Unexpected blessings

May God bless you with discomfort
at easy answers, hard hearts, half-truths, and superficial relationships. May God bless you so that you may live from deep within your heart where God’s Spirit dwells.

May God bless you with anger
at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people. May God bless you so that you may work for justice, freedom, and peace.

May God bless you with tears
to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war. May God bless you so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and turn their pain into joy.

And may God bless you with enough foolishness
to believe that you can make a difference in this world, in your neighborhood, so that you will courageously try what you don’t think you can do, but, in Jesus Christ you’ll have all the strength necessary.

May God bless you to fearlessly speak out about injustice, unjust laws, corrupt politicians, unjust and cruel treatment of prisoners, and senseless wars, genocides, starvation, and poverty that is so pervasive.

May God bless you that you remember we are all called to continue God’s redemptive work of love and healing in God’s place, in and through God’s name, in God’s Spirit, continually creating and breathing new life and grace into everything and everyone we touch.

Graphic provided by agenerousgrace.com


Several times now in worship services at
Trinity CRC I’ve used and adapted this Franciscan blessing that asks God to bless us with discomfort, anger, tears, foolishness, and courage. Originally published in Troubadour: A Missionary Magazine, it now appears on many websites.

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God’s poems

This past week at Trinity CRC, Pastor Henry spoke from Ephesians 2 about how Jesus is the center of the Biblical story and desires to be the center of our life stories, too. The apostle Paul has a great line in this text – “We are God’s handiwork.” Retired CRC pastor Dale Vander Veen reminded me of how Paul’s words get even more powerful when you hear them as the first listeners to Paul’s letter heard them. Dale wrote this meditation last year and graciously welcomed me to share it here.

::– –::– –::

Authors and speakers often explain that “We are his handiwork” can be translated, actually transliterated (letter by letter), as “We are his poem,” noting that the Greek word is poiema. Checking numerous translations, I never saw “poem” used. I found God’s workmanship, Poiema graphic found with Googlemasterpiece, creation, accomplishment, work of art, product of his hand. Frequently the noun is rendered as a verb, i.e., “God made us what we are.”

I still like “We are his poem” because I admire the time and effort that poets expend in their creative process. William Cowper (1731-1800), best known for “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” and “Oh, for a Closer Walk with God,” wrote,

There is a pleasure in poetic pains
which only poets know.

My favorite poems are found in the Scriptures and the hymnal. Even those who have little affection for poems find solace and joy in the psalms. And hymns with the music removed become delightful poems. Some hymns have sprung spontaneously from the mind and pen of their composers. Many more have been written with great labor. The “poetic pain” behind Cowper’s hymns and many of the psalms was not the pain of finding the right word, but the pain of excruciating experiences.

Exactly what is a poem? Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) wrote,

Take a commonplace, clean it and polish it, light it so that it produces the same effect of youth and freshness and originality and spontaneity as it did originally, and you have done a poet’s job.

That is a pretty good description of God’s poetic work. He took me, a commonplace, and began the long task of cleaning, polishing, and lighting me. When eternity reveals his finished product, I will have all the youth, freshness, originality, and spontaneity of Adam and Eve at the dawn of creation.

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) wrote,

In poetry, you must love the words, the ideas and the images and rhythms with all your capacity to love anything at all.

God loves me with all his capacity to love anything at all, and so he is making me one of his poems. Amazing!

~

“A good poem is a contribution to reality.
The world is never the same
once a good poem has been added to it.
A good poem helps to change the shape
and significance of the universe.”
Dylan Thomas, “On Poetry”

~

…With the prayer that today, as one of God’s good poems, you will make a contribution to his world through the works he has prepared in advance for you to do.

One less plastic bag in the ocean

I just read about recent expeditions into the Mariana Trench in the northern Pacific Ocean, the deepest part of the world’s oceans. It’s about 7 miles down at its deepest. Reaching the bottom, the scientists’ cameras and traps both captured remarkable creatures God made that thrive in such a cold, dark, inhospitable environment, including tough amphipods (shrimplike crustaceans), intricate sea anemones, and transparent sea cucumbers.

