What Does Your COVID Identity Look Like?

I’ve realized that I don’t like my “COVID self” as much as I liked my “pre-COVID self”.

For a variety of reasons I have find myself to be less self-disciplined now.  That was something I used to be pretty good at and something that I liked about being me; but my snacking and eating habits are not as good now as they used to be.

I’m also less motivated now than I used to be.  For example, I don’t wake up as early as before … without the deadline of getting kids to school there is less reason to wake-up at the same time I used to.

I’m not as productive working from home.  There are more distractions here.  It’s just not the same as being in the office.  An ability to really buckle down and get a lot down in a short amount of time was something that I liked about the old Dan.  I miss THAT guy.

I’m not particularly proud of my parenting skills right now either.  Yes, we’re getting by and making things work, but there is less of those little delightful moments when you do something really fun, and then feel like you’ve got this whole parenting thing.  Now, parenting is more surviving the day.

I’m not particularly proud of my husband-skills right now either.  Part of the old routine included a short but regular Friday afternoon date time.  The kids were still at school, and Rachel and I both took Friday afternoons off in order to re-connect and communicate without children around.

When the crisis first hit us back in March and everything was closing, there was a lot of problem solving to take care of.  I did work hard to figure out how to respond to the new situation, and learned some new technology too.  Now, I’m tired of zoom meetings.  Care-giving is harder with social distancing.  Worship services aren’t the same on live-stream.

I imagine that there are some out there who are really thriving.  Some who see the new opportunities and run after them.  Some who are taking this time to learn new skills and improve themselves.  I don’t put myself into that category.

However, as I’ve reflected on this lately—I’ve also realized that these are some new manifestations of old problems that have always been in my life.  I’ve always been sinful.  I’ve always been broken.  My own skills and abilities have always been limited.  I’ve never quite been able to live up to the high expectations that I set for myself as a husband, parent or professional.

And, while these problems come up in some new ways, there are still the same solutions.  I do have to come to the end of myself.  I do have to understand my brokenness and bring it to the cross.  I do have to rely less on myself and more on God … more on the Holy Spirit that He has given me.

The spiritual lessons here are the same kinds of lessons I’ve slowly been learning my whole life.  In different ways at different times I’ve needed to surrender to God.  I need to stop trying to pull everything together by myself.  I need to be honest and authentic before God and before others.  I need to rely on God’s strength, God’s wisdom, God’s love and God’s acceptance of me.

The same gospel is still the solution to these new circumstances, and it is still the good news for this COVID version of myself.  I will never be enough, but thanks to God’s grace, I don’t need to be.

 

Prosperity of the City

A very popular and well-known Bible verse is Jeremiah 29:11 “I know the plans I have for you”, declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

But, I bet we are less familiar with the context of this beautiful passage.  It comes from God to the Israelite exiles after they have been brought into captivity in Babylon.  And, God is telling them that in their sadness and heart-break of not being at home, they will still prosper in the midst of their hardship.    And, it’s not just the Israelites who should prosper either– their cities of exile should prosper too.  So, in verse 7 of this passage God also says, “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile.  Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers you too will prosper.”

When you read the whole chapter of Jeremiah 29, there is a connection between the prosperity of God’s people and the prosperity of their cities where they live.  They should want their land to prosper, because everyone benefits.  This is a part of God’s good plan for them.

Well, we are coming up to Tulip Time week in Holland.  And, I know that there are some with mixed feelings about Tulip Time – the extra crowds and traffic, for example—but, when our city prospers, so do we!

So, having no Tulip Time is another loss we are grieving this year.  Yes, we are missing out on some fun.  We are missing out on celebrating our town and our diverse people.  But, we are also missing the sizable economic boost Tulip Time brings to Holland.  And, when some in our city are suffering from the loss, we are all hurt by it.  When our city prospers, we all prosper.

