Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Rural Opportunity

Our congregation is situated in downtown Grand Rapids. The theme for us this year is really a question: What does it mean to be a downtown church? I think it’s a great question and a great theme because it begs us to look beyond our walls to our context and consider how to engage and serve well in that particular context.

Part of that context includes the numerous homeless people, soup kitchens, and shelters that are within blocks of our church. These places are not an unusual feature of the downtown landscape. Most people
realize that urban areas must reckon with poverty and the issues that go along with it. Social justice movements frequently focus on urban areas and these sorts of issues. Likewise, young people and churches interested in social justice also tend to zero in on urban areas or, alternatively, third world countries.

Recently, National Geographic magazine ran an article on hunger in America. One of the “faces of hunger” the article mentions is the working and rural poor. The article notes that this group of people is not the “face” most people tend to think of.  It points out, “as the face of hunger has changed, so has its address.” About ten years ago, the government even replaced the word “hunger” with the term “food insecure” to describe these sorts of households.

Rural and suburban poverty are both similar to and different from urban poverty. Questions about access to health care, food, and transportation, for example, are often more easily addressed in an urban context.

So what does all this have to do with the church?


Like many governmental agencies, many denominational agencies focus primarily on urban areas and offer help based on an urban model that it not well suited to the particular needs of rural America. My own denomination has many churches that are situated in suburban and rural areas where these problems tend to be overlooked because they are less visible.

So maybe the question my own church is asking is a question all of our churches should be asking. What does it mean to be a rural/suburban church? How might our rural/suburban church be particularly well situated to serve this newer face of hunger in America? What services can we provide to reach out in Christ’s love to those in need, a demographic that might be harder to identify in rural areas than in urban areas?

Its worth thinking about.

Thursday, August 21, 2014


As I mentioned in my last blog, my husband and I recently returned from a vacation I have dreamed about taking for many years.

You see, I love the wilderness and the unspoiled beauty of God’s world that can be experienced in the wilderness and my husband has grown to love it as well.

So this year, we went back to the place I was born – Northern British Columbia. In fact, we went as far as the southern tip of Alaska.

We are accustomed to hiking in places where we may not see another human being for ½ hour or sometimes even more. But we are not used to driving in places as remote as this area of the North American continent. There were a number of days where we could drive for 20 minutes or even more
never having encountered another car, truck, or other sign of human life.

One of the things I was struck by as we drove and hiked and walked in this remote area, was the vastness of God’s creation. I’m pretty sure the bears outnumbered us. In this northern wilderness, my husband and I were not even dots on a map. Its easy to feel pretty insignificant in a place like that.

And then at night – I wish a picture could capture those nights – the sky filled with stars so bright and close and numerous, I could not help but proclaim in a way similar to the psalmist, ‘who am I that you are mindful of me?’

That sentiment is the central theme of Psalm 8.

Here is what the psalmist writes in verses 3-4:

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers,
The moon and the stars which you have set in place,

What is man that you are mindful of him,
The son of man that you care for him?

In the parallel set of phrases of verse 4 the psalmist ponders why God cares for us.

Another way to translate the first reference to “man” is “weak creatures.” So we might just as well say, ‘Who are these “weak creatures,” these sons and daughters of Adam – that original, fallen human?’ Why should God single humans out from this vast creation which includes the angels in heaven? Why should he care for us? 

As John Calvin writes in his commentary on this Psalm, “God was under no necessity of choosing men who are but dust and clay.”

Curiously, the psalmist does not answer this question. He simply affirms that God is, in fact, mindful of us and cares for us. Or, slightly more literally, God remembers us and takes account of us.

Out of the whole creation, God remembers us. God remembers you.

You don’t have to be in the wilderness to feel insignificant. Sometimes we feel the most insignificant in a crowded room, or maybe even at church.

At those times, we should read Ps. 8 and remind ourselves that we are remembered. The God who formed the oceans, who pushed up the mountains, and made the vast array of plants, animals, and the stars in the sky has chosen to be mindful of us, of you and of me.