A retired naval officer from Texas with a love for the oceans landed his submersible at the bottom of one part of the trench to meet shy marine life and see vast, untouched underwater landscapes.

Except, as it turns out, it wasn’t so untouched.

Within minutes of his submersible reaching the bottom of the trench, it found trash. The naval officer told reporters his cameras detected Graphic from Maclean's magazineplastic with writing on it. “It could have been a plastic bag,” he said.

That news, more than the fact that this naval officer had accomplished the deepest dive in human history or that his expedition had broken a slew of other records, made the headlines. How had garbage reached the deepest part of the ocean even before humans?

It actually doesn’t take as much as one might suspect. Like dirt in anyone’s home, junk collects at the lowest points. It’s simply a matter of gravity, and the trenches are as deep as it gets.

Humans are “made in God’s image to live in loving communion with our Maker. We are appointed earthkeepers and caretakers to tend the earth, enjoy it, and love our neighbors” (from “Our World Belongs to God”). Finding a plastic bag at the bottom of the ocean is an indicator we can do a better job of caring for God’s good creation as the Bible tells us to.

To care for creation, for the soil, water, and air God gives us, you and I can start small:

    • Use the city’s recycling bins to their full capacity and bring them to the curb every other week. Maybe we should even ask the city to switch the collection schedule so recycling gets picked up weekly and garbage every other week.
    • Use cleaning supplies with less harmful chemicals.
    • Turn off your car when you stop to run into a store or an office.
    • Plant a tree in your yard.
    • Use a refillable water bottle.
    • And, naturally, in light of the plastic at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, bring your own reusable cloth bags to the grocery store and everywhere else you shop.

These reflections appear in this week’s Rock Valley Bee.
I concluded with noting that I care for creation in a small way
by often biking to the office thereby using my car less.

Calls to prayer

Retired CRC Pastor Dale Vander Veen graciously welcomed
me to share with you these reflections he wrote.

Adherents of Islam are required to pray five times daily—at dawn, noon, afternoon, evening, and nightfall. Muezzins (criers) announce the prayer times from the minaret or tower of the mosque.

Our community is a rather quiet one compared to the almost incessant noises of large cities. Arriving home last night we did hear an automobile alarm. Almost daily we hear the arrival of the mail with the telltale hum of the USPS truck. We enjoy the susurration of the automatic sprinkler system. Yesterday we heard a radio and teenage conversation as a quartet of high schoolers sealed our deck. Occasionally we hear the plop of the newspaper on the front porch. The squeaky brakes of the trash truck and the unmuffled roar of the lawnmowers remind us what day of the week it is.

Why not consider those noises as calls to prayer—God’s very earthly and earthy muezzins? When I hear the sirens of an emergency vehicle, why not pray for the first-responders and those they are rushing to assist? When I hear the squeak of the trash and recycling trucks, why not pray for the driver and his family? I have heard those drivers step on the brakes over a thousand times in the last sixteen years and never thought of praying for them. How many other calls to prayer have I missed in my preoccupation with myself?

The disciples saw the crowds as hungry people to send away. Jesus saw them as hungry people to feed. Are the city noises signs of people to ignore or calls from God to pray?

Graphic found with Google

“When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion on them,
because they were harassed and helpless,
like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples,
‘The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.
Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore,
to send out workers into his harvest field.’”
~ Matthew 9:36-38 ~

Summer hospitality

Summer day graphic found with Google

The best days of summer are those you can spend outside with family and friends – not getting drenched in a thunderstorm downpour and not fleeing to somewhere with air conditioning in a heat advisory. This summer I hope to find numerous occasions and excuses to invite people over on a lovely summer evening.

Offering hospitality like that is not simply a nice thing to do. I understand it as a Biblical command for anyone who is in Christ: “Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.”