One responsibility of God’s people in Babylon from Jeremiah 29 was to pray for their cities.  And, as citizens (or living nearby) to Holland, MI we also want to pray for our community.  I hope we will do that, and it is a part of our prayer guide for this week.

We also want to continue to look for ways that we can help our town and our neighbors to prosper.   We have all been given personalities, resources, and abilities that we can put to use for the good of our town.  So, as we pray for our city, let us also prayerfully consider what action steps we can take to help our town prosper.

I’ve previously talked about the Ottawa cares website to volunteer (careottawacounty.com) .  We’ve already discussed donating some of our stimulus checks to local non-profits.  There is so much more we can do!  We might also want to pick-up trash along the roads while we are out walking.  We might want to take extra time to talk with neighbors.  We might want to donate blood (there are blood drives coming up at Central Wesleyan and Central Park RCA).

Our mayor has told tourists not to come to Holland this year.  But, for us who live in Holland, the tulip blooms can still be enjoyed.  We can appreciate the beautiful colors of God’s creation.  We can find hope and joy in the promise of spring.  And, may they also remind us this year to seek the prosperity of our city.  We are sad for Tulip Time this year—but maybe we can find new joy in using what God has given us to give back, especially during a time of hardship for so many. 20200501_162418

The Struggle is Real

It was exactly six weeks ago on a Friday morning when I learned that schools would be closed (on March 13).  And, six weeks ago I heard that we would not be able to gather for Sunday worship.   Of course, six weeks is 42 days.

Well, some have pointed out that the word “quarantine” comes from the Latin word for 40.  It is the length of time a ship had to wait to dock because of the plague.

40 is also the approximate time for Lent.  When I give up things for Lent, it seems like a long time to go without—but it’s a manageable length of time.  I know that Easter is coming.  40 days seems like a manageable amount of time to handle a hardship.

But—now we are being pushed past the 40 number.  And, this week has been a hard one for me.  I’ve been patient for 6 weeks now—anticipating an end point.  Of course, I know that the recovery isn’t going to be like a light switch and suddenly turn on; and I know some things will not be the same for a long time.  But, at least I was looking forward to a re-start—a slow movement forward with signs of progress.  Six weeks was long enough.

Now, the stay-at-home order has been extended again.  The weather has also been cold, cloudy and it doesn’t feel like we’ve even moved forward with spring either.  It feels like we are stuck.

So, we see evidence of some people losing patience.  Patience is not my specialty either; and I’m losing patience too.  This is a time we can expect to be discouraged as we come toward our limits of patience. I also find that now at this point–I can be quick to anger.  I want to put my anger somewhere.  Find someone to blame.

I don’t want to be someone who glosses over these great challenges.  The struggle is real.  How do we handle our feelings of impatience, frustration or anger?

Well, we should know that the Bible never tells us that anger is wrong.  Jesus was angry sometimes.  Anger is neutral—it can be for good or for bad.  How we handle our anger is what is important.

So, as Christians we need to evaluate our anger.  Is it leading us into sinful actions or behaviors? Ephesians 4:26 doesn’t tell us not to be angry; but it says, “In your anger, do not sin.”

So—what are healthy and good ways to put our anger to use?  Engagement is one.  When we get angry we should get involved!  We should work toward change; and work in ways that are respectful and honoring to God.  This puts our anger to a positive use.

Another proper place to direct our anger is toward God, because God can handle our anger.  We see good examples in the Bible, (and especially in the Psalms) of people bringing their anger to God.  When we do this, God helps us to shape and direct our anger.  He helps us see in what ways our anger might be wrong or misplaced.

In one of this week’s readings from Psalm 52:8 the Psalmist declares, “But I am like an olive tree flourishing in the house of God.”  This is a great image … an image of a tree flourishing.  It reminds me also of Psalm 1 that those who walk in God’s ways are like “a tree planted by streams of water which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither.”

