Pointers for praying

Praying child graphic found via Google

I just read an article mentioning a Dordt College professor who was well known and loved for the way he opened each class with prayer. (The writer did not say who the professor was; I wonder if someone reading this knows.) He’d look at the students in the room with a big smile on his face, say “Let’s talk to God,” and then start praying a prayer like this:

Hi, God. What an awesome day you made today. The raindrops fed all the flowers, and the puddles are perfect for jumping in. Thanks for shady trees and yoyo strings. Thanks for giving us elbows so we could bend our arms in so many ways. How do you think of such cool things, Lord? Please watch over our friends who aren’t here today. The ones with runny noses, the ones who are feeling sad, and those who are far away. And, God, we’re sorry for hurting people’s feelings and not doing the stuff we’re supposed to do. Thanks for loving us even when we mess up. We love you, Lord. Amen.

What personal yet meaningful times of prayer for that college class! It turns out prayers do not have to be formal and loaded with thees and thous (though God certainly hears and answers those, too). Yes, knowing the person and work of the almighty God instills reverence within me, but reverence need not exclusively be expressed through formality. The God who created and rules the universe is the same God who wants to be friends with me.

Prayers do not need to be fancy. Just as I don’t always have to first rehearse and edit what I say to my loved ones (though that sometimes prevents me from blabbing something dumb!), God is happy when I stop what I’m doing, acknowledge his presence, and simply tell him about something great that’s happening or something that’s worrying me.

Prayers do not need to be perfect. God does not grade my prayers. All he asks is that they are heartfelt. And having an eye open to details and beauty around me doesn’t hurt either. Just as the Dordt professor thanked God for yoyos and elbows, I can thank God for everything from corn plants bursting through the soil and a friend’s last chemotherapy treatment to my favorite flavor of ice cream and for how I have opposable thumbs.

So please be careful with your comments when a person prays out loud. When you tell someone (a host at a meal, for example) they did a good job praying, you’re revealing that instead of praying with them in your heart, you were evaluating them. Or if you laugh when someone (a child, perhaps) prays for their sick cat, they may doubt the truth that God cares about every aspect of our lives, to say nothing about them becoming self-conscious and maybe refusing to pray aloud again. If you feel compelled to say something to the one who offered a prayer, a simple “Thank You” will suffice.

I wrote this column for this week’s Rock Valley Bee.
It was adapted from
a post on the CRC Network which also
lists several practical ways you can try praying.

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Talking together about creation

Grand Canyon photo found at Reader's Digest (rd.com)

Jesse and Maria are visiting the Grand Canyon for the first time. Both are Christians and marvel at God’s masterful work in the immense canyon.

Jesse sees within the beauty around him evidence that the earth is very old. He finds convincing the arguments that the various layers of the Grand Canyon together with the fossils contained therein suggest a slow, orderly deposit of rock and bones over millions of years. He cannot dismiss the radiometric dating analysis scientists have done which suggests the Grand Canyon could be up to 70 million years old. Instead of the result of a cataclysmic global flood several thousand years ago, Jesse sees within the grandeur of the canyon evidence that over a long period of time God carefully and beautifully “laid the earth’s foundations.”

Maria on the other hand takes in the same panoramic beauty and is increasingly convinced that God made the “basement” layers of rock on his third day of creating the universe when he said, “Let dry ground appear.” Maria finds compelling the evidence that the remaining layers were then deposited by the waters of a global flood in the days of Noah and the ark approximately 4,500 years ago. The beauty of the Grand Canyon is redemptive for Maria: Even though it was God’s judgment on sin (the flood) that created the chasm, over time it has become beautiful, reminding Maria of how God can heal the worst of circumstances.

Depending on your perspective, it’s tempting to write off either Jesse or Maria and their interpretations of science and scripture. We might label one as an out-of-touch conservative or the other as a truth-denying liberal. The fact is that both Jesse and Maria are representative of faithful Christians – including many scientists – who subscribe to the authority of the Bible while also taking seriously how God speaks through his creation. Some Bible-believing Christians defend the view that Genesis teaches God created everything in six 24-hour periods and then rested on the seventh day. Other Bible-believing Christians see within the opening chapters of Genesis elegant poetry refuting the false ancient religions that taught the universe was created haphazardly by many gods; therefore the “days” of creation do not need to be understood as 24-hour periods any more than one has to believe God is made of granite or quartzite because the psalmist declares God to be a rock (see Psalm 18).