The trouble is, it’s easy for me to confuse hospitality with hosting. If I think I’m supposed to be a good host, then Martha Stewart is my role model. I want the house spotless. I want the lawn freshly mown. I want to take out the good dishes. I want to offer fancy hors d’oeuvres. I want the kids to be on their best behavior.

While there’s nothing necessarily wrong with any of those things, none are requirements for showing hospitality. Hospitality is first of an all an attitude. It’s the willingness to get to know people and have a heart tuned to welcoming others. This can be done in a messy house over coffee served in old, cracked mugs.

Hospitality, though, is not only about welcoming people I know. The original Latin underlying the word hospitality is hospes, which means stranger or even enemy. I believe Jesus calls me to show hospitality not only to family, friends, and neighbors up the street; he wants me to open my life and heart to strangers, to people I don’t know and might not even want to get to know. After all, Jesus showed grace to me by dying for me despite me being a sinner, being like an enemy to God. When it comes hospitality, Jesus is my role model.

How might the Spirit of Jesus be nudging you to extend hospitality this summer as he is with me? Use these examples to fire up your imagination:

    • Plan with others on your street a neighborhood BBQ, potluck, or game night.
    • Smile and say hello to people on the street and employees in the store.
    • Introduce yourself to someone who is of a different ethnicity than you.
    • Deliver a fruit or candy basket to new neighbors.
    • Invite a widow or widower out for coffee or over for a meal.
    • Offer to babysit for free.
    • Volunteer to be an ESL partner.
    • Talk to someone after a church service or at an event who is standing by themselves.

Like myself, people long for hospitality, to be welcomed and be known. It’s a gift I desire and a gift everyone (you and me included) can give regardless of how clean the house is.

These reflections appear in this week’s Rock Valley Bee.
I concluded with noting how we usually have ice cream in the freezer to share with anyone who happens to drop by our house!

Way more than twice

Delegates of Synod 2019 with new candidates for ordained ministryLast month I had the privilege of serving as a delegate from Classis Iakota to Synod 2019 of the Christian Reformed Church. We deliberated and decided on many matters including the funding of denominational ministries, responding better to allegations of abuse, rejecting kinism, and approving a biblical foundation for understanding human sexuality.

One discussion that especially held my interest was about worship. It had to do with these particular instructions in the CRC Church Order: “[Each] congregation shall assemble for worship, ordinarily twice on the Lord’s Day, to hear God’s Word, to receive the sacraments, to engage in praise and prayer, and to present gifts of gratitude” (article 51). Trinity CRC, where I serve as pastor, follows the wisdom of this Church Order article with our two services each Sunday in which we seek to glorify God and grow in our faith through the Word and Sacrament. Gathering twice on Sundays “reflect[s] the Biblical practice of morning and evening sacrifice and patterns developed in church history” (Synod 2019 Agenda, p. 509).

However, Trinity CRC is in the minority. Only about a third of CRC congregations hold two worship services on Sundays. So if the Church Order is meant to reflect church practices, the question was raised whether to remove the specific reference to “twice” in article 51. Synod delegates noted a number things, including the multiethnic nature of our denomination: Many congregations that aren’t predominantly Dutch hold midweek services or early morning prayer services. Moreover, “neither God’s Word nor the Reformed confessions mandate a second preaching service; in fact, the goals of rest and worship reflected in the confessions may be met in other ways than by attendance at a public worship service” (p. 511).

At the end of the day, the delegates to synod decided to remove the specific clause in article 51 about gathering twice on Sundays (the rest of article 51 will remain the same). However, we added this next sentence: “Each classis [regional group of congregations] shall affirm the rich tradition of assembling a second time on the Lord’s Day for worship, learning, prayer, and fellowship by encouraging churches to include these items as part of a strategic ministry plan for the building up of the body of Christ.” Essentially we said that if you’re not going to have a second service, look for ways include the benefits of this practice in your church’s other ministries.

