Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be

August 16, 2018

From the Desk of Pastor Matt…

For nearly three years, the name “Nancy Zivkovich” has been uttered in prayerful petition from the pulpit of First Reformed Church. Nancy was technically not a communicant member of the church, but her mother Dottie and her brother Brian are, and for the last several years as Nancy battled brain cancer, we claimed her as our own.  Throughout her journey, we fervently prayed for Nancy.  Thousands of prayers were lifted up, countless cards were sent to Dottie and the rest of the family and many visits and meals and loaves of banana bread were given to this family for the last nearly three years.  Can you just imagine having brain cancer for three years?

Perhaps I should simply state the painfully obvious for the sake of giving space for grief to set in: this is not how things are supposed to be. Let me say that again.  This is not how things are supposed to be.  Parents should not be burying their children, it should be the other way around.  Mothers should not be leaving their daughters, it should be daughters leaving their mothers for colleges and jobs.  Husbands should be planning twenty-five year wedding anniversaries, not planning their wife’s funeral service.  No, my friends, this is not how things are supposed to be.

Yet even despite this, it’s not the end. For those who know and love Jesus, it’s not over.  This is not the end.  It’s not emptiness and nothingness and hollowness.  No matter how dark the night of the soul, no matter how painful the grief, no matter how many Kleenex boxes we go through, our God is a God who never leaves us and never forsakes us.  In a lot of ways, that’s the heartbeat of the Christian faith; my friends.  Not that life will always be rainbows and roses, or that cancer won’t come calling, or even that wives and moms of two beautiful girls won’t be taken away from us.  No, the promise is that right smack dab in the middle of this unthinkable pain, our God is a God who is with us.  By the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, our God is with us.

During the funeral I attempted to remind them of that comfort. It was especially hard when sitting in the front row with a grieving father to see him trying to make sense of this madness while at the same time trying to be a rock for his two girls, ages 18 and 23.  I reminded them that God was indeed with them throughout this journey.  God was with Rod as he took the graveyard shift and held his dying wife’s hand through the night as she laid in a hospital bed.  God was with the girls as they took on the role of caregivers and daughters and supporters.  And God was with Nancy through all the appointments, through all the treatments, through all the good reports and all the bad reports.  Our God is a God who is with us.

Think about this. So often when we gather in the sanctuaries of funeral homes for memorial services for loved ones, we naturally think of our own grief.  But go ahead and put yourself in Nancy’s position.  Think about what she was thinking and what she was going through, what she cared about the most.  As a wife, daughter, mother, sister and friend lying on her couch-binge watching HGTV with brain cancer wreaking havoc all over her body, Nancy knew the importance of Jesus.  This was a beautiful woman staring death in the face, knowing she had hours, not days, to live and in those precious and few moments, what Nancy knew she could count on, what she longed for in the depths of her soul, what she knew was awaiting her, was Jesus.  We all know that death will come for us all, but let’s face it, we don’t think about death as imminent. But for Nancy it was.  She knew the sands of her life’s hourglass were running out and in those honest moments where things are their realest and rawest, Nancy longed for Jesus.  No more pain.  No more suffering.  No more brain cancer or hospice beds, or mountains of pills.  Just Jesus.  Just heaven.  Just eternal peace.  Thanks be to God.

Grace & Peace,

Pastor Matt

Thirty Years or Three Months?

August 9, 2018

From the Desk of Pastor Matt…

Does it feel like thirty-years or three months? That was the question I posed to Rich and Monty Riddering as we sat together in the “Pub Area” of the Symphony Rehabilitation Facility in Dyer, IN (yes, a rehab place has a pub area complete with beer taps and a piano for live music!).  Rich and Monty have been on a three-month journey with one health challenge after another.  In the last three months, Rich spent only one-half night at home and was admitted to three different hospitals (one of which was an international hospital in St. Lucia that had all of eighteen rooms and livestock wandering around the hospital grounds).  He also enjoyed a ride in a beautiful new ambulanceJ.

