Thursday, September 30, 2010

God's ArtPrize

Downtown Grand Rapids is abuzz for the second straight year, as streets and buildings are riddled with artwork. Even as someone who doesn’t consider himself an “art” person, ArtPrize has been a very enjoyable experience for me. Last fall, I got caught up with the big stuff. Remember “Nessy” in the river? Or, the huge table and chairs on top of the blue bridge? That’s the stuff I liked. Pretty telling of my shallow art appreciation, isn’t it? However, this year other types of art are catching my eye. I’m drawn to the stuff made out of simple, ordinary, throw-away things. My favorites so far…

Cavalry, American Officers, 1921. Local Artist Chris LaPorte drew an entire Cavalry company. His drawing covers a 30 foot space in the Grand Rapids Art Museum. Over 60 hand drawn soldiers are represented in life-size proportion. What amazed me (and my art major daughter) is that he drew this 300 square foot piece with #2 pencils—the same pencils kids get in grade school. I love how Chris describes his piece.

Many marks make up the drawing. Many men make up the regiment. Many lines make up the face. Many wrinkles make up the shirt. Many characters make up the story. Many experiences make up the event. Many minutes make up the hour, day, year.

A Matter of Time. Chris Baliker has a stunning 15 foot wood sculpture that has at least 20 animals carved throughout. The carvings are woven together with a web of wooden pieces that appear to me to be either tree roots or drift wood. When we walked by the piece, there was a huge crowd surrounding it. Many people not only stopped, they sat down in the grass and took their time enjoying each animal scattered through the piece.

Other simple displays have caught my eye this year as well. Horses made out of throw-away kitchen utensils. A person’s face formed by wine corks. A huge penny made from 80,000 pennies that have been discolored from time and wear. An 11 foot dragon with a 16 foot tail made from the metals of old water tanks.

Pencils, kitchen junk, scrap metal, old, virtually worthless coins, tangled wood. In essence, these artists are saying, “Watch this! I’m going to make something exquisite, interesting, beautiful, and powerful out of things that others would throw away.”

“For we are God's workmanship…” Paul, here, is talking about artwork—God’s artwork. You and me! We are God’s artwork created “…to do good works.” That’s great news because Paul started this passage by declaring us junk, “…you were dead in your transgressions and sins.” Because of our sins, we should have been thrown away, discarded, wasted. “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive… for by grace through faith, you have been saved…” You know, God has done some great artwork around us such as the sun, the moon, the planet, the sky, the water, and the mountains. But that’s not his best work—we are!

As you wander ArtPrize over the next couple of weeks, think about yourself as God’s ArtPrize. Let these statements ring through your head and heart as you enjoy the art in our town.

• God made me out of junk! I should have been thrown away!
• God paid a huge price for me to be made alive and be his artwork!
• My good works are on display as an exhibit of his grace!

This week’s author: Phil Niekerk, senior small groups pastor

Friday, September 24, 2010


Have you ever experienced an identity crisis? You know, those moments when your self-esteem disappears because the things you are responsible for seem to be falling short of your expectations. Have you convinced yourself that your identity is directly related to your performance? It is in these moments when we smell failure that we are prone to fall into deep despair because we forget who we belong to. But is there a better way?

I remember being halfway through grad school studying to be a pastor. My wife and I were seven years into our marriage with four children. Needless to say, going to grad school is not the most lucrative option for providing for your family. My wife was working to support our family and put me through school. She believed in me; however, it frequently seemed others did not. I had close friends, family, and mentors questioning my decision making. Most interactions became a futile exercise in explaining my conviction that God was at work and training me. I began to question. I began to wonder. Am I wrong? Did I make a mistake? What have I done? I remember having the wind knocked out of me as I realized I may have harmed my marriage, ignored my kids, and put my will above the will of my Creator. Where do I go now? Then it happened. I was studying a passage in the Book of Joshua and the Scripture described how Joshua was chosen by God to lead the Israelites. CHOSEN…let that sink in. The Creator of the planet, whose sight can capture the always expanding cosmos, can narrow his focus onto one man for one journey. That word captured me. God chose Joshua, he picked him. I was stunned and wondered can God still do that? The passage of Scripture that Jeff is teaching this weekend answers that question with a resounding YES! Read it:

