December 23, 2004

Remembering Anne

She's been gone from us almost a year now, yet the memory of her is strong today as I sit in my favorite spot in the coffee shop and think about what I want to write for this article. Christmas was always a special time for her. She would always treat us well. We always received a giant box or two of candy from her to nibble on as the cold Christmas days passed. There was also a bottle of cologne or perfume, or some other little token of her appreciation for you that would come around Christmas. The most favorite thing for me was the annual lunch at The House of Ing. It was always enjoyable to sit with a plate of whatever buffet offerings they made that day and listen to her stories about the past, about things she had done or experienced in her life.

Anne Fischell was a great lady. She was always prim and proper when she came to church. She dressed as best she could. She always wore a dress hat of some sort. And she always sat in the same place—way back in the far corner of the old church building. After just spending a few moments with her, anyone could come to realize that she was a feisty, yet classy lady who loved her family and loved her church. She reminded me a lot of my grandmother, who had that same sense of dignity and fire within her personality. Maybe that was just one of the things people picked up that had lived through the rough times in the 1930s and 1940s here in America.

One specific conversation with Anne will stand out far above the rest for me. One time I went with two of the elders to visit her. We were visiting members of the church then to ask them to increase their giving some as we headed into the building project for our current building. As we sat there and talked with Anne, she shared how she didn’t have much more to give, but that she would give a little more. As our conversation strayed from finances, she looked directly at me and said, "I don’t much like your guitar. I would much rather hear a piano and an organ. But, I see the younger people who are coming because of the music style we use at South, and I’m ok with it."

In her words there is much for us to learn. Anne saw past the idea that it's always what I want. For her, it was what is better for them, not me. She didn't have much more to give, especially on her fixed income, but she did. She was one of our most faithful givers. She didn’t so much like the music, but she appreciated it because it was pulling people towards God. She was always there every Sunday, dressed as best she could in respect for God, always encouraging us as we participated in worshipping our God.

As Christians, how often do we let our opinions get in the way of the bigger picture? How often do we think that we should have it the way we want? How often do we get frustrated and pouty when we don’t get our way? Anne lived out the life of Jesus the best she could. She did what she could for her family and her church. She loved those around her. She showed them she loved them and appreciated them by simple things like lunch and chocolates. She was faithful and honest.

As we look to a new year of life, may we learn from Anne and put the life of Jesus more into the living of our lives. May we think and live not for ourselves, but for those around us that God has called us to love—brothers and sisters, friends, neighbors, and our enemies. (Mark 9 & 10, Matthew 20, Luke 6)

November 15, 2004

Who Knew?

Christmas is less than two months away. Soon, most of you will begin doing the normal Christmas things-buying presents, listening to Christmas music, decorating, and possibly even baking and making holiday treats. The holiday spirit will be in full swing. Stores have been working to put you in this mindset already, putting out Christmas trinkets, decorations, and everything else the minute Halloween passed.

I wonder if Joseph and Mary felt a similar excitement and anticipation. They had both been visited by angels who told them that God is getting ready to do something great. As Mary's pregnancy drew to the end, I can't begin to understand how they dealt with it? I remember the emotion that was going through Steph and me as we were getting closer to Hannah's birth. How were Mary and Joseph's families handling it all? God had told them He was coming to earth through the birth of their baby. That was, and still would be, a big thing!

My mind has been chewing on these things since I read through the first part of Luke last week. Luke paints a glorious picture. There is anticipation of the coming baby within the expectant families, scores of angels proclaiming His birth to shepherds, wise men coming from a far because of what they had seen in the sky.

Through all the thinking, my mind always comes back to wondering how long after the birth of Jesus the excitement lasted. Was it like the letdown that always happens after all the presents are open and all the festivities are done. I can hardly imagine that it did. I can only think that the anticipation continued as Jesus did things like taking his first steps and saying his first words. I can see the wonder in the eyes of his parents, trying to figure out how the Son of God was going to reveal himself.

As you go through this holiday season, take time to revel in the coming of our savior in the form of a little baby--helpless and in need of the humanity that he's coming to save. And, when the holiday season is past, don't let the amazement that we have for our Lord to fade away like the spirit of Christmas.

