technology, science, communication, medicine, and transportation we continue to have wars, financial disparity, social inequality, prejudice, injustice, unemployment, poverty, and even a global pandemic. We desperately need to pray for peace today as much as they did a century ago!

The author of this prayer asked to be an instrument—a tool, implement, or conduit—of peace. He continued with the actions of sowing (not gathering) love, pardon, faith, hope, light, and joy. Rather than receiving consolation, understanding and love, he sought to console, understand, and love others and then finished with the acts of giving and pardoning. His prayer reminds us that it is the peace makers, not the peace experiencers, Jesus said would be called the children of God! Being a peace maker takes us out of our comfort zones and into the territory of conflict resolution, relationship restoration, and change. Yet, we can’t resolve, restore or change anything if we are part of the problem! What seeds are we sowing? Are we seeking to console, understand, and love? Are we willing to give and forgive? Let us be peace makers and instruments of peace!

Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it. [Psalm 34:14 (NIV)]

Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy. [Hebrews 12:14a (NIV)]

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HE “HAD” TO GO THAT WAY (John 4:1-42 – Part 2)

Put on your new nature, and be renewed as you learn to know your Creator and become like him. In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave, or free. Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us. [Colossians 3:11 (NLT)]

black-crowned night heronJerusalem and Samaria may only have been about 40 miles apart but centuries of hostility separated them. Both politics and religion alienated the Jews from the Samaritans—much as they did Catholics from Protestants in Northern Ireland during the violence plagued decades of The Troubles. Because of the enmity between the people, even though the shortest path from Judea to Galilee was through Samaria, most Jews detoured east to avoid Samaria entirely. John 4:4, however, tells us that Jesus “had to” pass through Samaria. The word used was edei meaning “it was necessary.” Why?

We certainly know Jesus didn’t take that shortcut through Samaria because He was in a hurry. After meeting the woman at Jacob’s well, He lingered there for two more days. It would seem that route was necessary because Jesus and the disciples had a divine appointment in the Samaritan village of Sychar. The appointment wasn’t just with the woman but also with the townspeople who would hear His message and come to believe.

While Jesus rested at the well, the disciples went into town to buy food. Because the gospels aren’t in chronological order, we don’t know if this happened before or after another Samaritan village had spurned the disciples and James and John had suggested raining fire upon it. [Luke 9:53] This time, however, the Samaritans welcomed them. After the disciples successfully obtained food, the village begged Jesus and His men to stay. That divine appointment clearly prepared the disciples for the command Jesus later gave at His ascension: “You will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” [Acts 1:8] Did that divine appointment also include a valuable lesson about not judging an entire people by the bad actions of a few?

Whether it’s because of politics, history, language, race, religion, ethnicity, past grievances, or simply because we don’t know them, we tend to dislike people who are different from us. Thinking in terms of “them” and “us” we define others by our differences. Perhaps it’s time to start with our similarities: we all are children of God! We’re told to love our enemies but how can we do that if we don’t know them?  Animosity begins someplace but, then again, so does relationship. Maybe we’ll find “they” aren’t our enemies at all!

The best way to destroy an enemy is to turn him into a friend. [F.F. Bruce]

But to you who are willing to listen, I say, love your enemies! Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, offer the other cheek also. If someone demands your coat, offer your shirt also. Give to anyone who asks; and when things are taken away from you, don’t try to get them back. Do to others as you would like them to do to you. [Luke 6:27-31 (NLT)]

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LEGACY – FATHER’S DAY 2020

And you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today. Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up. [Deuteronomy 6:6-7 (NLT)]

My husband, son, and sixteen-year old grandson were talking after dinner and reminiscing about Grandpa J, my husband’s father. A man of faith and fun, love and laughter, honesty and honor, he truly was one-of-a-kind. Having died shortly after my grand’s birth, the boy only knows his great-grandpa through photos and some wonderful stories that just seem to get better with time. The conversation gradually turned to the family business, started by Grandpa J nearly sixty-five years ago in the family’s garage. Although my grand had heard some of the stories, others were new and he listened intently.