Calvin says we should be astonished, deeply affected and grateful at this miracle.


LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! (Ps. 8)

Adapted from a chapel talk given at Calvin Theological Seminary, Aug. 19, 2014.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Family of God

My husband and I just returned from what for me was the vacation of a lifetime. It was the vacation I had always hoped to take someday and someday finally came. I still feel a little overwhelmed by it all, and its not because of jet lag. This will likely not be the only post associated with this trip.

You see, we went to my birthplace, a little town in northern British Columbia called Houston and along the way, we spent some time in a number of Canadian national parks, and took a side trip to Alaska. My husband said I took him to the middle of nowhere and then went north. That's a fairly accurate description of the location of this little community. It is surrounded by pristine, unspoiled wilderness full of wildlife the likes of which we rarely see, even in U.S. national parks.

I have not been there since I was a child, and yet it was a home-going of sorts. The border agent told me I am Canadian despite my American passport. Fair enough. I was born in Canada.

My parents had asked me to call some friends of theirs in Houston, just to say hello. I did not call all of the people they asked me to but I did call one couple whose four year old son had been my father's first funeral as a young, inexperienced pastor. They invited us for dinner and welcomed us as if we were family telling us to send their love to my parents. She even sent us home with two jars of Huckleberry Apple Jelly!

We walked along the Bulkley River, just down the street from where my first home had been some fifty-plus years ago. I saw the home of our neighbor, whose children were good friends of my older brother and sister. I remembered on a trip back to the area with my parents, my brother and his friend Daniel built a raft out of big inner-tubes and plywood and went floating down the river. It was an adventure Huck Fin could have envied. And I wondered as we walked around if my sister loved the mountains so much because this place was where she lived and ran and played before she lost her sight.

We visited with a friend of mine who I met through a creation care committee we both served on. She and her husband took us on a tour of the backcountry better than anything we could have paid for in the various tourist destinations we stopped in later on our trip. And again, we were welcomed with open arms, as if we were family. They took the time to introduce us to their kids, and one of their siblings who happened to stop by. All seemed glad to have us in their home despite the fact that they had just gotten home from vacation themselves.

So maybe this really was a home-going. For my parents, who often felt called to serve in places that were far from family, the church became family. That was true for us as children as well. We rarely had grandparents or aunts or uncles close by, but we had our church. These people were, and I now realize still are, my family, brothers and sisters in Christ, the family of God. And isn't that at least in part what union with Christ is all about?

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

50 is the new......50

I seem to rather frequently read phrases like the following: x (some particular age) is the new y (some particular age that is at least 10 years younger than x). These statements never fail to humor me. In some cases – 40 is the new 20 – they seem to be thinly veiled rationalizations for continuing to behave like an adolescent long after one should have left that sort of behavior behind. In other cases – 50 is the new 30 – they seem to be simply delusional. In every case, it is not at all clear what might be meant.

Since I am in the 50-something category, I feel free to weigh in on the latter statement. At 30, I was in the midst of bearing children. I had two children already and, unbeknownst to me, would have one more before that part of life was over.

At 50, I would frankly be horrified if God approached me as he did Sarah of old and told me I was going to give birth to a child. While those years were wonderful and I look nostalgically and with a certain amount of envy at those who are at that stage, I would not be keen on trying to bear and raise a child at my age, with the relentless demands and sleepless nights that entails. One week with my 4 month old grandson back in April was enough to clue me in to the fact that I am not what I was at 30.

Yard work and house work are another area of dissonance with the statement. Last fall, my husband and I helped our son and his wife weed, rake, and generally clean up their yard. They are relatively new to owning a home and we thought it would be fun. It was fun! We spent a beautiful fall Saturday with them, talking and laughing and getting the job done.