October 29, 2004

Learn From The Pros. . .

There is a constant flow of Christian junk mail that goes across my desk. Everyone seems to have their own conference or convention that will give you the best advice for growing your church into what it should be--or so that is what they are trying to tell me. One piece of mail caught my attention today, partly because of the cool sliding paper window on the front and because one of their speakers is Rob Bell (a minister of Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids, MI)

As I was perusing the flyer, I was struck by a line on the fundraising page. It reads in bold letters, "Learn from the pros that have experienced enormous success." It probably wouldn't have caught my attention had I not just put down the book, Praying Like Jesus, by James Mulholland, that I am reading through. (Mulholland's book was written as a response or alternative to The Prayer of Jabez.)

The section of Muhlolland's book I was reading questions the validity of megachurches and where the focus of the present day church is. His suggestion to his readers is that we focus on the things that Jesus focused on--like helping the sick and poor, and getting those who have means to do the same thing. His words really have my mind in motion today.

I guess I question whether Jesus would ever have used such a flyer if he were alive today. Would he have a giant convention where everyone can come and learn how his success has come about? Would he have an award winning, best seller book? Would he be the pastor of a megachurch? What would it be focused on? I don't think he would.

Even more, if one were to be making a flyer for him to promote his ministry back then, I don't think they would say, "Learn from the pro that has experienced enormous success." I don't think one could look back at his ministry and say there was much success. Many questioned him. Only a few really followed and devoted their lives to him, and they deserted him at the end. He wasn't flashy. He did not have a giant support staff and a magnanamous building to minister out of. What few possessions he had were gambled for by some soldiers.

Why is the church trying to be such a glorious and large thing? Why do we strive to out do the world at their own game with "church business" and "marketing"? Why after all these years are we struggling with the simple?

Even more painful are my reflections on my ministry. What have I done to further the kingdom? How have the ministries that I oversee done good for the Body of Christ, and more importantly for those who are in need and hard to love?

It is a somber, reflective day in my mind. . .I'm glad it's raining outside.

October 20, 2004

He Did What?

It’s a funny thing. I’m sitting here at the computer at home trying to figure out what to write about for my Light article (church newsletter). At the same time, I’m watching the Yankees and the Red Sox battling it out in game 6 of the American League Championship Series. The only time I watch baseball is in October, and only then if it is teams I know or if it is interesting. As I sit here and stare at the screen, a runner from the Yankees bunted and ran to first base. As he neared the base, he knocked the ball out of the Red Sox pitcher’s hand as he tried to tag him. That is not allowed in baseball—otherwise known as cheating. After some confusion, arguing from both the coaches, and the fans throwing things onto the field, the Yankees’ runner was called out for interference. It gets better—as the game continues on, there are police in riot gear lining the field to control the fans and protect the players because the fans keep throwing things onto the field. All I can think about is Dorothy telling Toto, “We’re not in Kansas anymore!”

I would guess that some of you are like me, shaking your head in disgust for the actions and reactions being seen throughout the world of sports. Players are cheating the game by taking drugs to enhance their performance. Players are letting their anger show during the game and sometimes causing grave harm to those they are competing against. Even the fans are getting into the action—fans fighting fans, parents beating up umpires in little league games, and tonight, fans throwing things on the field.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking, remembering back to a time when sports had respect and etiquette. Some of you are probably even letting our little discussion here of sports spread outward to the rest of everything in our society right now and you are saying, “I remember days when there was respect and good within our country.” In today’s world, those times and actions seem so far away and forgotten. The world is getting better and better every day of being the world. I think all of you would agree.

Where we would come to a slight disagreement would be in how we as the church, or better put, the body of Christ, reacts to that statement. Some of you would push for us to all get in a time machine and go back this many or that many years. (If it could be done, I would love to go back to the late 1800s and live. Life seemed so much simpler and better organized back then.) But we can’t do that, so we must look to other things. Some of you might want to push Christian morals back into the world for the world’s sake. Yet, when the world pushes its values at the church, we despise it. The world reacts to our morals in the same way. What then shall we do?