This is a dry season, but a righteous tree does not whither in a dry season because it is fed by a continual stream.  We may not be getting enough “rain” from the world right now.  We can’t rely on circumstances to keep us well-watered.  But, the Spirit provides the streams of living water.  This is not a time for Christians to whither or go dry.  Rather, it is a season to bear fruit.

Yes, this has been a hard week.  It’s a time we can’t rely on ourselves.  It’s a time we must rely on God and keep hope in Him.

 

The Essence of Church

With a stay-at-home order in place and an inability to gather as large groups for some time longer—the world might conclude that churches will not survive this and cease to exist.  Many have been predicting the demise of the church for quite some time, and now they have another reason to think so!

But, for those of us who are Christians, we already know that the church is more than a place to go.  The church first of all is God’s people, and where God’s people are … they take the church with them.  “We are the temples of the Holy Spirit.”  So, this crisis helps to remind us that the true church was never really a building, and that being a Christian is not mostly attending worship services.

Park Church in its vision statement has identified three fundamental pieces of living as “the church”.  It is “Growing Faith, Building Community, and Serving Others.”  In order to help me remember these 3 pieces, I summarize them with 3 “G” verbs : Grow, Gather and Go.

So- where the pandemic has challenged us the most is in the Gather part – the vision to “build community”.  Without a physical way to gather, and without programs to attend, we are indeed losing out on a part of what church should be.  The Bible tells Christians “not to give up meeting together” and we know that God wants his people to be together.  Since we know that this is God’s will for the church, we can have complete confidence that this situation will be temporary and at some point, God will allow his people to gather again.

In the meantime, we are doing our best to gather in other ways, while also acknowledging the limitations of these virtual gatherings and lamenting what we are missing.  God’s plan for worship does not reach its apex with facebook live.  He has better things in mind.

Yet, as we lament the challenge in our gathering–we also understand it is only one of three fundamental parts of church.  The church is also designed to help all of us to grow in our faith.  This can happen in many ways, but the Bible often links trials, challenges, and suffering with the growth of faith.  Our faith is refined like gold—through fire.  So, while our ability to gather is compromised, our potential for faith-growth has now been augmented.  This is an opportunity for us to lean into God’s Word, to seek God’s Spirit, to take advantage of the many resources available that can help us grow in the midst of trial.  The church should be able to come away from this crisis with a stronger and more vibrant faith.

Then, we also have the “Go” part of the church’s mission—to “serve others”.  So, we need to think about how to serve in a time of social distancing.  It’s different, but there are opportunities all around us.  There is still a great need for volunteers and a local website to direct you to those : www.careottawacounty.com .

Plus, while we are limited in some ways, we are also given other new opportunities.  For example, this is a great time to connect with neighbors.  Especially as the weather gets nicer, we see more people sitting in their driveways, or walking by our houses.  As long as we don’t stand close—we should see this as a time to engage with our neighborhood.  Many people do have more time to talk; and they might be wanting some human interaction!  So, walk in your neighborhood and ask people some questions.   Or, serve others by making those phone calls and writing letters and cards.  Pray that God will lead you to those who need some extra help.

We are now the church scattered, but really, even in normal times, when we receive the benediction, we are sent out to “go” for the rest of our week.  This has always been one of the essential elements of the church –to “equip the saints for service”.

So, if all a church did was to “gather”, then we would indeed be in a tough place.  But, church has always been more than gathering.  We need to think about growing faith and serving others too.

And we know that God promises that His church will prevail.  From now and through eternity, there will always be God’s church.

Intentional Church Culture

Last month in the Park Post I wrote about church culture.   Every church has a certain culture, and it is not always positive!  Some cultures may feel unfriendly, cliquish, or intolerant.  Some church cultures might be too serious and formal; while others might feel too casual or unprofessional.  A culture is shaped by the behaviors that are demonstrated, celebrated and tolerated.  So, sometimes a culture does not line-up with the stated values or goals of what a church hopes to be—a culture might be negative and unintentional.

