Monday, June 4, 2012

The prayer of St. Francis of Assissi (part 2)

In the second section of the prayer Francis emphasizes that our prayers, as well as our entire lives are not to be about ourselves, but about others.
He touches on three things that we might tend to search for as human beings: consolation, understanding, and love. His prayer is that he (and we) would not spend our energy looking for our own emotional and mental stability, but that of others.
Again he lays out a parallelism: ‘O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be _______as to _______.’
‘To be consoled as to console.’ Yes, we all suffer pain. We all look for comfort in our pain. It’s easy for our focus to grow increasingly inward. But Francis knew that we must give out. Although we will find ourselves always in need of the support of others, we pray that we will always look for opportunities to comfort others.
‘To be understood as to understand.’ As we journey through life, we gain knowledge and understanding of the universe, and the God who is in it all. For some reason it seems terribly important to try to make others see things through our eyes. But here we are gently encouraged to work to understand the wisdom of others. We aren’t the only source of wisdom and experience, and by seeking to truly hear the heart of another, we affirm their value. Indeed, we will likely learn from them.
‘To be loved as to love.’ It makes sense that by giving love, we will gain a new one who loves us back. The highest love isn’t selfish, doesn’t seek its own glory.

The final 3 sentences again follow a repeating pattern. What we offer we get back in return. Here he reiterates the upside down kingdom principle taught by Jesus: It is more blessed to give than to receive.
‘It is in giving that we receive.’ As he has already reminded us, we receive back in kind what we generously pour out. When we give our time and energy in loving others, we are loved in return. When we lend our ears to hear another’s pain, we are comforted. When we choose to listen instead of talk, we grow in our own understanding.
‘It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.’ As Jesus told us, it is important that we forgive if we expect to be forgiven. Here Francis echoes this. Not initially for our own benefit, not to ‘pay forward’, but just as part of the economy of the kingdom. Shame and remorse can pile up if we allow it, but so can forgiveness. Better to plant seeds of pardon than reap the fruit of guilt.
‘It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.’ The kingdom life of Jesus comes as we fade into the background, letting go of our need to be front and center. Dying is a scary, painful thought, but less so when what we die to is replaced with the abundant life of the kingdom. You can either hold desperately to the rags and crumbs, or you can let go and live in joy and completeness.
Francis, thank you for sharing your wisdom throughout the ages in this prayer. As many women and men before us, we learn from those who have walked this earth and shared their insights.

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.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The prayer of St. Francis of Assissi (part 1)

(By the way, how many other St. Francis’s do you know? Why do we usually qualify him as ‘of Assisi’?)
I’m writing this from the cozy little hermitage at the St. Clare’s Monastery just outside Duncan, BC.
This is my second visit here, and it is a beautiful spot for contemplation. Appropriately enough, St. Clare was the close friend and co-conspirator of St. Francis, 800 years ago.

The prayer we are looking at is probably the most well known writings of St. Francis. Even those of us who don’t know too much of his life and calling know something of this prayer.
Over the past several weeks I have been leading a short meditation on the phrases of this prayer with our CARTS outreach volunteers. Every phrase speaks to our purpose in serving the marginalized and wonderful people of downtown Victoria.
This prayer is a literary masterpiece. The symmetrical structure and cadence lends itself to being sung and remembered.
As a faithful Roman Catholic, Francis would have been very familiar with what we call the Lord’s (or Disciples) Prayer, the Our Father, the Pater Noster. I’m sure he understood the various themes of that prayer, and could have written much about it.
But it seems to me that in the prayer of St. Francis that we are looking at, he zeroes in on the ‘Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth, as in heaven’ section of the Lord’s Prayer. To me the whole flavor of Francis’ words is concerned with how the essence of God is liberated into the world around us. I believe he recognized that sometimes the most powerful value of praying is that it refocuses our own attention on how we can bring about the answer. So Francis asks for the insight to be able to be a significant part of being the implementation of what he is asking for.
(By the way, remember that Francis was Italian, not English, so his original words have been translated. Not being fluent in Italian, I will have to resort to the common English rendering of his words.)

