Tag Archives: faith

Pastor! Do You Love Your City?

kalamazooCityBkgThe above is a picture of my city.  Kalamazoo.  The place we have been called to and have chosen to live.  As a friend of mine would say, it is beautifully flawed.

Our community, the Kalamazoo community, is still reeling from the violence which has recently shaken us.  It has shaken our faith, our ability to trust – not only God but others. It has shaken our sense of security.

In the midst of this aftermath, there is something that has not been shaken in me.  In fact, I believe it has deepened. My love.

I could talk about my call to this community, but I believe you can experience a call to a particular place you do not love – think Jonah.

But love.  Several times I have been asked how the recent shootings in Kalamazoo have personally impacted me.  And at first I wasn’t sure how to answer.  Over the last two weeks, in the midst of a life-giving learning community, I began to realize the deepest impact has been love.

As a pastor my call is to a particular congregation (Haven) within a particular denomination (the RCA); but my call has always been to much more.  It has always been a call to the larger Church and to the broader community.  Always.

The call to pastor in the context of a city, or a community, is a call to love that city with the love of Jesus.  And the events of the past few weeks have clarified and deepened my love for Kalamazoo and the community surrounding it. I love the congregation with whom I serve, I love the larger Church of Kalamazoo and I believe I cannot truly seek the Shalom of God for the Kalamazoo area if I do not love Kalamazoo.

Jeremiah 29:7 tells us to seek the welfare of the city we are in, to pray for it to prosper.

In the last two weeks I have had several interactions which have caused me to ask this question:

Pastor, do you love the city you are in?

I’m not asking if you love what you do.  I’m not asking if you love your congregation or denomination.  I am asking if you love the city you have been placed by God in to partner with Him in reconciling and restoring all things.

Do you love your city?

Your city knows.  It experiences you.  The city you are in has a heart beat and knows.  Would you wonder with me if your city experiences you as a Jonah who didn’t want to be in Ninevah or if your city experiences you weeping along with Jesus over it?

Pastor, do you love your city?


When Violence Happens, Our Questions Are Hard

welovekalamazoo

Saturday evening, just a few hundred yards from where I pastor, the sister of one of students in our youth ministry was shot as part of a shooting spree where eight people were shot. Two continue to fight for their lives and six were killed in the shootings.

What do I write about all that is in my heart about this? How do I take what doesn’t really have words and give it voice?

It would be easy to turn this into an opportunity to talk about guns; or to talk about our violence culture; or to make this into some sort of political stump to stand on. But this post won’t be about that. And so if you have an urging within you to say something political, I want to ask you to hold it in. At least for just a little bit?

Political agendas around gun control and a violence culture cheapen, and even belittle, the grief of families and the questions a tragedy such as this bring to the surface.

As a community we are asking the deeper questions – and doubt. Questions that begin with “why.” Why did this have to happen? Where is God in the midst of this? How does a good and loving God allow such things to happen? Why did a father and son have to die? Why were four women, friend, killed for apparently no reason?

These are the questions that need to be asked by the community at this time. These are good, hard questions that get at the core of faith and if it is even worth having faith. Yes, you read that right. I think it is a good thing to even wrestle with if it is worth having faith. (I think I just felt some of your anxiety go up didn’t I?). Unless we get to the root of that question, and if we go to quickly to platitudes, I am not sure we really have faith or if it is a deep faith…?

It’s a question even as much as it is a statement.

I wonder if we can consider for a moment that even Jesus had questions. Deep and difficult questions. Addressed to God the Father.

In Matthew (one of my 4 favorite Gospel accounts) Jesus begins to ask his Father if he has to suffer in the way he knows is coming. Twice in chapter 26 Jesus asks if the “cup” of his suffering might be taken away. The first time is recorded like this, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.” Troubled and sorrowful, Jesus asks to not have to go through suffering. In Luke 22 it is recorded that Jesus’ anguish is so deep that his sweat was like drops of blood.

If Jesus is able to question God in such a troubling way, why don’t we? I think it is because doubt and questions make most of us uncomfortable most of the time. We want things tidy. We want simple answers to make sense of our world.

But simple answers elude. Especially now. Especially here.