So, here at Park, we want to be thoughtful, deliberate, and consistent when it comes to our culture.  We want to live out what we have said is important.

This summer the elders have discussed important parts of our church’s identity.  I’ve looked over these responses, and I’ve compared them to our stated core values, mission and vision.  We want to be about “growing in faith, building community, and going to serve others”.

But, we’ve considered not just what the church has written down on paper, but also how we have lived out our priorities.  What do our behaviors, programs and committees reveal about our culture?  It is also important to prayerfully consider what God wants from us.  Together this month, we’ve been looking at the 7 letters to the churches in Revelation and we’ve studied these to help us see, “What kind of church does Jesus want us to be?”

Now, in this Park Post we are revealing 9 important pieces of our church culture that we want to be intentional about.  This list isn’t trying to create something new.  It is a discovery process of what’s already here and what’s important; and then, trying to find a way to organize it, communicate it, and remember it.  It’s a list that also keeps us striving to improve.  We have plenty to learn and room to grow.

We have worked with a graphic artist (Cindy Mouw) to create some simple clip arts that will help us visualize our culture and priorities.  Now, in the coming months ahead, we hope to use this artwork and the concepts to dig into these categories more and to be clear and intentional with our congregation, and those who visit with us, the kind of church that we want to be.

I don’t consider all this to be a final product.  There may be adjustments, additions, or new ideas to include.  Plus, each category can be better defined.  For example—one priority is to “Make New Disciples through Relationships”.  Well, back in January and February we had a sermon series called “Missionary Training”.  We read together Yancey’s book Vanishing Grace, and discussed some Biblical values and strategies in reaching out.  On the last Sunday of that series, we had a commissioning to send all us out as missionaries.  Now, thinking about what we’ve already been learning, a next step is to write-out a clear strategy for our congregation to follow.  I want to take that value of “Making New Disciples” and expand it and better explain it—with the help and feedback of the outreach team.

So, our goal is bring more clarity, more intentionality, and more focus to our church culture here at Park.

Park Ministry Focus – pdf chart

Our Park Church Focus in Winter 2019

During the fall of 2018 we had a focus on prayer; and as a church we were challenged and blessed by the “Bible in a Year” readings.  Emphasizing these spiritual disciplines has been fruitful.  We are building a foundation of faith, and certainly these themes still carry over into a new year.  We want to grow our culture of prayer, and plan to still create a prayer team and organize a prayer vigil.  We want to keep studying and reading God’s Word in personal study and meditation.

But now heading into 2019, we start building on this foundation.  We are going to be spending the first couple of months here with a focus on outreach.  I want all of us at Park to see ourselves as missionaries—called and sent by Jesus—even if we’re living in Holland and getting a paycheck from something else; or even if we don’t have the gift of evangelism, or are introverts—all believers are still missionaries!

When Jesus gathered his disciples, one of the first things he told them was, “I will make you fishers of men.”  During his 3 years of ministry, he trained them and prepared them.  Then, after Easter, he tells them, “Now I’m sending you.”  And, his last words come in the famous Great Commission: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them…and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”  The strategy of Jesus is clear: he was making disciples who would make disciples.  And, this is still our strategy.  Equipping and preparing believers for this work is a vital function of the church today.

So, several sermons in the upcoming year are going to focus on equipping the congregation to be disciple-makers.  There are so many Bible texts on this subject, and many important lessons, and we certainly can’t cover everything.  But, the hope is to cover some fundamental and practical outreach skills with specific challenges and steps along the way.

To help build on the sermons, the Park congregation will also be working through a book together.  After considering a few options, I decided on Philip Yancey’s book “Vanishing Grace: Bringing Good News to a Deeply Divided World”.  This book considers, “How can Christians make a positive, grace-filled difference in a world of desperate need?”  We have ordered 75 books, which will be given away at church on January 6 and 13.  Then, starting on January 14 we will provide recommended readings for each week that correspond with the sermon topics.  75 books are a lot, but still not enough for every family.  Those who prefer e-readers or tablets can purchase their own e-book version of the book; or some might consider ordering one of your own (especially if both the husband and wife want their own copy).

