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Sunday, August 9, 2015

Pray Amidst Activity

Finish this sentence. “The first thing that I think when I wake is …” For some, words that conclude the sentence are: What time is it? For others: What do I have to do today? Still, others have no words, but a desire for coffee or more sleep.
When I wake, the first thing that I think is God. Prayer comes to mind when I wake. I do not recite a creed or a formal prayer, but internally speak to God. Speaking and listening to God is my prayer. Then, I get out of bed; make the coffee, check my email and sit down to write, read or pray with intention.
Later in the morning, Cindy and I walk Travis and Pepper around the Tinley Park Recreation Center. On our way, we pass Faith Christian Reformed Church, where Pastor Mark Timmer changes the phrase on the marquee. Recently, it read: Prayer is a conversation with your best friend. Quite true. Prayer is an intimate conversation with a best friend.
Regarding what happens during prayer, someone once replied to St. John Vianney, “I look at Him and He looks at me.” Only those who are intimate with one another will feel comfortable with such mutual gazing. I would feel uncomfortable if a person on the subway or bus looked at me this way. It would be a stare or a gawk accompanied by an uncomfortable feeling. Not so with God. With Him, I am most intimate.
Cindy and I share this intimacy with God as we begin each morning with a few pages from Christian Prayer: The Liturgy of the Hours. We read aloud psalms, canticles and prayers. We repeat our morning practice in the evening and before we retire to bed.
The Liturgy of the Hours is Christianity’s earliest form of public worship. Christians celebrate the Liturgy of the Hours under various names. Eastern Christians recite the Horologion or Book of Hours. Anglicans pray from the book of Daily Prayer of Common Worship and the Book of Common Prayer. Lutherans find their prayer in the liturgical books used by their various church bodies, as does every denomination.
When I asked Cindy what she likes about our new practice of prayer, she replied, “The routine.” There is something about a routine, method, practice or ritual that stays with us. There is a certain comfort when we can recite a prayer or passage by heart. To attain that mutual gaze with an intimate friend, we begin by practicing ritual or a routine prayer method.
Except for an occasional mispronunciation of a word or reading over the other’s part, reciting Christian Prayer is also a pleasant quiet time for the two of us. Because we recite our prayer in the family room, the other members of our family participate in less spiritual activities. Travis, our photogenic Golden Retriever, and Pepper, our adorable mixed breed rescue dog, often choose their playtime to coincide with our prayer time.
There are moments when Cindy and I interrupt our prayer and end the dogs’ frivolity, but experience has taught us they quickly exhaust themselves, or that Buddie, our rodent-killing cat, who can no longer tolerate the racket, will end playtime by wailing and swatting each dog with a sharp paw.
What this means is that we must pray amidst activity. Our microcosm of spiritual experience teaches us that we cannot control all the activity around us, and often must trust that in God’s time, the commotion must stop.
Decades ago, I learned that an infant crying during the service will soon stop or that one of the parents will take the child out of earshot. If not, I tuned out the distraction and tuned into our devotion. Whenever Christians take time for individual or gather for communal prayer, there will always be distractions around us that we cannot stop. People will engage in vice and violence – gossip, infidelity, abortion and an array of abusive behavior towards others and themselves. Parents and caregivers will neglect their children and the elderly. Nations will war on other nations and oppress their own people. Nature will produce hailstorms and heatwaves, blizzards and earthquakes. We must continue to pray through distractions – dog-fights and cosmic disasters.
Jesus gave his peace to his disciples and encouraged them with these words: “Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”[1] In God’s time, all distractions will end. At the appropriate time, God will direct us to deal with people’s vices and violence, abuse and oppression. Until then, we pray amidst activity.

[1] John 14:27

Friday, July 31, 2015



I have been giving considerable thought to fraternity for the last few weeks. My older brother recently turned 60, and my younger brother recently was hospitalized with a serious case of pneumonia complicated by a lung infection. During this time, he survived an NDE (near death experience).

When I learned how serious his condition was, I began to ponder what I would say if he had not survived. I began to ponder what I would say in a sermon. Ponderous thoughts.

Ponderous thoughts balanced by humorous stories. People often said to me, “You and your brothers are so much alike. You look alike and even sound alike.” My response was always, “I hope so. We have the same parents.” We all enjoyed a brief moment of levity.

Dictionaries offer several definitions for the word, brother, including one who shares a common ancestry, allegiance, character, or purpose with another. A member of a fraternity, trade union, or panel of judges on a court constitutes one’s brother. We use the word in religious and ethnic settings, and sometimes utter it to express exasperation. The primary definition, however, is a male who has the same parents as another or one parent in common with another. The word comes to us from about the 12th century. The Old English word was broþor, from Proto-Germanic brothar. The Romans and Greeks spoke the words frater and phrátēr.

Ancient literature is replete with stories of brothers. Egyptians had Anpu and Bata, and the Romans, Romulus and Remus. Antigone is Sophocles’ tragedy about the brothers Eteocles and Polynices. Israel offers three tales in Genesis: Cain and Abel, Esau and Jacob, and Joseph and his brothers, followed by Exodus’ Moses and Aaron. In addition to Andrew and Simon, and the sons of Zebedee, James and John, Jesus’ close disciples, Martha and Mary had a brother named Lazarus.

Famous brothers include the Wright, Kennedy, Grimm, Marx and Sullivan. Christian tradition offers us Cosmas and Damian, Cyril and Methodius among others.

