My name is Jeff and I'm a pastor of a small, local, Christian fellowship

It's a wonderful thing to love your work; to know that when you do it you are doing something that you were born to do. I am so fortunate to be both. I don't say I am the best at what I do. God knows that are so many others who do it better. But I do feel fairly lucky to be called by such a good God to do work I can only do with his help, to be loved by a beautiful woman, and to have a workshop where I can work my craft. These musings of mine are part of that work.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

"Home Church" at Church

It was something like this but more snow

'The glory which thou hast given me I have given unto them; that they may be one, even as we are one; I in them, and thou in me, that they may be perfected into one: that the world may know that thou didst send me, and lovedst them, even as thou lovedst me.' This is amazing doctrine. It sounds novel even now. Christ declares his mission to be the binding of men together by indissoluble bonds. It is by the brotherliness of those who believe in Jesus that the hard heart of the world is to be softened and the truthfulness of Jesus' words established. The world is to be brought to God by Christians loving one another.” Charles E. Jefferson, 1910

This past Sunday for the first time in twenty-six and a half years of pastoral ministry I nearly pulled the plug and cancelled our Sunday morning gathering – nearly. An early spring front moved through the upper Midwest dumping over a foot of snow Saturday night and by Sunday morning there was no real let-up. In fact, at 7 o'clock Sunday morning it was near white-out conditions outside and the roads hadn't even been plowed yet. But on the principal that “whoever can make it will” I decided to not cancel and see who would show up and what God would do in spite of the weather conditions.

When I was a kid, I loved a snow day from school. Who doesn't? But now as an adult in charge of a Christian congregation I'm pretty old school about these things. In other words, (to date) I haven't allowed the weather to dictate the terms of whether or not we'll gather. I don't say that with even the slightest hint of judgment against those of my fellow pastors who felt it more prudent to not have their weekly gathering that morning. After all, they know their fellowship best and what is best for them. I just don't like to turn off the lights simply because of weather. On Sunday, it was “on with the show” at 724 Leonard Street and for the 27 people who did make it all of them were glad that they did.

For me personally, here's a few reasons why:

Kale & LeAnne:
So sweet and good
For the first time since anyone can remember they led worship together. That's actually how they met. Back in 2006-ish, Kale was our only worship leader then and that summer a lovely young lady with a beautiful voice moved to town and began attending our fellowship. Kale is what I call a “contemplative” worship leader. He's not into “bouncy” songs. I would suggest a song or two to Kale to implement in his weekly set which seemed to fall on deaf ears. But when LeAnne would suggest the same suddenly one would appear Sunday morning. Hmmm. As our bass player at the time and I concurred, LeAnne was definitely “Plan B” when our requests for music went unheeded.

They are a wondeful couple and ten years later parents of three beautiful daughters. These “baby” years, however, have kind of put the cramp to LeAnne's Sunday morning worship-style for obvious reasons. It was soooo good to see her back on the platform aside her husband just like the “old” days. To me, that was worth the price of admission. She has a prophetic bent to her and that clearly was in play yesterday morning.

NOT Renee and NOT us (they seem more organized
than we are!)
Renee and Children's Church:
You would think on a Sunday morning where only 27 heads can be counted we wouldn't necessarily have the need for Children's Church especially since several of our families were absent. But Dennis & Vicki brought their grandkids and James had a friend sleep over the night before and throw in two of Kale & LeAnne's girls and now you have a posse of littles. It was Renee's week to lead Children's Church and thank God she was ready for action because that brood brought it. Renee, one of our elders at Refuge (which does not make her old), is one of the wonderful servant-leaders that our fellowship is blessed with. Mind you, she doesn't see a future for herself in Children's Ministry but is more than willing to pitch in and help so that these kids' parents can participate in the gathering without distraction. I'm glad she's on our team.

The rest of us:
At Refuge we identify ourselves as a “healing community of Jesus Christ.” We cannot save or heal anyone but the good news is Christ doesn't call us to do those things. He calls us to love and accept people and foster loving, nurturing community among ourselves. I personally believe that for a small faith community like Refuge that is easier to do simply because of our size. A small church should do what a small church can do and so we have experimented on Sunday morning for sometime now different ways to “do” fellowship. Actually, a lot of these things we do are very conducive to a small group gathering in someone's home. But if we – meaning, Refuge – try and establish a home group our history tells me that these ventures start with great enthusiasm and then fizzle out by the end of Lent simply because our interest wanes and other ventures beckon. So, why not use Sunday morning – which we know we pretty much still own – to nurture Christian community?

About a month ago, the kids from The Focus, the interchurch youth group that meets at Refuge on a weekly basis, took up a collection or two and bought two couches from IKEA and a few tables for the corner opposite the sound booth in the sanctuary. On Wednesday night it makes the sanctuary feel a bit more “homey” and on Sunday mornings, it's a blessing to parents with little children. This past Sunday rather than preach the message I had prepared I invited those of us who remained upstairs after the kids egressed down for Children's Church, to circle up in the “couch corner.”

Some of us in the "couch corner"
The way we normally “do” corporate prayer alternates between open mic on one Sunday followed by prayer circles on the following Sunday. Honestly, if I did away with the open mic format I think a lot of the folks would only be too happy. They love circling up their chairs and praying for one another. Sunday was supposed to be a prayer circle day anyway so we just drew the circle a little bigger than we normally allow (17-18 as opposed to 5-6).