I am intentionally moving from a prayer focus first to an outreach focus now, because there is no outreach without prayer.  In the “Park Outreach Guidelines” that the outreach team is working on, the first step of outreach is praying for discipleship opportunities.  If you have people in your life currently, who need to draw closer to Jesus, start by writing down those names and praying consistently for them.  Or, if you are currently lacking discipleship relationships, ask God to show you opportunities and to bring new people into your life.  That is where we will get started and build our outreach from there.

We can do this.  The disciples were ordinary, unschooled men.  They became “disciples-who-made- disciples” because the Holy Spirit gave them the words and the ability.  And, Paul then tells the next generation of Christians, “Christ has committed to us the message of reconciliation.  We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.”  We are Christ’s ambassadors today.  We are missionaries.

vanishing grace

What Do We Expect from our Members?

 

Every September Park Church reports to the Christian Reformed denomination our current membership data.  “Ministry Shares” that we pay to support the missions of the denomination and support our Classis Holland regional ministries are based on the number of our “active adult members”.  Do you have any idea how many active adult members we count at Park Church?

As of September 1, that number is 214.  We have added some new members in the past year, but our total number is down slightly—mostly because of young adults who have graduated from college and have moved away, and therefore no longer counted as active members.

Now—the next question.  If you are indeed one of those 214 members of Park Church, what is expected of you?  Basically, being a member means a higher level of commitment to the church.  In their profession of faiths, members make covenant promises before God and the congregation to be committed to growing in Jesus and a commitment to the church.   Only members can vote, can serve on the church council or hold a few other teaching or leadership positions.  At least one parent must be a member in order to have their children baptized.

When a person becomes a member, they allow the church and others to hold them to account.  Accountability could be seen as a negative thing in our world, but accountability is necessary for spiritual growth.  Spiritual growth happens in the context of commitments to God and His church.

Church membership comes with some responsibilities:

First, we expect our members to make attendance at Sunday worship a priority.  We’ve encouraged our shepherds to try to note church attendance and to follow-up with those who we haven’t seen for awhile.

Second, we expect all our members to be ready and prepared to share their faith with others (I Peter 3:15).  As our “great commission”, every member should be able to identify at least one person you are discipling—bringing someone closer to Jesus.  It is also part of the church’s job to help equip our members so you feel ready and prepared.  We will be spending several weeks in sermons on this topic coming up in 2019.

Third, we also expect our members to use their gifts and competencies to serve others. Therefore, our members should be involved in something going on at church in addition to being here on Sunday mornings.  And, there are so many ways to get involved.  Near the church mailboxes on the east side of the church lobby, there is a bulletin board with “involvement” response sheets.  These sheets don’t list all the volunteer opportunities, but it is a good starting point.  And, if you are a member, and not currently volunteering in anyway at Park, I’d like to talk with you and help you find something.  The church is a body of Christ, and all the parts have a role.

Fourth, we expect our members to give back financially.  There are many great causes to support, and for members, one of those places to support is your church.  Our finance team has started tracking and reporting what percentage of our active adult members give over the course of a year.  Of course, the goal is 100%, and that should be an attainable goal.  Adult members should be able to give something financially, even if it is a modest amount.  We all have obstacles to giving, but it is a part of our spiritual health and growth.  If you are a member, and have decided not to give to Park Church for some reason, that is something you should let your shepherd or a deacon know.

Finally, in addition to these 4 things, we also urge all Park members to be in a small group Bible study or prayer group of some kind (does not need to be a Park Church small group).  In addition to the bigger Sunday morning gatherings, we need to have these smaller “supportive communities” in our life for spiritual growth.

So, if you are one of the 214 current active adult members, consider these 5 specific areas that we expect from our members.  You can contact me, Pastor Dan, with any questions or concerns.