What establish us as brothers are not only our common parents, but also our shared experiences within that particular family. Like other siblings, we experienced certain customs, traditions, celebrations and tragedies, but only in the way our family could. We remember what it was like to open presents on Christmas morning in our pajamas. Our later Christmases were marked by attending Mass at St. John’s, mom cooking breakfast, breaking oplatki and exchanging gifts before visiting aunts and cousins in the afternoon. We remember what it was like to play football with our dad and ride in the back of his Chevy pickup to a baseball game, buy baseball cards and chocolate pop at Shaffer’s Market, listen to Polkas on the weekend, and dance the Polonaise with the Krakowiaki at the PNA. And to think my father preserved these historic family moments on his Bell and Howell 8 mm camera.

When dad was healing from surgery on his varicose veins, he read his Douay-Rheims Bible. Ecclesiastes 3 begins, “All things have their season, and in their times all things pass under heaven. A time to be born and a time to die. A time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted.” We remember planting, weeding, harvesting and canning tomatoes and peppers. We remember celebrating First Communions, Confirmations and graduations, our parents 25th and 50th Wedding Anniversaries, our grandfather’s funeral, and our cousins’ weddings. As adults, we remember our father’s sudden death and mom’s extended, painful struggle with amyloidosis and multiple myeloma.

Our parents are now gone, but our relationship has not changed dramatically. Although we live hundreds of miles apart, we maintain regular contact via phone, skype and text. We celebrate one another’s successes and comfort one another in sickness or sadness. Ours is a unique fraternity for we are bonded closer than most siblings are. I know this because of the feedback from in-laws and others.

I have renewed my efforts to call my brothers once a week. We share news about our gardens, trips or meeting someone from Monaca at a gas station in Arkansas. I sometimes have a question about electrical wiring or a chemical compound. There are other times when we mail one another cards or hand-written letters. My older brother sends me Coca-Cola bottle tops and newspaper articles. Most often, we close our conversations and letters expressing our love and prayers for one another.

It would be very easy to slip into a routine relationship with my brothers. What keeps me from slipping is experience. Throughout my decades in pastoral ministry, life revealed to me many ordinary, unimpressive, distant sibling relationships. I see these at funerals where the living express regret for not spending enough time with the dead. When I would ask family members to share memories, these siblings do not share anything beyond childhood or anything at all because they do not foster fraternal or familial relationships.

With God’s gracious aid, I am certain that we will have fraternal memories to share with others. I am comfortable with my brothers sharing anything embarrassing or enlightening stories about my life. The Good Lord knows that there are more embarrassing than enlightening moments to share.

I blog to share my thoughts and insights regarding Scripture or ministry. Most of my blogs are my sermons or Sunday school lessons. My audience knows that I often end with a few challenging questions to consider. I call them life applications. So, here goes. When did I last call or write my siblings? Call them as soon as you finish reading this paragraph. Share some news with them. Ask about their lives, the people in their lives, their interests or illnesses. Express sorrow, joy, gratitude and love. For this, you will have no regret.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Meet Insurmountable Challenges with Undaunted Courage

“I felt strong when they told me that Jesus loves me,” states Delfin Villegas. The first time he felt like this was in 2002, when a pastor came to his house and showed him the Bible.
 Although his wife was Christian, Delfin was not. He was an alcoholic, like many men in his culture. But at the moment when a group of Christians told him that Jesus loves him, “God touched my heart.” That moment started a long journey that took him not only into the church, but also into church planting. Using the material provided by Multiplication NetworkMinistries, church leaders taught Delfin and others how to become church planters in the rural villages of the Amazonian rainforest of Ecuador.
He has worked as a church planter for eight years. We see the fruit of his labor not only in the expanded worship area, but also in the hearts of the people God touches through him. Alcoholism and marital infidelity are prevalent among the people. Many families are dysfunctional. Delfin meets insurmountable challenges with undaunted courage. He visits families in their homes to tell the parents how families should live. He invites them to become part of the church for the church can help. He is living proof.
The father of three, Delfin introduced to us his wife, Janelle, and two of their three children, Elvis and Ingrid. The oldest, Wellington, is 17 and in school this morning. As Delfin looks at his family and his extended family gathered with him today, we know he is sincere when he tells us, “I look for Christ in the heart.”
We distribute Bibles to the children and listen to them sing, and know that God touched their hearts as He touched Delfin’s. As we bid farewell, we know God used Multiplication Network Ministries to build a new outpost of His Kingdom in the Amazonian rainforest.

Monday, July 27, 2015

From Shrunken Heads to Expansive Hearts

Six hours southeast of Quito in the tropical rainforest between the upper mountains of the Andes and the savannas of the Amazonian lowlands, lay a series of split and rotted planks leading to a concrete slab. A primitive wood plank barn roofed with corrugated steel stands on the slab. Doorless, windowless and void of electricity, this is Jose’s church. Jose leads worship for a group of Shuar people, 90 minutes outside of Puyo.

Interior View of Shuar Church
 The Shuar people are an indigenous people of Ecuador and Peru. They are Amazonian tribes living at the headwaters of the Marañón River.  Shuar, in their language, means "people." While Westerners may not know the Shuar people by name, we know them by reputation – and their former practice of shrinking human heads. We saw their work the previous afternoon, but tonight we were not afraid.

The Shuar people abandoned the practice of shrinking heads as well as tribal warfare and polygamy at the end of the 19th century. They live peacefully in small communities, raising cattle and serving honorably in the Ecuadoran military.

Church Planter Jose
On this night, Jose and a gathering of 50 Christians, welcome Multiplication Network Ministries to their church to praise and worship our Triune God. By candlelight, we sang, prayed and encouraged one another before tasting fire-roasted chicken, cassava and corn served on a palm leaf. For this evening, we thank our hosts, Pastor Jaime Ledesma of Iglesia Bautista Kairos, and our gracious God for guiding us safely to and from another Kingdom outpost made possible by the work offered through MultiplicationNetwork Ministries.
Receiving their first Bibles