It’s sad but true that Christians are often harsh and uncharitable when they disagree over matters of creation. However, it’s also true that both Jesse and Maria and all the Christians they represent are together Christ’s ambassadors on earth and will be together for eternity in the new heaven and earth. So it makes sense that, even if it means agreeing to disagree, we begin figuring out how to get along here and now! And it makes sense for both adults and students at school to examine and evaluate the various biblical and scientific perspectives on creation, not fearful of them, but eagerly expecting to grow in appreciating and understanding God and his creative work.

I wrote this column for this week’s Rock Valley Bee
where I noted that I find Deborah and Loren Haarsma’s book
Origins: Christian Perspectives on Creation, Evolution,
and Intelligent Design
helpful in thinking about this subject.

A different sort of king

Palm Sunday cross graphic found via Google

Probably to the surprise of some, Jesus does not arrive in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday riding on a stallion with guns blazing as people might have expected a king to do. Rather, as the church remembers this weekend, he enters on a colt. And his eyes are filled with tears, knowing the trial and death that awaits him. Jesus is a different sort of king than the people are expecting.

Jesus had sent his disciples ahead to fetch the colt and bring it to him. If anyone asked what they were doing with the animal, he instructed them to say the Lord needed it and would return it shortly. In those days kings would not have asked to borrow an animal; a powerful ruler would simply have taken it and added it to his stable. But Jesus is a different sort of king.

As Jesus rides the donkey into Jerusalem, a crowd gathers – ordinary citizens with their children waving palm branches and shouting “Hosanna!” It’s a word that means “Save us!” The crowds probably mean to say “Save us from the Romans occupying our land!” Jesus, however, has his eyes on a bigger enemy than Rome: He is entering Jerusalem to battle sin and death itself. Jesus is indeed a different sort of king.

Looking at the pieces of this story, I can’t help but wonder about the owner of the colt. Did they have any idea who the animal’s rider would be when they loaned it to the disciples?

It reminds me of a 19th century Sunday school teacher in Boston named Kimball who introduced a shoe clerk named Dwight L. Moody to Jesus Christ. Dwight L. Moody became a famous evangelist who influenced someone named Frederick B. Meyer to preach on college campuses. Meyer led someone named J. Wilbur Chapman to the Lord. Chapman, while working with the YMCA, arranged for Billy Sunday to come to Charlotte, North Carolina to attend revival meetings. This led to community leaders in Charlotte scheduling a second revival with someone named Mordecai Hamm. Under Hamm’s preaching, a young man named William gave his heart to Jesus Christ. You knew this man as Billy Graham, who preached to more people than anyone in history. I am certain that that 19th century Sunday School teacher in Boston had no idea what would happen from leading a shoe clerk to Christ.

It’s amazing what can happen when you and I welcome the Lord to work through our lives. I might think I’m just letting someone borrow a colt or that you’re just having a nice conversation with a shoe clerk. But don’t underestimate Jesus’ ability to take little things in life and use them for great purposes. He is ruler over all, yet he knows, loves, and guides you and me individually. What’s more, he had you and me in mind that day as he entered Jerusalem to conquer sin and death. Do you know any other rulers who relate to you like that?

As I said, Jesus is a different sort of king. He’s one worth worshiping this Palm Sunday.

I shared these thoughts in this week’s Rock Valley Bee.

Disturb Us

Somebody once asked me as their pastor not to make them uncomfortable in church. They didn’t want any surprises in the worship services or the church’s ministries. They were comfortable with routine and things remaining predictable.

On the one hand, I completely empathized. I don’t like surprises either. I’m not likely to embrace change when it sneaks up on me unexpectedly. When something comes of out left field, I’m more likely to put my guard up and resist it.

On the other hand, I could hardly keep from laughing. I’m very mistaken if I think I can always predict how God is going to work and what he might call me to do next. If I demand things always go the way I prefer, the way that keeps me comfortable, I’ll miss out on opportunities in which God desires to stretch and challenge me so that I can learn and grow.