He begins: ‘Lord make me an instrument of your peace’. In my heart, he is saying ‘The focus of my life is to bring You to the people around me. Your peace. Your influence. Your presence. Your essence.’ He recognizes that at best we are tools, instruments, in the hand of God. As much as we may want to change the world, we need to be a well-formed piece of equipment in the skilled hands of the Divine One. He knows that peace, not war is God’s way. Francis wasn’t on board the whole Crusades bandwagon of his time. He takes his cues from the Beatitudes, including the one about being a peacemaker. As well, he realizes that people need to be brought back into that place of closeness with their Creator. So the whole theme of this prayer is: ‘How can I bring the Peace of God into my world?’
The next 6 phrases are all in the parallel form—‘Where there is________ let me sow ________’, with the first half being a condition of dis-ease healed by the second. The words ‘let me sow’ are assumed in the next 5 phrases. I like the idea of planting seeds that will bring healing and wholeness. Seeds need to find fertile soil, be watered and fertilized, be warmed by the sun, be allowed to mature, and then finally a harvest is seen. So it is with bringing healing to the broken. It takes time, and lots of tender loving intentional effort.
‘Hatred…Love.’ With love being the all-encompassing source of healing, Francis starts with it. He knew the presence of hatred in his world. He knew the tendency to fight. He knew the misguided strategy of even Christians to wage war on those who didn’t agree with them. Few of us today would look back at the Crusades as our finest hour, yet we still seem to think that the solution for differences of understanding within our world is to declare war. We still sing ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’, even though that sense of ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’ has turned many away from a God who loves them. Francis had it right: the answer to hatred is love. No one said it would be easy, but that is exactly what we are called to. Even little seeds of love will bring a big harvest.
‘Injury…Pardon.’ This is perhaps a strange concept. Yes, I can not only forgive you for hurting me (and vice versa), I can make sure you suffer no consequences for your actions. But not all the injuries you suffer are caused by me. And how can I offer you pardon for something someone else did to you? Victoria recently hosted a weekend of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It was established by the government in order to provide opportunities for First Nations people to voice their stories of pain as a result of residential schools. There is no question, much injury was done—often in the name of the church. But how can I sow seeds of pardon when in effect, I am part of the guilty system that perpetrated the violence? Certainly we move in a direction of seeking forgiveness, but I also think we can plant Kingdom seeds by making sure we are a forgiving people. As we keep the air clean by forgiving any injustice done to us, we encourage a healing atmosphere in the larger sense.
‘Doubt…Faith.’ Look around you. People don’t tend to have a lot of trust in governments anymore. Influential people and institutions are demonstrating that the problems are pretty huge, and the resources aren’t adequate. People are choosing not to vote. They are exiting religious institutions. They don’t have a lot of hope in their retirement savings, so are living for the moment. Francis encourages us to be faithful. To trust in people. To be people of our word. To hang on anyway. Even if we find that our theology is being rewritten, we still know there is a God behind it all. It is not a faith that believes in something that is unbelievable, but a confidence based on the reliability of the One in whom we trust.
‘Despair…Hope.’ Despair is probably the saddest condition to find yourself in. It says you don’t expect things to ever get any better. It can lead to suicide. And the longer you wallow in it, the less you are capable of seeing any spot of light. So Francis prays that he would bring hope to the one in despair. That he could in some small way meet the needs of the hopeless one. If they were fearing starvation, he would offer food, or fill some other need. And little by little the sense of being overwhelmed by circumstances is replaced by the potential of rising above them. But hope can be broader than specific situations. Even as despair can be overwhelming, so can hope. Even if the darkness seems to have squeezed out every speck of light, seeds of hope can begin to shine the light again. Where before there seemed no chance of survival, now the possibilities of improvement can be seen. The heaviness lifts. Hope returns.
‘Darkness…Light.’ Much like despair, darkness can cloud ones thinking. It’s like getting lost in a forest. As daylight fades, you lose your sense of direction, and fear sets in. You go around in circles, or you give up and curl up in a ball. But as the light returns in the morning, you can start to get your bearings. You now know which way is north, where the river is, which way to go to find civilization. Like planting seeds of hope, seeds of light can grow and redirect the wanderer to the Source of Peace. We bring light into someone’s darkness by sharing it, by exposing specifics that might have been lost or forgotten, and by working together on understanding the challenges being faced. And we are reflections of the Light of the world.
‘Sadness…Joy.’ Like each of the previous ‘evils’, sadness seems to pile on and on. One disaster is followed by another. One loss comes on the heels of a previous loss. Before you know it, you are grieving many things, each one weighing heavier and heavier. Sadness makes a person introspective. Guilt may be a close companion. Francis reminds us that the antidote isn’t merely happiness, that momentary splash of emotion. Instead, we look for something with deeper roots—joy. As John refers to the ‘living water’, joy comes from a spring deep within. And our sense of equanimity, our place of peace, our relationship with the God of the Universe becomes a seed that is planted in the sad heart. It’s not that we are always laughing, trying to turn tears into laughter. But we are rooted, planted in the Source, and that anchor becomes the beginnings of an anchor for someone else.
In all of these 6 settings, it is from our own place of strength that we in turn are able to invite others. Our love rubs off on them. Our spirit of forgiveness, our trust, hope, light and joy become a handle for others to grab on to. And then we are able to see them find their own Anchor, and in turn become a place of strength for their friends.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Who do you see?

