Thankful for the big picture

Public praise, private critique.

Perhaps that’s a New Year’s resolution. Oops, wrong holiday.

But maybe not. Thanksgiving is a good time for public praise.

(Private critique will remain that. Social media aficionados, take note. Chill out and be more positive. End of rant.)

In my first full year of retirement from paid work, I jumped into three significant volunteer projects. All three are worth a little public praise.

After-school basketball

First – and no doubt, the toughest – is an after-school basketball ministry organized by the youth director at our church’s new Lorain, Ohio, campus (which hasn’t even opened yet).

boys pray

In the spring, Joe sought volunteers to help him reach neighborhood youth through basketball. I’ve played pickup ball – never in a league – and our three sons all played recreation basketball as children, so I’ve been around the game for a long time. I try to keep myself in somewhat decent shape, so I decided to give it a shot.

The church building is an old YMCA that is still being transformed into a church, but we’ve been using the big gym all along. We enter through a side door now while the rest of the building is under renovation.

Sometimes, I wonder why I’m there. How does a retired white guy from the suburbs connect with inner-city kids of multiple races and ethnicities?

The answer: Slowly.

As the weather turns cold, I’ve been taking one or several of them home after the hoops is done. That might be where “ministry” is beginning to form. I’m seeing a window into their lives outside of the formal basketball program.

Some of them are hungry. Some of them have broken families. Some have values that I’m not comfortable with.

I don’t judge. I’m just listening at this point. Not probing too much – I’m not aggressive that way.

But I’m thankful to connect with these young men (and the occasional woman who comes with them).

This is a long-term ministry. Hearts don’t change overnight. First, we have to connect. That’s not in my comfort zone. But this is the kind of thing that the living God is doing.

I don’t have to do this. Yet here I am. Thank you, Lord, for this opportunity to serve You.

Food pantry

wcws 2

Also this spring, I began volunteering at a food pantry in South Lorain. I’ve always had a soft heart for hunger issues – I’ve never been hungry in my life, literally. I’ve never had to worry about where my next meal is coming from. Many people can’t say that.

crop walk logo

In Saginaw, Mich., I was treasurer and off-and-on coordinator for the Saginaw CROP Hunger Walk, an annual walk that raises funds and awareness of hunger issues, for more than 20 years. We lived in Rockford, Ill., for a little over a year and I connected with the CROP Walk folks there too. Here in Elyria, the CROP Walk leaders have no passion for the ministry and I wasn’t up to the effort of trying to fire them up, so I looked for other opportunities.

Enter We Care We Share, a 12-year-old food pantry on a shoestring budget that serves thousands of needy residents every year.

The pantry’s volunteer coordinator attends the same church I do. He invited me (and others) to participate, since more volunteers were (and still are) needed.

He didn’t tell me he was going on vacation, so one Tuesday I just showed up. Didn’t know anyone there. Told them who I was and why I was there. They invited me to stay, so I did – for four hours that afternoon. Then, they invited me back.

So I came back. And I’ve been coming back, two afternoons a week, ever since.

We’re family. We laugh, pray together, rib each other, volunteer together, serve together, pitch in wherever needed. We’re on the front lines of fighting hunger. We hand out dozens of food boxes each day – non-perishable goods, meat, bread, fruits and vegetables – whatever Second Harvest Food Bank of Northeast Ohio delivers to us on Monday afternoons.

Young families just getting started. Senior citizens in poor health who can’t even carry their food box to their vehicle. Many adults with kids and grandkids in their household. Some say, “I wish they’d leave” – not to be mean, but to get out on their own and learn to support themselves, and to give the older adult a little peace. We are there during the transition.

Residents get evicted, and frequently change addresses. A few are homeless.

We serve them all, face to face.

As with the basketball kids, I can’t relate. I don’t have to do this.

I never want to take the material things of life for granted. God has given me a heart to serve folks down on life, struggling to make it.

There’s no quick fixes here, either.

All we can do is serve. And pray.

So that’s what we do.

I’m grateful for this opportunity.

Bible study group leader

Third, I was asked to be a group leader this fall for Bible Study Fellowship, an international in-depth Bible study that this year is studying Acts in the New Testament. I attended the 30-week class for the previous two years, and the leadership there thought enough of me to invite me to step up my involvement.

bsf photo

As with basketball and We Care We Share, BSF is a major time commitment. There is “homework” for each class member to do before we meet on Tuesday evenings.

I’m at a satellite class in Avon, Ohio – one of three satellites around the main program in Parma Heights, just past Cleveland International Airport from where I live.

The leaders of all four areas – about 40 of us total – gather at 6:30 a.m. Saturdays to go over the upcoming week’s lesson, and to receive leadership training. I set my alarm at 5 a.m. to ensure I get there on time.

I wouldn’t miss it for the world. We begin our time literally on our knees in prayer.

I’m shepherding a dozen guys in my class every week. I keep in touch when they miss. Some have health issues of their own or of family members, and some travel for work. We pray for each other.

This week, three guys attended who had missed two to four weeks each for various reasons, and all three said they missed our discussions. They want to come every week. Circumstances sometimes prevent that. Life happens.

Again, relationships take time. As a leader, I have to be pro-active. I’m learning as I go.

The big picture

2019 has been a year of beginnings for me, changes and challenges. The honeymoon periods soon will be over, if they aren’t already.

That’s when ministry will begin.

Time to take the next step. Next steps, actually.

Hope you’re as thankful for the big picture of your life as I am of mine.

We’ve learned the wrong lesson from 9/11

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

So said George Santayana, a Spanish-born American author, in 1905.

Perhaps that’s why my wife and I, during a long weekend in New York for a wedding, took a train and subway ride into the Big Apple to see the 9/11 memorial.

As a friend told us, that’s something you do only once. It’s a sober reminder of what happened on one particular day 18 years ago.

Once is enough for a powerful reminder like that.

Cannot forget

If you were old enough to remember that day, those two airplanes crashing into the iconic World Trade Center towers provided memories you’ll never forget. I was a newspaper copy editor in Michigan at the time, watching the surreal events unfold on deadline.

newspapers 7

Our daily newspaper published several editions that day, because the news happened so fast. Our first edition didn’t even mention the attack. The last edition – literally a stop-the-presses moment – reported the panic and shock of a nation-defining tragedy.

Since that day, our society has changed permanently, and not necessarily for the better. We no longer trust each other, not in airports – security is tighter than it’s ever been – or even on the sidewalk, where we stare at our phones or listen to our music, oblivious to the world around us.

