Friday, July 27, 2012

A Blessed Life

If you’re a regular follower of this blog, you know that I love to write about my trips to Haiti.  Haiti has been such a spiritually pivotal place for me over the past couple years that I it just bleeds out of me in my writing and even more so in the conversations I have with interested people.  I love to tell people the stories of things I’ve experienced and show them the some of the 1000s of pictures I’ve taken there. 
Because Haiti is so poor (poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere), the subject of poverty is always one of the central themes of any Haiti conversation and I’ve found that people typically respond in two ways.  First, they ask, “So, is it getting any better there?”  It’s a great question because we’ve all heard about the news of devastation with the 2010 earthquake and the hurricanes that consistently pummel that island.  But my answer usually surprises them as I explain that Haiti has been poor and devastated for many, many years.  The natural disasters have just taken their poverty to a deeper level.  It’s an intense place with intense heat, intense weather, intense noise, intense political corruption, and intense poverty.  It’s been that way for a long time and will continue to be.
But there’s another response that I hear from folks that’s really gotten me to think.  I often hear someone say this usually after seeing a picture of a half-naked child or someone’s tin shack home, “Wow, we sure are blessed here in America.  Sure makes you more grateful for what we have when you see how other’s around the world live, doesn’t it?”  Now, I want to be careful here as I don’t want to sound pious or to dishonor anyone who has ever said.  It’s true, we are blessed and we should be thankful for the things we have.  But, I’m beginning to understand that there may be a better way to respond to seeing poverty.  Hear me out with these three thoughts. 

1.       Perhaps gratitude should not come from comparing my situation to someone who has less than me.  We’d agree that it’s wrong to complain about your status when you look up the economic ladder and see someone with more than you.  Comparing with people who have more leads to discontent.  Agreed?  So why is it right for me to gain gratitude from comparing my status to someone with less?  It feels to me that when we do this we gain gratitude from pity.  Ouch… that’s a bit strong isn’t it?  But, think about it for a minute.

2.       Gratitude comes by recognizing that everything you have is a special gift from the God of the Universe who gives good gifts to his kids.  If I recognize God’s gracious provision for my life, then I can better accept what I have and what I don’t have.  I can look at all the things I lack and recognize them as things God is withholding from me through his infinite, all-knowing wisdom.  I grow content in God’s unique provision and withholding because I trust him.  What others have and don’t have plays less into the equation of gratitude.  I’m grateful and content because I trust that God loves me and he is wise.  A response to God’s love is being content in his provision.

3.       The best response I can offer when I see someone with much less than me is compassion.  My abundance becomes a resource for the love of God to be expressed in a tangible manner.  I can freely give from the good gifts that God has given me because I recognize them as resources that were perhaps given to me to pass on with a heart of love and compassion for others. 

I love this simple phrase that I hear from time to time at Ada Bible Church, “We are blessed to be a blessing.”  Psalm 112 echoes this principle loudly.  Read this song and look for the answers to the questions;

·         What does a blessed life look like?

·         Where does God’s blessing come?

·         What’s should be our response to his favor and abundant gifts to us?

·         What’s the alternative to a blessed life?

·         What’s a life that truly matters? 

Praise the Lord.
Blessed is the man who fears the Lord,
who finds great delight in his commands.
His children will be mighty in the land;
the generation of the upright will be blessed.
Wealth and riches are in his house,
and his righteousness endures forever.
Even in darkness light dawns for the upright,
for the gracious and compassionate and righteous man.
 Good will come to him who is generous and lends freely,
who conducts his affairs with justice.
 Surely he will never be shaken;
a righteous man will be remembered forever.
 He will have no fear of bad news;
his heart is steadfast, trusting in the Lord.
 His heart is secure, he will have no fear;
in the end he will look in triumph on his foes.
 He has scattered abroad his gifts to the poor,
his righteousness endures forever;
his horn will be lifted high in honor.
The wicked man will see and be vexed,
he will gnash his teeth and waste away;
the longings of the wicked will come to nothing.  