For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ in accordance with his pleasure and will. Ephesians 1.4-5

Stop—let those words cascade over your soul and into your heart. You are CHOSEN. You are ADOPTED. God wants you. He planned for you. Before the sky was made blue, before the grass was shaded green, before he filled the planet with water and air, he thought of you. Not only did he think of you, but he planned to know you. He set his rescue mission in motion. Not because he had to, but because he takes pleasure in you. You are his best work. Work worth saving.

I emerged from that season of my life with a deeper conviction that God has indeed chosen me. In fact, I tattooed that word on my left forearm. I needed a close, intimate, and graphic illustration that God is for me and will stop at nothing to make me his. I will let people down. I will learn difficult lessons as I develop into a more faithful husband, loving dad, and skilled servant. Yet, my identity is not there. I am his. Chosen in eternity past so I might know my Creator for eternity future.

This week's author- Dan Wright, Kentwood Campus Minister

Friday, September 17, 2010

Homeless Guy

Spending a morning in a coffee shop writing and reconnecting with the world through the internet didn’t seem much of a violation of our time of rest and relaxation. My family was in Marquette for the week enjoying a cottage while settling our daughters into college for another year. Grant, my son-in-law, recommended a coffee shop called Babycakes to try. Every masculine bone in my body resisted settling into an establishment called Babycakes, but he assured me this would be a place I’d like. He said they had the best muffins in the world and that this was a place that desired to make a positive impact on the Marquette community. Not sure what he meant about the positive impact part, but I was content with his muffin recommendation.

The place was hopping that morning, so I felt fortunate to find a great window seat looking out on downtown Marquette. The only problem with my seat was that there was a person sitting fairly close to me. Now, I’m a guy who likes his personal space, so sitting in close proximity with a stranger seemed distracting to me. But, there was more to my discomfort with guy. Everything about his appearance said “homeless guy” –long, gray straggly beard; layers of mismatched clothes; worn out stocking cap drooped on his head; overstuffed backpack under his feet. But, I really wanted that window seat, so I pushed through my personal hang-ups and camped next to him giving him a token smile as I put my headphones on (the universal “do not disturb” sign at a coffee shop).

From time to time, I would take a peek at my coffee shop neighbor. For the most part, he just sat quietly; but occasionally he’d do something unusual like carrying on a conversation with the empty chair next to him. Other times, he would grab an ink pen off the table with a sense of urgency and begin to write in a notebook as if something profound had entered his mind that needed immediate recording. Maybe he was an eccentric author or a poet laureate hiding out in Marquette, I thought. Maybe, I was sitting next to greatness. So when I got up to get a refill on my beverage, I couldn’t help but to take a peek at his writing. Hoping to see a masterpiece of literature or art in the making, all I saw was a page filled with scribbles-no words, no drawings- just illegible marks.

I determined to ignore the guy that morning and remain focused on my work so I could get back to our vacation plans. But something happened with the “homeless guy” that got me wondering. It wasn’t something he did, but it was something the employees of Babycakes did. Twice during the time I was there, they brought him food. They didn’t bring me food. I got my food at the counter where I paid. But his food was quietly delivered to his table- first a buttered bagel then a sandwich a couple hours later. No money was exchanged. “What’s going on with this guy?” I wondered. Then I remembered Grant’s statement, “Babycakes wants to make a positive impact on the community.” Then, it hit me. I was seeing a small slice of who Babycakes truly was. They were choosing an identity and this identity was causing them to act in a certain way. It was if they were quietly saying to anyone willing to notice, “We are a place of compassion, therefore, we will be generous to the down-and-out that walk through our doors.”

The book of Ephesians is a letter written by Paul to first century Christians that declares the identity of those who claim to be followers of Jesus. They were known as people of the Way. That beautiful identity should cause them to express themselves in a unique way. Over the next few months, jump into the letter of Ephesians and see the difference in the People of the Way.