I suspect there are many things with which God would like to see me be uncomfortable. His Spirit wants me to be uncomfortable with complacency in my walk with Jesus perhaps caused by getting stuck in ruts of routine. His Spirit wants me to be uncomfortable with the selfish things I do that strain my relationships with others. His Spirit wants me to be uncomfortable with the consumerism in our culture that would have me believe that buying more stuff will make me happy. His Spirit wants me to be uncomfortable with the racism in this country’s institutions as well as in my heart.

Comfort Zone quote found with Google

Recently I discovered this prayer attributed by some to Sir Francis Drake, the English sea captain of the 16th century. Through these words the Holy Spirit prompts me to become uncomfortable while he simultaneously reminds me of God’s presence – which is truly comforting.

Disturb us, Lord, when we are too well pleased with ourselves, when our dreams have come true because we have dreamed too little, when we arrive safely because we sailed too close to the shore.

Disturb us, Lord, when with the abundance of things we possess we have lost our thirst for the waters of life; having fallen in love with life, we have ceased to dream of eternity; and in our efforts to build a new earth, we have allowed our vision of the new heaven to dim.

Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly, to venture on wider seas where storms will show your mastery; where losing sight of land, we shall find the stars. We ask you to push back the horizons of our hopes, and to push us into the future in strength, courage, hope, and love.

I shared this in this week’s Rock Valley Bee.

Rare contentment in an epidemic of affluenza

Celebrating Thanksgiving Day? That’s traditional. Living thankfully year-round? Now that’s counter-cultural!

Our culture encourages you and me to want and grab more and more. It’s practically an economic virtue. Depending on who you ask and what you all include, you’re exposed to between 4,000 and 10,000 ads every day whether you’re looking at Snapchat or the logo on your shirt. Combined, all the advertisers in the US spend nearly $200 billion a year to get their products and services in your face. And while each one may offer something unique and even good and useful, together they give the same message: “You will not be content until you buy what we’re selling!”

Advertisers know that, in general, we have a lot of buying power, whether using our savings or racking up credit card debt. More than ever before, they know we have the ability to take them up on their offers. Yet, ironically, never before have people been so discontent. I think it’s crazy the whole phenomenon of Black Friday immediately following (even usurping) Thanksgiving Day. We pause to be thankful for what we have… only hours later to frantically grab for more!

Author Peter Schuurman refers to all this as “affluenza.” He writes: “We are sick. Sick not from some sort of deprivation, but rather from an excess, an overabundance.” In general, we have so much more than we need, but at the same time, our culture trains us to feel like we never have quite enough. To be thankful, to be content is rare in an epidemic of “affluenza.”

I receive the antidote for this sickness from a surprising source: A prison inmate languishing in jail. This inmate’s name is Paul and what he writes to the church in a city called Philippi is just as relevant to the people of Sioux County: “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” Even in the slammer, Paul experiences more freedom than a lot of people on the outside shackled to their discontent. He has a contentment that gives him joy even in the worst circumstances (like a cruel Roman jail).

What’s the secret? “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” Another way you could put it is like this: “I have everything in him who gives me strength.” Paul is so thankful for what Jesus has done for him: He is a forgiven child of God through Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection on the third day. Being blessed like this is better than anything else Paul’s world (or my world) can offer. No matter what happens to him, Paul knows God is with him and for him. That finally gives him contentment.

Contentment will not come from taking advantage of a Black Friday sale. There will always be something new to buy. I’ve learned that contentment comes from allowing the Holy Spirit to nurture within me the reality that Thanksgiving is not simply a day on the calendar but a lifestyle God invites me to experience in Jesus.

Thanksgiving graphic found via Google

I wrote this for this week’s Rock Valley Bee.
Of course, my Canadian readers will have celebrated
Thanksgiving Day back in October!

Contagious courage

While we were in British Columbia this summer, my 10-year-old son and I hiked the Abby Grind. The trail begins a mile from my parents’ house at the base of Sumas Mountain and climbs 1,200 feet in just over a mile, making for some good exercise. It didn’t take long before we started huffing! Near the three-quarter mark, we were both tempted to just turn around, but then we knew we’d miss out on theAbby Grind lookout spectacular view at the lookout. So we encouraged each other on and both made it to the top.