Rich and Monty had originally set out to St. Lucia for their granddaughter’s destination wedding. Before leaving, Rich said he just didn’t feel like himself, but thought it was more of a “mind over matter” sickness and that he’d be fine.  Well, turns out he wasn’t fine.  In fact, lurking deep within Rich’s body was an infectious cyst that was slowly leaking poison into his body.  When the doctors at the University of Chicago finally figured out what was causing Rich all these problems and prohibiting him from getting any better, they charted an aggressive course of antibiotics and physical therapy.  That was a month ago.

Through it all, Rich’s wife Monty has been by his side.  She’s thankful Rich is finally closer to their home making her commute a little easier.  Sitting with the Ridderings is a joy.  Their laughter is contagious, so much so that we all agreed that laughter is one of God’s great medicines for the body and soul.  And, if you know the Ridderings, their sense of humor has been passed down to their adult children, Kim and Rick aka “the Riddler.”  So, when I asked them if it felt like thirty-years or three-months, they immediately said, “more like thirty-years!”  I can imagine that after three-months of hospital food, therapy sessions, the annoying “beeping” noises going off at all hours of the day, that Rich is indeed looking forward to being home.  And I can imagine that after three months of excursions through parking lots, trying to parse out “doctor-language,” and be an advocate for Rich, who sometimes has his hearing aids in and sometimes he doesn’t, Monty too is eager for him to come home.

Sometimes time goes by slowly.  Most of the time, it goes by really, really, fast.  We blink and we just celebrated communion reminding us another first Sunday of the month has passed.  I saw a thing on the news where some stores are already putting out Halloween candy?!  And Willem, who turns seven today, started school this past Tuesday.  Yes, time goes by really fast.  And while I’m sure Rich and Monty would much rather have time fast-forward through the last three months, perhaps even in the more challenging times, we should slow down and be more present and in the moment.  Enjoy the taste of fresh sweetcorn picked earlier in the day.  Enjoy the thirty minutes before bedtime to go out and play catch with your kids.  Enjoy the kindness of a spouse or the smile of a friend.  Enjoy the health and freedom to watch the news or read the paper.  Enjoy the quiet space each morning before the frenzy of each day.

Don’t you think that often we’re looking ahead, planning ahead, and preparing for the future?  Friends, time flies fast enough.  Slow down and enjoy today.  My guess is there are gifts from God waiting for each of us to enjoy today.  Gifts that we are usually too busy or distracted to enjoy.  Gifts that are perhaps far more important than big trips or work projects or the end of a long round of radiation.  Good things for today.  So, go ahead and keep an eye open for one of those gifts today.  You just might be surprised what you experience.  Take it from Rich and Monty, three-months feels a lot more like thirty years.

Grace & Peace,

Pastor Matt

The Floss

August 2, 2018

From the Desk of Pastor Matt…

Dear Church,

Have you heard of “The floss”?  Don’t feel bad if you haven’t, this is a dance that apparently all the kids at Will’s school are doing.  Now, please hear this in the gracious spirit in which it is written coming from the perspective of a 35-year-old white male with two left feet.  Maybe it’s that Willem attends a predominantly African-American school, but for some reason unbeknown to me, he is a really good dancer.  Come to think of it, ever since he was three when he danced the night away at my brother Mark’s wedding, he has always had a double portion of rhythm when it comes to dancing.  The Floss.  The Plunger.  The Shoe.  Some dance with moves called “duff” and “bop.”  I seriously have no idea about this stuff, but he’s all about it.

So back to “The Floss.”  It’s basically a dance where you swing your hips and sway your arms in opposite directions.  Will is obsessed.  Like obsessed.  He does this dance subconsciously.  We’ll just find him for no apparent reason just “Flossing.”  And, lest you think he’s the only little boy out there Flossing, at the end-of-the-year baseball picnic there were nearly fifty kids aged six, seven and eight, all Flossing at the same time in the park.  I just shook my head.  Now the new game is to see if Sarah and I can “Floss.”  So, we’ve had dance offs.  I’m thankful these have not been recorded.  One day I had Will slow his flossing down and teach me how to do it.  I think I was getting close…maybe.  All I do know is that I was way better than Sarah whose latest attempt at the floss looked more like she was trying to hula-a-hoop while swatting a fly.