As the men spoke, my son told his boy a story from when he first started selling for the business. He shared how he learned the importance both of taking responsibility for his mistakes and of quickly righting a wrong. The story was about integrity—doing the right thing even when it didn’t have to be done—and was a better lesson than any number of lectures on honesty and honor. Only three generations were sitting at the table, but a fourth one definitely was present. In my son’s words, I heard not just his father but also his father’s father. Sitting there, I saw Grandpa J in all of the men—their entrepreneurial spirit, humor, zest for life, and, most of all, their integrity. As I quietly listened, I thought how much Grandpa J would have loved to have been there and how proud he would have been of his legacy. Of course, if he’d been there, a game of Euchre would have been in progress!

Sunday is Father’s Day and, as I pondered what to write, I remembered that evening—how I saw Grandpa J in my husband; both Grandpa and my husband in our son; and Grandpa, my husband, and our son in the sixteen year-old grand. Grandpa J, however, wasn’t the only great-grandfather with the men that night. I heard echoes of my own father’s determination and felt his presence, too. Since he died shortly after our marriage, my husband barely knew my father and our son and grand never met him. Nevertheless, even though I’ve rarely spoken of him, without consciously doing it, something of my father has been imparted to my boys through me.

Remembering that night, I saw how each generation profoundly affects the next and the generations that follow. Fred Rogers once said, “One of the greatest dignities of humankind is that each successive generation is invested in the welfare of each new generation.” That’s a heavy responsibility and, sadly, not all of us had fathers who left an admirable legacy. Nevertheless, we all probably had men in our lives who encouraged, taught, and guided us: men who shared their wisdom and faith and exemplified integrity and honor. Let us remember to thank them, if they are still with us, and to thank God for them and their legacy. Just as we shed DNA wherever we are, we leave bits and pieces of our faith, ethics, and values on the lives of the people with whom we interact. Let us all, men and women alike, take seriously our responsibility for the development of the generations that follow and leave only good things behind in the lives of the people we touch.

If you could only sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet; how important you can be to the people you may never even dream of. There is something of yourself that you leave behind at every meeting with another person. [Fred Rogers]

Direct your children onto the right path, and when they are older, they will not leave it. [Proverbs 22:6 (NLT)]

The godly walk with integrity; blessed are their children who follow them. [Proverbs 20:7 (NLT)]

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FEELING GUILTY

He is the Rock; his deeds are perfect. Everything he does is just and fair. He is a faithful God who does no wrong; how just and upright he is! [Deuteronomy 32:4 (NLT)]

For I will show mercy to anyone I choose, and I will show compassion to anyone I choose. [Exodus 33:19b (NLT)]

sunflowerShe washes her hands with soap and water but, doubting the brown liquid coming from the faucet (water that’s unsafe to drink) could rid her hands of germs, my friend also uses hand sanitizer. She’s not in a third world country but at a Native American pueblo less than a half hour from a major American city. One third of its residents live in “poverty” and the rest aren’t much better. Several generations live together in overcrowded homes, no one has appliances like washers, dryers or dishwashers, and cell service is iffy at best. In spite of all they lack, the people she meets are kind and generous. Never apologetic for their homes, they welcome her and always offer food and bottled water; proud of their heritage, they invite her to their feasts. Serving this indigenous nation in a medical capacity, she tries to shake off the feeling of guilt as she pulls into her driveway. She knows that her ethnicity is much of the reason she enjoys a life easier than theirs.

The next day, she visits a juvenile detention center. In spite of its name, it’s a prison. The youth incarcerated there have committed serious crimes and many will move into the adult prison when old enough. She tries not to look at their criminal records but she can’t help seeing their troubled histories. In most cases, they are from broken homes or victims of physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse. Some were given drugs and alcohol or turning tricks as young children. The dysfunction in their families makes the Gallaghers on Shameless look functional. My friend recognizes how different her life would have been had she not been born into the family God gave her. She knows she didn’t deserve her good childhood any more than those youngsters deserved their bad ones and she again feels a pang of guilt!