A simple question: Who do you see?

Pretend that this

is a mirror you are looking into (or a webcam showing yourself).
What and who do you see?

If we are to be the reflection of Christ, to be his incarnation in our world,
Do you see Jesus?
Or someone else?

When people look at you do they notice someone with compassion and humility? Someone who goes out of their way to connect with the ordinary, those in need?
Do they hear a voice filled with love and affirmation? But with the boldness and insight to have scathing things to say to the arrogance and elitism sometimes found in religious institutions?
Because that’s exactly what Jesus was like.
He saved his tough words for the scribes and Pharisees, those who put stumbling blocks in the way of people seeing the merciful character of God. All the rest of the time his words were gentle, kind, helping, affirming.

When confronted with ‘sin’ he said; “Neither do I condemn you.”

When confronted with religious folk who prided themselves on their observance of the law, he said; “You whitewashed graves.” Or, as The Message puts it: “You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You’re like manicured grave plots, grass clipped and the flowers bright, but six feet down it’s all rotting bones and worm-eaten flesh. People look at you and think you’re saints, but beneath the skin you’re total frauds.” Matthew 23: 26, 27
So when you look in the mirror, who do you see? Jesus, or a Pharisee?

Sunday, December 25, 2011


My thoughts this Christmas season have wandered often to the Christmas narrative of John 1:14—where we hear that God invaded the earth as a living, breathing human. And not just some far off locale, but as Petersen’s The Message puts it, ‘into the neighborhood’.

And so my musing isn’t that it happened once, a couple thousand years ago, but happens everywhere, everyday, if we allow it to happen.

If the plan of the Divine was to make sure that we understand how loving our God is, then we need not be surprised that Christmas happens every day of the year, in every corner of the world.

It seems that power often rises to stifle the simple message of grace. So God needs, again and again, to counteract that kind of arrogance with the welcoming message of love.

Surprised to find out that you get to be the latest incarnation of the love of God? Find it a bit scary to think that you are the only Jesus people will see?

Don’t be scared! Just let Love invade you, and pervade you, and then escape out through your actions and words.
That is my Christmas message.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Christmas spirit?

If you are into Christmas at all, you probably subconsciously search and long for the ‘Christmas Spirit’. Naively we might expect that that Christmas Spirit is the same for everyone.
That is far from the case.
Each of us has that inner combination of nirvana, utopia, childhood memories (colored by the passage of time), and zeal that styles itself as ‘The Perfect Christmas’.
That is what we tend to long for; the reincarnation of something that actually never was.
We want everything to be perfect, just like we remember, except it never really was that perfect.
We take our piecemeal assortment of Christmas images, tastes and feelings and try to make them all magically appear right in front of us.
And then when it doesn’t quite all come together as we had hoped, we deal with the rubble as our dreams crash around us.
What’s the solution?
Lower expectations?
Give up?
Well, no, that’s a bit extreme.

How about:
  1. Recognizing the futility of trying to make everything perfect, and
  2. Choosing to make one part as good as you can, given your present circumstances.
No, you won’t be able to bring peace on earth, or solve all of your family dysfunction with one marvelous turkey dinner, but you might well be able to accomplish a special moment to honor a special relationship.
There’s no way that you will make all of the kids completely happy by buying everything on their ‘gimme’ list, but finding something within your budget will both let your child know they are loved, and yourself survive January without plastic surgery.
Or maybe it can even be more simple than that.
Last Christmas I did my normal routine: Write my Christmas newsletter, and try to get creative for some special Christmas gifts for some special friends and family members. I decided to create a little booklet of some of my blog posts from the previous Christmas. That worked out well enough, and they were delivered into the hands of Canada Post.
But the special memory of last Christmas is what happened Christmas morning.