Trying new things is hard, isn’t it?  We don’t like to do things we’re not good at.  And when we’re not comfortable with something, we’re certainly less likely to try it and certainly not comfortable with keeping at it.  I was just thinking about that recently at an Elders meeting when I was sharing with them a challenge for them to look into their circle of influence and pick out someone whom they could invite to worship with them.  For many of us, that “ask” isn’t normal.  And even though it’s a real easy question, it doesn’t flow easily from our lips.  It’s hard for many of us who grew up going to church, or participating in the life of the church, or consistently attending worship; it was just something you did and so did seemingly everyone else.

Obviously, that is not the case anymore.  And while we could debate the reasons for that decrease, let’s just acknowledge that decrease exists and also acknowledge that unless the Holy Spirit moves in a super mighty way, directing individuals who just so happen to be driving up South Park Avenue at around 9:20am on a Sunday morning with the thought to drive right into our parking lot, perhaps a more likely on-ramp is for us to learn how to invite our friends, neighbors, or co-workers to worship with us.

I’ve only been half joking during my recent sermons about how easy it is for us to talk about the weather and so uncomfortable for us to talk about our faith or invite someone to worship with us.  I said, “half joking.”  So, give it a try.  Find someone in your circle of influence and try something that doesn’t come naturally to us by asking them to join you for worship and Holy Communion this Sunday morning.  In a lot of ways, much about the Christian faith doesn’t necessarily come naturally for us.  We need to slow down and learn these practices of prayer, devotion, worship, silence and service.  I highly doubt Jesus would advocate the motto, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”  Paul, Zacchaeus and Peter -to name a few- all learned new tricks after coming to know Jesus.  And if their lives aren’t testimony enough, consider the fact that at thirty-five, I can learn to “Floss,” or something close to it.

Grace & Peace,

Pastor Matt

Equilibrium

July 26, 2018

From the Desk of Pastor Matt…

Dear Church,

I got a phone call on Monday afternoon from Mike Ryan of the Tews – Ryan Funeral Home in Homewood, IL.  He was calling to see if I was available to officiate a funeral on Wednesday night.  He took a deep breath, then sighed, and then shared with me that this would be no “ordinary” funeral.  When a funeral director begins by saying, “You might have seen on the news?”, that usually means this will be a funeral of tremendous tragedy and pain.  This was how I was introduced to Rob Sulzberger.  Sure enough, as I was on the phone with Mike I googled “Rob Sulzberger” and instantly links from Northwest Indiana papers popped up with the story of a thirty-seven year-old-man who ran out of gas on the way to work, was walking along the side of the road towards a nearby gas station and was hit and killed by a truck, leaving behind a wife and a blended family of four children.  I told Mike I would be honored to officiate this memorial service and that I would call Rob’s wife, Rebecca, later that afternoon.

I had her number on my desk until I mustered up the courage to give her a call.  What do you say?  Add on top that, I’m just a stranger, who, oh by the way, will be officiating your husband’s funeral.  Now, what do you say?  Rebecca and I talked for the better part of forty-five minutes.  She cried.  She laughed.  She told me about her husband’s faith journey.  She was brutally honest about Rob’s rough young adult life and poor choices that led him to a time in jail.  She told me about his tour in Iraq as part of Iraqi Freedom.  She told me how when they got married they started attending a mega-church in Orland Park, but never really felt connected.  And she told me how in the last season of life, her husband was really getting his life back on track.  How he was making amends, staying the course and running his life with perseverance.

And at age thirty-seven, that journey this side of heaven is complete.  Not fair.  Not right.  Not the way it’s supposed to be.  And yet, it happens – seemingly all the time.  No matter how hard we try to avoid it, at some point in all of our lives, moments and experiences of tremendous tragedy will come calling.  Maybe it’s the journey of cancer.  Maybe it’s the sickness of a child.  Maybe it’s an auto accident.  Whatever the moment or experience is, they find a way of tracking us down, perhaps when we least expect it.

