Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Church Etiquette

Dear Friends,

I’ll never forget the young guy who had stopped off on his way to our church to buy a breakfast burrito, sat down in a pew and scarfed it down during the worship songs. The odor of beef and onions cooked in lard became the liturgical incense that filled the church that morning. Then there was the woman who would come in, sit down and noisily kick off her shoes complaining to all around her that her feet hurt. Those same people had the manners to not complain back to her that her feet smelled. A young woman in her twenties, brought by her parents, would often wear very tight tee shirts and very, very revealing pairs of shorts that definitely upset the wives in the congregation but didn’t seem to upset the husbands.

For years the young married couple came to our church every Sunday. When the worship songs started, he began to play games on his phone. When the sermon started, he put his phone away and his wife took out hers and used Google to “fact-check” everything I said in the sermon. If I said that “Jesus was God,” she would come up to me after the service and school me on all of the sites she found that denied the deity of Jesus. 

I visited the church of a pastor friend one time where a woman took out her knitting as soon as the sermon started. I was wearing my clerical collar and on my own best behavior which was the only reason I didn't strangle her as the clickety-clank of the aluminum knitting needles reverberated in the sanctuary. For those of us in my generation, we remember a time that, no matter our behavior anywhere else, our manners in church were impeccable. 

After I recently came across The Gentleman’s Book of Etiquette And Manual Of Politeness published in 1875, I marveled at how much society has changed, just within my own lifetime. As I thought about the extraordinary changes in our churches, I realized that in this 1875 book, while the language is old-fashioned, much of it still describes the attitudes and behavior of people when I was young. You may, as I did, enjoy reading the chapter on Manners In Church:

It is not, in this book, a question, what you must believe, but how you must act. If your conscience permits you to visit other churches than your own, your first duty, whilst in them, is not to sneer or scoff at any of its forms, and to follow the service as closely as you can.

To remove your hat upon entering the edifice devoted to the worship of a Higher Power, is a sign of respect never to be omitted. Many men will omit in foreign churches this custom so expressive and touching, and by the omission make others believe them irreverent and foolish, even though they may act from mere thoughtlessness.

Enter with your thoughts fixed upon high and holy subjects, and your face will show your devotion, even if you are ignorant of the forms of that particular church.

If you are with a lady, in a Catholic church, offer her the holy water with your hand ungloved, for the church requires all the ceremonies to be performed with the bare hand.

Pass up the aisle with your companion until you reach the pew you are to occupy, then step before her, open the door, and hold it open while she enters the pew. Then follow her, closing the door after you. 

If others around you do not pay what you think a proper attention to the services, do not, by scornful glances or whispered remarks, notice their omissions. Strive, by your own devotion, to forget those near you.

You may offer a book or fan to a stranger near you, if unprovided themselves, whether they be young or old, lady or gentleman.

Remain kneeling as long as those around you do so. Do not, if your own devotion is not satisfied by your attitude, throw scornful glances upon those who remain seated, or merely bow their heads. Above all never sign to them, or speak, reminding them of the position most suitable for the service. Keep your own position, but do not think you have the right to dictate to others. I have heard young persons addressing, with words of reproach, old men, and lame ones, whose infirmities forbade them to kneel or stand in church, but who were as good Christians as their presumptuous advisers.

I know that it often is an effort to remain silent when those in another pew talk incessantly in a low tone or whisper, or sing in a loud tone, out of all time or tune, or read the wrong responses in a voice of thunder; but, while you carefully avoid such faults yourself, you must pass them over in others, without remark.

If, when abroad, you visit a church to see the pictures or monuments within its walls, and not for worship, choose the hours when there is no service being read. Even if you are alone, or merely with a guide, speak low, walk slowly, and keep an air of quiet respect in the edifice devoted to the service of God.

In church, as in every other position in life, the most unselfish man is the most perfect gentleman; so, if you wish to retain your position as a well-bred man, you will, in a crowded church, offer your seat to any lady, or old man, who may be standing.


In today’s culture of self-centeredness, rage, rudeness and “cancellation,” this 333 page Gentleman’s Book of Etiquette And Manual Of Politeness reminds us of a time when people read etiquette books in their personal quest to be more kind, thoughtful and considerate. We can laugh at the old-fashioned, out-of-date behavior in 1875 but think for a moment what society would be like if we had a 2023 Manual of Politeness for Ladies and Gentlemen that we actually followed today!

Wednesday, February 8, 2023

A 20 Second Prayer Life!

Dear Friends,

At the risk of offending my liberal progressive friends, I describe myself as a biological male (your gender nowadays is not how God created you but is based on how you “feel” about yourself) and I’m physically attracted to women. Always have been. Always will be. (Another dicey admission to make in these #MeToo days particularly if you already have one strike against you by being a white male). But that’s how God created us. Two biological genders attracted to each other and VoilĂ !; here we are today – 80 billion humans later. God’s plan obviously worked! But many decades ago, I was struggling, as so many Christian men do, with God’s gift of having a strong natural attraction toward women, but what the heck.. I’m not actually lusting; I’m only looking! Right? Then one day I came to a red light. 