                                                            Psalm 112

Saturday, July 21, 2012

A Response to Injustice

The other day I stumbled on this interesting headline that originated from the UK: “Hundreds of innocent people wrongly spied on by police.” The article began, “Almost 1,000 innocent people have been wrongly spied on by the police, security services and town halls because of errors in ‘snooping’ requests. Two people were even arrested and wrongly accused of crimes they did not commit because officials wrote down incorrect details” (Telegraph, July 2012).
Can you imagine learning that the government has been doing significant surveillance on you based on misinformation? Can you imagine being detained and interrogated because someone wrote down the wrong thing? That would be unsettling to say the least. One day you’re minding your business, living out a fairly routine and mundane day, when you suddenly find yourself in handcuffs being harshly interviewed regarding things you know nothing about. In addition, you learn you’ve been watched for months by authorities, your phones have been tapped, and all your e-mail and internet activity has been reviewed. How would you react if you were accused of a crime you didn’t commit? It’s a horrible feeling to be a victim of injustice. It erodes your trust in people and makes you feel vulnerable. Hopefully, none of us will be wrongfully accused of a crime, but we all face issues in our lives that seem unjust or unfair.
A close friend of mine recently walked through a difficult review process with her employer. In the end, she was put on an employee improvement plan that involved masses of amount of time taking classes, reading, and being coached. As she reviewed the reasoning for her new plan, she concluded that they had used incomplete and inaccurate information to bring them to their conclusion. When she addressed these inconsistencies and sited positive data regarding her work, she was asked to not become defensive and combative. When her review was completed, she was left to wonder if she should stand and fight for her reputation, whether she should just quietly and submissively absorb the injustice, or she should seek a job elsewhere. All three of those options haunted her as it all seemed so unnecessary.
So, what’s the godly response to injustice? How do we handle false accusations in a way that honors God? How does a follower of Jesus face attacks from people who want to unjustly do harm? I think the song writer David gives us some insight. I see three principles imbedded in this psalm that can help us through times of injustice or attacks.
1. Don’t be afraid or disheartened. God will be the source of our strength in this fight.

The Lord is my light and my salvation—
so why should I be afraid?
The Lord is my fortress, protecting me from danger,
so why should I tremble?
When evil people come to devour me,
when my enemies and foes attack me,
they will stumble and fall.
Though a mighty army surrounds me,
my heart will not be afraid.
Even if I am attacked,
I will remain confident.
Psalm 27.1-3 NLT

2. Seek sanctuary in God’s intimate presence. Faced with attacks from his enemies, David retreated to the Temple of God.
The one thing I ask of the Lord
the thing I seek most—
is to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,
delighting in the Lord’s perfections
and meditating in his Temple.
For he will conceal me there when troubles come;
he will hide me in his sanctuary.
He will place me out of reach on a high rock.
Then I will hold my head high
above my enemies who surround me.
At his sanctuary I will offer sacrifices with shouts of joy,
singing and praising the Lord with music.
Psalm 27.4-6 NLT

3. Wait on God for justice his way.
Hear me as I pray, O Lord.
Be merciful and answer me!
My heart has heard you say, “Come and talk with me.”
And my heart responds, “Lord, I am coming.”
 Do not turn your back on me.
Do not reject your servant in anger.
You have always been my helper.
Don’t leave me now; don’t abandon me,
O God of my salvation!
 Even if my father and mother abandon me,
the Lord will hold me close.

 Teach me how to live, O Lord.
Lead me along the right path,
for my enemies are waiting for me.
 Do not let me fall into their hands.
For they accuse me of things I’ve never done;
with every breath they threaten me with violence.
 Yet I am confident I will see the Lord’s goodness
while I am here in the land of the living.

 Wait patiently for the Lord.
Be brave and courageous.
Yes, wait patiently for the Lord.   
Psalm 27.7-14

Thursday, July 12, 2012


“So Don, tell us about three key events in your life.” Don was a guy on the mission trip I led to Haiti in June. He was one of the first ones on our team to volunteer to tell his story. Story-telling is something I’ve learned to be very important to the team dynamic on a missions trip. Once people’s stories come out, it really helps them connect quicker and deeper. So during down times, I ask people to simply answer three questions: who are three significant people in your life, what are three key events in your life, and what are three special places you like to go.