On the one hand, we both needed to hike the trail ourselves. We propelled ourselves onward with our own legs, muscles, and willpower. But on the other hand, we needed each other’s encouragement to keep going, to cheer each other on. We were also encouraged by other hikers coming down the trail reminding us that the effort was worth it.

With satisfied smiles, we scrambled up around the last corner and saw the Fraser Valley spread out below us and Washington State beyond. If it had been a bit clearer, we might even have seen the ocean. A little later as we descended back down the trail, we encouraged other hikers making their way up.

Life sometimes feels like a serious hike in which we often deal with aches and pain. Sometimes we feel alone with our doubts and fears and secret desire to drop out. One of the reasons I think God places us in a Christian community is so that we can cheer one another on. Author Lewis Smedes once observed that “nobody else can have courage for us. But behind individual acts of courage there is usually a community. Courage is contagious. It spreads when we get close to each other.”

I see a church community as a place to experience the contagiousness of courage. Surrounded by fellow hikers on the path, we hear and see people cheering us on while we in turn do the same for others. Sometimes I’m the one reminding you that the effort of being a loyal spouse, a dependable parent, or a hard worker is worth it; sometimes you’re the one encouraging me.

This goes for faith as well: Sometimes I encourage you in your walk with Jesus and sometimes it’s me who needs your encouragement. Are you part of a community where you encourage others and other encourage you? Consider joining a church gathering this Sunday.

Yes, it’s possible that I could’ve conquered the Abby Grind on my own. But hiking it together with someone was not only more fun but also boosted the courage in both of us.

I suspect there’s someone with whom you’re hiking through life who could use a boost from you today.

I wrote this for the Rock Valley Bee a couple weeks ago
but kept forgetting to post it here!

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My neighbor, the immigrant

I am an immigrant. I was born and raised in Canada but a religious worker visa allows me to currently live and work in the United States. My visa expires later this year so my family is working on becoming permanent residents of this great country.

My parents are immigrants. With their parents (my grandparents) they left the war-torn Netherlands soon after the end of World War II. My grandparents arrived in Canada with only a suitcase or two of belongings and began working for the farmers who sponsored them.

Perhaps it is because I am an immigrant and a son of immigrants that I watch with interest news that has to do with immigration, whether it has to do with deporting people who are here without proper documentation or creating barriers (literal and ideological) to keep foreigners out. I realize that not everyone advocating for these measures holds to a Christian worldview as I do; however, removing foreigners and turning away people who need our help should dismay those who follow Jesus and take the Bible seriously.

The Bible says, “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born.” In the New Testament, much of Jesus’ ministry is with “foreigners” – Samaritans and others rejected by the society of his day. And it is Jesus who says that when we feed the hungry, give those who are thirsting something to drink, and welcome in the stranger, it is as though we are doing these things to Jesus: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

I realize that immigration is a complex issue. I cannot condone breaking the law and it is prudent for a country to have secure borders. However, I believe it is possible for immigration laws to be both just and merciful, characterized by both common sense and compassion. More fundamentally, I believe that as a Christian, while I can recognize immigration as an issue, I am compelled to see immigrants themselves as my neighbors – people God has given me to love and perhaps whom he will use to bless me.

Immigration graphic found via Google

It turns out that in God’s eyes we are all immigrants regardless of the name of the country on our passports. According to God’s law, my sin should have expelled me from God’s presence. However, in Christ, God welcomes me into his family and makes me a citizen of a Kingdom that knows no geographical or political boundaries. Many of the Bible’s commands to help the fatherless, the widow, and foreigner have attached to them the reminder that God’s people were once foreigners – foreigners in Egypt, foreigners cut off by sin. But by grace, I am welcomed into God’s family and Kingdom. If I really “get” this, I will have a similar posture, one of hospitality and kindness, whether it’s toward my family or coworkers, my neighbor who has always lived down the street or the one who recently moved into town from another country.


This was my column in last week’s
Rock Valley Bee.
Websites and articles I’ve found helpful in thinking about this topic:
justice.crcna.org ::
evangelicalimmigrationtable.com ::
Think Christian: “A Theology of Immigration” ::
The Banner: “What Does It Mean to Love Your Neighbor?” ::
Relevant: “We Are Called to Serve Immigrants” ::