Burned-out fire trucks and ambulances. Twisted steel of the north and south towers. Charred pieces of the airplanes-turned-weapons. Snippets from the morning TV talk shows, interrupted by updates from Ground Zero. Smoke billowing in New York, at the Pentagon and in western Pennsylvania.

memorial 9

The memorial captures all of it. And much more.

As if we could ever forget.

Fear replaces trust

It struck me that people in other parts of the world face these fears every day. Imagine the Kurds in Syria right now. Will they be alive tomorrow?

We lived through that once.

Just once.

We have the capability to prevent such attacks, for the most part anyway, by stepping up security. Cameras watch us everywhere – not just at airports, but at businesses, street corners and even some private homes.

We don’t trust anyone anymore.

Why is there so much evil in the world today? Because that’s what we expect of each other.

We act out our fears.

If, instead, we would look for the good in the world, we’d see it. I discovered that as we raised our three sons. Give them a little age-appropriate responsibility, and they’ll step up. A little alone time because Mom and Dad both need to run a short errand. Then, our oldest driving to an out-of-town event with his best friend as a teenager. Eventually, all three of our sons went away to college.

We trusted them, because we’d prepared them. And they passed with flying colors.

Perhaps that works at home, but society no longer operates that way.

Unity, for a brief moment

If your skin color is different, if your nationality or religious beliefs are different, you are not to be trusted. That didn’t start on Sept. 11, 2001, of course, but it sure increased after that date.

Immediately after 9/11, this nation unified like I’d never seen it do before. That lasted about three weeks. Then people stopped going to church and praying for each other, seeking solace in the unity that comes from a shared experience.

memorial 8

In a sense, we’ve forgotten the past already. We’ve forgotten what unifies us.

We care only about what divides us. Our politics, our religion, our nationality, our social values, our language. We build walls, literal ones and figurative ones in our hearts.

Every one of us, including me, does this.

When our sons were learning to drive, I told them not to trust any other driver on the road. Act as if all of them are idiots, so that when another driver does something stupid, you won’t be surprised. And you’ll be ready to react.

That’s good advice on the road. Unfortunately, we live all of our lives that way, don’t we?

We prove ourselves untrustworthy. Every time I drive on a highway – every single time – I get passed by drivers going 15 mph or more over the speed limit. So do you, unless you’re the speeder. There aren’t enough police cars out there to prevent this.

Identity theft. Robo calls. Inferior products (we don’t build things the way we used to; I could write a column just about this). I’m renting a tux for an upcoming wedding; the company doesn’t want me to pick it up early, and they want it back on Sunday, the day after the wedding. They don’t trust me to keep it even one extra day, even though I’m paying more than $200 for the privilege of holding onto that tux for, like, four days. Not five.

The new normal

Why do we remember 9/11? Is it to point fingers at the bad guys?

Is that all we learned?

Have we forgotten what unifies us?

memorial 23

Every one of us is the bad guy, actually. Each of us, including you and me, is an enemy to someone. If you call yourself a Republican or a Democrat, you’re an enemy. If you’re white or black or Middle Eastern, you’re an enemy to someone. If you’re a Christian or a Muslim, you’re Satan personified to someone.

We have more in common than we think we do. 9/11 proved that, if only for three weeks.

The fallout proves how much we’ve forgotten.

Why visit the 9/11 memorial in New York?

How do we prevent such a tragedy from happening again? While we haven’t had an attack of that scale on our soil since, we have mass shootings all the time. Most of them are internal, not from outside terrorists.

memorial 27

We no longer trust each other. We put up walls and stockpile weapons to protect ourselves. The spiral deepens.

I went for a jog through the neighborhood shortly after we bought our house two years ago. I left the front door open, since I wasn’t planning to be gone long. My neighbor noticed and said I shouldn’t do that, because there’s teenagers around who will steal stuff.

Even in suburban America, this is the world we live in. We’re hardly safe even in our own homes.

The world has come to our front porch. We’ve slammed the door, and locked it out.

This is our 9/11 legacy. I’m afraid we’ve missed the lesson we needed to learn.

The futility of trying to explain the unexplainable

A woman comforts a man who cries after discovering his shattered house and not knowing anything about his 8 relatives who lived in the house, missing in the aftermath of hurricane Dorian, in High Rock, Grand Bahama, Bahamas, on Sept. 5, 2019. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

 

Why would an all-powerful God allow hurricane Dorian to decimate the Bahamas?

An excellent question.

A friend posted that question, and got various responses. Here’s my comment:

 

Would you rather God be a robot? The fact that we don’t understand why things happen proves that God is God. He is much bigger than the human mind. Perhaps that is the point.

 

That didn’t change my friend’s viewpoint, or anyone else’s, for that matter.

But sometimes, as Christians, we try to explain the unexplainable.

It confuses people – including ourselves – when we do that.

Why does a hurricane act the way it does? Even more to the point, why did Dorian destroy the Bahamas and then bypass Florida?

Did our prayers to protect Florida get answered? If so, does that mean no one prayed for the Bahamas, or that God didn’t hear anyone who did?

No one can answer these questions. So, why do we even try?

Let’s acknowledge that God is God. We don’t understand everything He does. We don’t see the big picture of life the way the living God sees it.

We just don’t.

A family’s tragedies

A guy in his 50s at the church I attend died about a month ago. He was a strong Christian. He left a wife and four children, none of whom have a strong faith. He was their witness, their example, their leader in so many ways.

Why would God take him?

Then, I found out this week that one of his children, who had medical issues, also died.

What must the wife/mother be going through at this moment?

Where is God in this family’s situation?

Perhaps here is an opportunity for our church to be the church for this family. But is that really an adequate answer?

Perhaps we truly do not know why two family members died suddenly within a month of each other. But we try to explain the unexplainable.

This hurts our faith, and our witness.

Lifting up our hands

We think there’s an explanation for everything, don’t we? We can’t admit that we don’t know. That we can’t know. That God might allow something to happen for reasons we can’t fathom.

If there is an explanation for everything, then why believe in God?

We are our own gods, if we can wrap our minds around everything that happens in the world.

Yes, God gave us curious minds to learn new things. We discover new ideas and ways to live all the time.

By studying hurricanes, perhaps one day we will understand how and why they move, and be better prepared to survive them.

But will we ever have the capability to actually guide a 185-mph hurricane away from land and into the ocean, preventing severe flooding and loss of life and property?