In the scads and scads of reading I have done for my master’s thesis, I came across the following idea by Stanley Hauerwas: the first task of the church is not to make the world more just, but to make the world the world. For the world can only know it is the world through its contrast with the church that rightly knows the joy of worshipping the true God (“The Liturgical Shape of the Christian Life”, from Essentials of Christian Community, T. & T. Clark Publishers, Ltd., 1996, p.39). As the world gets better and better at being the world, are we as the church, the body of Christ getting better at being the Body of Christ? That is a hard question that calls for much prayer, humility, and honesty to answer.How are you growing as a Christian? How are you helping the church to be better at being the church? How are we being the example? Or, is the world taking our attention away and causing us to just sit and watch, like the baseball game that is now over.

In Matthew 13, Jesus shares a parable about the wheat and the weeds. Take some time right now and read the parable. Notice that the owner of the field, God, allows the wheat and the weeds to grow side by side until the harvest, when Jesus comes again. It’s not our job to pull out the weeds. It’s our job to live the best that we can being wheat—the body of Christ.

September 26, 2004

Theres A What?

Wednesday and Thursday this past week were bad days for me. Let me try to explain. We are adding another computer here at the church. All of the pieces parts were donated or scavaged from older computers that have past their prime. The only three things that were still needed were a monitor, a keyboard, and a mouse. Add to this the fact that I have been itching to buy a flat screen monitor for my desk for some time now. It’s been haunting me for over a year. The church’s need for another monitor seemed like a good excuse to me—or at least it helped squelch my guilt for the moment. So I bought one.

One must understand my shopping prowess that I’ve inherited somewhat from my father. When he buys something, he researches, reads, and price shops for months. I, on the other hand, drive to all the local shops that have what I’m looking for and see who has the best components and the best price. If you do it right, you can price shop from the church to Okemos and shop on your way back in a couple of hours. That is what I did on Wednesday. I came home with a nice 17 inch flat screen monitor that is very bright—a desired feature in flat screen monitors.

However, when I hooked it up that evening, it seemed a little fuzzy. I attributed this to the fact that it was much larger than my last monitor and my eyes were not adjusted to it. To make sure, I went to another store and purchased a second monitor. I planned to keep the one I liked best and return the other.

Now, one would think that buying one flat screen monitor is a dumb enough idea when it is not necessarily a necessity. I would hate to think what purchasing a second one would be considered, probably profound dumbness. Nonetheless, by Thursday afternoon my desk had two flat screen monitors sitting on it. (Just wait, it only gets better)

The decision of which monitor I liked better was an easy choice. My eyes had adjusted to the first one I purchased and I really liked some of the features it had better than monitor number 2. Plus, the second store had sold me the wrong monitor--it was supposed to have silver plastic instead of black plastic. So, I repacked the second monitor and headed back to the store. Keep in mind that I packed it back up the same way it came out. The bags that contained the wires weren’t even opened, because I had already used the wires from the first monitor. There wasn't even tape sealing the box! And off to the store I went to return it.

When I arrived at the store, I turned in my receipt and explained to the gentleman why I wanted to return my purchase. He said no problem, and then informed me of the 15% restocking fee. At that point my two days of purchasing and excitement came to a crashing halt. I was stuck. Had I known there was a restocking fee, I wouldn’t have purchased the second monitor. I really couldn't justify one monitor, let alone two. It was a bad few moments for me. I explained my situation to the manager—how if I had known there was a restocking fee I would have never purchased and how the monitor was still like it was when I purchased it. He wouldn’t budge. So, I left frustrated, angered, and a little bit poorer.

So what’s the point of all this rambling? Well, for one, don’t allow simple desires for something extra ordinary to get to your better judgment. Yeah, my monitor is great and the envy of the computer savvy. But, how did that further God’s kingdom? If anything, it gave me nothing but second guessing, anger, and frustration. Even more, I probably didn’t make the greatest of impressions for Christ while returning the second monitor. That’s what frustrates me the most. Some would say those are little things that you just cannot control. But the little things add up—like a 15% restocking fee.