Maybe that’s why we need the consistency of the church so badly in our lives.  Despite all the highs and all the lows of our lives, there’s something steady and consistent about Sunday mornings at 9:30am.  It’s almost as if we can expect the unexpected in moments of great joy and sadness in our lives, but we can count on Sunday morning.  We can count on being greeted warmly.  We can count on confessing our sins.  We can count on the Good News being preached.  We can count on singing great hymns and songs of praise.  We can count on coffee and cookies downstairs in the Fellowship Hall afterwards.

The church and her ministry have a profound way of centering us, calling us back to equilibrium, and steadying us from the chaos of Monday through Friday. The church also has big enough doors for all of our emotional, mental, physical or even spiritual baggage we’ve accumulated throughout the week.  We don’t need to get our act together before coming to worship.  Instead, by God’s grace and through the power of the Holy Spirit, we get our act together in and through worship – the full breadth of worship which includes lamentation, praise, adoration, confession and assurance.  It’s hard to make sense of our world.  Thirty-seven -year-olds being hit on the side of the road?  The great divisions present within our nation?  Never-ending hospitalizations?  It’s enough to send the brightest and cheeriest of us into a deep depression.  Still, God gives us the gift of worship to remind us who we are and better yet, whose we are.

Grace & Peace,

Pastor Matt

Roundabouts

July 19, 2018

From the Desk of Pastor Matt…

Dear Church,

            “Dear God, we love you.  We love Miss Lynn.  Please heal her so she can get out of the hospital.  And like my Dad said, he isn’t doing her funeral for a really, really, really long time.  Amen.”

That was the prayer Willem prayed for Lynn Hoeksema this past Monday in Room 811 in the ICU at Northwestern Hospital.  The three of us held hands and Lynn prayed first.  She prayed fervently that she would have peace and that God would be with her to fend off the Evil One.  Then Will prayed, borrowing a joking comment I made to Lynn about not officiating her funeral for another twenty to twenty-five years.  Then I prayed.  I asked God to strengthen this fatigued woman’s soul and give her enough strength, enough faith, enough patience and enough peace for Monday.

On Monday, June 18, Lynn went into the hospital for what was supposed to be a rather routine three-hour surgery, followed up by a three-hour recovery and a discharge from the hospital to complete her recovery at home.  Everything seemed normal, I spoke with Lynn on the phone and the plan was to visit her at home later that afternoon.  I even got a text from her husband, Clair, that the surgery lasted less than two hours and she was already in the recovery room.

That was nearly five weeks ago and in that five weeks, Lynn has had nearly a handful of stints in the ICU, an exploratory surgery, a procedure to fix what went wrong in the first place and hasn’t eaten anything solid.  The latest news is that she will more than likely need another surgery, but her body is just too weak and her insides just too swollen to handle another surgery.  So, the plan is to get her home to get her strength back, in order that she can have that additional surgery at a later date.

I’ve visited Lynn more times than I’d like to remember.  I know I’ve made the drive to NW a lot when the valet parking attendant knows me by name.  I’ve seen her upbeat and I’ve seen her down in the dumps.  I’ve seen her perky and I’ve seen her weary.  I’ve seen her looking forward to heading to Florida and I’ve seen her wanting me to plan her funeral.  Through it all, Clair remains steadfast by her side and a battalion of believers from Colorado to Florida to Indiana to Illinois are all praying fervently for Lynn.

Without a doubt, she finds herself on the roundabout journey through the wilderness.  Last week I preached about the roundabout way God led the Israelites to the promise land.  A few thousand miles out of the way, (some scholars even suggested going in circles), while all the while being led by the presence of God in the pillar of clouds by day and the pillar of fire by night.  My guess is that you know the roundabout journey as well.  The time when God felt distant, when prayer seemed dry, when worship seemed routine, when nothing made sense, and when it was one step forward and two steps back.  It’s not always fair.  It’s certainly not always pleasant.