I understand my friend’s feelings; she is not alone. We’ve all thought, “There, but for the grace of God go I!” It’s often easier to feel forgiven and free of guilt for our sins than not to feel guilty for God’s blessings. While both forgiveness and blessed circumstances are undeserved—all believers get the one but not all believers get the other. God’s blessings seem inequitable at best; some people face seemingly endless obstacles and crises while others seem to breeze through life with only minor setbacks. It’s not just that bad things happen to good people and good things to bad but that we don’t all start out from a level playing field. Life, however, is not fair; if it were, Jesus never would have died for our sins!

The parable of the gracious landowner tells us that God is sovereign, righteous, and free to dispense His blessings any way he wants. Some inequities can be part of God’s design; for example, even before they were born, God chose Isaac over Ishmael and Jacob over Esau. Most inequities, however, are because we live in a world with sin: one cursed with things like disease, prejudice, deception, pain, poverty, defect, injury, hate, suffering, and poor decisions.

We’re told to be like children and (whether or not they deserve it) I’ve never heard any child say, “You shouldn’t have!” when receiving a gift. Blessings should only generate thanks and praise. We always should be humble about God’s gifts but never ashamed of them. Yet, many of us feel guilty for our undeserved blessings and then even guiltier for feeling that way! Guilt of any kind is a gift from Satan, the accuser, and one we’re not meant to keep! Let us replace any guilt with gratitude.

The book of Job makes it abundantly clear that we will never understand the “why” of God’s ways. Instead of feeling guilty about our blessings and wondering why we’ve been given the life we have, let us accept it with joy. Our task is to be good and faithful stewards both by using our blessings wisely and by redistributing them to others. My friend does that every time she visits the pueblo or prison and brings both her medical training and the light of Jesus with her. We should only feel guilty about our blessings if we’re hoarding them rather than giving them away!

Nobody has a right to take credit for what he or she was born with—only for what they have done with it. [Sydney J. Harris]

Who and what you now are is a gift from God in King Jesus, who has become for us God’s wisdom – and righteousness, sanctification and redemption as well; so that, as the Bible puts it, “Anyone who boasts should boast in the Lord.” [1 Corinthians 1:30-31 (NTE)]

What about people who are rich in this present world? Tell them not to think of themselves too highly, and to set their hopes, not on something so uncertain as riches, but on the God who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous and eager to share. That way, they will treasure up for themselves a good foundation for the future, and thereby come to possess the life which really is life. [1 Timothy 6:17-19 (NTE)]

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THE GRACIOUS LANDOWNER

The wages paid by sin, you see, are death; but God’s free gift is the life of the age to come, in the Messiah, Jesus our Lord. [Romans 6:23 (NTE)]

In Matthew’s gospel we find Jesus telling the disciples about a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his harvest. The landowner went out again at mid-morning, lunchtime, and in mid-afternoon to hire more idle laborers to join the harvest, each time promising them the right wage. Finally, shortly before quitting time, he saw more men standing around. Since no one had hired them for the day, the landowner offered them a job and the new laborers joined the rest of the workers in the vineyard.

When quitting time arrived, the landowner gathered his workers to receive their wages. He paid the last ones hired first and, even though they’d worked only one hour, the latecomers received a full day’s wage of a denarius. When the first-hired laborers received only one denarius, they protested. Rather than complaining about the wage they received, however, the laborers really were complaining about the landowner’s generosity and benevolence toward the other workers! He’d done nothing wrong by showing extra kindness to the latecomers; in fact, the Torah valued benevolence. Reminding the men that they received the wage upon which they had agreed, the landowner pointed out that he was free the pay his laborers whatever he desired, whether deserved or not. “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” he asked the disgruntled men.

We might wonder why the landowner kept going out and hiring more laborers. Was it because he needed them to complete the work faster or could it have been because those unemployed laborers needed the wage? God wants everyone saved and, when we accept God’s invitation to be His followers, we will be given his grace, no matter when we accept his offer. The Christian-come-lately will get the same grace as God’s faithful long-term servants.

Since we live in a world of earning and deserving, it’s easy to think we can earn God’s grace. This parable, however, tells us that grace can’t be calculated like wages because grace can’t be earned. God’s grace is not a wage for works but an unearned gift from God. Moreover, like the landowner, God is sovereign in dispensing His grace and blessings. His mercy and unconditional love are His alone to give.