Last fall I met a young man hanging around Centennial Square. He had recently lost his job, and like many of the rest of us, didn’t have enough saved to survive until he found another job. So, here he was, out on the street. Panning, trying to find a job, moving night by night through the 7 day rotation of the youth ‘Out of the Rain’ shelter system. 7 different locations each host the shelter one night a week, but the kids are turned out after breakfast and have no dry/warm place until the next evening.
We had some great conversations. He’s quite a friendly guy, and we hit it off.
His home life had left a little to be desired, so he was missing the positive presence of his parents.
As Christmas approached, I began feeling quite ‘fatherly’ towards this young man.
I really wanted his Christmas to be special, something more than just another night at the next stop on the youth shelter tour.
So, I made plans with him to take him out for Christmas breakfast.
I found out where he would be spending the night of Christmas Eve, and the time I could pick him up.
And there I was, at 9 or so Christmas morning. Knocking on the door, asking if Dan was there.
A few moments later, out he came.
I had spent a bit of time trying to think of some fun little gifts I could afford. A flashlight, some candy, a pair of gloves, etc. I wanted him to have some special gifts, something to let him know he wasn’t just another lonely young man, some guy alienated from his family.
So as we sat in the van, getting ready to head to Denny’s, I gave him his little pile of gifts.
It really was as much fun for me as for him.
And then we went for breakfast. He still snickers at the memory of how a hamburger was his special Christmas Day meal, but he enjoyed it.
And so did I.
I’ve seen him many times over the past year. Some things are going a bit better for him, some things haven’t changed much. He is an industrious sort, so has put on a lot of miles collecting bottles and cans, turning them in for the deposit. But for now at least, he’s still not back in the work force.

So a few days back, I asked him if he was interested in Christmas breakfast again.
And what he added to my memory of the previous one almost broke my heart.
Although he knew we had planned on getting together for breakfast last Christmas, he really hadn’t expected me to show up. People hadn’t kept their promises before, so he didn’t expect me to either.
So when I showed up at the door of the shelter, asking for him, he was quite shocked.
It wasn’t anything personal, just how he had learned to deal with the downer of broken promises.

It looks like we’ll be able to do breakfast again this year.
I’m looking forward to it.
It may well be the best memory of this Christmas as well.

And I think that’s one good way to deal with that inner longing to rekindle the Christmas Spirit—find one kind, special thing to do for someone, and do it right.
That’s the kind of Christmas Spirit that should last all year.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Christmas--it's more than just gifts

November 27, put up my Christmas tree. 4 weeks until Christmas Day.
For some reason, every year I seem to entertain different emotions, ideas, insights, or whatever you might call them.
A couple years ago, I really got into the themes of Advent, and lots of memories of Christmases past.
Last year, not nearly so prolific on the musings.
This year has its own unique flavor.

Since I’ve been contemplating Kingdom principles on many different levels for months now, and with the whole Occupy Wall Street movement stirring up a new awareness of the emptiness and greed of capitalism, I’m really not looking too positively at the whole Buy, Buy, Buy thing.
And then today as I was letting the nearness of Christmas waft around my mind, I had a revelation.
For all of the push for buying wonderful gifts for everyone on your list, gift giving is really a small part of celebrating Christmas.
How long does it take to buy, wrap, mail, deliver, etc. the gifts? A fair amount of time.
How long does it take for the recipient to open them ? Mere moments.
And then it’s back to those things that Christmas really is about.
You wait forever it seems (at least it feels like forever when you are a kid) for that moment when you get to gather around the tree and open the gifts.
You wait weeks and weeks.
And in literally minutes it’s all over.
As a family, long ago we got in the habit of taking turns opening our gifts. That way we would actually get to watch each other open what we had bought for them.
But even then, it didn’t take 30 minutes for the party to come to a crashing end.
But the good thing is, for all of the $$$ spent on the gifts, Christmas is about so much more.
(And no, this isn’t a sermon about keeping Christ in Christmas. I may yet rain on that particular misguided and hypocritical parade, but not in this post.)

Whether you are a person of deep Christian faith or not, here are some of the things that make Christmas meaningful. Things that actually take up a lot more of your time and effort, and also end up meaning a lot more than the gift bags around the tree.
Music. Whether it’s a special concert, listening to the old traditional vinyl, singing the carols in church or on someone’s doorstep, music is a wonderful part of our Christmas celebrating. Bing Crosby still tugs at the heart, even though ‘White Christmas’ is now 70 years old. This is a genre where all ages can make music together.