Why do some parts of the world see more hurricanes, while others face tornadoes and still others severe earthquakes? And while we know where these weather catastrophes often hit, we still choose to live in those places. Is that God’s fault?

We love our tropical islands and beaches, sure. Nothing wrong with that. We live in New Orleans, even though it’s below sea level on a coastline. We live in Houston even though it’s solid concrete, and then wonder why it floods so badly during severe storms.

Our fault

Were severe storms part of God’s original plan for Earth? I don’t think so, actually. The Garden of Eden was a perfect place in every sense of the word. Adam and Eve didn’t even need to wear clothes to live there. Temperatures and the climate were that comfortable.

Except for that wily serpent, who spoiled the party.

The serpent forced Adam and Eve to make a choice.

The choice they made got Adam and Eve kicked out of Eden. There were consequences. Man was forced to work hard. Woman was given pain in childbirth. The serpent was forced to the ground, and to be trod underfoot. Many other bad things followed.

Why did God allow so many bad things to happen? Because that is what we – Adam, in particular – wanted. God said, Fine. Have it your way.

Seriously.

All the bad stuff in the world is our fault, not God’s.

That’s a simplistic explanation, I know. There are spiritual forces at work that we cannot see. Very strong spiritual forces. For good and for evil.

And we can’t fix it. As humans, we don’t have the power to get rid of all the bad stuff that happens in the world, much less the spiritual world.

We try. We legislate morality, whatever that is.

We have no answers

We can’t even agree on what good and evil are, so there’s no way we can do anything about them.

That’s why some of us believe in Jesus Christ.

Not only did He tell us what good and evil are – I came not to abolish the law (the Old Testament), but to fulfill it, He said – He showed us what good and evil are by the life He lived.

And died.

However, even Jesus Himself, while He could explain the unexplainable, couldn’t bring it about in His own life. He died a horrible, painful death on a cross, and that would have been it.

Except that the living God, His Father, kept the story going. He resurrected Jesus, not only with a physical resurrection, but with a spiritual one. That allows Jesus to forgive our sins and mistakes.

If only we will accept that gift of forgiveness from Him.

This just might be the best explanation we get about how God works in this world.

But even that is above our comprehension. How do we explain death and resurrection? How is forgiveness of sins rational? Why can none of us find meaning in life unless we understand the reasons Jesus lived, died and lives again?

Even my friend who questions why an all-powerful God would allow a hurricane to devastate a country doesn’t have an answer for how the world works. He can’t explain it any more than I can.

Perhaps it’s time for us to acknowledge what’s real. How does the world work? That question doesn’t have a complete answer that we can know.

Our Florida friends are grateful, certainly. And they should be. Our friends in the Bahamas need help starting over.

Life happens. We can find God everywhere. Our responses to God, and to each other, are different in Florida and the Bahamas this week.

Because we worship a God who is bigger than we are. Much bigger. Sometimes we have to trust Him, because there’s no other way to understand Him.

The nation’s answer

Change comes from the inside out

Where are You, Lord?

It’s hard to see You sometimes. We just had a weekend with two – count ’em, two – mass shootings. As usual, emotions flared on both sides. Control guns. Improve mental health.

Where are You, Lord?

When we focus on our own issues and point words at each other, we miss You. We scream and yell. We blame. We get angry.

We despair, because we’ve seen it before.

Yet mass shootings are like plane crashes, aren’t they, Lord? They are few and far between, but they are dramatic and deadly, so they get the headlines.

Vehicle crashes happen far more often. People commit suicide far more often. People even kill each other, one-on-one, far more often.

Those situations may get a mention in the media, or they may not. They often are not front-page news.

Yet vehicle crashes and suicide affect far more people than mass shootings do.

I personally knew two people who committed suicide, one a few years ago and one about three decades ago. What if I had said something … if I only knew … perhaps …

Are You there, Lord?

You are.

People have reasons for doing things, good and evil.

Taking away the gun may prevent the mass shooting, but would it save the man’s soul? Would it change the trajectory of his life?

Are You there, Lord?

Is there a bigger picture here?

Can we change what we have become?

We can’t legislate that, can we, Lord? That’s what we want to do. Gun control. Improve access to mental health treatment. Let someone else fix it. Create a program that people can avail themselves of to improve their lives.

That will solve the problem, right?

Many mass shooters are loners, quiet people with few friends who stay in the background of life, exploding at the worst possible moment. I saw a report that 26 of the last 27 mass shooters were fatherless.

Is that the trigger, Lord?

We’re all about personal rights now, individuality, non-conformity, breaking the rules, love (my way) … we don’t hold each other accountable anymore.

Not even in our families.

Our broken families.

Or our churches, many of which are no different than society at large.

Where are You, Lord?

If following You doesn’t change us, what’s the point?

If I can believe whatever I want, then why believe anything?

Is there no right and wrong, Lord?

If mass murder is wrong, then what else is wrong?

Who decides?

That’s why we can’t agree on anything, Lord. We have no foundation in our lives anymore. No good vs. evil. That’s all fairy tales.

Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf. Cinderella and the Evil Stepsisters. Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote.

Fairy tales.

No respect for authority. No respect for people of a color or ethnicity different than us. No respect for people not born here.

We’re all just visitors on Planet Earth, aren’t we, Lord? We’re not as different as we think we are.

We say hi to our neighbors but we don’t take time to know them.  Some of us move around more than others, so we have to work harder to meet people.

We’d rather do our own thing.

And then we wonder why we can’t get along with each other.

Even if we follow You, Lord, that doesn’t guarantee that we will get it right.

Reading the book of Acts, the early church had just as many issues as the church in America does today. They had to call their leaders together to hash out some very divisive issues.

But they did it, Lord.

And the church grew because they followed You and Your Scriptures. They rejected the belief that “they have to do it our way.”

Why can’t we get this right, Lord?

In Your last prayer on Earth, You prayed for unity among the believers. You knew how crucial that was, and still is.

We blew it, Lord. Again.

Both sides think they have the right answer, but neither does.

Only You do.

Unconditional love is a phrase we don’t hear very often. Not love (my way). Unconditional love.

What You want.

What the other person wants.

Not my will be done …

Who prays that anymore? Truly prays that?

I’ve been involved with a Tuesday morning prayer group for a year now. (See photo above, taken by Jason Russ. Used by permission.) Not that I’m a “prayer warrior” or anything. But we cry out to You.