It was Missions Sunday at Refuge so I shared an email we had recently received from Duane, another elder from our fellowship, who is presently on a ministry trip in Bangladesh and the Philippines. I updated everyone on the developments at The Well International, the inter church agency that Refuge helped establish back in 2008, to reach out to the Somali refugees in Barron. We spent time praying for a number of these people and after awhile moved on to finding out how we can pray for one another.

Sean is in need of work and housing. Kale is changing jobs. I asked prayer for my students in the class I teach at the jail. Our daughter, Emma, is contemplating a job change as well and traveling to Thailand for a month of service there and so we prayed for her, too. Again and again as the needs were shared prayers were offered for those who requested it. Of course, in the sharing natural opportunity arose to encourage and affirm one another. Ultimately a common thread emerged that a lot of us present needed to be reminded that God is in control (“He's got this” was spoken forth more than once that morning almost as a mantra) and we needed to trust him in the areas where we have little or no control with regards to securing a job, the spiritual condition of our adult children and the choices they are making.

As I looked around the circle I was struck by its diversity – Greg and Rachel, a couple in their 30s with five years of marriage under their belt, were on one couch and their baby, Raiyn (if not in the arms of my wife) was in her car seat working a bottle; Dennis and Vicki, a couple in their 60s who have been together forty or more years, were trying to entertain their two youngest grandkids who had a case of the wiggles. The rest of our group was made up of a teen, and at least one representative from every age group from the 20s through the 60s, married and single. It was, in effect, a family gathering in what someone at our fellowship likes to refer to as God's living room.

We have said to each other that we want to foster fellowship and community at Refuge and in our case the snow storm helped make some of that happen the other day. We gathered, we worshiped, we shared prayers and requests and spoke into each other's lives. This, too, is what “church” is all about.

Though gone his words still "speak"
I've been reading Charles E. Jefferson's The Building of the Church lately. Jefferson was a pastor in New York City and ministered at the same church (the Broadway Tabernacle) for nearly 40 years from 1898-1937. The Building of the Church is made up of a series of lectures he gave at Yale University in April and May 1910. His stuff, even though he wrote it over a hundred years ago, reads like it just came out last month. Speaking to those who were at Yale training for ministry, he said:

A Christian owes something to a fellow-Christian which he owes to no other human being, his first duty to his fellow-believers, his first obligation is to his Christian brethren, his first concern is with his comrades in Christ. It is by Christians loving one another after the sacrificial manner of Jesus that other men are to become Christians. Love is the law of the church. Love is the badge of discipleship. Love is the chief evangelist and head worker. Love is the power which overcomes. It is not love for the community or love for humanity, but love for one's fellow-Christians by which the door of the world's heart is to be opened. “Building the Brotherhood”

We had fun this past Sunday morning but it was more than just gathering together to spite the storm. It was practicing loving one another and if we can do that – and get better at it – than for all our shortcomings we will be a fellowship where Jesus abides and the love we have for one another is real and growing.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Journey's end: Reflections on John 21:18-25

One last meal together

When you were young you dressed yourself and went wherever you wished, but when you get old you’ll have to stretch out your hands while someone else dresses you and takes you where you don’t want to go.” He said this to hint at the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. And then he commanded, “Follow me.”

Turning his head, Peter noticed the disciple Jesus loved following right behind. When Peter noticed him, he asked Jesus, “Master, what’s going to happen to him?”

Jesus said, “If I want him to live until I come again, what’s that to you? You—follow me.”
John 21:18-22, The Message

In the next day or two Frodo went through his papers and his writings with Sam, and he handed over his keys. There was a big book with plain red leather covers; its tall pages were now almost filled. At the beginning there were many leaves covered with Bilbo's thin wandering hand; but most of it was written in Frodo's firm flowing script. It was divided into chapters but Chapter 80 was unfinished, and after that were some blank leaves. The title page had many titles on it, crossed out one after another...”

'Why, you have nearly finished it, Mr. Frodo!' Sam exclaimed. 'Well, you have kept at it, I must say.'

'I have quite finished, Sam,' said Frodo. 'The last pages are for you.'
“The Grey Havens” in The Return of The King by J.R.R. Tolkien

For the last year and a half I have been camped in the Gospel of John taking a meandering, slow devotional journey through it. Just the other day I came to the end of the road: “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written” (v. 25, NIV). The writer of the last sentence, be it John or a later contributor as some suggest, is waxing eloquent. As Gary Burge notes:

With playful and delightful hyperbole, John says that even all the books of the world could not contain Jesus’ story. Such expressions were common in antiquity. Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai, a first-century teacher, wrote, “If all heaven were a parchment, and all the trees produced pens, and all the waters were ink, they would not suffice to inscribe the wisdom I have received from my teachers: and yet from the wisdom of the wise I have enjoyed only so much as the water a fly which plunges into the sea can remove.” John ends his Gospel with similar humility. The story is larger than anything he can imagine. His effort, while glorious for us to read, pales in comparison to the glory of the Person whom his story describes.

The story ends where it began – at the shore of the sea. Though John doesn't mention it in his gospel, all the other gospel writers do (Matthew 1:18-22; Mark 1:16-20; Luke 5:1-11) sharing the origin story of the age-old Sunday School song “Fishers of Men” that I learned as a boy:

I will make you fishers of men,
Fishers of men, fishers of men.
I will make you fishers of men,
If you follow Me.

If you follow Me,
If you follow Me,
I will make you fishers of men,
If you follow Me.

