A Thanksgiving Prayer

Lord,

This is a messed up world we’re living in.

It’s so messed up that if I told you all of the things that are wrong, we’d be here all night.    Anyway, you know all of the wrong things.

You know about disease, you know about evil, you know about violence, you know about corruption.    It seems like there’s a lot more of it this year than normal.

God, what’s up with that?   Why do things seem so bad right now?

What are you trying to teach us?   And why is it so hard for us to learn?

As those of us in America gather for Thanksgiving tomorrow, help us to be really truly thankful.    Thankful for what matters.

Thankful for the ability to love.

Thankful for the ability to care.

Thankful for the ability to make a difference.

Thankful for the opportunity to sit with someone who is hurting.

Thankful for brothers – even when they drive you nuts.

Thankful for sisters – even if they can occasionally go all DQ on you.

Thankful for parents.   For what they have taught, how they have lived and the difference they have made.  

Thankful for being able to look beyond.   Beyond ourselves and into the world around us – and to reach out and do something to make the world a better place for someone there.

Thankful for small steps forward.   Thankful for small and large signs of Your grace.

God, it’s hard to be thankful when so many things seem so bad right now.    Help us to be thankful for you and the fact that even though we don’t know the answers, we know the One who knows the answers.

Help us to be thankful for the things that really matter.   

And help us to bring those things that really matter to a world that is too focused on evil, too focused on the “things” and not enough on the people.

In your name,

Amen

Ferguson, Michael Brown and Now What?

Random thoughts this morning about what is going on and what it might mean……..

First, I don’t know any concrete details in terms of what happened or who did what in Ferguson.    So I’m not going to attempt to express opinions on any of the details on who did what, was it valid, was there a better outcome.   I don’t know.

But I do know that there is substantial evidence that throughout our country that there are significant differences between how people of color are treated compared to white people.

A white teenager wearing a hoodie with headphones in walks into a convenience store shortly before midnight.    No one thinks twice.

A black teenager wearing a hoodie with headphones in walks into a convenience store shortly before midnight.    The clerk puts his hand on the “emergency” button and the other patrons leave as quickly as possible. 

A white man is pulled over for speeding.   After review of registration, insurance and license, he’s given a ticket and sent on his way.

A black man is pulled over for speeding.   After a review of the same documents, the police officer asks the speeder to step out of the car and runs a variety of tests to determine potential alcohol content and examines the inside of the car in more detail.

Does this happen all of the time?   Absolutely not.    But what Ferguson does show is that this is an ongoing problem and it’s a problem that is probably more wide spread than those “in power” would like to admit.

So what does it all mean?    Let me throw a couple of ideas out there:

  • Parents need to have conversations with their children about the importance of treating everyone the same and not drawing conclusions based on race, based on color, based on the type of clothes someone is wearing.
  • Parents of black children, especially black boys, especially teenage black boys, have to have more detailed and unfair conversations with them.   Conversations with them about how they need to hold themselves to a higher standard.   Conversations about how people will draw conclusions about them based on how they dress – and they almost certainly won’t be positive conclusions.   Conversations about how a  black 14 year old with an airsoft gun will be perceived significantly differently if that 14 year old is white.
  • Churches need to be more awake and communicative about the message they send to their community.    Is it a message of inclusion no matter what color, what style of clothes or what music someone listens to?   Or is it a message of exclusivity  – if you aren’t white and you don’t drive a nice car, well………
  • The government – first, I want to say that I have the utmost respect for those who are police and keep our streets safe.     They have to make instant decisions and they put their lives on the line for us every day.   But I think it’s obvious that our government has some work to do yet on training and teaching their people how to make the right decisions and to do it in a more racially equal way.

I’ve read a number of reports that have said that white people who don’t have black friends feel that racism is not a problem.    White people who have black friends feel that racism is still an issue.    Black people feel that racism is still an issue.    In other words, if you don’t see it or experience it, then you don’t know it’s still there.    Not saying that is the fault of the white people who don’t have black friends (though it might be for some).   It’s just the way that it is rightMartin Luther King Jr. now.

And it’s not acceptable.   It shouldn’t be acceptable to the church, it shouldn’t be acceptable to the schools, it shouldn’t be acceptable to the government.

One other thought – why are people burning and looting and being violent in Ferguson?    I’m sure there are some of them who are doing it just to cause trouble.   But what about most of them?

It’s because they have lost faith in “their” government to keep them safe.   They have lost faith in “their” government to protect their “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”    They have lost faith in “their” government to protect “freedom” of speech.  

We need to make changes to restore their faith in our system and our country.

Because Ferguson is more than just the case of what happened to one police officer and one teenager.    Ferguson is the story of what is hidden under a lot of American life.

And what’s hidden underneath is not pretty.

Tom

Let’s Go To Church!

Psalm 122:1 “I rejoiced with those who said to me, ‘Let us go up to the house of the Lord.’”

How often can you  say that?   How often can you say that you are really happy, really joy-filled to go to church?

Because that’s what the Psalmist is saying.   Be joy-filled that you  get to go to church.    I expect that not nearly enough of us truly behave that way.   And that’s a sad commentary on the state of our society and the state of our church.St_Elizabeth_Church_2

What does it mean and what do we do about it?

The state of society – a lack of being joy filled about going to church is a symptom of a couple of things in regards to the state of our society:

  • We’re too focused on keeping up with the “Jones.”   You know, the ones with the perfect lawn, the spotlessly clean cars, the appearance of absolutely calm and joy in the house (notice I said appearance.)  Trying to keep up with them is a no-win proposition.
  • We’re too busy.    Church becomes one more thing to cross off the to do list.
  • Our world has become so digital and so small that we have the ability to listen to worship services from all over the world and our brains are being programmed to have an attention span of less than 5 minutes.