Let’s go even further. Jesus’ last words on the cross are also a question. Directed at God. Full of suffering, pain and anguish, in Matthew 27 Jesus cries out loudly, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The last words of the pre-Easter Jesus is the question “why” cried out to God. And there is no resolution for Jesus before his death. He dies on the cross with those words still hanging in the air. And unlike at Jesus’ baptism, we are left without a response from Heaven…

I want to invite you to let the question hang there. Why God? Why did six people have to die from a random act of violence on Saturday? Why did it have to happen here, now? Why?

Jesus’ question hung in the air.

And it was in the emptiness of the question that the resurrection took place. It was in the midst of the fear and doubt and hiding of the disciples that God the Father then stepped in.

The resurrection didn’t take place at the Triumphal entry, when it was cool to hang with cat who healed people and stood against the religious leaders of the day.

The resurrection didn’t happen when life was good.

The resurrection took place.

It took place in the midst of deep questions, fear and sadness…

Kalamazoo, let your questions sit out in the open. Ask them. Keep asking them. Jesus loves you.

 


The Pain of Church Shopping

shoppingcart

Not long ago a new family showed up at Haven.  I was really excited to meet them.  They were at Haven because they didn’t like the direction of their former church.  I sent them packing.  I asked them to clean up any messes at their former church before settling on a new church home.  I haven’t seen them since.

Recently a family left our church. One of their members was hurt by another in the congregation. It wasn’t a superficial bumping against one another, but a deep hurt. The kind of wound that creates shame and the distance that accompanies it.

After several weeks I noticed their absence and reached out to them. I was told, “We’re church shopping. It isn’t you, we love Haven. But we believe we need to find another church home.” And quietly they slipped away.

I would be lying if I said the conversation didn’t hurt. It did. In some ways, it still does. Sometimes church people can be really mean to each other and that hurts my heart. More so, however, it hurts because I miss people I love.

I pastor a congregation that often sees many people come and go. There are valid reasons for leaving a congregation; and there are some pretty superficial ones. But we’ve all done it. Even pastors do it.

It’s called Church Shopping.

Fast forward. Several months. Almost a year. I am approached by a dedicated servant in the congregation, “Hey, have you seen so-and-so? I haven’t seen them recently and we were supposed to lead this ministry together.”

Feeling a little defensive, but not wanting to gossip, I am left with, “they have been looking for another church” as my response. The person I am talking to experiences some shock which transitions into sadness as well.

And here is where leaving where you are planted and shopping for a new church hurts so many.

We tend to do life from a perspective that puts us in the middle of the universe. Our comfort and/or desires become the end goal. So when we leave one church for another, we are usually only thinking about ourselves and not the people who will be hurt. Usually. There are always the exceptions.

Most of us think about our relationships with a congregation as a one-on-one relationship: me-to-church (the staff and attenders are all put into the church category) and the church-to-me. And when we leave, we typically think only about what we experience – which is valid to be sure! But, it isn’t the whole.

Our relationships within a congregation are not merely one-on-one, but they are multiplicative (a new word I learned from our children’s pastor).

Let’s say a family of 4 (and a dog) leaves a congregation. It isn’t just four people leaving a church. It is four people leaving a number of relationships. Let’s say the family knows another 40 families of 4. But that’s too big a number for me to work with – I don’t do math!

Let’s say each member of the family is close with 20 different individuals. According to my old math, that represents 80 direct relationships. That’s a lot! But let’s keep going. Let’s assume that each of those relationships takes place within a sub-system of other relationships.

To keep our math simple, let’s say there are 6 people in each subsystem and that there is an overlap of 50% in each subsystem. That means each individual relationship with one other person is actually a relationship with 4 people. In simple math that means each relationship is like this (1 + 1) x 3 = 6. Six relationships are changed or broken when one person leaves. So if each member of a family of 4 is close to 20 other individuals and that family leaves a congregation, the math looks like this (1 + 20) x 3 x 4 = 252.

252 significant relationships severed, broken or damaged when one family of 4 leaves a congregation.

Last year a woman came to me in tears following an exchange from another woman in the congregation who is in a leadership role. She wanted to let me know she would be leaving Haven. I encouraged her to stay. To work through it.

