Thursday, July 28, 2011

Misplaced Expectations

What comes to your mind when you hear “summer vacation cottage on Lake Superior”? How about a quaint log cabin nestled in an Upper Peninsula forest with a wraparound porch that overlooks a sandy beachfront? Do you think of warm days of sunshine with cool evenings ripe for a bonfire and a sunset? Yeah… that’s what comes to mind. Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?

A few years ago, my sister had the great idea of gathering our family members for a weeklong vacation together in the Marquette area of the U.P. She had an acquaintance with access to a “Lake Superior cottage.” I loved the idea as I needed a week of peace, nature, quiet, and rest. So, I allowed my exceptions for this place to climb.

As we drove through the U.P. the day we arrived, my excitement increased more and more. The anticipation of hanging out with my family in this perfect setting was growing with every mile. As we neared our destination, the beautiful blue Lake Superior was in full view. Beautiful cottages sprinkled the roadside and I wondered with each of them, “Will ours be like that one?” But as we turned into the driveway of the “resort” where we’d find our cottage, I realized that my dream and reality were not on the same page. My expectations quickly faded as we explored our home for the week. The resort, as they called it, was a charter fishing resort. Old rickety boats, trailers, and boat parts were scattered over the property. It looked like a place where boats went to die. It looked like a place where seasoned fisherman would bunk up before a fishing excursion. It looked nothing like the place I had envisioned.

As we made our way into our cabin, my hopes continued to decline. The cottage was a refurbished modular home, well out of view of Lake Superior. It was adequate, but not very nice. It smelled musty from old furnishings and a leaky basement. Even the mattresses were disappointing as they were covered with plastic, making for noisy nights of sleep. “How would this place work for helping my family have a memorable and relaxing vacation?” I wondered.

What happens to you when life doesn’t pan out as planned? What happens to you…when the offer for the job you know perfectly fits you, never comes? …when the very best doctors scratch their heads in confusion about your medical situation? …when every home for sale in your neighborhood sells but yours? …when your scholarship athlete busts up his knee before his senior season? …the stupid car breaks down for the third time in a month? Even more, what happens to you when you grow disappointed in God?

Recently I talked to a man who, in a matter of minutes, described his life as “not panning out.” He was a broken man in his 60s living with a continual sense of disappointment. He said, “I have a lot of agonistic in me right now. I just don’t think God gives a ____ about me.” Here’s a man who let life’s disappointments defeat him. Because his expectations in life were not met, he chose to stop following God. He’s a man who is missing the opportunity to grow in his relationship with God.

Back to that stinky little cabin in the U.P. for a moment. As it turned out, that week of vacation has radically shaped the Niekerk family. In that week, my oldest daughter chose to attend Northern Michigan University. She just graduated this spring and she and her husband still live in that area as he finishes his schooling. My second daughter will be starting her third year at NMU this fall. She has fallen in love with school and that area. And, my 17 year old son is making plans to attend NMU as well. Needless to say, we have spent, and will continue to spend, many of our vacation days in that area—though not in that particular cabin. We love every minute we spend in the U.P. It’s a place of joy, family, peace, and rest to us. Ironically, that was my original hope, wasn’t it? God gave us more in that trip than I ever dreamed. Looking back, I now see that my expectations were misplaced and my dreams were too small. God had something much more valuable to give my family that week.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Fear and Phobias

Just for fun, I did an internet search on the word phobia. What a mistake! I learned all the things that I could possibly be afraid of and one site placed hundreds of phobias in alphabetical order for my convenience. Here’s a sample of some of my favorite phobias that all start with the letter “p.”

Pagophobia- Fear of ice or frost.
Panophobia - Fear of everything.
Papaphobia- Fear of the Pope.
Papyrophobia- Fear of paper.
Paraskavedekatriaphobia- Fear of Friday the 13th.
Pediophobia- Fear of dolls.
Pedophobia- Fear of children.
Peladophobia- Fear of bald people.
Pentheraphobia- Fear of mother-in-law.
Phagophobia- Fear of swallowing or of eating or of being eaten.
Phalacrophobia- Fear of becoming bald. (

It seems we have a lot to be afraid of, don’t we? Interestingly, almost 80 years ago, President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed the topic of fear in the midst of one of the darkest times in American history. In his first inaugural address in 1932, FDR needed to comfort a suffering nation deeply entrenched in the Great Depression. Many had lost much, and some had lost all. FDR realized the paralyzing grip of fear on the American people. The nation would not regain its economical foothold if governed by fear. This was the context of his famous quote: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Today we’d call this Phobiaphobia- the fear of fear.