Still, it is in those roundabout journeys where so often we grow the most – spiritually, emotionally and mentally. And while there may not be a divine reason for every one of these roundabouts we experience in life, the everlasting truth is that no matter how long or how far out of the way, our God will never leave us.  Just like the pillar of clouds and the pillar of fire never left the Israelites, our God will never leave us, and our God will never leave Lynn.  Truth be told, sometimes, that’s just enough.

Grace & Peace,

Pastor Matt

Disappointment

July 12, 2018

From the Desk of Pastor Matt…

Dear Church,

Disappointment.  This is what Willem experienced on a steamy Monday afternoon at Harborside Golf Course at the “Drive, Chip & Putt” local competition.  This is a competition like “Punt, Pass and Kick,” where kids go through three stations and can earn points depending on how well they do.  At each station they get three tries at driving, chipping and putting.  Each shot is scored with a combined score at the end.  Will loves golf and is pretty good at it.  We’ve been practicing, and anticipation has been building for the day of competition.  Will was in the “Boys 7-9” age group even though he is only six, because by the date of the National Finals at The Masters, he would be seven.  And while I tried to temper his expectations, we both knew Will had a good chance of being in the top three of the 40 kids in his division and would advance to the sectional qualifier at Cog Hill in August.

We got there an hour before his “tee-time” and warmed up a little bit. Of the three, driving is his best, and while on the range, he was smoking tee shots well over 120 yards.  I knew chipping would be his worst and who knows with putting.  He practiced and then we headed over to the driving area.  Three volunteers were gathered by the driving range and chairs were set up about twenty feet behind for parents to watch.  Then we heard, “1:12 time – Willem Waterstone.”  Will walked out there all by himself, put the tee in the ground, and the ball on the tee.  His feet were spread.  His knees were bent.  He took the club back nice and slow.  He swung hard and opened his hips way too early.  He shanked his first tee shot.  Literally, the ball went so far to the right that he didn’t even make it to the fairway.  He didn’t cry or yell or throw a fit.  He just hung his head.  His next two were better, but nowhere near what he did on the range.  As he walked back to us, I could see the disappointment in his eyes.  He ended up getting 10th place out of forty kids.

This was Will’s first of many public disappointments. And while we all can say, “You did your best and that’s what counts,” it doesn’t matter how old or young you are – you know what disappointment feels like.  My guess is that you, too, know disappointment.  Maybe it was not being selected for the job.  Maybe it is doing all the right therapy and taking all the right medication and still experiencing the same health challenges.  Maybe it is putting forth your best effort on a project at work only to have it all go sideways.  Disappointment is a part of life.  As a good friend of mine said, “It’s not the fun part, but a part of life nonetheless.”

I’m thankful Will had his experience with disappointment on Monday at Harborside. Sure, I wish he would have smoked three drives all over 125 yards and crushed the field, but that didn’t happen.  And while we know it, sometimes we need to be reminded that it’s often in times of life’s disappointments when we can learn the most about ourselves.  We can see our true character.  We can witness our honest self.  In disappointment, we can look back, so that we can look forward.  In disappointment, we can assess if something within our power can change or if we could have done something differently.  In disappointment, we can also forge a steelier faithfulness and determination.

Last week Sunday, I reminded us that Noah was faithful for 100-years between the time God told him to build the ark and the time of the first drop of rain. I can’t help but think that there had to have been countless times in those 100-years when Noah was disappointed.  Thankfully, Noah persisted.  He was faithful and steadfast.  Whatever experience of disappointment you’re facing today, take a moment and ask yourself, “What can I learn from this experience?”  And then keep going.

Grace & Peace,

Pastor Matt

Just Trust Me

July 6, 2018

(Today’s Friday Letter comes to us from the desk of Ray Ondrejka, a member of First Reformed Church.) 

Dear Church,

“Trust the Lord with all your heart, and don’t depend on your own understanding. Remember the Lord in all you do, and he will give you success.”  (Proverbs 3:5-6)  “All that you do.” That part is the hook.  That’s a hard commitment. At least for me it was.  More so, a difficult teaching to understand.  It was a teaching that took many years for me to come to reality with.