Both of them took on the difficult work of reconciliation and repaired the relationship. Both of them shared with me they grew more spiritually in that time than they can ever remember. The whole church, without knowing it, has been blessed by their growing love.

What is the Holy Spirit saying to you?


All Dress Up & Someplace To Go

RuthChrisShe was embarrassed, the hostess, that after 10 minutes of waiting past our reservation time she had to seat us here.  Red bench and the 3rd chair from the left.  Each little table was occupied and there was about six inches between them. “I am really sorry!” she said again as she spread rose petals on the table between us.

It was our 27th anniversary and I had made arrangements to splurge on my bride.  While we were in Grand Rapids, MI for Art Hop, Cathy had made an off hand comment that it would be fun to stay at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel sometime.

I listened.  I don’t always, but this time I did.

I arranged for a corner room over looking the Grand River and we had reservations at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse for 7:30 on December 17th ~ our 27th anniversary.  All I told Cathy was that she needed to bring her fancy clothes. We were going someplace nice!

As we squeezed into our table, for our romantic dinner for two, we found ourselves firmly lodged between 2 couples.  After the initial flurry of water, ordering wine and being handed menus from our waitress, it all began.

“Get the lamb Chops!” he says. “Is it your first time here?” she asks.

What?!?  Looking up from our menus, Cathy and I briefly make eye contact and then awkwardly look at the couple to my right (in the pic above I’m in 3rd chair).  They’re both smiling warmly at us. We say it is our first time. “We come here all the time.” She sees the rose petals, “Are you celebrating something?”

Thinking my answer might prompt them to leave us to our well deserved intimacy, “Our anniversary.”

“Oh? How many? This is our first anniversary” she says. He is holding her hand and has his other around a lamb chop, “we’ve been together for 12, but we got married here. We come here all the time. I got the Kansas City Steak, but I’m eating her lamb.  Get the lamb.” He’s in his mid 50’s and is doing a decent job of pulling off the urban hipster look.  But if you can afford to eat at Ruth’s Chris all the time, you can afford to pull off the hipster look when your old…

Our waitress arrives with our wine, which is delicious, and we proceed to order our dinner.  No lamb.  Steak, medium rare for me, medium for Cathy, mashed potatoes and broccoli.

“When your food comes we can pass plates and share!”

What?!? The male voice was to my left this time.  I look to my left and there is a slightly intoxicated gentleman looking at me. We go through the same routine: First time here? Are you staying in the hotel? Where are you from?

At some point in the first conversation, to my right with the hipster couple, without needing to say anything, Cathy and I made the switch. Setting aside our expectations for a quiet intimate dinner where we romantically looked and spoke to one another we both understood we were going to have to just take this one as it came.  

After 27 years, you can do that…

He is an excavator and she is an optometrist. They grew up and live in the  Upper Peninsula of Michigan and they eat at Ruth’s Chris twice a year.  She went to Ferris State.

“Are you celebrating something?” I ask after explaining we are from Kalamazoo and there to celebrate our anniversary.

“No, Yes, Kind of…” he leads with.  “He’s going to give you TMI,” she interjects quickly, giggling.

“I’m having my vasectomy reversed at 9:00am tomorrow morning,” he announces!  Immediately I felt a deep pain that made me want to hunch over and find a bag of frozen peas! But just to verify, or maybe to recover…

“What?” I ask.  “I’m having my vasectomy reversed in the morning. We have two kids and she wants to have another. Less than 5% chance, but we are seeing the best.” We encourage them with a story of a friend of ours who had his reversed the two great kids he and his wife have.

Our food comes but we continue to talk and laugh intermittently with the couples on either side of us. The food is really amazing.  Expensive, but amazing.

Eventually both couples are gone and we are eating our dessert in quiet. And it is more intimate than maybe I could have planned.

The couple to my right learned that 27 years isn’t unattainable. And the couple to my left was able to be less anxious about going under the knife in the morning.

We didn’t talk about Jesus, but I think they experienced his love. I’ve never had an anniversary dinner turn out quite like that before.

I love you, Cathy Stone.  Thanks for saying yes everyday for 27 years.