Then came Sunday morning. We are both in good physical shape. Both of us work out regularly, are not overweight, and enjoy physical labor. But getting out of bed was a considerable challenge. I had no idea that sitting up would be like trying to fold a two-by-four in half. I felt like someone had starched my body and nothing short of a hoist attached to the ceiling would be able to get me upright. The activity that may have given me a sore muscle or two at 30, had left me needing to stretch for 15 minutes just to get moving at 50-something. I am not 30 any more.

And then there is my body. Don’t worry. I won’t go into too many details. But the sad truth is, that no matter how much I exercise and take care of myself, this body ain’t what it used to be. It has sags where there were none and dimples on areas where they don’t belong. I used to pluck the occasional stray eyebrow but now I occasionally find one of these on my chin! And then there are those annoying personal summers, you know, those times when it feels like someone turned the thermostat up to 120 but only you are the victim? If this is the new 30, I’ll take the old 30 thank you very much.

All of this light-hearted reflection is simply to reinforce the point that I am not some new version of 30. I am 50-something. Denying that reality by claiming that this is the “new 30” does nothing to change the facts. Despite all the changes and losses, however, two things have not changed. I am still me – Mary – and I am still a beloved child of God who is called to reflect his glory to the world every minute of every day of every year of life that he chooses to give me.

The road forward will be one of increasing decline in physical strength and ability, and perhaps also in mental ability. That is a fact of aging. But I know that God, “who created my inmost being,” will continue to be with me on this journey to old age, giving me the strength for each new day.  “Even to your old age and gray hairs, I am he, I am he who will sustain you.” Isaiah 46:4

Monday, June 23, 2014


“Where are you from?”

For some of us, that is a loaded question. Quite often, I answer with the town I currently live in and then the next question comes: “Is that where you grew up?”


The fact is, as a preacher’s kid, I grew up in several places. Most have good memories associated with them. One, perhaps because of the age I happened to be when we moved, not such pleasant memories. None are exactly what I would call home. Home has tended to be wherever my family was. I lack the sort of rootedness that my husband and my own children grew up with.

The funny thing is, there is one place that I never lived yet seems to feel the most like home to me. That place is south-central Iowa. This is the area where my parents grew up and where most of my extended family still lives. It is the place my parents always referred to as “home” on our many trips back there.

It is a place where I have always felt welcome. Always.

From the time I was a very small girl until just last week when I was in Pella, I have always felt like these people – my grandmas and grandpas, my aunts, uncles,  and cousins – are my people. They have known me my whole life. Not many others have. They are happy to see me and my family when we are able to drop by. In fact, they go out of their way to spend time with us, eat together, and talk together.

South-central Iowa is the place where I feel a connection beyond my immediate family. My people inhabit the various small towns around this area, teach in the schools, work in the factories and on the farms, and even rest in the graveyards, one of which offers a beautiful view of my grandfather’s farm. These connections becomes clear through the various casual conversations I had while I was in town.

‘Where are you from?’

‘Well, I never lived here but my family is from here…..’ And so the connections begin.

My roots are deep in rich Iowa farmland and I can feel that depth when I am here. And I love it.

Its funny, but I feel the same way when I walk into a Christian church. Maybe it is because church was the closest thing to an extended family that I had nearby while growing up. Or perhaps it is because the bloodline of Christ that connects us as Christians is richer and deeper than any physical connection, even the beautiful connection of a richly textured extended family in south central Iowa.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Remembering Those Who Served

A couple of weeks ago on Memorial Day weekend my husband and I spent a few days at our daughter's home in Virginia. She and her husband live in an area that has a population that is about 70% military or formerly military. In short, this is an interesting area to visit on a day that the U.S. remembers those who have served our country in this way.

One of the things we did that weekend was to take a boat tour of the Elizabeth River harbor. This is a giant harbor with numerous shipping yards and docks. We were fascinated learning about the industry and watching tugboats maneuver huge container ships in and out of the loading areas. The most fascinating area of the harbor however, is Naval Station Norfolk.