I had stopped behind a white van and paid absolutely no attention to it because over to my right, an absolutely gorgeous woman in a very short skirt stepped off the sidewalk to cross the street. As my eyes followed her, she disappeared out of my sight when she walked in front of the white van. My vision started to sweep past that darn van in front of me so that I could see her as she continued to cross the street. My eyes froze. Centered high on the back of the van’s doors was a bumper sticker. White with a blue border. There was just one word in red letters. “JESUS.” At that very moment, I heard the still, small voice of the Lord, “Keep your eyes on Me.” I didn’t look at the woman. In fact I could barely breathe. 

Those words came at the very instant I saw the bumper sticker and didn’t come from my mind or my imagination. To those of us who are spiritually sensitive, God can whisper to our soul and we know that feeling or thought that we have is from Him. For the rest of us, who can be a little dense, God sometimes needs to give us a holy smack-down and do something so dramatic that He gets our attention and we know it’s Him. He most definitely got my attention. From that day to the present, when I find my eyes drawn toward an attractive woman, I look away and pray for them. For their family, their health, that they will come to know and love God, or if they already do, they will come to love Him even more and that they will experience His grace.

My prayer life changed at that red light. In my Evangelical Pentecostal church tradition, a “Prayer Warrior” who would pray fervently for extended periods of time every day – sometimes for many hours – was the coveted goal for those of us who admired these spiritual giants. And for me, especially as a pastor, I was embarrassed to admit that, when it came to sustained, fervent prayer, I was a spiritual midget. As little as ten minutes of prayer was even difficult. I’d pray for the needs of all those I knew and then simply ran out of things to say. 

After my “red light” experience, I had asked the Lord to show me how to keep my eyes on Him when attracted to a woman and was convicted in my spirit that I needed to pray for them. I soon began to pray for others I encountered during my day as well. I was also desiring to simply be with Him more on my day-to-day journey. 

We Protestant Christians are not taught and encouraged (like the Orthodox and Catholic) to live our life in God’s presence during our day. Even for highly-engaged Protestants, church service on Sunday, a short daily prayer for family and friends and we’re good. But more and more of us are tired of just being a “Sunday Christian” and hunger for living our days in the presence of God. We’re not sure how to do this since it’s not something normally taught in a Protestant church and some of us have even had pastors who scorned and discouraged any of the ancient devotional practices because they looked “too Catholic.”

The prayer practices of the ancient church drew His followers into the presence of God, and I found that as I would talk to God, worship Him and pray throughout my day, it was becoming easier and easier to keep my eyes on Him and walk in His presence. I pray the Orthodox Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me) and sing worship songs as I clean the horse corrals. I pray the Jesus Prayer working around the house. The sirens remind me to pray for the sick and injured who are in the ambulance driving past my house to the hospital. 

I wave a hello at Nacho my postal carrier and pray for him. I see my neighbor Heather across the street with her year old baby and pray for them. She’s a nurse and I pray for her health and safety. I pray for the Jimenez family next door who recently moved in. This morning I prayed for Mike, the normally upbeat checker at Smart & Final, because when I asked him how he was doing, he sounded down and depressed. My prayer list is in the “Google Keep” app that syncs to all my devices. If I know you personally, your name is in there along with pretty much everything you’ve ever asked me to pray about. Answered prayers have checkmarks – praise God for all the checkmarks! 

A Greek Prayer Rope – a “Komboskoini”– is in my pocket. Made of wool with fifty knots, the Orthodox use it while saying the Jesus Prayer much in the same way a Catholic uses a rosary. I don't use the prayer rope that way to “count” my prayers but keep it in my pocket because when my hand touches it, I’m reminded to pray. Before that, I carried a small smooth stone in my pocket that I’d found at Saint Andrew’s Abbey, that reminded me to pray and brought me into His presence when I touched it. Some people wear a special bracelet for the same reason. The cross I always wear is a constant reminder of His presence and His love for me. My phone plays the sound of a church bell at the ancient church prayer times of 6 am, Noon and 3 pm. I pray at the sound of the church bell. 

We were created to love God and live in His presence and the things we do during our day will draw us closer to Him, or keep us spiritually sluggish and stagnant, or pull us further away. Paul says to “pray without ceasing” and these short ten or twenty second prayers throughout my day keep me centered in Him – I’m keeping my eyes on Him.

Jesus keeps it simple for us pilgrims who are on this journey to a holy place. He gives us two commandments, “Love God and Love Others” Mark 12:30-31 Our prayers throughout our day to God and for others focus our worship on Him and fosters spiritual growth that brings about “theosis” – a process of transformation that helps us to be less like us and more like Jesus. 