Imperfectly, because we are imperfect human beings. But we pray.

We ask forgiveness.

We have our wants and needs, and we pray for those, too.

We pray for healing. Our own healing. Our city’s healing. Our nation’s healing.

Again, we pray imperfectly.

But we pray.

Prayer changes not only our city and nation; it also changes us.

One person at a time.

Where are You, Lord?

That’s where You are.

You are just waiting for us, that’s all.

Waiting for us to pray to You.

To seek Your will.

Not my will, but Thy will be done.

On Earth as it is in heaven.

Oh, how we need You now, Lord.

We are lost as a nation. We can’t save ourselves.

We don’t need You as a policymaker, Lord.

We need Your unconditional love.

We know You love each of us that way.

Help us to love each other that way too, to follow Your example.

Nothing else works. We’ve tried.

Oh, how we’ve tried.

I can’t go to Dayton or El Paso and make everything right.

But I can do something right here, right now, right where I live.

Show me, Lord.

Lead me.

What my neighbor does is up to him (or her).

This isn’t rocket science, Lord, but it is radical.

Unconditional love.

Only You, Lord, know what that truly looks like.

Show us, Lord.

Because that’s the only answer than will work in the long run.

An unexpected blessing

You have a story. So do I.

Our pastor began his Easter Sunday sermon by saying that.

Jesus has a story, he said. The apostle Peter also has a story.

I won’t re-tell his sermon. It’s excellent. You can listen to it here, if you’d like:

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?list=PLHjQKzbevhK_vJCFUmIKGdsdIoyrmQ2b3&v=-hH6-6wxwWM

 

Our youth pastor recently began an after-school basketball ministry on Thursday afternoons, and I’ve been helping him with that. Not that I’m any great shakes at basketball – I’ve never played in any kind of organized league – but it’s fun.

After playing for a bit and working up a sweat, our youth pastor, Joe, stops the games for a breather and a devotion. He asked me to lead the devotion last week.

Rather than give a Bible lesson or (even worse) a sermon to a group of teens and early 20s ballplayers, I decided to tell a story. Because we all have stories.

My wife and I had just joined a church in Saginaw, Mich., and when I discovered they had a slow-pitch softball team, I decided to sign up. Baseball is my favorite sport, so I thought I’d give softball a shot.

My very first game turned out memorable. As the new guy who few people knew, I played right field. Our church fielded two teams that year, and the first game was against our church’s other team. So just about everybody knew each other.

Early in the game, a batter on the other team hit a short fly ball to right-center field. I can catch this, I thought, so I went running in towards the ball.

Slow-pitch teams field four outfielders. Our fourth outfielder was a high school tennis player, a good athlete with a strong body. He was playing behind second base a little toward left field. He raced after the ball too.

Not knowing each other’s skills, we didn’t account for each other. Both of us ran as fast as we could toward the fly ball. Joel caught it. I crashed into his body, hard, and crumpled to the ground. I didn’t get up.

My teammates quickly gathered around me and realized I needed to visit the emergency room. I was loaded into the van of one of the players on the other team (who remains a good friend to this day), and John transported me to the ER.

I had a broken wrist and a fractured cheekbone.

Nurses placed me on a hard table in the emergency room. Since it was after hours, they had to call an orthopedic surgeon from home to treat me.

It took some time for the surgeon to arrive. My pregnant wife was handling the paperwork for my unexpected visit. For a few minutes, I was left alone on the table, in more pain than I’d ever felt before.

At that moment I felt an unnatural calm come over me. I knew other people were praying for me but I didn’t know who they were. I knew that I would be all right.

I discovered later that at that moment, one of my teammates had put me on our church’s prayer chain. That’s a group of people, mostly elderly ladies, whose primary mission is to pray for people who have an immediate need. Even though I was new to the church and most of them didn’t know who I was, they prayed for me anyway.

I felt their prayers. For real, I did.

God works like this. In my most painful moment, God showed up, because people on Earth asked God to show up.

The surgeon arrived and after a few painful X-rays, he put my wrist in a cast and scheduled an appointment at his office in 10 days to check on progress. Thankfully no bones were displaced in my face, so he just authorized some pain medication and let my cheekbone heal on its own. I had quite the black eye and the pain in my face lasted a couple of weeks before it healed.

My wrist didn’t heal quite so smoothly. I eventually had surgery on it.

Needless to say, these injuries put me on the disabled list for the rest of the summer. I still attended as many games as I could. I went out for the team the next year – indeed, I played for about 25 years, and have many wonderful memories of the people I played with.

My only concession? I shy away from contact to this day, especially around my head. One injury like that was enough for me.

But even in that unexpected, painful moment, God showed up and did something special, something that I still remember and will continue to remember for the rest of my life.

When those ladies prayed for me, God could have healed me miraculously, but He didn’t. Instead, God gave me the strength to get through the pain – and the healing process, including the boring rehab.

God frequently doesn’t take away our pain, suffering or sorrow. Instead, He gives us the strength and whatever else we need to endure it.

This builds our character – and gives us stories we can share with others who might be enduring a similar struggle.

When we are in our darkest moments – when the storms of life are coming on strong – that just might be when the living God shows up. When I was hurting the most in the emergency room, that’s when God gave me assurance that I would be all right.

As long as the living God is my guide and I follow His direction, I’ll be fine. There may be more pain and heartaches along the way – I’ve attended several funerals already this spring, for example – but God will give me what I need to get through it.

As He will you.

A solid vision in a changing world

Each of us has hopes and dreams.

Congregations do, too.

It’s neat when a group of people come together with a common vision. There’s power when many people pursue a plan with one voice.

A rural church near Oberlin, Ohio, had dreamed and prayed for a new home for almost 20 years, since their decades-old site no longer served them well.

Eventually, their prayers were answered.

The 50-member Christian and Missionary Alliance Church congregation purchased a 5,000-square-foot empty former private home “in a serene place tucked away from the machinations of modern-day life,” according to the Chronicle-Telegram of Elyria, Ohio.

“It was the very church they’d dreamed of all those years.”

A new church, of sorts

In a similar way, the much larger, multi-campus church my wife and I attend has dreamed for many years of opening a campus in Lorain, Ohio. The Church of the Open Door operates campuses in Elyria, Avon Lake (where we attend) and Vermilion. The three sites surround Lorain. (If you’re checking my geography, Sheffield and Sheffield Lake stand between Lorain and Avon Lake to the east, and Lake Erie is the fourth boundary, to the north.)