Three years before Peter and John (along with Andrew and James) had been invited to leave their vocation as fishermen and apprentice themselves to this peripatetic rabbi who majored in story-telling and frequently confusing teaching that was validated by the miraculous again and again. They did drop their nets. They did turn their backs on their homes in Galilee and had followed Jesus of Nazareth all the way to the cross – and beyond. Now that journey had taken them back full circle to where it had all began. And just like then Peter and Jesus are walking along the shore of Lake Tiberius (John is the only one of the Gospel writers to refer to the sea with its proper Roman name) with John in tow. I imagine it's a cool morning at the lake and the waves are gently lapping along the shore. There's a bit of a breeze that gives a little bite to the air. Once again, Jesus turns to Peter and utters his all purpose invitation to all would-be disciples of every place and of every time: “Follow me” - through thick and thin, in good times and bad, even though it may cost you everything including your life – which it will. “You must follow me, Peter!” (v. 22) is how we're supposed to hear it.

All of us who read the story are silent witnesses of these three walking along the lake in the early morning. Church history is in the making. Peter and John both will follow Christ through the rest of their lives but the arc of their stories will follow different trajectories. As Bruce Milne puts it:

The ministries of Peter and John would be different. Peter would be the shepherd, John the seer; Peter the preacher, John the penman; Peter the foundational witness, John the faithful writer; Peter would die in the agony and passion of martyrdom, John would live on to great age and pass away in quiet serenity.

Both would follow Christ faithfully. In the early days of the movement known as the Church they would walk together ministering in both Jerusalem and Samaria. But eventually their paths would take them in different directions, John to Ephesus in modern-day Turkey (interrupted by several years spent in exile out in the Aegean) and Peter to ultimate martyrdom in Rome as Jesus had foretold. But at this particular moment in time all of that is in their future. Right now it is just Jesus and two of his most closest friends having a private conversation by the sea.

Mark's story ends with wonder in front of the empty tomb. Matthew's concludes with Jesus uttering “the Great Commission” to the Eleven. And Luke's finale is perhaps the most dramatic of all with Jesus ascending to heaven right before their eyes. But John's gospel, which many believe officially concludes with Thomas' declaration of Jesus being his Lord and God when the resurrected Christ appeared before him (John 20:26-31), is singularly unique in that it comes to an end in a quiet and yet emphatic invitation to follow the risen Savior to whatever end he has destined for each of us. With regards to Peter, Michael Card writes:

They had first met beside this very same sea, on this same shore. At first Jesus had to show Simon that the lake he thought was empty was indeed full of fish. Now he had done it once again. Now a new kind of fisherman is left standing there – beside not a lake of fish but a vast sea of souls. He will fish for men and women. He will tend and feed the flock of Jesus. He can accomplish all this now because, in his brokenness, he knows the certainty both of his love for Jesus and – more importantly – of Jesus' love for him. He is armed with the painful knowing of own end. He is ready. A Fragile Stone: The Emotional Life of Simon Peter

Tolkienphile that I am, the last verses in John wistfully remind me of chapter 9 in The Return of the King. The One Ring and Sauron utterly destroyed and King Elessar now enthroned in Gondor, the Third Age has ended. Gandalf, Galadriel, Elrond and Bilbo are making one last journey to the Grey Havens to board the ship awaiting to carry them to Valinor. Frodo, accompanied by the faithful Sam, travels to the Havens, too, to bid farewell to this mighty company. Once there, however, Sam learns that Frodo plans on taking the ship as well. Crestfallen, Sam vainly tries to persuade Frodo to stay to no avail. Replies Frodo:

...I have been too deeply hurt, Sam. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them. But you are my heir: all that I had and might have had I leave to you. And also you have Rose, and
The passing of the Red Book
Elanor; and Frodo-lad will come, and Rosie-lass, and Merry, and Goldilocks, and Pippin; and perhaps more that I cannot see. Your hands and your wits will be needed everywhere. You will be the Mayor, of course, as long as you want to be, and the most famous gardener in history; and you will read things out of the Red Book, and keep alive the memory of the age that is gone, so that people will remember the Great Danger and so love their beloved land all the more. And that will keep you as busy and as happy as anyone can be, as long as your part of the Story goes on.

Peter's and John's (as well as James' and the others) part of the great Story would continue for many years to come. All but John would suffer and die for the glory of the Name but all followed Christ and allowed him to write His story in theirs. And unlike that melancholy good-bye among the members of the Fellowship of the Ring at the Havens, his spirit would abide and remain in them all their lives. As Paul put it they would know “the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings,becoming like him in his death” (Phil 3:10-11, NIV). They told the Story to others who in turn passed it onto others through the millennia and because they did the world continues to fill with the stories of Jesus. And yet, as Frodo reminds us, despite all that has been written there's yet a few pages more for each of us to write our own installment of the Story that will go on until he returns. “Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen” (Ephesians 3:21, KJV).

In the centuries that followed, the books that spoke about Jesus have flowed by the thousands, and yet still the world is not full of them. In many, perhaps most, of those books Jesus remains the misunderstood Messiah. Misunderstood, not because he had been obtuse or obscure, but because the wisdom he spoke and embodied was not, could not be grasped only through the intellect. The wisdom Jesus was could only be comprehended through relationship with the Word who had become flesh. John: The Gospel of Wisdom by Michael Card

I'm hoping Christ is writing his story in my life

Sunday, March 25, 2018

How can it be? A Good Friday meditation on Palm Sunday

And can it be that I should gain
An int’rest in the Savior’s blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain—
For me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
- Charles Wesley

I have been a volunteer chaplain at the Barron County Jail since the new place opened up back in 2004. What that means, among other things, is that every fourth Sunday for most of the last fourteen years I have led the worship services at the jail on Sunday afternoons. Given that this was the fourth Sunday of March once again I headed up to the jail following the worship gathering at Refuge this morning. What follows is a reflection on my time there today:

I'm on my way over to Barron once again and I'm excited. It was a great morning at Refuge. The house was fairly full-ish, the story-telling was great, the Spirit of God was present. I'm expecting good things at the jail today. Early this morning I posted this on Facebook:

Usually I forget to recruit people to pray for me but God is so good he helps me anyway. But today is different. Today I'm going in with spiritual cover and so I walk up to the doors with confidence. It's gonna be a great afternoon.