By the way, when I looked at the itemized statement under our door the next morning, the hotel had taken over $100 off the price of our romantic package.


The Sacredness of Black Friday

ChristmasRetailand the commercialism of Christmas.

First, a confession: It isn’t Thanksgiving yet and I am listening to Christmas music as I write this in my office.  I love Christmas and I love celebrating the Birth of Jesus – God, King, Savior, Life Giver & Life Changer.

Because I love celebrating, talking about and inviting others to experience Jesus, it would seem natural for me to have a certain disdain for the consumerism/commercialism attached to both Thanksgiving and Christmas.

But I don’t. Not completely. I believe there is a sacredness to it.

And that creates some tension for me. And maybe you?

Deep, deep down we all are aware, if we are honest (and what are we if we aren’t honest?), that consumerism has infiltrated the church, diluted the Gospel and all but rendered God’s people in Western Culture ineffective ambassadors of the Good News.

But – no – I mean BUT, I would like us to consider two things:

First, I wonder this question.  When did the Church become so inert that we would depend upon manufacturers, retailers, businesses & culture to keep Christmas about Jesus? Rather than living exhilarating lives of faith, we find ourselves sitting in our lazy-boys throwing popcorn at the screen of life and yelling at the players & coaches to turn things around. And then, when we get tired of yelling, we get up and participate in the very thing we say we scorn.

Church, it is not the responsibility of Best Buy, Starbuck, Kohls or Amazon to keep our Faith alive.

But maybe they are!

Second, would you consider this next question with me?  What if Thanks-getting, Black Friday and Christmas Commercialism are actually part of God’s answer to a prayer Jesus taught us to pray?

In Matthew 6:9-13 Jesus teaches his disciples a simple way of praying.  Many of us have it memorized and call it The Lord’s Prayer.  Some of us pray it every week in worship. Verse 11 simply says Give us today our daily bread.

Now, the Israelites and even Jesus ate more than just bread.  There were fruits, vegetables and even meat.  That piece of the prayer is not just about bread, but all that is necessary for the sustaining of life and references God’s daily provision for His People as they wandered in the wilderness hundreds of years before Jesus was born.

And what if a successful Black Friday and retail season leading toward Christmas Day is part of God’s answer to that prayer?  Traditionally there have been two markers for us regarding the health of our economy: home ownership, especially new homes; and retail season beginning with Black Friday.

Best Buy employs about 125,000 people.  Target about 366,000. Kohls 140,000.  Imagine with me how many people would go without their daily bread (read that as “unemployed”) if our economy didn’t work because we killed off 4th quarter spending.

Black Friday and the Christmas retail season provides is a significant piece in our overall economy and without it, many more would be unemployed – hundreds of thousands.

Do we need to be excessive? No.  Do we need to go into debt? No. Does it need to consume us? No.

But because it provides all kinds of jobs for people all over the world, jobs that allow people to buy their daily bread, it becomes part of God’s answer to the prayer.

There is a sacredness to God’s answering of prayer.


Refugees, The Prodigal Son & The Older Brother

syrianrefugeesThe current conversation in social media surrounding the Syrian Refugee Crisis has gotten me thinking.  I have read estimated reports that up to 9 million Syrians have fled their homes!  Where do they go?  Who takes them in?  How do they make new lives for themselves?

The Syrian Refugee Crisis, immigration issues, politics, all of it is really complicated and most of us who have opinions probably have only partially informed opinions.  I don’t know that I have an opinion as to whether we should allow however many tens of thousands of Syrians into the United States.  I don’t know if I am smart enough to have an opinion, much less an informed one.

But I do have an observation.

This morning I read the parable of the prodigal son found in Luke 15:11-32.  And I saw something of myself in the parable.  And as I saw myself, I think I saw many of us.

No, I don’t see the Syrian Refugees as the prodigal son who has gone astray.  But I saw myself.  I saw myself as the older brother. The GOOD brother.  The one who has done the right things: worked hard, made good choices, etc.