I didn’t go to a four-year university; instead, I worked full-time as I went to junior college, and eventually applied and was accepted into ISU to continue on and receive my B.A.  Little did I know that the year I went away to school was one of which I would have little memory.  I was the cliché epitome of a “college party student.”  I was there, but not committed.  Well, I was committed to other things, none of which included me spending time in the library, going to class, or turning in projects.  Fast forward nine months.  ISU asked me to leave. I had literally failed out of college. I got the letter in the mail sometime in early June of that year.  While sitting in my car on my lunch break, I read that letter and felt defeated.  I still hadn’t realized how bad of a “life” decision I had just made, which was to not commit to my studies and activities as a student, and to seek my own selfish desires above all.

I don’t really remember what my father and mother said to me at the time. Some years later, after I put two and two together, I realized that I had just wasted an entire year of my life. Prepping, packing, moving, going to class, (feeble attempts to learn), and driving back and forth from home to keep a part-time job at home, all for nothing.  On top of all of that, I had wasted close to $22,000 of my father’s hard-earned money. Almost a decade later, I still feel the guilt about my time at ISU, not because of my lack of care for the low grades I received (not all of which were horrible), but because of the financial stress I had put my parents through.  I didn’t commit to God then, so it’s safe to say I didn’t ‘…remember the Lord in all that I do…’ I acted foolishly and He was the furthest thing away from my mind at that time.  I had failed. About a year ago, I went to my dad and apologized to him.  He looked at me and all he said was, “It happens.” I know he was disappointed, that he knew I was better than that.  When I started to come around First Church, it was hard for me to let the Lord drive my decisions.  I was always one to quickly make irrational decisions and not think about the ramifications to follow.  I thought only in the moment.  Now, when I am faced with a difficult decision, I do remember the Lord.  I trust that He’ll give me the guidance needed to make the right choice.

We allow anxiety, doubt, and fear to creep in when we lean on our own understanding. We must seek God first in prayer and in reading His Word.  I love the following quote, because it ties in perfectly with the Proverbs verse – “We must cease striving and trust God to provide what He thinks is best and in whatever time He chooses to make it available.  But this kind of trusting doesn’t come naturally.  It’s a spiritual crisis of the will in which we must choose to exercise faith.” (Charles R. Swindoll.) We have that choice, to listen and FULLY trust, and when we do that, God gives us a beautiful promise: that he will give us success.

Grace & Peace,

Ray Ondrejka

“A Sad Reminder”

June 28, 2018

Dear Church,

This past Monday was our first Summer Serve Day when thirty-four of us partnered with Chicagoland Prison Outreach for a day of service.  A handful of us went to lead a worship service at the Division Ten Maximum Security Prison at Cook County Jail.  The rest of the group traveled to the CPO school to radically transform their space by landscaping, painting, cleaning and gardening.  I was a part of the group that led the worship service in the jail and in fact, was asked to preach for this special “Father’s Day Service.”  Before the service started, the inmates were led into the sterile looking “chapel,” with no pulpit, rows of steel benches with no backs, and a sparse looking wooden cross on the platform.  I was able to connect with a guy named Everado.  He was from Chicago Heights and had been in Division Ten for fourteen months.  He didn’t offer what he did to be there, and I didn’t ask.  He simply said he wasn’t going to see his wife and his four children for a very, very long time.  Everado was a rough looking guy.  He was about six feet tall and was built like a middle linebacker.  He had shoulder length, jet black hair and his hair slightly covered the giant cross that was tattooed across his face.  He had other tattoos, including fangs below his lips, he had done while incarcerated.

We talked for about ten minutes before the service started.  He told me how sad and depressing being in jail is, but that you must set that aside and not think about it or else it will “really mess you up.”  He told me how he hasn’t seen his kids since he’s been locked up because his wife didn’t want them to see their father like this.  He told me he “kinda understands.”  After the service he came up to me and thanked me for coming and asked that I sign his bulletin.