It’s finally happening.

The church hired a Lorain campus pastor earlier this year. Prayer teams, small groups and community outreach have already begun, even before the Lorain building opens.

Unlike the Oberlin church’s dream, our Lorain campus vision is urban.

Our senior pastor offered this explanation for the Lorain vision:

 

Jesus said to the followers, “Let us go to the towns near here so I can preach there also. That is why I came.”

Mark 1:38

 

When the Lorain pastor shared his vision for a multi-ethnic, multi-racial congregation that serves the city, including the immediate community around the new building, I – and several dozen others – caught the vision.

In a way, I’ve been down this road before.

Reality re-shapes a vision

We raised our three sons in Saginaw, Michigan. We were active at Ames United Methodist Church, an inner-city church in the middle of a West Side neighborhood.

One day, when our children still were very young, the denomination did some census-type research for us, and we discovered the average church member was a 65-year-old woman. This was not unusual for a mainline church that had thrived in its community for more than a century.

We were faced with some crucial decisions. We could continue as is, which many churches choose to do. When that 65-year-old woman dies in the next couple of decades or so, the church would fade into history, as many churches have done.

Or, we could take some specific, intentional steps to not only survive, but thrive.

More research revealed that the vast majority of members – including my family – commuted to the inner-city church from the suburbs. When Ames was built in the 1870s, everyone walked. Over time, adjacent houses were torn down and a parking lot was built. The church grew and thrived, topping 1,000 attendees in the early 1960s. By the time my family arrived, attendance was more like 350 to 400 at two Sunday services.

The neighborhood changed; so must the church

And the congregation was aging.

  • Our first decision was the most crucial: Do we move the church to a suburb where many members lived, or do we continue in the city?

God could have used the church either place, but what did He want us to do?

The vote was more divisive than we anticipated: 55 percent to 45 percent. We voted to stay in the city, but not for the right reason. Many longtime members wanted to continue “church” as is. In a world of rapid change, the church was the one solid foundation that stayed the same.

But it couldn’t.

The church would eventually die.

That wasn’t an option.

Even though the vote was close, our pastor at the time took the decision as a mandate to re-connect with our neighborhood. We did a door-to-door survey to assess needs (my wife participated in that).

  • We hired a full-time youth director, even though we had very few active youths at the time.

Why hire a staff person when we didn’t have hardly any young people to attend?

That’s why, actually.

We hired a man to build a youth program from scratch, reaching “church” kids and “neighborhood” kids. In general, the “church” kids had a basic understanding of the Bible, while many “neighborhood” kids did not. That made for – and still makes for – a unique opportunity for ministry, with many successes and failures.

  • We changed the church leadership structure to emphasize ministry and evangelism, and not so much sitting around tables debating issues.
  • We did one more thing that proved to be the most controversial decision of all: We changed the traditional 11 a.m. worship service to a contemporary service. With drums and guitars.

A drum set on the altar is sacrilege to some folks. When you’ve used a hymnbook and organ your entire life, that’s what you’re comfortable with. We kept the 9 a.m. service traditional for them, but some older folks had trouble getting going that early in the morning.

We lost some members over that.

Changing the style, not the message

While the worship style changed, we made one thing clear: The message of the church would not change.

Jon M. Dennis, a pastor in Chicago who helped lead a conference on urban ministry I attended recently, puts it this way:

 

When urban churches are not flexible (usually ending up in decline or closing), it’s often because we’ve confused that which is permanent with that which is transient …

One thing that absolutely doesn’t change is the person and work of our Savior and Lord, for “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8).

Christ + City, p. 178

 

Most of our elderly members bought the vision. They understood that if the church was to survive and even thrive, we had to change our style. We had to connect with a younger crowd. We had to reach out to the transient, lower-economic, multi-ethnic neighborhood that surrounded our building.

The contemporary service worked. The goal wasn’t to bring 1,000 people into the pews, but to do ministry that matters, to develop relationships and connect with people.

Committed to the vision

Some time later, a predominately African-American church in our denomination in Saginaw closed its doors – and merged with ours. Overnight, our congregation became multi-racial as well as multi-ethnic. We welcomed them, not only as members, but as leaders. Several African-Americans took leadership positions in the church. They brought their gospel choir with them, and the Sunday morning music program was greatly enriched as it rotated with the chancel choir and the bell choir (plus the children’s choir).

Sure, there were bumps. Our pastor was 100 percent committed to the merger, and many of us on all sides bought in.

Some didn’t. We couldn’t get discouraged. Those who stayed were committed.

These things happened a decade or two ago. Ames continues to evolve, seeking God’s will in the neighborhood. People have left (including us, due to a job move) and new folks continue to come in.

When our Lorain church opens its doors sometime this spring, we will have the backing of a multi-campus congregation. But Elyria and Avon Lake attendees won’t determine whether the Lorain campus thrives or not.

How committed are we to our neighborhood, to the city?

At least a dozen of us pray on Tuesday mornings for the new church and for people connected with it. That’s just one thing that we’re doing.

We’re off to a great start, even before the building opens.

Urban ministry gets messy, but it also can be extremely rewarding. We’ll see where God leads us.

The circle of life in one day

A young couple I know announced their first pregnancy.

A (slightly) older couple celebrated their anniversary.

A friend’s son is hoping to get into an addiction detox center.

Another friend’s younger brother died from complications of a stroke.

I received word of all four events on the same day.

The circle of life.

Birth, anniversary, struggle, death.

I received word of those events in that order, ironically.

The first two were announcements of joy.

Birth

New life is a miracle. It happens the same way every time, but it’s still a miracle. One cell becomes two, then four, then … a living, soon-to-be-breathing human being.

I still remember the birth of our first son. I held a camera in my hands to take photos of the new arrival.

I was so in awe of the moment of David’s birth, I froze. The nurse shaped her hands like a camera and pantomimed taking a picture. I snapped out of my reverie and took a few frames.

Our lives changed forever.

New birth does that.

Anniversary

Anniversaries are special, too, as the couple celebrates thriving through the inevitable ups and downs of marriage – hopefully more ups.

Long-lasting marriages tend to stand out in today’s society, don’t they?

Marriage is not easy, and involves plenty of compromises. But if husband and wife are both committed to the relationship, it grows and deepens.

That’s the ideal, anyway.

The second two events were presented as prayer requests.