But by the time I get to the room, things begin to go south. There are guys in there already (that never happens) and like little boys they're goofing around in the dark as nobody bothered to turn on the lights. One of them is standing behind the podium and says with profuse profanity how he's “gonna be the preacher today”. I've never seen this guy before but I know the type: young and full of himself and how “bad-a” he is. Whatever he's here for, he'll be back if not at Barron in Polk or Washburn or some other place. You can just tell.

As I get my guitar tuned up the guys are talking among themselves. They come from different blocks at the jail so the few minutes they have as they come in and before church begins is usually a time to find out what's going on with each others cases and when they have court or how long they got left. I don't usually mind but the punk is loud and despite the fact that we're a minute out before I invoke God's blessing on the gathering his profane commentary and juvenile behavior is beginning to tick me off. I've been in the room all of three minutes.

I offer my usual introductory comments. Ever since I began my stint at the jail on the fourth Sunday of every month my standard intro has been this:

Hi. I'm Jeff, a pastor of a Christian fellowship in Chetek known as The Refuge. If you know Chetek and you know where the Dairy Queen is, we're right behind it. When you get out of this place [one time I accidentally said, If you get out of this place] you're going to need people. I invite you to check out our place. We may not be the place for you but it's a place to start. You will be welcomed there if you come.”

Admittedly, over the years, of the many times I have extended that invitation very few have taken me up on it but I can tell you that those few have been embraced warmly.

Having passed out the sheet containing the lyrics to the songs I've chosen to sing today and invited the Holy Spirit to come, our service begins. Usually the guys know that this is the signal for the chit chat to stop but the punk in the corner seems oblivious and keeps talking to the guy to his left as well as the guy across the room. If he keeps it up I'm going to stop and give him a dressing down and I won't care if I make him feel bad. That will be the point. In fourteen years of jail services I've only had to do that once and I regretted it later. But silently I ask for God's help while I sing

Wonderful, merciful SaviorPrecious Redeemer and Friend
Who would have thought that a Lamb
Could rescue the souls of men
Oh, You rescue the souls of men

The pastor of the church I was discipled in as a young man was a wonderfully positive man. He always had a smile, always had a good word to say to you, never once did I see him in a foul mood save once. A soon-to-be-graduated Bible college student I was an intern on his staff. My wife and I were engaged at the time and seeing him regularly for our pre-marital counseling sessions. Once on the day we were to see him I knew he had been in his office for a couple of hours trying to help a married couple reconcile. When he came out he looked like he had gone several rounds in the ring, his tie akimbo and his five o'clock shadow in full force. He came into the main office where Linda and I were patiently waiting and poured himself a cup of stale coffee and then said this flatly: “Well, they can go to hell if they want to.” I nearly fell out of my chair to hear him speak so frankly and then after a long sip of his coffee added, “I'm going to heaven.” I didn't know then as I do now that that's an old pastor's line that is usually uttered in jest, a sort of gallows humor one resorts to when one comes face to face with the hardness and the unmalleable-ness of the human heart. As I continued to sing

The pit from Batman Begins reminds me of the appearance of some of these guys' heart

You are the One that we praise
You are the One we adore
You give the healing and grace
Our hearts always hunger for
Oh, our hearts always hunger for

I think about that and this punk in my sanctuary who thinks he's all
What has happened to make the angry boy
an angry young man?
that and seems to not give a rip that he's pissing the preacher off. “I'm a volunteer here,” I say to myself. “I don't need this. I've certainly have better things to do than hang out with these so-and-sos.” But in that same instant I also suddenly see him – I see the little boy he really once was before whatever crap has happened to him and whatever bad choices he has made to make him the butt-hole he now is. And in that moment God gives me his heart for him. The last verse is as much my prayer as it is my confession:

Almighty, infinite Father
Faithfully loving Your own
Here in our weakness You find us
Falling before Your throne
Oh, we're falling before Your throne

As I continue to lead in worship, he and the others finally settle down and somewhere between the first and the third song I decide I'm going to share from John 19 and the scourging of Jesus. Good Friday is this Friday after all. I ask the guys, “What's the worse thing that can happen to you at the jail?” In unison all of them recite, “A-Block.” When I ask what's so bad about A-Block a real likeable guy in the front row (who I've known for years) tells me he just came from there. He spent twenty days there and that means he slept 10 days without a mattress and 10 days with one. It's essentially solitary confinement to provoke someone to reconsider their ways. Compare that kind of punishment to the scourging of Jesus. Unlike the Jewish community where flogging was permitted but limited (hence, Paul's claim “Five different times the Jewish leaders gave me thirty-nine lashes” 2 Corinthians 11:24 NLT), when a Roman scourged a prisoner he could do it as many times as he had the ability to do so. On the day of Jesus' “trial” (Clarence Jordan describes what happened to Jesus as a “lynching” in his Cotton Patch Gospel), in his effort to appease the blood-thirst of the Jewish leadership Pilate had Jesus scourged and then offered to release him. The “cat-of-nine-tails” in the hands of a hardened legionnaire must have torn Jesus' back to shreds. The leadership, who is stirring up the mob, are not satisfied and won't be until Pilate orders Jesus to the cross.