I wonder what little things Jesus did that had a more grand impact. What impression was left with the little children that he was so eager to spend time with? How did those few moments change their lives? What impact did a meal here and there with those who weren't considered worthy to eat dinner with have? It's amazing how a not so good decision can bring the perspective of life back to where it needs to be.

September 21, 2004

The Blur

What day is it? Where did September go? It seems like only yesterday that summer was here and September was a distant spot in the future. Now, there are only a few weeks to October and fall. This has been the story of my life this year. It has been nothing but a blur.

At the beginning of the year, my ministry transitioned at South Lansing Christian Church. I took over the leadership of the 40 Days of Purpose program that we put on and stepped out of some responsibility with the youth program. Not to long after that, my wife and I had our first child, Hannah Grace.

Add my other ministry responsibilities to those two things and you have a blur. Towards the end of July, I was beginning to settle into everything. The summer traveling and camps were done. Hannah had been through the first round of teething. Life looked promisingly slower. Then, about a month ago, I found out I was shifting back in the thick of things with youth ministry because of finances and whatever other reasons.

It seems like all I've done this year is stop and catch my breath from everything going on. In the process, I realize that I'm not where I expected to be and I jump back into the blur. It has been a tiring existence. Don't get me wrong, it has been joy filled in many spots, but nonetheless, tiring.

There is a benefit to being caught in a blur. It is not as easily seen because of the fear, pain, uncertanty, and speed that are felt, but it is there hiding in the wind and what not blowing about your head. As I have went through the last year, I have come to realize that there is worth in some things, and and not worth in others. There are things to really care about and there are things that can wait a week to get to. I guess it is only logical that in the blur you must know what is important and what is not. I guess for me, my vision has gotten better this year because I've come to realize that there is much worth in such things as leaving unfinished work sit in the office to go home and play with my daughter. The time with her is quickly passing away even though she is only 8 months old. The work will get done the next day or the day after that, but I may not get to catch the joy in her eyes or the giggles she has today unless I am there. And, when I am in the office, or doing whatever it is that I do, I believe I'm more diligent just because the less time I spend there, the more time I spend with the things that I find more worth in.

August 19, 2004

Ego and Coffee

It is Olympic time in the world. All the nations of the world have sent their best athletes to compete against one another to know who is best this year in each specific sport. It has been exciting to watch and to take in the events. It was exciting to hear and see the international crowd that attended the opening ceremonies cheer in joy for the Iraqi athletes, knowing that in their coming to compete, there is a new found freedom for them. At the same time it was heartbreaking to see the arrogance and ego of many of our country's athletes as they entered into their competitions. Two that come to mind at the moment are Michael Phelps, the "I'm going to win 8 gold medals" swimmer who was humbled during his first two events. The other is our superstar basketball team that has "dominated" the last decade in basketball. Their ego swelled heads helped them to lose horribly to the team from Puerto Rico.

It makes me think and wonder why we as Americans are so egotistical and sure of ourselves. We might have right to be that way because we are really at the top of most things in the world. Yet, that really doesn't give us right. That should make us more humble, knowing that we have much to be thankful for. I guess that is what ego does to us—it blinds us from thankfulness and humility.

Today in the coffee shop I frequent, I saw the opposite of what I have seen on the Olympic coverage. Every so often as I sit, think, and work on the various things in my life of ministry, a guy brings three mentally and physically challenged people in for coffee. I don't know his or their stories, where they come from, whether they live in a group home, or what. But I do know that there is humility and thankfulness oozing out of them. The man who brings them looks as if he could be running a corporation or leading multitudes of people forward in business or whatever the "successful" thing is to be doing our "American" eyes. Yet, he brings these three people in for coffee. He gets their coffee and brings it to them as they sit around the tables. He talks with them as if they were best friends, sometimes looking through the newspaper with them and talking through the daily events. And they, in turn, treat him as if he were normal, just like them. There was such a peace here in the coffee shop when they were here. There was a sense of knowing that the world really is ok, that there are those bright spots of life in amidst our "ego" driven existence.