Perhaps not surprisingly, reaching this decision came only after a fair amount of discussion. Some delegates affirmed that yes, we simply need to update the Church Order to align with current reality. I was impressed with a young adult representative, though, who spoke of the value in giving people multiple opportunities to worship and to fellowship together – that is, multiple opportunities for people to feel they belong. My favorite comment on the matter came from a delegate who lamented that the prevailing trend isn’t to change the Church Order to instruct congregations to gather three or four times each Sunday!

That got me thinking: It doesn’t matter what the CRC Church Order says, we are wired to worship God. As St. Augustine prayed, “You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You.” Worship is so much more than the one or two hours you spend in a church sanctuary on Sunday! If we leave a worship service on any given Sunday – even the second service – with the attitude that we can now check “worship” off our to-do list for another week, then the Church Order mandating 10 services per Sunday won’t help us!

The reality is that worship does not end with the blessing at the close of the service. Instead, gathering for worship services propels us into lives of worship all week long. As examples, we strive to do our best at work, and work with integrity and honesty as part of regularly honoring God; we recognize family members and friends as God’s gifts to us and we regularly thank God for them; we delight in the beauty of creation around us and are eager to regularly glorify God for it.

Only by grace do we gather for worship; only by grace are we compelled to live lives of worship. We worship not to get God’s attention, but because God has already given us His attention and we recognize His power and love in our lives and church despite our sins against Him and frequent gracelessness to one another. We worship God not in order that His blessings may flow to us; on Sundays and all week long, we praise God from whom all blessings have already and continue to flow for time and eternity.

See the July-August 2019 issue of The Banner
for lots of reporting on Synod 2019.

Conform or be transformed

Grad graphic found with GoogleThis is the “Perspectives” column I wrote for the
Rock Valley Bee. It is adapted from part of the graduation address I delivered to the 8th grade graduates at Rock Valley Christian School last week.

It’s gotta be tough being a kid in middle school. You want to be uniquely you, yet you don’t want be different and excluded. I see middle schoolers walking the tightrope of expressing themselves (pursuing their particular interests and talents) while simultaneously wanting to conform (looking more or less like everyone else).

The apostle Paul tells middle schoolers and adults, little kids and senior citizens: “Do not conform” – at least not to the pattern of this world. This quote from Romans 12 is part of the class verse the 8th graders at Rock Valley Christian School chose for their graduation. When I had the privilege to give the graduation address last week, I reminded everyone of the definition of the word conform: to behave in accordance with socially accepted standards.

Sometimes socially accepted standards stink.

Yes, there are many beautiful things and places and ideas throughout our culture, and I seek them out and recognize God’s grace in them. But there is also darkness and rebellion in the world. It comes in many forms: lipping off at your parents or yelling at your kids, cheating on a test or making a substandard product at work, being judgmental of someone, uttering a racist slur, violent computer games, filthy language, pornography, gossip, even gambling (with new opportunities to do so in the news lately). Don’t conform to this kind of garbage, Paul urges.

Instead of conforming, Paul invites me to be transformed. And this is critical for me to hear: Paul is not telling me that I have to transform myself; he is inviting me to be transformed –something Jesus does for and in me and you.

Author Marva Dawn in one of her books describes a little boy trying to pry open flower buds. With blossom after blossom falling apart in his hands, he asks his mom, “Why does the bud fall apart when I try to open it, but when God opens it the flower is beautiful?” His mom wisely answers: “When God opens it, he opens it from the inside.”

Through his Holy Spirit, God is working within me, changing me, making me a new creation in Christ. Yes, I can resist it. I can choose to conform more to the dark and rebellious patterns of the world than allow the holy and gracious God to transform me. I can insist on having my way. Or I can let God have his way in me which will be far more meaningful and filled with vitality.

The invitation is for you, too: God wants to transform all of us into the beautiful creatures God created us to be. We’ll discover that’s the best kind of unique anyone can be.