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, May 15, 2018

Met with a smile instead of a scold

Three days later Esther dressed in her royal robes and took up a position in the inner court of the palace in front of the king’s throne room. The king was on his throne facing the entrance. When he noticed Queen Esther standing in the court, he was pleased to see her; the king extended the gold scepter in his hand. Esther approached and touched the tip of the scepter. The king asked, 'And what’s your desire, Queen Esther? What do you want? Ask and it’s yours—even if it’s half my kingdom!'”
Esther 5:1-3, The Message

This past Saturday night I experienced a bit of serendipity. I expected to be scolded but instead was met with a smile.

Every month at our fellowship this year I have been holding a prayer event that essentially has three components: listening, discerning and then responding to what we believe God is saying or doing. I haven't figured out what to call it yet – since January it's been called “Look”, “Look and See”, “Watch and Wait” and this past Saturday night, “Wait and See” - but the purpose is simple: to learn how to wait upon the Lord corporately. For the first half hour or so I put on some worshipful music and encourage people to find a place in the sanctuary to wait quietly. Some, like myself, bring a journal. All of us bring our Bible. My only instruction is to not pray but “be still and know that he is God” (Psalm 46). After about a half hour or so (practically speaking, it's about all we can handle as a young couple with their infant daughter are regulars to this event) I then welcome everyone to gather at the “couch corner” of the sanctuary and share the words, impressions and Scripture that have been impressed upon us. Together then we try and discern if there is a common theme or thread that emerges and frequently there is.

Sometimes I feel this way
Like everyone else I have a number of character flaws one of them being I have a hard time with boundaries. I'm involved in a lot of stuff and last week was no different. I subbed two days. It was the last week of track season and other than practice every afternoon we had two meets on Monday and Thursday nights. Tuesday night I had a city council meeting that went pretty long. Wednesday night I was in Cumberland for a fall coach's meeting. And then Friday night we drove up to Superior to spend that night and all day Saturday helping our son, Ed, move into his new place. So by the time I got to Refuge on Saturday night to open the doors and wait on God spiritually speaking I was running on fumes. I opened my journal and the last entry was from Sunday morning the week before – and it wasn't a long entry at that as I had overslept that morning.

My default setting is guilt. I don't know if it's growing up Lutheran because I know a lot of Lutherans who don't struggle with feeling guilty about missing prayer or Bible reading but this former member of the ALC does. If I've had a busy week like last week and totally neglected my regular devotions, I feel guilty. It could be just me. In any case, that was my mind set as I knelt at the altar at Refuge this past Saturday night, spiritually slamming the brakes on my car driving pell-mell down the road. I already was working my prayer of contrition up and then I saw in my mind's eye a picture.

I read a lot of Seuss
It was a banquet hall beautifully decked out and with the table full of a king's ransom worth of food. Like the end scene in How the Grinch Stole Christmas the table wound and stretched throughout the hall. And then a thought from foggy bottom bubbled up, a phrase that I thought for sure was in the Psalms somewhere. With the help of my phone I googled phrases hoping to jar loose the Scripture that evaded me without success. But then it occurred to me what I was looking for – it wasn't a verse so much as a moment in time from the Esther story.

In her story, Esther, favored queen of Xerxes, with fear and trepidation dares to enter the throne room uninvited. She may be his First Wife but nobody approaches the king without an invitation. The penalty in that administration could mean demotion or worse. But her countrymen's lives are on the line and putting on her best dress dares to approach the king. The king sees her and smiles. He extends his golden scepter and says to her in so many words, “What would like me to do for you? Ask away.”

Whoever Xerxes was what little we learn of him within Esther's story is that he's something of demagogue seated on the throne of the world (or, at least his world) who spends a lot of time issuing
silly decrees like banishing his former First Wife for not doing the dance of the seven veils for his male guests at one of his parties or agreeing to allow one of his sycophants to kill thousands of individuals in his empire simply because one of them wouldn't bow down to him. Fast forward to that moment in time when on a Saturday night in May kneeling at the steps of the altar with a hang dog look about me expecting a scold from King Jesus for my neglect of him during the previous week, I'm met with a smile. Not a sarcastic or a condescending smile. No, his is genuine and full of affection and in that moment I hear his voice: “Welcome!” No scold. No guilt. No wagging finger. On the contrary. He extends his scepter toward me and says again, “Welcome. So good to see you.”

What happened next was totally natural: having been met with open arms and acceptance I immediately began to respond to my King with thanks and praise for his goodness, his grace and his loving-kindness. I felt fresh wind in my sails and a weight off my chest. The easiest thing in the world at that moment was just to kneel in his presence and enjoy his company.

I didn't receive some new revelation. It was just a bit of serendipitous remembering that our King God loves us as a father loves his children and welcomes us into his presence whenever we choose to enter it. If I'm wise I'll go there as often as I can for what awaits me is a banqueting table teeming with his goodness.

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