And he had the horror of crucifixion before him yet

I talk for a bit about the particulars of crucifixion that if the Romans did not invent it they certainly perfected it. It is a horrible way to die and I tell the guys that every gospel writer tells the story to provoke us to ask, “Why? Why would anyone submit to such cruel and unusual punishment?” And while I'm preaching away a completely new thought comes to mind. I look at these guys before me, including the punk in the corner, and I think to myself, “Why? Why for these guys?” Every one of them has made something of a train wreck of their life. They've broken the hearts of people who love them and probably are praying for them. They are full of hate and total disregard for authority and a good many of them have not hit bottom yet. I tell them this: “I have four wonderful children and honestly guys, I wouldn't let any of them come to any harm for you or take your place. But God so loved the world that he gave up his son for each of you – and for me. I'm telling you as I live and breathe, I don't understand that kind of love.”

I wouldn't give any of them up for anybody

The punk has settled down as have the others. I have their attention
albeit tenuously. He then offers a comment (here edited for decency's sake): “What I don't get,” he adds, “is why Peter would volunteer to be crucified upside down.” That leads my reflection down a side path as we speak about Peter's thrice-repeated denial on the night of Jesus' arrest and how after the resurrection and his restoration how he spent the rest of his life trying to live up to the trust that the Lord Jesus placed in him. On the day he was martyred, according to tradition, he was crucified upside down at his request as he didn't think he was worthy to die in the same matter as the Lord who had loved him so. Peter reminds us that there's hope for all of us.

I lead in a few more songs

There is a redeemer
Jesus, God's own Son
Precious Lamb of God, Messiah
Holy One

Jesus my redeemer
Name above all names
Precious Lamb of God, Messiah
Oh, for sinners slain

Thank you, oh my father
For giving us Your Son
And leaving Your Spirit
'Til the work on Earth is done

...after which I take a few prayer requests and close in prayer.
It was an okay service. I've had better and a few worse but later that afternoon at another gathering I attended someone there who knew I had been to the jail asked how service had gone. When I shared with him about the nature of the gathering he quipped, “Imagine if you hadn't asked for prayer this morning.” Exactly.

But tonight as I race to put these thoughts together before they're gone I'm still struck by the fact that while the most I am willing to do for any of those guys is go visit them at the jail or attend their sentencing, I would never take a bullet for any of them let alone allow any one of my children so much as prick their finger for their sake. But our Heavenly Father would – and did!

 “It wasn’t so long ago that you were mired in that old stagnant life of sin. You let the world, which doesn’t know the first thing about living, tell you how to live. You filled your lungs with polluted

unbelief, and then exhaled disobedience. We all did it, all of us doing what we felt like doing, when we felt like doing it, all of us in the same boat. It’s a wonder God didn’t lose his temper and do away with the whole lot of us. Instead, immense in mercy and with an incredible love, he embraced us. He took our sin-dead lives and made us alive in Christ. He did all this on his own, with no help from us! Then he picked us up and set us down in highest heaven in company with Jesus, our Messiah.” Paul in his letter to the Christians in Ephesus [2:1-6, The Message].

Tonight as I close this meditation I'm thinking about Charles Wesley's awesome hymn, And Can It Be?

He left His Father’s throne above—
So free, so infinite His grace—
Emptied Himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race:
’Tis mercy all, immense and free,
For, O my God, it found out me!

Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?


I don't know what those yahoos got out of the gathering today. God knows. But I know this that I'm glad I went this afternoon if only to be reminded that for all my theological education and pastoral experience I cannot begin to fathom the incredible love of God that he has for me – and for each of us. That was worth whatever annoyance I had to put up with this afternoon at the Barron County Jail.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Out among the sheep

When he finally arrives, blazing in beauty and all his angels with him, the Son of Man will take his place on his glorious throne. Then all the nations will be arranged before him and he will sort the people out, much as a shepherd sorts out sheep and goats, putting sheep to his right and goats to his left.

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Enter, you who are blessed by my Father! Take what’s coming to you in this kingdom. It’s been ready for you since the world’s foundation. And here’s why:

I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.’

Then those ‘sheep’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?’ Then the King will say, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.’

Then he will turn to the ‘goats,’ the ones on his left, and say, ‘Get out, worthless goats! You’re good for nothing but the fires of hell. And why? Because—

I was hungry and you gave me no meal,
I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,
I was homeless and you gave me no bed,
I was shivering and you gave me no clothes,
Sick and in prison, and you never visited.’

Then those ‘goats’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or homeless or shivering or sick or in prison and didn’t help?’

He will answer them, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you failed to do one of these things to someone who was being overlooked or ignored, that was me—you failed to do it to me.’

Then those ‘goats’ will be herded to their eternal doom, but the ‘sheep’ to their eternal reward.”
Matthew 25:31-46, The Message

On the first Sunday of Advent, I showed a movie at the weekly gathering of our fellowship (see Problem or Opportunity?Martin the Cobbler is a claymation classic based on Leo Tolstoy's short story Where Love Is, God Is There Also wonderfully narrated by his daughter, Alexandra. It's a simple tale of a lonely old man who wiles away the hours of his day in his little basement workshop. Life has been unkind to Martin and when a priest asks him to repair the binding of his Bible he at first declines as “the Lord and I have not been getting along of late.” At the priest's persistence, however, he agrees to the task and finds himself drawn to the reading of Scripture time and again. As he dozes one afternoon he has a dream in which he is certain the Lord tells him that he will visit him the following day.