Struggle

My friend has prayed for years that her son would overcome his addiction. Apparently, the severe side effects have finally forced him to seek help.

Sometimes we have to hit rock bottom before we can get better.

I’ve thought about that every so often over the years. Do I have to hit rock bottom before my life can truly change? Why else would I ask Jesus Christ to change me, if I didn’t realize I needed changing?

I’ve never had a chemical dependency (except for the caffeine in coffee, I admit it) or faced a crisis for which I see no way out.

Or, have I?

When my family moved out of state before my ninth-grade year, I was afraid. Since I knew no one in my new school on the first day of class, I searched for something or someone to lean on – and found nothing. The following summer, I was introduced to Jesus in a very personal way, and that began a lifelong process of getting to know Him as my Lord as well as my Savior.

In a sense, then, I did hit rock bottom. I reached a point where I knew I needed something I didn’t have. This is not envy or jealousy. No material possession was going to answer my deepest need.

My friend’s son is at that point too, whether he realizes it or not. If he eventually comes clean from his addiction, that would be a wonderful answer to prayer. But then what? How would he fill that vacuum in his life? The answer to that would determine whether he relapses or not.

That’s down the road for him. Life is a process, not a one-time-decision-live-happily-ever-after moment.

Our pastor, in his current sermon series, calls this “discipleship.” It’s the lifelong process of growing ever closer to God after making the decision to follow Him.

We find our purpose in life through that process. The end game is very real, but so is the journey.

Where are we going?

Addictions are extremely difficult to break. You and I both have seen this over and over.

Experience is not always the best teacher. Not all experiences are worth having. Why can’t we learn from the mistakes of others?

Death

Eventually, we all die. It’s inevitable. Our bodies will wear out sooner or later, unless something unforeseen takes our lives suddenly.

Strokes happen to many people, but that doesn’t make it any easier to accept. My father-in-law suffered a heart attack followed by a stroke in his mid-50s that incapacitated him. For a man who owned a business and was a leader in his field, that was a difficult pill for him to swallow. He lived for about 15 years after that.

My friend’s brother survived only a couple of days after his stroke.

Either way, life is not fair, is it?

Every one of us can lament something. Perhaps it’s physical health, a relationship that didn’t work out or is causing us pain, a job loss, family issues … something traumatic and/or something chronic. Each of us can identify something that we’re lamenting.

Choices

How do we handle such struggles? With grace and optimism, or with anger and blame?

Do we seek help when necessary? Or do we fight through it, unwilling to even admit our issues? Frequently this is my problem. I am not good at asking for assistance, even though there are a number of people in my life I could turn to if I truly needed them.

But it’s hard to admit need, isn’t it?

Which brings us back to the baby our friends are expecting next summer.

So pure, so beautiful, so dependent … that’s what babies are.

What kind of a world will he or she be born into? Will that baby know joy, or sorrow?

Probably both. The soon-to-be parents know Jesus as their Savior and Lord, so their child will get off to a great start. He or she will be loved and will learn to love in the deepest sense of that word.

As the child grows, he or she will learn the struggles of life, and hopefully how to overcome them.

There will be anniversaries, and eventually death.

The circle of life continues.

Is your circle bright, or is it gray like the rain – or worse, black?

The night is blackest as it nears dawn. Sunrise is coming.

Eventually, the rain will stop, the clouds will disappear and the sun will shine brightly.

In these days of partial sun and plenty of clouds and rain, I’m preparing for full sunshine. Are you?

Re-thinking church in an inner city

I’ve never been involved in a church plant before. There’s plenty of hope and excitement, but we don’t even know all the challenges we will face.

Our multi-campus church is planning to open a new campus in Lorain, Ohio, a self-described “international city” of about 63,000 people on the shores of Lake Erie about 30 miles west of Cleveland. As of 2016, whites comprised 51.7 percent of the city’s population, Hispanics 29.1 percent, blacks 14.5 percent and “two or more races” 3.1 percent.

http://www.city-data.com/city/Lorain-Ohio.html

I’m interested in this because my wife and I raised our three sons at an inner-city church in Saginaw, Michigan, with similar demographics to Lorain. Now that they are grown and on their own, I have more time to devote to this.

To learn more about planting a multi-ethnic church, the Lorain campus pastor and I attended a three-day conference on the topic in Chicago. It was eye-opening.

As a former newspaper guy, I took lots of notes. Here is a summary from the plenary speakers and workshop leaders I heard:

Church and society

If we want to be a multi-ethnic church, then the dominant culture cannot be more than 80 percent of the church. Research shows that if visitors see at least 20 percent of people in their ethnic group attending, then they feel like “members” and not “visitors.”  We should be strategic about seeking 20 percent of an ethnic group if we truly want to be multi-ethnic.

For some people, society does not work – economically, medically, socially, religiously, etc. These people do not trust any institutions. Church plants will take a long time for these people to trust. They may reject institutionalism, even if they hunger for God. To reach them, we might need to change the way we do church – why 11 a.m. services? Why does communion happen weekly or monthly? Etc. These are not wrong, but they are not in the Bible. What’s Biblical, and what’s cultural?

The new national divide is achiever vs. non-achiever. Achievers value the individual; non-achievers value the society. Most non-whites (as well as whites) are achievers. Achievers are mainstream; non-achievers live in the sub-culture.

Doing church

One speaker said white pastors are excellent at “three-point sermons with seven sub-points.” That’s fine, but that’s not how black preachers preach. If we want to reach black people, this might become an issue. Another example: Hispanics will show up late, then they will stay late. That’s their culture. We might need to re-think the way we do church.

moody4

The traditional church model: Meet Jesus, attend church, connect/serve/give, go into the world. This isn’t working; it’s too shallow.

The new model: Meet Jesus, attend church, deep change, go into the world.

How to accomplish deep change? We need to meet emotional, social, intellectual, physical and spiritual needs – all of them.  Which means all of those needs in my life, as a leader, must be met as well, or I will not be an effective leader. The Mary-Martha struggle: When are we focused on our actions at the expense of spending time with Jesus?

This is not a quick fix. It’s hard. It takes time.

Most people in our cities aren’t thinking about repentance, but about where their next meal is coming from. We must disciple them to conversion. We must offer Bible nuggets that people can relate to. “There’s a guy in the Bible who understands what you are going through …” (This means we have to know the Bible well, of course.)

Value in all cultures

Whites frequently will not get involved in a church (or any other organization) unless they lead it. Several speakers made this point. Whites often don’t leave room for other ethnic groups to lead – or if they do, they must follow the examples of whites. We often do this unconsciously.