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, “theosis” is union with God which starts with truly worshiping Him. Here’s why loving God was the Son’s first commandment: because without having a solid relationship with God and living in His presence, I’m spiritually impotent. If I have a feeble faith, I’d be out of God’s will for me, complacent with my sins, my prayers for you would have little effect or actually.. to be honest.. I probably wouldn’t be praying for you at all. 

But we would err by obeying only the first commandment to love God. We are not monastic hermits living in a mountain cave who direct their thoughts and prayers only on God and themselves. We also err with a militant focus on the second commandment to love others that’s encouraged in social justice churches which often produce strong activists but ambiguous Christians. 

Our faith is a well-balanced focus on 1) God and 2) Others. We must develop an ambidextrous prayer life, moving effortlessly from prayers that unite us with God, like the Jesus Prayer, to 20 second intercessory prayers for someone and back again. In this AMEN Corner you're reading about my personal prayer practices that I’ve gleaned from the ancient church and which may be unfamiliar to most Protestants. Look at what works for me -- this one imperfect pilgrim -- and if you think something might also work well for you, give it a try. As I study and learn, my prayer practices are ever evolving. Yours should too. Growth can only take place in change and I heard a cowboy pastor say one time, “if you ain’t changing you ain’t growing.” 

“..but grow in the grace and knowledge
of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. 
To Him be the glory, both now and forever. Amen”

2 Peter 3:18

☩   ☩   ☩

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Doest Thou Stinketh?

Dear Friends,

Every so often I’ll get an envelope in the mail that’s the size and shape of an invitation. The only thing on the envelope, other than my name and address, are these words printed in elegant script on the lower left hand corner: 

Free Cremation Offer ~Details Inside 

I’ve never read the details. I’m always too scared to open the envelope. Why am I being offered free cremation services? I feel okay, but their offer makes me suspicious because I’ve been wrong about my health before. Do they know something about my current state of being that I’m in denial about? I’m fearful they could be right. But then again, if I really was in immediate need of their cremation services, wouldn’t a loved one be telling me that I was starting to stink?

I don’t want what I’m about to say to sound harsh, so let me put this in Biblical language. Sometimes one of the most loving things a person can do for you is to tell you when thou doest stinketh!! Because even us best church-goin’ Christians can become a little odoriferous when we’ve stepped off the path of righteousness. When we mess up and something in our life starts to stink, we may need to hear what scripture calls a “fitly spoken word.” Proverbs 25:11 

May God give each one of us a loved one – family or friend – who is bold and loving enough to let us know when the smell of sin in our life becomes noticeable and to give us an opportunity to correct it before our stench becomes intolerable. Only an emotional masochist would actually enjoy hearing criticism about themselves, but a wise man or woman welcomes a word that gives them an opportunity for a needed correction. King Solomon said it like this: “Timely advice is lovely, like golden apples in a silver basket. To one who listens, valid criticism is like a gold earring or other gold jewelry.” Proverbs 25:11-12 NLT

Solomon likens valid criticism to a precious gift but that may be a difficult gift to deliver lovingly if the sinful behavior was directed towards us or affected us personally. When that happens, we can err in one of two directions. We can lash out in judgement or anger that either immediately closes the spirit of the person we are trying to reach or our harshness can escalate the issue into a hurtful argument. “Gentle words turn away anger but our harsh words make tempers flare up.” Proverbs 15:1 We all know how much worse we make things when we confront in anger.

We can also err when we turn away, get quiet, and withdraw. Our irritation/frustration/ annoyance at the other person is carefully packed away into that secret place where we stuff our anger and hurts. Each one of us has his/her own emotional cesspool, packed full of those things we don’t want to deal with, but those repressed feelings always seem to bubble back up to the surface and become “passive-aggressive anger.” And when a resentful, negative bitterness becomes hooked into our soul, we become sickened spiritually. Bitterness leads to unforgiveness and unforgiveness leads to the diminishment or loss of the relationship.

That’s why the Apostle Paul writes that mature believers should “speak the truth in love to each other in order that they may grow in every way more and more like Christ.” Ephesians 4:15 

When a loved one’s behavior begins to stink, we need to be truthful and tell them that. And we also need to gift-wrap our words in such a loving, Christ-like manner that they receive our fitly spoken words as the precious gift that they are. When truth is told and received in love, then both giver and receiver grow in every way emotionally and spiritually. 

Let our prayer today be that our loved ones will always lovingly tell us when our behavior doest stinketh. And even when we are wounded by the truth about our behavior, let us know that “faithful are the wounds of a friend.” Proverbs 27:6 

And then when we detect the smell of sin in the lives of family and friends, Lord give us the courage, boldness and Christ-like love to speak the truth in love to them that we may both grow together to be more like Christ.  Amen?

“Speak the truth in love to each other 
in order that they may grow in every way
more and more like Christ.”