During that day he is visited but not by the Lord Jesus. Instead, five unexpected guests come to call – the old man whose job is to shovel the snow from the walk, a poor young woman and her infant child and an old woman and a young boy who has tried to steal an apple from her basket. In each case, Martin welcomes his guests by offering a small gift – hot tea to drink for the old shoveler, a warm shawl for the shoulders of the poor woman and kindly words to the old woman who is irate with the young boy for his attempted thievery. They are simple acts of kindness offered to those in need. At the end of the day, however, Martin is disappointed as the Lord did not show up as he had expected. He then has a vision of sorts of each of his guests and hears the Lord say, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25). After all is said and done he is reminded that his dream had, in fact, been fulfilled and his Savior had truly called on him three times that day and each time he had received him.

The lesson is clear: go and do likewise. The interruptions that come our way in our hurry to get to church or get to class or get to work may, in fact, be golden opportunities to minister to the Lord Jesus. As Mother Teresa once prayed, “Dearest Lord, may I see you today and every day in the person of your sick, and whilst nursing them, minister unto you.” I don't think this isn't anything we haven't heard before. But hearing and doing often don't go together. We know these things but too often are inconvenienced or a bit miffed at the prospect of getting involved in someone else's trouble. It's why it's good to be reminded of this simple yet profound truth from time to time.

The "Giving Tree"
This past Advent season, some disciples of Jesus I know who are part of Refuge did minister to the Savior in simple and practical ways. One spent several nights working on the car of a guy in our midst recently released from prison. I know of another who felt inspired to make three quilts for the individuals she trusted the Lord would lead her to – and did. Each quilt was carefully and painstakingly made and then prayed over before they were gifted to their recipient. One makes a habit of taking his guitar to a local retail store every year and sing Christmas carols while manning a bucket for the Salvation Army. A number of us made or bought pies and then served them to the residents of our local nursing home. A handful of us banded together with a few others from two other fellowships and bought hot chocolate, candy canes, Christmas cards and
personal care products for the gift sacks we annually put together for the inmates at the county jail. Still others bought gifts of food and clothing for a young mother of three we know of presently going through a divorce and delivered them to her much to her joy. A farewell dinner was thrown for the Belizean men who live in our town who were about to return to their families. And these are just the ones I know about. As a rule, most people I know don't blow their own horn about things like this.

Loading the sacks
I'm not bragging about our good deeds. I'm sure that in Christian fellowships all around similar things are done in the name of the Lord Jesus at this time of year. I'm just proud and thankful to be identified with people such as these, servants of God and sheep of His pasture. As Mother Teresa reminds us, in the end “we can do no great things; just simple things with great love” demonstrating once again that we belong to him.

Sheep from three different flocks but from the same fold

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Oh, God - Save Us from Behaving Badly: An Advent Reflection and Prayer

5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

6 Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!
9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.
Philippians 2:5-11, NIV

Every year without fail the headlines speak of political leaders who are revealed to be scoundrels or, at the very least, people who should know better who have been found out behaving very badly. This is the fodder of American news cycles. But recently bad behavior among people of influence and power has reached epidemic proportions where seemingly everyday another morning talk show host or Congressman resigns for “improprieties” or outright infidelities. We older types shake our head in disbelief as we hear the breaking news while working on our first cup of coffee of the day. Our kids, however, are more than likely tweeting or snap-chatting their friends some snarky commentary that boils down to, in so many, words, “w.t.f. is wrong with people?” We may not approve of their vocabulary but we definitely agree with the sentiment: What the heck is going on?

Personally, I think the lion's share of our frustration arises out the apparent disconnect that we observe between a person's personal behavior and the office of trust he or she holds. We accept as gospel that “nobody's perfect” but that doesn't give anyone a pass to act badly. There will never be a perfect president or congressman or television anchor - or pastor or mayor or coach, for that matter. We are all people with clay feet. But when we use and abuse our places of influence for personal gain or for covering up personal foibles, that's not a shame. That's wrong (even if we can legally wiggle our way out of whatever pickle we're in).

If there is one constant about the followers of Christ through the millennia is that we have a difficult time getting along with one another. We love God heart and soul – it's just we don't like each other too much. As great a movement as the Protestant Reformation was for the world an argument can easily be made that one of the great legacies of that era is our capacity (as Christians) to form and reform along doctrinal lines. “If you have a doctrinal emphasis we have a denomination for you!” It's just my opinion but as much as theological perspectives separate disciples into various camps the interaction of personalities plays an even stronger role in our propensity to divide.

The Apostle Paul knew as much and dealt continually with Christian people who loved Jesus but not each other very much. As evidence is his propensity in his letters to exhort people to “pray for one another”, “be patient with one another,” “love one another,” and “bear with one another.” He's not just engaging in religious banter. He's addressing groups of Christians who are trying to find a way to get along. In his letter to the Philippians some feel he borrows from a common Christian hymn at the time (although he could have very well penned the words himself) to underscore his point. If I was ever wondering how I should conduct myself as a person in authority (be as it mayor, pastor, or coach) it's not complicated: Christ, though God, became nothing through a series of digressions and separations – by becoming a man, by living a servant's life and then by dying ignominiously on the cross. This is humility with a capital H.