Don’s answer to the “significant events” question took me by surprise. The predictable responses usually revolve around a wedding, the birth of a child, the death of a loved one, or a job offer. But Don said with a sigh in his voice, “Well, I have to say… yesterday. Yeah… yesterday was one of the most significant events in my life.” Our entire team collectively laughed because we had all shared “yesterday.” “Yesterday” was the first day of the trip and it didn’t go as planned.
We landed in Port-a-Prince with a fairly large group that included lots of extra luggage as we brought items from the ABC Giving Tables. In the hot, stuffy luggage and customs area that resembled more a pole barn than an airport facility, we navigated the chaos finding all our belongings. Our next step was to proceed as a group through one more customs check, then walk out through a narrow walkway lined with aggressive Haitians begging to carry our bags for a tip. At the end of this long walk, we’d find our host Marcel. As we began to gather together to walk what is known as the “gauntlet,” we got word that Marcel was not outside and was stuck in traffic. We certainly didn’t want to stand outside the Port-a-Prince airport as we’d be big targets for mischief. So, we settled in to wait to hear from Marcel.
Several minutes later I noticed a strange sight. A white man was walking into the luggage area from the exit door. He walked right to our team, introduced himself, and began to give us orders. He said, “I’m Rick and I’m here to get you out of here. There are protestors north of here that are blocking the only road between here and St. Marc. Marcel is stuck on the other side. I’m here with another American team and we are stuck in Port-a-Prince too. So we’re going to join together. Follow me. We’re going to find a place to get some food and water to wait this out.” It was obvious that Rick was legit and he was our best and only option. We would need to trust him for the next leg of our journey. Later, I would learn that he was missions pastor of a large church in Ohio. His church sends teams to an orphanage near St. Marc several times a year. For an American, Rick knew his way around Haiti. But in the moment, we knew very little about Rick and what was going to happen next.
As our team and all of our bags made it out of the airport, we realized we were about to become tight friends with fourteen people from Columbus we had never meant. Their truck was going to be our transportation until Marcel could break through the protest. We were a team of 13 people. We also had six members of Marcel’s family with us: his wife, his one-year-old, five-year-old, nine-year-old and two college-age sons. All toll, 33 people and all our luggage would need to travel in Rick’s oversized truck. I don’t know how we did it but everyone made it on that truck. A couple of Ohio guys rode outside on the bumper and some of our people sat on the side rails.
Twenty minutes later, we found ourselves in a fairly nice restaurant, comfortable in Haitian terms. Rick got on his phone with Marcel to find out what his and our next step would be, then came to us and said, “The protests have turned for the worse. They’re more like riots right now. Usually these last an hour or two but this one is getting big and may last through the night. It looks like we need to find a place to settle for the night.” It’s funny—I didn’t see any Holiday Inns or Super 8s as we left the airport. Rick explained that Haiti did have hotels but we’d need to be prepared to sleep on the floor and some will need to sleep on the truck to guard the luggage. Another option he talked about was finding a safe place where we’d all sleep near or on the truck. But Rick had one last option that seemed much better than the first two. Rick said that he knew a guy who ran the Church of God compound in the city and if he could get a hold of him, if he had a place for us, and if he could find it, we may have a place to stay.  As Rick worked his phone, we prayed and waited as the sun began to set on Port-a-Prince. No one wanted to be on these streets when it got dark.
As if God were listening to our prayers and cared about our situation, Rick came to our team and said we’d be welcome at the Church of God and we needed to load up immediately. Rick seemed to know where he was heading as we went down some narrow, bumpy, and hilly roads. And, just as it started to get dark, our truck stopped in front of a huge metal gate. The gate opened and we pulled in to see two heavily armed men standing watch. As we piled off the truck, an American man from the compound said, “Hi, I’m Jimmie Hudson. You are welcome to stay as long as you need. I have a bed and shower for each of you. We’ll find a way to get you food if you need it. Please know… you are safe here.” Early the next morning, we would make our way through the riot area and to Marcel’s house.
So, I asked Don, “What made yesterday so significant to you?” Don replied, “I’m a guy who thinks I have my life under control. Yesterday, nothing was in my control and I didn’t like it a bit. I had to give everything to God. I had to trust him in a way I never had to trust him before. And, God took care of us in ways I could not imagine: Rick from Ohio and that dude, Jimmie. Who were those guys?”
Everyone resonated deeply with Don. What he was articulating so well was God’s care and provision for us when we really couldn’t take care of ourselves. He could have used words like, “we sure were fortunate.” Or, “man, we dodged a bullet.” Or, “good thing Marcel has connections.” Those words may be somewhat true, but they don’t describe the whole truth. God acted to care for us. He provided and protected. He gave us care and relief in a time of need. Don’s faith in God grew enormously that day. Everyone’s faith grew enormously that day.

