Friday, June 29, 2007

A Quiet Place

Now, understand, I was born and raised in the suburbs of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Hence, I consider myself a city kid for the most part, at least in comparison to my wife who literally grew up in a "village." Anyway, last year at this time and nearly 7 years since we left Grand Rapids, Cara and I and our then four children (we now have five) made our way back to Grand Rapids to pastor a church in Grandville, Michigan.

I've always loved the opportunity to get away and get spiritually recharged for the tasks and challenges that lie ahead. Most recently, I tried to do this with little initial success. First, I went to a place with plently of walking trails and plenty of benches along the way. The only problem is that every quiet bench I found was amidst the blazing sunlight. On this day, shade was no where to be found. Not to mention that the benches felt like sitting in the most uncomfortable church pew imaginable.

After hanging out here for an hour or so, I got in my car and began to think on some other places I could go. A lake in another suburb setting came to mind and so I made my way in that direction. When I got there, scores of people lined the shores and I quickly realized no "quiet" place would be found there. Again, I got in my car and slowly began to realize that the "old faithful" would have to do. I then made my way over to the local library where I found a "quiet" corner and studied. When in doubt, the local library is still a great place to find a quiet hour or two.

I would be curious where you've been able to get away to find some quiet time? Was it a library or somewhere even more reclusive? For those of us in the city, it's a bit of a challenge to say the least.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Outreach 101

A couple of weeks ago, I found myself walking into one of the large pharmacy chains that seems to be on just about every corner (in my neck of the woods anyway) and I was greeted with a warm and friendly "hello" not just from one person, but two at the same time! At first I thought that it was strange and then I realized that that particular day was their Grand Opening. They were all about making a good first impression when a new customer entered the store. Sounds alright by me. Anyway, only about two weeks later, I found myself back at the same store looking for some other odds and ends. When I walked through the door this time, however, nobody greeted me. In fact, I was the first one to say "hello" as I walked by the manager who was more interested in loading the shelves with product than to help me find what I was searching for.

I say all of this because the church acts this way too. When a church is trying to attract "customers" in its early stages of growth, their all about reaching out. Their all about doing things to bring new people into the church. In fact, that is often their primary focus. However, over time, we begin to move into maintenance mode where church becomes all about "us" as opposed to "them." The newness has worn off and our focus so easily shifts from the outside to the inside. In light of this, it would seem like a good idea for the church to always operate like it's our Grand Opening. Then, perhaps, church would be gaining customers rather than losing them.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Bite of Criticism

While I was recently reading through the book of Job, I was reminded of the dangers and disastrous effects that often come through criticism. Now, of course, criticism does play a valid role in our society as it reminds us of where we've gone awry and what we need to do in order to get back on course. It helps us in areas in which we need to grow and develope our skills and abilities in. We would call this sort of criticism the "constructive" type. We've all faced this form of criticism at one time or another in our life. If you haven't, then I'm not sure where your from! And, as you probably know, even constructive criticism (i.e. smile more, say it this way instead, you could be a better student if....) is tough to take. In some way, we feel that we've been violated and that we've been told that there is something wrong with us. Nonetheless, this form of criticism is supposed to help us and if often does if it is given and received in the proper way.

However, there is another form of criticism that I'll call the "Biting" kind that literally tears us up inside and can linger on in our memory for years - maybe even a lifetime (I don't know yet). It's the form of criticism that makes even the most gentle of us turn defensive in a big hurry. And, this is precisely the form of criticism that we see playing out with Job and his three "friends" in the opening chapters of the book bearing his name. Upright Job has been saddled with some pretty big obstacles to overcome. At first it was simply (or not so simply) trying to overcome the loss of his children, his livestock, and some other material possessions. Even through all that, Job continues to revere God despite his own wife's comments to curse him instead. Then, Job is tested a second time, only this time he's riddled with boils from head to foot - I would imagine that this was not a pleasant condition to say the least. Yet, despite all of this, Job only curses his birth. He then goes on to ask the difficult "why" type questions that I know I would have been asking if under the same sort of conditions. No, in fact, I would have probably cursed God by that point. Anyway, getting back to Job, he didn't curse God and yet he wasn't afraid to ask God some of the tough questions.

By this point in the story, Job's three friends have arrived and it's Eliphaz that responds first to what he's just heard Job say. Interestingly enough, Eliphaz first condemns Job for needing some encouragement. Job was apparently known for offering others words of encouragement but is now wavering himself when trouble strikes a little to close to home. I'm not sure about you, but this is probably not the first thing I'd want to hear out of the mouth of one of my supposed friends. Not to mention that Job's own wife was already criticizing him for his continued worship of God despite such grave circumstances. Then, as if that wasn't enough criticism to hear, Eliphaz essentially tells Job that he's a sinner. "Things like this don't happen to the just and upright. That's not how God works," Eliphaz is saying. Job, who knows his own heart better than anyone, including his wife and his closest friends, says otherwise.

All this to say, criticism like this hurts. It "bites" down hard and is equally hard to forget. When the story ends, Job has been given back more than he's lost (with the exception of his children who were killed). Still, I'm not sure he ever forgot the criticism that came from his wife or his friend Eliphaz. For the readers of this book in it's entirety, you know that even more criticism follows in the remainder of the 42 chapters. I say all this because I'm concerned with the scars that our "bite" can have on others. It's easy to criticize - let's make no qualms about it. It's part of our propensity to gossip and wanting to talk about the speck in others while we ignore the much larger log in our own life. Nonetheless, it's not right and it's not helpful, only hurtful. If your going to criticize, do so in a loving way. By doing so, you'll be remembered in a far better light than if your criticize with a bite. Scars take years to heal if they ever fully heal on this side of heaven.