The state of the church – the lack of joy about going to church is a symptom of what is going on in today’s church.

  • The search for realism and authenticity – especially the really big churches, the mega churches, but many others as well have fallen into the pattern of creating concerts rather than worship services.    Too many times, there’s too much of a focus on lights, sound, performances than there is meaningful conversation with God.    There’s too many difficult things going on this world and we need more realism, more authenticity and less performance and “fluff.”
  • The state of preaching in the church.    Too often, ministers are expected to do a lot of things – so many things that they aren’t able to spend enough time and enough mental energy focusing on what God wants us to hear from that particular passage and how they can lead the church from the pulpit in the way God wants us to go.
  • A lack of a personal relationship with God.   Most people, if surveyed, would say that they believe “in” God.  A lot smaller portion would say that they have a deep personal relationship with God.    Churches and the staff and Elders of a church need to work and develop a personal relationship between their congregation and God.

So what do we do to make people more joy-filled to go to to the House of the Lord:

  • Make it real.   Church needs to be authentic, real, struggle filled and helpful for the daily walk of its members.
  • Make it truth.    The Bible is not always an  easy book to read and follow – but the preachers need to “unpack” what God says, explain it clearly and apply it to our lives.    And this takes time and work.
  • Make it personal – church is not about going to a concert.   It’s not about listening to someone else singing or someone else performing.    It’s about you and God.    It’s about me and God.

When we have that, we’ll find ourselves much more likely to be joy filled when it’s time go to church.

Tom Vanderwell

Psalm 121 and Winston Churchill

Psalm 121:7- 8 say:  “God guards you from every evil he guards your very life.  He guards you when you leave and when you return,

he guards you now, he guards you always.”

But how do you square that with the evil that goes on in the world?

How do you balance what that says with what ISIS does?

How do you square what that says with genocide and germ warfare?

How do react to the evil in the world in light of Psalm 121:7 and 8?

There’s a big variation between the two.   On the one hand, God says He will guard you and keep you save.   Always.

On the other hand, there is much evil in this world…….

A couple of thoughts on that dissonance.

Winston Churchill said, referring to Russia, “It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”    We just don’t know all of the facts, so Winston Churchillit’s not possible for us to truly grasp the inherent squabble between what God says and what we see on a daily basis.

I believe that many people (present company included at times) tend to assume that these type of Bible verses refer to “here on earth.”

God doesn’t promise that he will keep us from every evil here on earth.    But he does promise that he will guard our lives.  Does that mean he promises that everything on earth will be smooth?   Not a chance.

But our spiritual life, our glorified body and soul, those he will guard.   So, while evil is happening here, God is guarding us so that our survival, our making it to heaven, is not in doubt.

We know how the story ends.    We know that it has a happy ending (literally living happily ever after) but we don’t know what evil will sneak in and make life difficult for us in the mean time.

Rest in the fact that God will guard your life – now and forever.

Tom

“A Church”–When Things Don’t Go According to Plan

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about “a church.”   Not a particular one but the individual gathering of believers that usually meet at __________.   They are smaller than “The Church” which is the entire body of believers spread all over the world.

What happens when people screw up in a church?   What happens when things don’t go the way it was planned?   How do the Christians inside that group of believers respond?    How does the “ship” get rerouted back into the direction that God wants the church to go?ship in rough waters

When it becomes obvious to the leadership of the church that something isn’t going in the right direction, the first thing that the leadership should do is ask God.

Ask God for guidance – for the ability to determine what His plan is.

And then ask God for grace – because solving problems anywhere is traumatic, but especially in church.

Then the leadership needs to make a couple of decisions:

  • Is this a problem because of only a few people’s opinions or is it a wide spread problem?   In either case, the problem needs to be dealt with but how wide spread the problem is has a big impact on how it is dealt with.    Not every gathering of Christians is the right one for every person.   My parents attend a church that is a great church but would not be a good church for my family.   We have different needs, different desires and need a different church to help us grow.
  • If the problem is indeed widespread, then the leadership of the church needs to attempt to define the problem in relation to what God’s plan is for that church.   This will take many “problems” and turn them into minor ones.   The color of carpet in the sanctuary, the number  of songs that are sung out of the hymnal – those are two examples of “problems” that aren’t significant in God’s plan for that church.    As long as they are being faithful to God’s plan, it doesn’t matter what color the carpet is.

So, the leaders, the spiritual leaders of that church, have decided that the problem is a significant one and it is one that is impacting their ability to follow God’s plan for that church, then what?  A couple of ideas:

  • Define ways to fix the problem.   In order to fix _________ we need to do _______________ and _________________ and __________________.
  • Determine if the leaders and the staff are willing to work together on fixing the problem.
  • Take the necessary steps to move forward, implement a plan and begin turning the boat around and moving in the direction God wants it to go.

Recently attended Madison Square Church in Grand Rapids, their Senior Pastor, Dave Beelen, was reminiscing back on his 30 years there (they are celebrating their 100th anniversary) and he said something that stuck with me.

“We’ve had our disagreements.   We’ve had our fights.   But we’ve learned to fight well.”

A church will never go according to plan 100% of the time.   It can’t.   It’s being run, at ground level, by human beings.   We screw up.

But if we argue well, if we disagree with grace and we always look to see what God’s will is and follow that, we’ll be able to solve the problems and move forward.

And moving forward makes God happy.

Tom