There is no assimilating into one true culture in heaven. All cultures are good. Faith brings out the best in all of them. Every culture has stories to tell.

How much of church planting is led by whiteness? Most of it. It’s a strange mix of benevolence and oppression. This has become the only story. How do we liberate from whiteness (or any dominant culture)? According to the Bible, we die to it. We are not to assimilate, but to create a new story.

Jesus’ blood is the new story, for all cultures. His death and resurrection is the great equalizer for all of us. Jesus didn’t ask us to become Him. Instead, He became one of us.

Those of us in the dominant culture often forget that we have a culture. Everybody speaks with an accent except me, for example.

Marginalization happens when people are minimized in different ways. Marginalization often leads to oppression, which is defined as sin plus power.

Jesus went to the margins. He was surrounded by sinners and tax collectors and prostitutes and women and children. All of us need to go there, too.

Jesus gave us a table, and all the chairs around it are on the same level. No high chairs and low chairs. Everybody drinks from the same cup, and we share germs. All ethnic groups are equal before God.

History is not over

Blacks’ history is slavery. No other immigrant group can say that. We heard first-person testimonies from several ethnic minorities who have experienced racism in their lifetimes. My wife has a co-worker whose boyfriend is black. He recently was talking with several friends in the parking lot of the apartment complex in Lorain where he lives. Another resident of the apartment complex called the cops on him. His crime? Being black and talking with his friends. It happens still today, even in Lorain.

As white people, we cannot deny that these things happened, and are still happening. If we want to reach this population for Christ, we need to meet them where they are.

Perceptions

lasalle street

Another cultural difference: Whites often see themselves as a collection of individuals. Blacks see themselves as a community. This is crucial to understanding how we communicate differently.

For example, a white police officer in Houston recently killed a black man in his own apartment. Blacks wanted the world to feel his suffering and pain. They wanted pastors to talk about that the following Sunday. Our reaction as whites? We want more facts. Give us the details of what happened before we react.

This is huge. We must understand this difference.

Critique the culture

Cities – with density and proximity – amplify the opposition to the gospel.

There is little social pressure anymore to attend church. There are four basic religious beliefs, but some Americans don’t even have these:

  1. There is a god.
  2. There is moral truth.
  3. There is sin.
  4. There is an afterlife.

How do we evangelize in this setting?

We must critique the culture. The standards our culture offers don’t work. If your career is your primary motivator in life, what happens when – not if, but when – you lose it? If it’s to be a good person, you’ll never be good enough (maybe you haven’t committed adultery, but have you lusted? This is Jesus’ standard.) If it’s freedom, you aren’t, and you know it. If you live for money, you’ll never have enough. If you seek beauty, you’ll never feel beautiful. And on and on.

But if you serve Jesus, you’ll get forgiveness when you fail.

There are no merit-based scholarships in heaven. Only grace.

Also, there is no defense against:

  1. Prayers of the saints.
  2. Love of the saints.
  3. Wise application of the word of God to your concerns.

A new chapter in the book of life

We recently revisited a chapter in our lives that closed six years ago – at the same time as new chapters are being written.

Our youngest son started graduate school this week at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, Mich. In a whirlwind weekend, we helped him move from Ypsilanti to Mount Pleasant, about a two-hour drive, to help him start a new chapter.

We drove up to Michigan Friday night to stay with our oldest son, who also helped with the move. Saturday morning in a drizzle, we loaded up our son’s belongings, then under overcast skies helped him get settled in his new apartment.

On the way, we drove past Michigan State University, where my wife and I met in the early 1980s. The sun came out during that part of our trip. Of course. The sun always shines in East Lansing, right? (Even though we had to take two detours to get from I-96 to U.S. 127.)

Saturday evening, we left our sons in Mount Pleasant (the oldest graduated from CMU earlier and planned to introduce his brother to a few friends to help him get settled). We drove to Saginaw, where our family wrote the longest chapter in our lives.

Reminiscing

We lived in Saginaw for 27 years, by far the longest I’ve lived anywhere. We raised our three sons there. We connected with a church family, our sons’ friends, people we met at their schools, volunteers we met in the community. I had a wonderful job there.

Sunday morning, we attended the church where we served while we lived there. While some people have moved on and new folks attend now, we saw many friends from that chapter in our lives.

We met several of them as soon as we arrived. “We’re having church in the parking lot,” I told the 11 a.m. worship leader, who arrived shortly after we did.

The worship leader and his wife were married the same day we were, the same year. We each raised three children alongside each other. Those kind of friendships last a lifetime.

We reconnected with friends we hadn’t seen in a couple of years, since the last time we visited. We exchanged many hugs and handshakes and smiles.

We didn’t drive past the old house this time, or visit other places where memories were made. The weekend was already full. We drove 600 miles in 48 hours.

As we reminisced with old friends about good times and how life has changed for us all, we focused on the good memories. We do that, don’t we? The good old days. We overlook the hard times and remember the good times. Or, we try to.

Turning the page quickly

My job there was eliminated in 2009, and we left Saginaw in 2012. The chapters in our lives – especially mine – since then became shorter and more numerous.

A little over a year in Rockford, Illinois. A new job in Elyria, Ohio, which lasted 13 months. We’d had enough of out-of-state moves by then, so we’ve stayed here. After an 11-month search, I landed another job – the first non-office job I’d had since I graduated from college. I worked directly with adults with developmental disabilities.

That chapter in my life lasted 2.5 years, ending just a couple of weeks ago. It ended suddenly, but it was time.

I’ve always had a passion for serving my community. Even when I was working full-time and raising three children, I found time to volunteer with several organizations, mostly dealing with children or hunger issues.

In retirement, I dream of becoming a full-time volunteer, doing various things. Here in Elyria, I’ve continued one or two volunteer activities I’ve been involved with for many years. But as with any chapter in life, some doors have closed, and a few new ones have opened.

A new chapter

Now that I don’t answer to a supervisor anymore, a new chapter has just begun.

Our church is opening its third satellite campus in a nearby city. When the recently-hired pastor shared his vision for the campus with those of us who attended an informational meeting, I got excited. His vision is similar to the vision of the church in Saginaw where we raised our sons.

Is this where God wants us now? We haven’t made that formal decision yet. We’re still praying, still considering.