The Older Brother struggled when his younger brother, who lived a different lifestyle, came home and Dad wanted to throw down a party in celebration.  The older brother struggled because it meant loss to him.  The party would cost him his portion of the inheritance (the part not given to the younger son when he left).  At the end of the day, there would be less for him because someone who didn’t work for it was going to have squandered it one more time – at another party – this time thrown by his dad.

The older brother didn’t really love his father.  He loved his father’s wealth and was angry none of it had been given to him and he lashes out, “when have you even given me a little goat…!?”  The father, of course, reaffirms his love and that all he has is his and pleads compellingly, “This is your brother…!”

I wonder if we, as citizens of the United States, are more worried about what we will lose if Syrian Refugees come into the states than we are about their well being.  I wonder if we actually love our lifestyles and stuff more than we love the country we live in?  I wonder if we love our way of life more than we even love God?

Not only couldn’t the older brother find compassion for his brother, but he also couldn’t  see the blessing in having him home.  His own brother.

I think Dad might be saying, “This is your brother! This is your sister!”

I don’t think I want to be the older brother.


Starbucks, The President & The Stories We Tell Ourselves

nonresponsibilityI think we (the Church) wish it were true – that Starbucks was taking aim at all Christians everywhere and at the Church in North America in particular.  But, I don’t think it is.  Somewhere along the line, we took a non-issue and made it an issue. And gave Starbucks all kinds of free advertising along the way!

I think Starbucks is focused – on making money.  A lot of money.  They do this by selling coffee.  Lots of coffee.  Served in cups.  This year they are red cups, with their green logo on them.  Red and Green.  Ever since I was little, when the dinosaurs roamed the earth, red and green have been the colors of Christmas.  But, I don’t think Starbucks cares so much about that as they do about making money.  

They are a business.  And as long as they are in business someone’s prayer, “Give us today, our daily bread” is being answered – all over the world, literally.

But as a Church, I think we wish it was true. The story that they are out to destroy Christmas.  I think we want it to be true because it feeds two postures we’ve grown fond of lately.

First, it allows us to tell ourselves that we are victims.  Victims of persecution.  Victims because Christmas is being taken away from us. If the US Post Office and Starbucks don’t say “Merry Christmas” when we are shipping gifts or buying coffee, then it isn’t really Christmas is it? Being victims allows us to piss and moan about how bad the world is – and how good we are in comparison, of course.

Ultimately, though, I think we like to take the posture of being victims because then we don’t have to confront the consumerism in our Christmas.  If we complain about how bad Starbucks is, the government is, somebody else is, we don’t have to face the reality that we are spending $4.00 or more on a cup of coffee when the rest of the world makes less than that a day.  We don’t have to confront the huge amounts of money we spend buying, wrapping, shipping and throwing away presents all in the name of Jesus.

But that moves me to reason number two.  I think we want to believe it is true, and take on the posture of victim, so we can also take on a posture of non-responsibility.

Yes, you read that right.  We, as The Church, actually prefer non-responsibility (not irresponsibility) over responsibility. If we are the victims, then someone, in this case Starbucks, HAS to be responsible for this mess.  Someone, or something, we can blame for the whole mess.  If it is up to someone else to make sure Christmas is celebrated, then I don’t have to take responsibility for living out the Gospel in my own life.  Our thinking is something like this: Well, if President Obama hadn’t declared December to be National Muslim Awareness Month, then I would share the Gospel with my friends, family and co-workers. But, now I can’t. Why bother… 

Our posture of non-responsibility allows us to blame and shift responsibility. In this posture we don’t have to confront our selfishness, the ways we’ve tied consumerism to the Gospel, our lack of love for others, our in ability to get along, how we haven’t raised our kids to love Jesus, etc.

I think we, the church, have grown to love controversy and our pseudo-persecution in the U.S. because it allows us to divert our attention away from the transformation needed within ourselves and the Church.  I think we have grown to love controversy because it allows us to be victims without responsibility and that lets us be lazy.

But I also think that we, the church, don’t have to be this way.  That in reality, deep down inside, we don’t want to be this way.  We want to live into the kind of life Paul ascribes to Timothy.  We want to have an enormous impact on our cities, culture and world.  We want to see Jesus do some really cool things in and through us.

But we can’t, not when we take on the postures of victim and non-responsibility.