Food. I don’t think I have to explain this one. But Christmas dinner isn’t the only time food and special company figure in our celebrations. Between the work Christmas party, the eggnog with friends, baking cookies, or the special meals for kids home for Christmas, there are many, many special moments spent over a special meal.

Lights, trees, decorations. We all have some special memories of a particular Christmas ornament. Maybe the one you made in Grade 1, but that one is probably the special one on your parent’s tree, not yours. And then after all the decorating is done, you get to sit and absorb that old, comfortable, traditional atmosphere. Crackling fire (even if it’s only on TV), hot apple cider, and a piece of that Christmas baking. And if you weren’t rushing around trying to get every last bit of shopping done, you could even enjoy the ambiance more.
Family. Sure, some of us aren’t quite so sure about the annual visit from Great Aunt Hildegarde, or maybe your Mom’s new ‘attachment’, but by and large, family is particularly important at Christmas. It’s one of those seasons when we usually think past the surface tension to the deep awareness that family is who will stick with you longer than anyone else.
Friends. If the family thing doesn’t work well for you (and there are certainly those who battle the most royally with their family members), we do tend to have friends. Probably a few very close ones. And those are the ones you hang out with whenever you can—and not just at Christmas. But we create special occasions at Christmas to celebrate those relationships. One of the strengths of these relationships is that they don’t require a fancy gift to prove their existence—a cup of hot chocolate is just as effective.
Spiritual. Nearly everyone has memories of some kind of inner experience connected with Christmas. It might be the Christmas Eve service at church. The choir. The kids. Or maybe the peace that settled down in your spirit along with the gently falling snow. Maybe it’s that when everything is done—the house decorated (inside and out), the baking done, the shopping done (including wrapping, mailing, etc.), the house cleaned, the turkey in the oven, and so on—then you pause and remember that Christmas is, after all, the story of God showing up on earth as a human. Bringing joy. Bringing peace. Bringing love.

Oh yes, love. Love keeps sneaking into all of our Christmas celebrating, if we let it.
The love within the family (at least some part of it!).
Love for your friends.
Love for the little kids that are a part of your life.
The love in giving gifts. And receiving them.
Loving good food, and good music, and beauty.

Lately I’ve been realizing that one of the greatest gifts that Jesus brought was the understanding that God isn’t some big, mean ogre.
If Jesus shows us what God is like, then God is the lovingest, mercifulest, kindest being you could ever, ever imagine.
And we get to experience that love, and pass it along.
Sure, a gift can demonstrate love.
But so can sharing a special time with a special friend over coffee and a cookie.
So can singing Christmas carols in the park with a gang of untrained, but exuberant voices.
So can sitting beside the tree with your dearly beloved.
So don’t get all hung up on the gift buying. Going into debt isn’t loving anyone except your bank, and they don’t tend to know how to deal much in the currency of love.
Instead of trying to fill everyone’s gift list, fill their love tank instead.
‘Cause really, they’ll spend a lot more time eating your baking and enjoying your company than they will opening your gift.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Justce vs. grace

I keep being reminded of the grace of God. The incredible, scandalous grace of God.
And then I hear a news story like the one I heard this morning. Here in BC, limited government budgets made Community Living BC close down several group homes for the developmentally disabled, and rearrange the care of needy individuals to a less costly model. Some of the people moved were forced to do so against their or their families will. And hundreds more who need help are still waiting.

And so, my ungracious little mind remembers one of the reasons we have financial issues here in BC.
Former Premier Gordon Campbell’s ‘legacy’—the 2010 Winter Olympics. Billions spent. And now it seems we are reaping the ‘benefits’.

Oh, I know you never have enough money to do everything that should be done.
And there are other great ways that money has been wasted.
And in some ways, the Olympics may have had some benefit. (Here are some of the reasons I didn’t support them.)
But as I think about justice, equality, fairness—all of those qualities that we are told are part of God’s character, and that we are to imitate—then I start being ungracious.
I start thinking of ways of bringing guys like Mr. Campbell to justice (or at least vengeance).
I’m not able to balance justice and grace, at least not in the same breath.

But God…
Somehow God is able to be Gracious,
and Just.
At the same time.
To the same person.
To me, and to you.
And even to guys like Mr. Campbell.

That is today’s mystery.

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