The pastor has organized a weekly morning prayer group at the new location – which isn’t scheduled to open for worship services until next spring, but which is launching other programs even now – to begin connecting with each other and seeing where we each may fit in. Since I’m not working now and I have the time, I showed up on a recent morning.

About a dozen of us prayed. We were done in a half-hour, so we could get on with our day. It was beautiful.

Our church has been trying to open this campus for several years, but the timing wasn’t right. Plans kept falling through. Until now.

I enjoy being a small part of something big, whether it’s a company, a volunteer agency or a church. What’s my niche?

During this transition time for me, I likely will seek new roles, as well as expand current roles.

In the past I liked structure. My primary job was newspaper copy editor. While the news changed every day, the deadlines I faced did not. I knew my role, and tried to do it well. Reporters love the variety in their job – new experiences, new people to meet, not knowing what they were going to write about that day. My job, in the office, was to take those written experiences and help transform them into a newspaper.

News happens 24/7 but a copy editor’s job occurs on a regular schedule, so the paper reaches your doorstep at roughly the same time every day. Everyone at the paper plays a part in making that happen. Everyone – reporters, editors and many others – is needed.

Until newspaper executives started eliminating copy desks, including the one where I worked, to save money. But that’s a different story.

Bottom line: When that job ended, the structure in my life ended too.

I haven’t always handled it well.

An open book

I do have a creative streak in me. Will it come out now? Can I be flexible? Can I be happy doing different things each day?

These decisions don’t have to be made immediately. We will see how God leads me, and us.

The next chapter of my life begins with a blank page. It’s not entirely blank, of course; I’m not starting over completely.

But I am changing direction.

Has God been preparing me for this moment?

Perhaps I’ll have an answer for that question soon; possibly, it will take some time before I know.

Either way, it’s time to start writing.

Only one source for peace

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

John 14:27

 

We all long for peace, but it’s elusive.

Why? Because most of the time, we don’t know what peace is. It’s so much more than the absence of war. People can hate each other and not fight, if they think their enemy is too strong.

We can’t legislate peace with a treaty. Treaties, like most rules, are made to be broken. So it seems.

Peace comes from relationship with the living God, and from nowhere else. Look around you if you don’t believe me. Where else do you see peace?

Jesus said, “My peace I give you.” Peace is a gift from God. We can’t earn it; we can’t find it with willpower or by trying harder to attain it. Peace doesn’t come that way.

It’s a gift.

We must receive it.

That’s the only way we will find peace in this world.

My pastor, the Rev. Jim Mindling, senior pastor of Church of the Open Door in Elyria, Ohio, put it this way:

“Before there can be peace, there must be grace.”

Grace is a relationship with the living God. Because Jesus Christ is God, He not only teaches us but shows us by example what relationship is. Grace means God gives us gifts we don’t deserve, starting with salvation.

After that, other gifts, including peace, follow.

So, what is peace?

Shalom

The most common Hebrew word for peace in the Old Testament is “shalom,” which refers to relationships between people (Genesis 34:21), nations (1 Kings 5:12) and God with men (Psalm 85:8). It’s a traditional Jewish greeting for hello and goodbye.

The most common Greek word for peace in the New Testament is “eirene,” which means rest and tranquility. These also are attributes of peace.

https://www.gotquestions.org/Bible-peace.html

Peacemakers

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Matthew 5:9

 

In this verse, Jesus is not referring to mediators or political negotiators, but to those who carry an inward sense of the fullness and safety that is available only through son-ship with God. In the biblical Hebrew understanding of shalom, there is a point at which you have so much shalom that it spills out from you, and is repaid or rendered to others.

And so, as you make others peaceful and inwardly complete, that makes you a peacemaker.

Jesus said these peacemakers will be called sons of God. Jesus was called the Son of God. By sharing God’s uncontainable peace with others, we become just like Jesus.

http://firm.org.il/learn/the-meaning-of-shalom/

Losing peace

“There is no peace,” says the Lord, “for the wicked.”

Isaiah 48:22

 

With evil in our hearts, we cannot know peace – inner peace (in our hearts) or outer peace (in the community). This is true moment by moment, as well as our overall view of life.

Some of us argue constantly. We don’t have to physically fight to be “wicked.” Our general nature is confrontational. We don’t get along well with others, because we don’t get along well with our inner self. That happens because we don’t get along with the living God.

Even those of us who do know Jesus as our Lord and Savior, who have relationship with Him, can get frustrated or angry at other people, losing our peaceful hearts in that moment. When that happens, we need to ask forgiveness and re-center our hearts on God.

I face this struggle constantly, many times a day in fact. On the road. At the office. With family, sometimes. Even at church. It’s easy to lose peace just about anywhere, if I take my eyes off of Jesus.

So yes, I can be “wicked” too, in the moment.

Like my pastor said earlier, grace comes before peace. This is what he was talking about.

Heart and mind

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests by made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4:4-9

 

Rejoice.

Gentleness.

The Lord is near.

Prayer.

Thanksgiving.

Peace of God.

Hearts.

Minds.

Christ Jesus.

All of these ideas are connected. The peace of God is not just a heart thing; it’s not just a state of mind. It involves both, completely.

It involves rejoicing. How can we be angry at someone if we are rejoicing?

It involves gentleness. Righteous anger is a thing, but that should not be our lifestyle. We should be known as a gentle people. In today’s America, we Christians should stand out because of this. You know what I mean.

If peace involves relationship, it involves prayer, which is nothing more than communicating with God – both ways, talking and listening. I confess that I do not pray nearly as much as I should. My relationship with Him can be so much better. So can my peaceful lifestyle.

Instead of complaining about what we do not have, we should be thankful for what we do have. Many years ago I saw Third World poverty in southern Mexico. Each of us should take a trip like that at least once in our lifetime. I met people who don’t have running water in their homes. I saw people living in shacks on the side of inner-city buildings, or on top of inner-city buildings. Many didn’t have electricity. (I was surprised how many such people had televisions, even if they did not have a refrigerator. Everyone needs some form of entertainment, I guess.)

Our tap water is good. I can take a shower or wash the dishes whenever I want. We have a solid roof over our heads. We have money in the bank. I have good health.

I never want to take any of these things for granted. Like Job learned, all of those things are temporary and all can be taken away from me at any moment. When I die, I won’t be able to take any of that stuff with me to the next life anyway.

So, what is my priority?

Relationship with the living God. That will continue in the next life.

That also will give me peace in this life, right now. As long as I keep my eyes on Jesus.