Being a part of the worship service there that morning was about the most uplifting and discouraging thing I’ve been a part of in a long time.  It was so uplifting to see sixty-five men standing and singing their hearts out, even shouting out loud “Jesus going to set me free” in a Capella-like spiritual song.  Some guys came forward during the singing and simply stood there with their palms open.  Other guys knelt in their pews offering silent prayers.  Some guys came forward to read testimonies of how lost and broken they were, even admitting suicidal thoughts and attempts, only to find the love and grace of Jesus.  And several guys performed a modern-day skit of the Prodigal Son passage.  There was an energy and a joy in that room that honestly, I wish we had in worship.  It was so uplifting.

But as the service concluded and we were escorted by prison guards through the dimly lit narrow hallways of the jail, I was reminded just how awful life must be like for those guys.  Division Ten is really a holding jail for inmates who are awaiting trial.  However, the system is so slow, broken and backlogged that some inmates are there for north of six years simply waiting for their case to be heard.  When I was preaching about “owning our stuff,” just like King David did when he was called out by the Prophet Nathan, I mentioned owning my failures as a father.  I can’t imagine how these guys feel, some of whom will never see their kids again and others who must see their kids through plated glass.  The worship service we had there was wonderful, but it was just one thing of many things I needed to do that Monday.  For those guys, the worship service was the highlight of their month.  Husbands will miss anniversaries and fathers will miss birthdays.  Many of the guys there will die in prison.  It was so discouraging.  Yet in the middle of it all, I couldn’t help but think if Jesus was walking the streets today, He would be in Division Ten, ministering, loving and serving.  He would be with the least and the lost.  He would be with the discouraged and downtrodden.  And while I’m thankful I will not know a life in Division Ten, I do know that Division Ten reminded me what the Kingdom of God is like.

Grace & Peace,

Pastor Matt

Family Reunions

June 21, 2018

From the Desk of Pastor Matt…

Dear Church,

I didn’t grow up with my cousins around.  It wasn’t because of some family rift, just that five of them lived two hours away in Battle Creek, three of them lived three hours away in the Detroit area and two of them lived twelve hours away in Philadelphia.  So, I grew up seeing them a handful of times a year at the most.  Sarah grew up quite the opposite.  Every one of her cousins lived within ten miles of each other and they got together every Sunday at her Grandma and Grandpa’s (both sides – one in the morning and the other at night).  Now, with our family getting to the age where there are more cousins for them to know, we find ourselves trying to find time for cousins and to get together even though we live hours away from them.

All of which is to say I look forward to this weekend all year long.  This is the annual Brink’s Family Golf Outing.  A tradition that started eight years ago when my Grandpa Brinks turned eighty and his three sons and all the grandsons got together to play golf for two days.  All three of my uncles are really good golfers and so are a few of my cousins.  The Waterstone boys – not so much.  Thankfully, this is just a scramble when we can get together to catch up on another year.  As the grandkids have grown and married, we have included in-laws and this year my son Willem will be playing for the first time.  He tees off from 150 yards out on par fours and 200 yards out on par fives, so he will be a very good addition…on my team.  So, this year we’ll have four generations teeing off as Grandpa has graduated now, at 88 years old, to being part of what he calls, “The Rider Cup.”  Get it?  (He’ll be riding along in a cart and reading the greens for our putts).  He finds his humor hysterical.  Most of the time, I don’t get itJ

I miss my brothers.  My brother Kyle lives in Los Angeles and I see him maybe three times a year.  My brother Mark lives in Sanborn, IA, so far off the grid you need to drive seventy miles to get to the nearest Target.  I see him once a year.  Kyle and Mark haven’t seen each other since my brother Kyle’s wedding nearly three years ago.  I’m looking forward to telling stories, laughing at the same jokes, teasing each other for terrible golf shots and going nuts when one of them “snakes in a 15-footer.”  When we first started this tradition, I felt like I was still one of the kids.  While I’m the oldest grandchild in the family and have always been the planner of the event, for some reason I always felt like I was still in high school.  This year, with Willem playing, my brother Mark bringing his nearly one-year-old son Simon, and Kyle’s wife, Ashley pregnant with their first child in November, I’m reminded that I’m not so young anymore and that time absolutely flies by.