You have been saved by grace, through faith! This doesn’t happen on your own initiative; it’s God’s gift. It isn’t on the basis of works, so no one is able to boast. [Ephesians 2:8-9 (NTE)]

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A NEW SYMBOL OF LOVE

So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples. [John 13:34-35 (NLT)]

Last week, I saw a video of a prayer service in the streets of a major American city. “Give a shout!” called the pastor and the crowd shouted back before raising their voices in song. In another time, I’d have been thrilled to see so many people gathered to praise Jesus, but these are not normal times. This was in a state where COVID-19 cases are on the increase and even those considered low risk have been asked to wear face coverings and refrain from gathering in groups greater than ten. Nevertheless, the crowd of several hundred stood tightly together and few wore face masks.

Franklin Roosevelt was wrong when he said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself!” There’s much we should fear; after all, Scripture tells us to fear God. Along with fearing God, the fear of both spiritual and physical danger can keep us safe. The minute David put his eyes on the naked Bathsheba, he was in spiritual danger but, instead of turning around in fear, he walked straight into the enemy’s trap. The good fear of physical danger is what gets us in the basement during a tornado warning or puts up shutters before a hurricane. It’s the fear that seeks shelter from lightning, looks both ways even after the light turns green, gets vaccinated, wears seat belts, and puts life jackets on toddlers when they wade in the ocean. It’s when we allow our fear of spiritual or physical danger to turn into preoccupation or obsession, when we lose perspective or faith, or when we become anxious, neurotic, hopeless, incompetent or incapacitated, that good fear goes bad.

Our bodies are not our own; like everything else we have, they belong to God. As His stewards, we are expected to take good care of them; a certain amount of fear helps us do that by assessing risks. There may be times we are called to risk our lives, as are firemen when entering a burning building. Needlessly risking health and safety, however, is not God’s intention for us. “You’re afraid!” is not an insult when it comes to COVID-19; we all should have a healthy fear of this virus. As Christians, we live by faith not fear, but that doesn’t mean we live foolishly or inconsiderately!

It’s not just the elderly or those with secondary conditions who are at risk. One of the mysteries of this disease is that relatively healthy young people, including small children and teens, can become critically ill or die. Everyone should have a healthy fear of this virus and respect it the same way we would a bear on the back deck: by keeping our distance! Moreover, our reckless actions have ramifications and can cause collateral damage. Every attendee at that prayer rally later interacted with family, friends, co-workers, and even strangers; their carelessness might cost someone else their health or even their life! Christians are called to love and that love should respect, honor, and value the lives of others as much as their own.

Ignoring scientific data, our state, like many others, is re-opening and some churches have followed suit. After all, empty pews often mean empty collection baskets. While our church, like many, wants to resume services, we readily admit to being afraid. We take the numbers and threat seriously and needlessly bringing ourselves or our church family into a risky situation is irresponsible. “Let the vulnerable stay home!” say some while other churches tell those over 65 they can’t attend. I don’t think the Lord who spoke of leaving the ninety-nine sheep to find the one who was lost, would agree. Every single life mattered to Him and it is the most vulnerable God has called us to serve!  Believing that the church should be a place of sanctuary not infection, our church is not yet meeting in person. It’s not a popular choice, but Jesus was never about being popular. He was about love—about doing the right thing—about caring for the health and safety of others.

Face masks and social distancing aren’t about politics; they’re about love! When Bishop Michael Curry was on the Today show last week, he spoke of choosing to live in the way of love which, he explained, is seeking the good of others as well as of self. After placing his two hands in the shape of a heart, he said there was a new symbol of love: a face mask! “I wear it to protect you and you wear it to protect me,” explained the Bishop. Me doing all I can to protect you from harm and you doing all you can to protect me exemplify Christian love! Right now, for many of us, along with wearing a face mask, that means continuing to worship together from a distance!

This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins. Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. … We love each other because he loved us first. [1 John 4:10-11,19 (NLT)]

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