Naval Station Norfolk is the largest U.S. naval base in the world. It is home to more than 100,000 people. Our tour took us past numerous ships that were in port including four submarines that we likely would not have noticed had the guide not pointed them out. But my favorite ships by far were the two Nimitz Class aircraft carriers that were docked that weekend.

These ships are the size of small towns. They are propelled by two nuclear reactors, carry up to 6,000 crew members, and (if I am remembering correctly) ascend more than 12 stories out of the water. In fact, as we drive to our daughter's apartment we must cross the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel. On our first visit to the area, we came through at night and thought what we saw were the lights of buildings but they were the lights of the ships. Our guide described these amazing ships as "97,000 tons of floating diplomacy." Indeed.

Of course even as I write what the guide said I know that some people will be offended for any number of reasons. Some might even think that a statement like that is anti-Christian noting that Christ's power was demonstrated in the weakness of the cross.

Fair enough.

But last Friday was the 70th anniversary of D-day, the beginning of the end of Hitler's reign of terror in Europe. My uncle, who passed away some years ago, was one of the men on the beach of Normandy 70 years ago.

As I read the stories of the few remaining survivors of that day, I was struck by their self-sacrifice. These people put their lives on the line to free the occupied countries of Europe, an action that also brought an end to the brutal imprisonment and slaughter of men, women, and children whom Hitler had deemed not worthy to live. And of course, in the stories of the survivors I also heard the stories of those who did not survive that day.

I have lived in a time of relative peace. I am apt to forget the sacrifices of those who gave their lives in Europe, and the hardships of those who remained home to support them. What I do know is that while someday we will beat our swords into plowshares, that day is not yet here and will not be until Christ comes again. So until that day, I am thankful for the 97,000 tons of floating diplomacy, and all those who have served and are serving in our armed forces so that freedom can continue to ring in the country I call home.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

My Sister

Today is my sister’s birthday. She was born 59 years ago. She died 20 years ago. I have missed her.

As I reflect on her life and contemporary discussions about disabilities, so many questions come to my mind. You see, she was blind – not from birth, but from about age seven on. She had a brain abscess that nearly killed her and ultimately took most of her sight from her. She was completely blind in her right eye and had less than 10% of normal vision in her left eye.

Today even the word “disability” has come under scrutiny. Some of this is for good reason. Often those who are disabled have been sidelined by society for any number of reasons. Society (including the church) has, in fact, made judgments about what disabled people can or cannot do. The same was true for my sister.

She earned her bachelor’s degree and then went on to the University of Michigan and earned her M.S.W. But when she would apply for jobs, she often was passed over because “you really can’t do this work with your handicap.” In other words, she wasn’t even given a chance. That really ticked her off.

Nonetheless, she would never have suggested that her blindness was not a handicap of sorts, any more than my chronic asthma is not a disability of sorts; only that it should not be the first or only thing she should be judged by. In her day, she fought for equal access for those with disabilities, be that access to “talking books,” or ramps and elevators for buildings, or whatever. She wanted disabled people like herself to have as many opportunities as were possible to live into their vocation as independently possible.

The language has changed. Today, a word like handicap or disability must be used with caution. In sociological and theological circles there are those who suggest that they will have their disability in the new heavens and earth. This is puzzling to me and I think it would be puzzling to my sister.

Not only does this sort of thinking raise serious questions about the healing miracles of Jesus, it also raises questions about texts like Is. 35:5-6, “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened.” We read this text at Judy’s funeral because we knew that she longed to see. Especially color. She could see deep blue a little. And she loved that color. I expect that she would have found little comfort knowing that someday, in the new heavens and earth, she would still not be able to see things like birds, colors, and mountains, but that the societal barriers to being blind would no longer be in place, one of the more prevalent arguments for continued disability that affirms a healing of sorts. I think she thought that there was more to ultimate healing than that, given the way she talked about it.

And I think she was right.