My guess is that you too have wonderful family traditions.  Outside of our salvation in Jesus Christ, family is perhaps the greatest gift God has given to us.  We cherish the times together.  We mark the passage of time in additions and subtractions.  We re-tell the same stories and laugh at the same jokes.  Still, family is also a source of great pain, loss, and sorrow.  No matter how perfect we may look on the outside, all families have “stuff.”  All families experience tragic death, painful divorce, and unthinkable health challenges.  All families have at least one “black sheep,” and if you don’t think so, then most likely, you are the “black sheep.”  Ever since the very first family in the Bible, there has been love smeared with hate, joy marred by pain and laughter mixed with tears.

Family is often at the very center of our prayer life.  We pray for family members who need healing, or strength, or release, or employment, or you name it.  And while we should most definitely keep on praying for our families, perhaps this morning you could take your prayer into action.  Give a call, send a text, compose an email to the family member you haven’t seen or connected with lately and just let them know you love them.

Grace & Peace

Pastor Matt

“Spare A Few Minutes”

June 14, 2018

Dear Church,

The weather we’ve had the last week or so has been pretty crummy, especially last weekend.  I will admit my ability to be an active and engaged parent decreases when the weather is lousy.  So, last week Monday night when it was again cool, dreary and dark, I made the proposal to Sarah and the boys that we should drive out to Highland, IN and visit Ralph Knopf.  Ralph and Norma had both spent virtually the entire day at Northwestern Hospital where Ralph was having a biopsy on his liver and having his chemo port replaced so that he can begin a new, stronger round of chemo in hopes of treating his cancer.  Norma texted me that Ralph was super tired and cold.  We had finished dinner and with it being lighter out and seemingly hours away from bedtime, I figured a drive out there would be a good way to spend a few hours and in the process visit dear friends.

So, we made our way out there and found Ralph bundled up in a blanket on his recliner. His voice was very weak and you could still see the blue dye on his neck from where they were prepping him for the port surgery.  Within seconds of our arrival, the boys scattered to explore a new home, playing with random toys, looking for food and continually pestering one another.  Norma showed Sarah and I their beautiful landscaped backyard full with flowers and perfectly trimmed bushes.  By this time, Ralph mustered up the strength to come outside and visit.

Over the next hour it was something like Popeye who ate his spinach because Ralph’s strength came back in a big way within ten minutes! He began giving us a guided tour of every room in their home explaining paintings, showing off commemorative Christmas decorations and giving us the family tree on Norma’s side whenever an old photo appeared on the wall or on a desk.  He then took us all downstairs and showed us a giant sea-fish he caught on their honeymoon and a collector’s train set that took up their entire room.  He kept talking and sharing and smiling.  He was a picture of vigor and strength.

Now I don’t claim to suggest that our visit this past Monday night was some sort of magical medicine that lifted this good man’s spirit, but I do believe there is a profound power in the fellowship of the body of Christ. I do believe there is a profound power when brothers and sisters in Jesus can encourage one another and pray for each other.  And I do believe there is a profound power when older people and younger people can simply bond in a ministry of presence.

My guess is that like me, you have at least a few spare minutes each night. What would it look like if instead of plopping on the couch and flipping through the TV Guide in hopes of finding something to watch other than a re-run of House Hunters, you picked up the phone and called one of our members who recently was hospitalized?  What would it look like if instead of scrolling through your phone aimlessly trolling; you sent a text of encouragement to someone in need?  What would it look like if instead of just doing the same routine every night, you made a quick visit to one of our “extended family members” and simply shared a few moments of fellowship and pray together?

Dear friends, these simple acts are what hold the church together. They are what define a warm and nurturing fellowship.  They are marks of a congregation who cares deeply, prays fervently and loves lavishly.  Give it a try.  My guess is you just might be the highlight of someone’s day and the very hands and feet and words of Jesus to someone in need.

Grace & Peace

Pastor Matt