It shouldn’t surprise us to learn that the most common command written in scripture is “Do not be afraid.” This tells us two things: first, we have a propensity toward fear; and second, God cares deeply about how we respond in opportunities of fear. I’m not a psychologist but I’ve made some observations when it comes to fear in people’s lives. Fear is typically brought on by a surprise, a threat, or the possibility of pain. We fear something bad is going to happen to us or to someone we love. Or, we fear it happening again. We fear the unknown and we fear what’s out of our control. So, we go on guard to protect us from what we fear. Sometimes our fears are warranted and our protective actions are reasonable; but other times fear causes us to become paranoid, overly cautious, self-doubting, panicky, and even hurtful in our self-protection. Fear can immobilize and even paralyze us.

In Jesus’ quest to teach his disciples how to follow God with their whole being, he addressed the topic of fear. In Jesus’ mind, fear and lack of trust work nicely together. So Jesus put them in situations where fear could easily take control and their trust would be tested. In Matthew 8, Jesus leads his disciples into a boat after a long day of healing and teaching. Jesus is tired and falls asleep. Matthew tells us that a storm came on very suddenly and began to swamp the boat. Four of the disciples were professional fishermen and had seen many rough storms before—but this was a doozy. They cried out to Jesus, “Lord save us! We’re about to drown!” Jesus’ response to them is interesting. First, he corrects them by calling their fear a lack of trust. Then second, he gives them a demonstration that he is not only God, but he is God worthy of their trust.

He replied, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm. Matthew 8.26

Jesus used the fear generated in the critical moments of the storm to develop something spiritually vital in their hearts. In essence, he was asking them these questions: do you know who’s in the boat with you? Do you realize that all of nature bends to my voice? Do you trust me when the winds are strong and the waves are high? When you are losing hope in your own strength, will you rely on me?

We should not be surprised when life brings us storms that are hard to bear and fear and desperation build in us. It’s part of living in a broken world. But storms also provide some of the best opportunities for us to learn to trust the God of the Universe who cares deeply for us. So, if the clouds are beginning to thicken or the waves are crashing over the bow of your life, ask these questions: do I know who’s in the boat with me? Do I believe that all storms bend to his voice? Am I willing to trust that God is teaching in the storm?

Friday, July 15, 2011

Lawn Chair Guy and a Kidney Stone

It hit me on a Monday afternoon as I came home from work. It started as a dull ache that made me nauseous, but grew to a violent burning sensation deep in my side. I was home alone that afternoon and had no idea what has happening to me. After an hour of trying to find relief in a variety of ways, I came to the conclusion that I needed help. I needed to go to the hospital and I needed help getting there. My wife was on her way home from work, but I couldn’t stand it anymore so I called 911.

When the paramedics arrived, they quickly assessed that I was not in grave danger but was, most likely, struggling with a kidney stone. My blood pressure was high so they were interested in getting the pain under control and decided to transport me to the hospital. I was all for it. I wanted this to stop as soon as possible. Later, I learned that women who have endured both kidney stones and natural childbirth would rather endure labor pain! As much as I wanted relief, I was a bit embarrassed to have so much attention given to a little stone; and sure enough, the ride down my driveway on the ambulance gurney was what I would later call, “The Ride of Shame.” Concerned neighbors had gathered on my yard to see what was happening, wondering if I was having a heart attack or if a home repair project had gone bad… again. As they rolled me down the driveway I could hear my wife reassure them that I would be fine but we needed to get the pain under control.

As they got me to the back of the ambulance, I noticed something across the street that caught my attention and later stuck in my mind. Across from my house, are five baseball fields and it was the time of evening when teams were warming up before their games. What caught my eye was a dad who had planted himself in a lawn chair near a scoreboard for the evening. He had a small cooler next to his chair and an open newspaper in front of him. When I first noticed him, he was reading his paper, facing the baseball field. But when they wheeled me to the ambulance, I watched him stand up, turn his chair to face my driveway, sit back down, grab a beverage from the cooler, and begin talking to who-knows-who on his cell phone. I’ll be honest with you, in the depth of my pain, I had thoughts of using a finger gesture and yelling sarcastically, “Thanks for the help buddy! Glad you could be entertained by my little fiasco! Show’s over!” But, I refrained.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve thought about that guy. Why did he bug me in that moment? Did I really expect him to come to my aid? What if I was lying bloodied, alone, on the side of the road? Would he find a way to help me or would he crack another Diet Coke and grab the sports section? Would he serve or would he stay a spectator? It seemed he was comfortable, if not entertained, in the latter.