I give everything to God and therefore I never have a problem. If a problem arises, it’s God’s problem, not mine.”                                                                                           Marcel Destine (Haitian pastor)

Praise the Lord!
I will thank the Lord with all my heart
as I meet with his godly people.
How amazing are the deeds of the Lord!
All who delight in him should ponder them.
Everything he does reveals his glory and majesty.
His righteousness never fails.
He causes us to remember his wonderful works.
How gracious and merciful is our Lord! 
Psalm 111.1-4 NLT

Monday, July 9, 2012

Change in Life-Seasons

The seasons are changing at the Niekerk household. No, I’m not talking about the weather in Michigan which is gripped in the hottest and longest summer heat wave I can remember. I’m referring to a change in our season of life. Janice and I are about to face a significant change in our family. At times, we’re very excited about what is to come; but we also have moments when we get a little rattled thinking about what life will be like once this change fully comes.

To put it simply, in September we’ll have all three of our kids, a son-in-law, and our first grandchild living in Marquette, Michigan. The good news is that they will be together in the same town. The bad news is that Marquette is 400 miles from our home. We’ve seen this coming, just like we know winter is nearing when the first snowflake floats by. But, as the summer passes and September nears, I find myself reflecting a little more about seasons past and dreaming about what new things God has for us in the future.
Our youngest, Trent, just graduated from high school. He’s known for a couple of years that he wants to attend Northern Michigan University, the same college his two older sisters attended. Our family loves that area and he fell in love with the idea of attending college in this beautiful, quaint and friendly community. But, the reality of him leaving for Marquette truly hit me last week as we took him to college for a three-day orientation. It was obvious to us that this was the right choice for him. He was happy and fit in the surroundings like they were made for him. Seeing him wandering the campus got us excited for him.
But we’ve been doing some grieving as well. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve pulled into my driveway to see my driveway and yard crowded with teenage cars. This is a good thing. This means Trent’s friends are hanging out in our basement. We love this because his friends are really great kids and they know that our house is always open to them. Just last night, Griff stopped by to pick up a video game he left. Trent wasn’t home but he politely walked in, grabbed his stuff, and stopped to chat with us for several minutes. We love Griff and are thrilled that Trent has him as a friend. This sort of thing happens all the time, but we feel the day approaching when this season in our house will end. Come September, all these kids will be at college somewhere. Our house will be quiet, disturbingly quiet. But in my grief, this verse has been a huge encouragement to me.

Oh, the joys of those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or stand around with sinners, or join in with mockers. Psalm 1.1

David, the song writer, emphasizes the critical importance of choosing your friends well. Good relationships can make your life strong, but bad relationships can ruin life. As a parent who has watched three kids walk through the muddy—and even dangerous—relational waters of middle school, high school and now college, I would write this verse this way:

Oh, what incredible joy we have knowing that our kids are not choosing to take bad advice from bad people or are choosing to hang around people who love sin and bad behavior. Instead they are choosing friends who build them up and help them move forward. 

This helps my grief as I see the season changing in our home. I have confidence that Trent’s ability to choose great friends will continue in college and his adult life.
On the other end of our family spectrum, we had a chance last week to spend some time with our oldest daughter. She’s starting her eighth month of her first pregnancy. The season of us being grandparents is coming soon. Empty nesters and grandparents—all in the same month! But not only are Kari and Grant planning for the arrival of their baby, they are really wrestling with what career paths they should pursue. Grant is contemplating a change in his college direction. It seems he has more questions than answers regarding where God is leading him. But he said something to me that was very, very encouraging. He said with excitement, “The other day, one of my pastors prophesied over me. He prophesied that I would someday be in vocational ministry.”  Though the “prophesy” wording threw me for a bit, his statement gave me incredible joy. It was a huge indication that Grant and Kari have no desire to waste their lives. They want to do what God asks them to do and are willing to construct their family lifestyle to be ready for God’s specific leading. Their hearts are open to serving in this capacity if God chooses this for their lives. The words from Psalm 1 continued to resonate with me.
But they delight in the law of the Lord, meditating on it day and night. They are like trees planted along the riverbank, bearing fruit each season. Their leaves never wither, and they prosper in all they do. But not the wicked! They are like worthless chaff, scattered by the wind. Psalm 1.2-4
What a joy to have the truth of scripture reinforced by watching my kids’ lives change. What a joy to see my kids chose relationships that spiritually matter. What a joy to see my kids desire a life that makes a spiritual difference. I’m a blessed man!