We who make up the body of Christ are called to live humble lives. I sometimes wonder if we do. Do we allow ourselves to get caught up in other things and lose sight of what we were called to be? In the last few moments of his life, Jesus took the time to wash his disciples’ feet, giving them yet another example of how to live. Then he gave his life for them—for you and for me. He calls us to live as he lived. What life are you living?

Lord, may we learn to live with much humility and thankfulness.

August 6, 2004

What Would You Do For A Klondike Bar?

I have the habit of reading the news on the internet rather than watching it on the television. It allows me to read what I want to read and steer away from that which I find unimportant and uninteresting, which in my opinion is most news anyway. Most of the time I find myself reading the "oddly enough" sections. These are stories that you would find morning radio personalities or late night talk shows talking about. They are National Inquirer type stories, only with truth.

The article that most caught my attention today was concerning a game show for Hispanics where the prize was the chance to get a green card.

Green Card Is Ultimate Prize on Hispanic TV Show

It seems that those who can eat the most worm filled burritos or whatever other Fear Factor-ish challenges the producers can come up with will get a year's worth of legal help towards attaining their green card for the USA. Now, for those of you not up on the worth of a green card to non-citizens of our country, you should take the time to watch the timeless Cheech classic, Born In East L.A. For those who want the shorter version, a green card gives an alien certain rights and status here in America. It is a necessary item to have if you are an alien in the US and you would like to legally have a job.

Now, my opinion of Fear Factor, Survivor, and all the other quarky spin offs that have come about in the last few years is one of loathing. You would never find me on one of those shows, no matter how much money I could win or the prestige I would receive. Nor would you find me wasting my time in front of the TV watching to see who can choke down the most bull testicles. The shows have no worth to me, and I pay no attention to them. (Though I will watch the mindless Most Extreme Challenge on Spike TV--I know, I know--hypocrite)

So why, you ask, have I spent so much time then, talking about this Hispanic show? I've wasted your time because of the prize. Forcing someone to do stupid things because they think they are going to get a certain amount of dollars and the prestige of being Fear Factor Champion doesn't get under my skin. However, when you raise people's hopes that they might get the opportunity to stay in the "Land of the Free" if they are the champion of gross and inhumane, I cannot not help but be disappointed.

I'm disappointed that the producers would stoop to such a level to get ratings and contestants. I'm disappointed that people would even entertain the idea of flaunting such a privileged item as a prize. I'm saddened by the fact that there is hope in the minds of the contestants that their lives might be improved by enduring such things. Most of all, I'm saddened by our willingness to be entertained by the suffering of others, albeit planned and wanted suffering.

Let me make a comparison. What if we only offer our salvation through a Fear Factor type church. What if you had to be the champion of the box full of spiders to get your eternal security? Unfortunately, I don't think that type of church would have the draw that the reality show in the article has. I don't think there would be people lining up to take a "controlled" risk for their salvation. Why is that? Maybe it's because we as Christians aren't treating our salvation with the respect and hope that we should. Maybe it's because the church doesn't radiate hope to the masses like America does to those who have nothing and want the "American Dream" bad enough to eat worm filled burritos.

Luckily, we don't have to do outrageous things for our salvation. Grace, hope, and love are freely given by our great and good God through his son. From that, death of the old life and birth of new life--living in the "kingdom of light"--happen. May we take our salvation seriously and not cheapen it through poor living and thinking. May we live the right lives in the "kingdom of light". May draw others to that kingdom of the grace, hope, and love of God in right ways that don't cheapen those we are drawing near or the kingdom we are drawing them to.

August 3, 2004

Looking Out, Looking In

I know, I know, blogging is probably a fad right now. My wife thinks it is crazy--writing one's thoughts into webland for all to read. I think it is intriguing. Lately I've taken to reading blogs of both friends and strangers. Interestingly, most of the friends are like strangers, since I have not seen or talked to most of them in ages. Whether friend or stranger, you never really know what you are going to find as you pull back the curtain and peer into their lives and thoughts. I figure if I'm taking the priviledge of peering into the minds of others, I should allow them to look back.