This week's author- Phil Niekerk, senior small groups pastor

Monday, September 13, 2010

Exciting Changes this Fall!

This weekend, Pastor Manion begins a new sermon series call The People of Way. This will be a 12-week journey through the book of Ephesians. While the book of the Ephesians is loaded with great, verses, theology and learnings to consider each week, it can be simply broken down into two sections; how we belong (chapters 1-3) and how we behave (chapters 4-6). It seems that Paul believed that our identity (who we are) should radically shape our behavior (what we do). Discovering or re-discovering our identity in Christ this fall may be catalytic for our spiritual growth as people and as a church.

In the past, the small group staff has produced a booklet to be a companion guide for the fall series. This year, we're trying a new approach to help people and groups connect with the fall series. Starting this week, you will find in your weekly program or bulletin,four studies called Beyond the Weekend. These are designed to help you reconnect with the passage and topic of that week's sermon and to introduce you to some other passages and exercises to take you further.

Though ABCLinks will no longer be published, we will be writing small group discussion guides that will be available online as well through an email subscription each week. Also, if you've been enjoying the articles on the front page of the ABCLinks each week, those will be found in the blog called Living in Community found at

To receive the weekly small group discussions, contact the small group department at

God bless you this fall. I hope you enjoy the new changes.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Discipline and Growth

As a sports fan, I have my favorite teams that I always follow but I also have another category in which I put some teams and athletes. It’s what I call the “love-to-hate” category. I’m not a boxing fan but a handful of years ago, there was a boxer that fit nicely on my love-to-hate list; Mike Tyson. “Iron Mike” is known as one of the greatest fighters of all time. During his glory years in the 80’s, Tyson was the only boxer to ever hold three different heavy weight belts at the same time. He was dominant and it made him rich. Tyson’s career earnings crested $400 million in the late 80’s. But, there was something that I just didn’t like about him. He was brash, loud and arrogant and you could just tell that at some point he was going to do something stupid. I couldn’t wait for him to fall.

While the 80’s were good for Tyson, the 90’s were his demise. In February of 1990, Tyson was unexpectedly knocked out in the 10th round by the virtually unknown Buster Douglas. This blow would usher Tyson in a complete downward spiral not only as a boxer but as a person. In 1992, Tyson was convicted of sexually assaulting a beauty queen in Las Vegas, for which he served three years in prison. After being released from prison in 1995, he engaged in a series of comeback fights. In a 1997 rematch with Evander Holyfield, the fight ended when Tyson was disqualified for biting off part of Holyfield’s ear, an incident that he never recovered from in the public eye. In 1999, Tyson was arrested again for assaulting two people at a traffic scene. As a heavy user of cocaine, Tyson filed or bankruptcy in 2003. Iron Mike was gone from the sports scene. Once, one of sports most dominate figures, Tyson became a public outcast.

Last week, I stumbled on a Sports Illustrated article featuring Tyson (August 2-9 issue). Because of my disgust for the way he treated sports and people, I almost just flipped the page to find something more palatable to read. But, a quote jumped off the page. “I’m a joke, I want to count for something- to do nice things so my kids can respect me.” In one statement, Tyson had expressed something I’d never heard from him; humility and kindness. Could Tyson have grown? Could the man have changed? Once known as the Baddest Man on the Planet, Tyson talked in the article of his loving wife Kiki and their beautiful daughter, Milan. “I realized that if I wanted to have a healthy life and if someone was willing to love me, then she deserved the best I had to offer,” Tyson says. “She deserved the best of me physically, emotionally, spiritually. And it wasn’t easy, trust me... I just knew that in order to make this work, all that other stuff in me had to die.”
As a boxer, Tyson knew about personal discipline. For years, he had disciplined his body to be the most feared man in the ring. But, over the past decade, Tyson’s character and person has gone through a significant discipline that has brought about transformational personal growth. A self-centered, arrogant, abuser turned loving husband and father.

God smiles when we allow the pain of discipline to be redemptive toward change. What's your growth story? What pain has God used in your life to bring positive change?