So in the incarnation not only do we have a wondrous, miraculous, once-in-a-universe event but we have a practical life lesson in how we should live and treat each other, whether we hold office or parent children or live with our spouse or work alongside others. Jesus the Christ, firstborn of all Creation, born under the radar of the powerful and elite of his time come to serve us that we might do the same to one another. To that end I'd like to offer a prayer for the Body of Christ in our area at this time of year: 

Oh God, save us from behaving like so many people in power these days and help us have the same mindset that you have, who came to serve and not to be served. It's not all about us after all. It's all about you. I'm sorry, Lord, but too often we just forget that and when we do trouble and scandal are certain to follow. In your mercy hear our prayer.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Problem or Opportunity? Looking for other ways to "do" church

Houston, we've had a problem.”
Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell to Mission Control usually erroneously quoted as “Houston we have a problem” (April 1970)

Back in August our worship coordinator and her husband (and her brother as well) moved to Madison to attend the university there. It's a common enough circumstance in our little town in northern Wisconsin: kids graduate from high school and soon after head off to college or the military. In this case, Kayla and Cody had been students at UW-Barron County, a two-year community college, and had reached the end of the line. It was time to move on in pursuit of the rest of their college degree. But in the move we lost two worship leaders, our sound guy and a deacon to boot. In a small fellowship like ours that's a tough pill to swallow but, as I have said already, it is the way of all the earth in these here parts.
Moving on
Our leadership team had prayed all summer that God would either raise up others in our midst or bring in others to fill the vacancies their departure would be creating. I can tell you, we were pretty well in earnest as we prayed but after a summer's worth of praying that request was not answered. The last Sunday in August arrived, Kayla led us one more time to the altar (while Cody made sure the sound was balanced in the booth) and Noah, Kayla's brother (and an equally talented worship leader himself), accompanied his sister. We prayed over them, commending them to the Lord's care, and hugged them all good-bye. With no up-and-coming worship leader in the bullpen our leadership team came to some decisions – or these decisions were thrust upon us.

First off, as much as we would like to do as much we could not afford to stipend anyone local to come and lead worship for us on a regular basis. What's more, I had no interest in returning to the early days of my term here at Refuge when I was the “everything” pastor – you know, led worship, preached, and facilitated youth ministry on Wednesday nights. In my 20s and 30s that was a lot of fun. The thought of returning to such a routine now in my mid-50s frankly is death to me. However, I would be willing to do “double-duty” one Sunday a month. Kayla's parents, David and Paula, wonderful worship leaders themselves, while not interested in picking up the Sundays her daughter normally would have covered were willing to do one Sunday a month as well. Two of the four Sundays were now covered but what of the other two? 

At my suggestion that perhaps on those particular Sundays we “pipe worship in” via, say, YouTube it was clear that this was “a non-starter”. We would have live worship or not at all. So, if you can't draw from your own talent pool and you can't hire someone to come in and your leaders resist the idea of any kind of remote worship experience, what do you do? “Then maybe its a gift,” replied one of our elders. Maybe the vacancies were opportunity to experience God's presence and experiment with other ways of “doing” church.

This is what a lot of us think when we think
of liturgy
Every place has its liturgy. Even us Pentecostals and Charismatics who pride ourselves in not putting a printed order of service in the bulletin have a liturgy. It's the beaten path we trod every time we gather together in the Lord's house. Liturgy in itself is not a bad thing. It's comforting to know the gist of where we're going each week (even if we complain now and again of church being same-o, same-o). But in a small congregation there are other ways to do “it” and with the blessing of our leadership team I began to plan Sunday morning gatherings with different formats.

People love ThanksBringing
The Sharing Circle
One of the first kinds of gatherings we tried was a format that we were familiar with. For many years now we've had this event in early November we call “Thanks-bringing”. It's fairly simple. We organize the chairs (for the hundredth time I am so glad we don't deal with pews anymore) into an oval and following the psalmist's command we give thanks to the Lord for he is good (Psalm 107:1). For over an hour and more people share stories of God's faithfulness that they have experienced in the past year or list for the fellowship all the things that they are thankful for. When things have pretty much run their course, we close in prayer and then the sanctuary is reordered (again) as we set up tables for turkey dinner with all the fixings. I like to think we're just following in the steps of Moses and the elders who sat down to eat in the presence of the Lord (Exodus 24). So, what if we set up the chairs Thanks-bringing-style and the week before exhort people to come ready to share a hymn, a song, a story – anything that would honor God and build up the Body? The first time we did this I called it a 1426 Gathering after 1 Corinthians 14:26 wherein Paul counsels the Corinthian believers in the following manner:

What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.” (NIV)

Larry brought props
I was prepared for one of the shortest services Refuge has ever had but my worries were for naught. When we opened up the floor, the very first guy to stand to his feet was perhaps the most quietest of our group. And he even brought props! He no sooner finished and then maybe the next quietest of our fellowship shared the words of a hymn that means so much to her. On it went for nearly an hour and a half at which time I made a papal decision to close the gathering if only because I knew the Children's Church volunteers were more than likely at the end of their rope in the lower level. But people were inspired and encouraged and expressed the desire to do it again (which we did just this past Sunday but now named the “Sharing Circle” gathering).