Several days later, I was still struggling with this stupid kidney stone. Instead of being in pain, I was doped up with narcotics. The good news was the pain was under control. The bad news was I wasn’t able to function much because of the pain meds. When my issues began that Monday, I had just loaded a trailer of books and items from my office at the Cascade Campus to be moved to my new office at the Kentwood Campus; I was not able to unload the trailer that day. All week, my things were in an uncovered trailer in my driveway. So when Kevin, a friend and colleague, called to see how I was doing, he asked if I needed anything done. When I mentioned my books in my driveway and how I was growing concerned about a storm rolling in, without hesitation Kevin rearranged his schedule, drove from the north side of town, picked up my trailer, filled my car with gas, unloaded all my stuff in my new office and returned.

Perhaps God allowed me to notice the “lawn chair guy” just so I could experience the sharp contrast between someone being a spectator and someone being a servant in a time of need. It seems to me that was one of the major points that Jesus was making in the story about the Good Samaritan. I know that too often in my life I walk past people in need, thinking they should be someone else’s problem.

Spectator or servant? Who will you be today when another person’s need crosses your path?

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Buried Treasure

It’s a modern day story from the likes of the Indiana Jones and National Treasure movies. Secret vaults were opened recently in a temple in India. Uncovered were a staggering amount of gold coins and statues of gods and goddesses studded with diamonds and other precious stones. An early and conservative estimate of the value of this discovery is growing beyond $22 billon. Over hundreds and hundreds of years, temple visitors and devoted followers have donated countless number of valuable items to the temple where a royal family has been charged as the temple custodian. A lawyer, who suspected there was a considerable amount of treasure hidden there, and who also was gravely concerned about the security of the temple and the valuables, won a court case ordering the vaults to be found and opened. The amount was far more than anyone guessed. As you can imagine, this discovery has spawned a massive debate regarding the treasure’s true ownership and what to do with the new found wealth.

Politicians, religious leaders, and historians have made a host of suggestions as to the future of the treasure. Of course, everyone has an opinion. Some believe the treasure should be handed over to the national trust, used to help alleviate poverty in India. Others believe that the government should use the funds for developmental purposes. Of course, both suggestions are raising distrust in the government’s motives. Some historians believe that the treasures should be stored and displayed in a museum because of the historical significance of the find.

But there was one more opinion I found very interesting in this story. One of the top elected leaders in that area believes the treasure should be left alone. "The treasures are the property of the temple. We will ensure the utmost security for the temple and its wealth," Chief Minister Chandy told reporters. In essence, his idea is to keep the treasure buried and hidden in the six discovered vaults. He vowed to provide adequate security of the temple if it was left as temple property. In a country riddled with impoverished areas, couldn’t that treasure be used in a productive way, rather than leaving it buried? Is that the best use of $22 billion? (Story adapted from, July 5,2011.)

Jesus once told a story of hidden treasure as well. In the story, before he leaves on a journey, the master entrusts some of his wealth to three servants. One gets five bags of gold, the second gets two and the last gets one. When the master returns, he gets a report from the servants about what they did with their stash. The first two report that they doubled their money, but the last servant says he just buried the gold in the ground because he was afraid. The first two servants get high praise as well as more responsibility from the master. But the last servant gets scolded and run out of town for being foolish with this opportunity. It seems, in the mind of the master, the very worst thing he could have done with the entrusted treasure was to bury it out of fear and excuses.

So, what treasures have you been entrusted with? Maybe you’re sitting on $22 billion that you need to figure out how to best use. No? Then, perhaps you have more than what’s in the temple in India. You have gifts, talents, and resources that have been uniquely entrusted to you by the God of the Universe. But these aren’t gifts to you, they are gifts to be used through you for others. These are the precious treasures that God uses to build his Kingdom. They are gifts of encouragement, hospitality, service, generosity, leadership, creativity, mercy, empathy, compassion, truth, discernment, and many more. To those who chose to shove their gifts under the ground, his words are harsh and filled with disappointment. The servant who buries his treasure eventually loses his opportunity to serve the Master. But when these gifts are used, the Kingdom looks like the Master. And the Master loves to express his pleasure. “Great job! You are a good and faithful servant! Here’s more!”