A teenager, a college grad, a middle-aged couple
and a couple of grandparents - a GREAT small group
Small Group Sunday
A few weeks later we tried another way of doing church: what if instead of preaching the Word we broke into small groups and studied the same text together? In twenty-six years of pastoral ministry I had never preached from Haggai and my hunch was that most of them had not read Haggai in many a year. This would guarantee that we would be a little bit off balance together as we approached the text. I gave them their “homework assignment” the week before (which was to read Haggai in its entirety - all 38 verses of it) and then prepared a small group study for the following Sunday. Knowing that over half of the congregation trickles into the worship gathering during the first twenty minutes of the weekly service I asked my daughter, who had happened to be home that weekend, to lead a short worship set at the beginning of the gathering. After our preliminaries of offering
and announcements, I then instructed them in what we were going to do. We would subdivide into groups of 5-7 people apiece and each group would be responsible to pick both a facilitator and a reporter who would be responsible to report back to the large group when we were done. We ended up with seven small groups and each group studied Haggai 1:1-15 following a series of questions I had prepared (and, if I'm honest, had lifted almost entirely from the Serendipity Bible that sits on my shelf in my office.) In addition I had written up a brief introduction to Haggai 1 to help set the context of the study.

Admittedly, it wasn't a home run but we didn't strike out either. For nearly 45 minutes our fellowship was studying the Word together, sharing their thoughts and listening to one another. During the large group debrief following the small group time it was clear that some of my questions missed the mark and at the same time different personalities glean different perspectives of what they read. The same thing happens in preaching. Over the years several times I've had different individuals share with me something God had spoken to them during one of my messages – something that has nothing to do with the text – but they leave encouraged and blessed. After each group shared their findings I made some summary comments and then had them pray for one another in their group and then called it a day.

Did we have guests on that day? We did. In fact, we had four of the Belizean guys who frequent our fellowship when they are working in Chetek. I don't know what they got out of the study but in each fellowship they were being spoken with and prayed for. I call that a win. We read the Word, we meditated upon it, we listened to one another and then we prayed for one another. Sounds like church to me.

There's more in there than I recall - or knew!
We tried this format three times this past fall and worked our way through Haggai. Each time we did it, I tweaked the format a little. I'm still not satisfied that we have arrived at an acceptable “Small Group Sunday” liturgy for us but I think its worth trying again. As much as we would like people to do this sort of thing outside of Sunday morning reality is – for us, at least – people's lives and schedules do not allow it. They're working (a lot), they're raising their children, they're attending their kids' athletic events and whatever free night they may have they're pretty much spent and would rather spend the night in and not go to someone's house for an evening of fellowship. I think we're kidding ourselves if we think we're going to come up with a time outside of Sunday morning that works for a lot of us. The culture is against us.

A classic
Movie Morning
The third kind of Sunday morning format that we tried this past fall arose out of the same question we leaders ask ourselves about any other gathering we do: “Why do we do church?” As I understand it, the purpose of coming together regularly is to hear the Word and encourage and pray for one another, looking for creative ways to “provoke one another on to love and good deeds” (Heb 10:24, NIV). What if we saw the message and discussed it afterward? When the youth center we helped start back in 2000 closed a year or so ago, we ended up with the theater popcorn machine from the place. So on the first Sunday in Advent, we set the pop-corn machine up in the back of the sanctuary and one of the guys made up several batches of popcorn. We then watched a Veggie-Tale cartoon followed by the twenty-three minute claymation classic Martin the Cobbler, a short movie based on Leo Tolstoy's Where Love Is God Is There Also. The first Sunday of
every month is Communion Sunday for us and we keep the family together (i.e., no Children's Church on that Sunday). So I deliberately chose something admittedly on the light side for our first go at this. A few in our midst absolutely loved this way of doing church. It spoke to them of what “church” is – the family of God gathering together in God's living room to enjoy his company as well as everyone else's. There was no whining but some people obviously thought this kind of thing was better for a “fellowship gathering” as opposed to a “worship service.” We may be talking semantics but experience has taught me that once people
egress our building on Sunday morning the likelihood that we're going to come back that night for a “time of fellowship” is slim and none. And besides a visual culture has a hard time of hearing an oral message no matter the skill of the preacher. In this case, this little film was a meditation on Matthew 25 and what it means to minister “to the least of these.” Upon reflection, this isn't a children's message; this is a life lesson that God wants to inscribe deeply on our hearts.

Grateful for the team we have

This guy too

We didn't use these formats every Sunday. There were Sundays we did church the way we are accustomed to doing it. But at the end of three months of this sort of experimentation admittedly there is a general feeling of disorientation about us. Its sorta like the first Sunday the pews went out and the chairs came in. Mythological
Pangaea opened up and no one quite knew where to sit for awhile as some of the former “continents” (i.e., pews) were not just in another place – they were altogether gone. Eventually people claimed different parts of the sanctuary but for a brief time people felt off balance. Some love the variety of it all. A few want to know when things will get back to “normal”and if I'm ever going to, you know, preach-preach again ('cause I really didn't work unless I preached?) I appreciate this group so much and their willingness to roll with the different settings we have served up to them lately. They really are wonderful people. Maybe one of the best things to arise out of this season we find ourselves in is that the elders feel compelled to pray together more regularly than we have been doing. And only good can come from that.

So things are a bit messy around here, the chairs are out of order and so is the order of service but what of it? If we are “shaking things up” for some kind of notoriety or because we're bored and we're trying to inject a little spontaneity into our weekly gathering, ultimately I think we will be disappointed. People will figure out soon enough we're just trying to be trendy or something. But if the goal is to foster community, know one another better and therefore love one another more truly how can God not be pleased with that sort of thing? Maybe in a culture like ours that resists people making connections with one another one of the best things we can do is help cultivate a healing community of faith.