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.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Extravagant Love #2

At our fellowship, Monday nights are reserved for Prayer Appointments - 1 1/2 -2 hours of extended ministry time for those with hurts that are in need of Jesus' healing touch. As a rule, they are intimate settings with an individual and small group of prayer ministers. Here's a story that came out of one of those appointments a little over a year ago that is another testimony of God's incredibly extravagant love for broken and hurting people.

"He's smiling"

When he came in the door, it was his eyes that gave him away. They had that glazed-over look that one usually comes to associate with mental illness or an individual highly medicated for other medical reasons. He had hitched a ride with a kind, old lady from Rice Lake who had made a prayer appointment for herself. As she told us when she introduced him to our small team of prayer ministers, she figured as long as we were gathering to pray for her we could just as well pray for this troubled young man who needed it as well. Of course, it’s not how we do these things. I mean, when you go to see your doctor you can bring a friend along but he’s still going to insist seeing you one at a time. But, as she was his ride…a prayer appointment was sprung upon us, ready or not. We split our forces and went to work.

Call him Mephibosheth. When news arrived at Jonathan’s household that both Saul and his son Jonathan had been killed in battle with the Philistines, panic set in and in the ensuing frenzy, the nanny caring for young Mephibosheth, Jonathan’s toddler son, ran out of the house and accidentally dropped him resulting in an injury that left him permanently crippled (2 Samuel 9). Just like his namesake, this guy, too, as a kid had been dropped. But his scars were totally inward resulting in a certain crippling of his spirit. Mind you, he wasn’t forthcoming with this information let alone necessarily in touch with it. But as we gently probed, asking God to reveal the source of what had brought him to our place for ministry that night, his deep anger towards his parents – one of whom is now deceased – came out. Regardless of the severity of the schizophrenia that he has been diagnosed with, there was a poison in his soul that clearly needed to be lanced.

So, we went there with a bit of fear and trembling but trusting that Jesus would send the help we were silently pleading for. Believe me, I certainly did not feel like “the man of faith and power for the hour”. We were simply making it up as we went along. But be that as it may, in our weakness he began to minister to this dear man so desperately in need of freedom. We carefully took him through a time of recounting how his father had ‘dropped’ him as a kid and then, when he was ready, led him through a prayer of forgiveness for the wrongs his father had perpetrated on him. On impulse, where I had been sitting across from him, I sat next to him and laid my hand over his heart. His chest was tight and actually felt heavy, as if a great weight was laid across it. But as he relinquished the pain and the hurt that had accumulated within his heart, I could feel his chest become lighter. His body features were relaxing. His eyes welled up with tears.

I had a thought and I asked him, “Mephibosheth, I want you to imagine Jesus now sitting right across from you. What expression do you see on his face?” He could have said anything. Honestly, I half-expected him to say something like ‘He’s angry’ or ‘He’s scowling’ and I was already working on firm rebuke against a satanic message like this. It would be just like our adversary to confuse an already confused young man by placing a lying image before him. But instead he surprised me: “His face is solemn.” I ventured an interpretation: “I think it means he takes you seriously when you say your dad hurt you and caused you pain.” He seemed to take comfort in this.

And then we moved to what was clearly the more difficult lesion to tend – the one caused by his mother. Perhaps because she is still living and therefore the wound still open, it took us longer to move through the process of recognition and forgiveness of his mother. But once again, I sat next to him and laid my hand over his heart. Immediately, I noticed it was lighter there and with some encouragement he relinquished the pain he sincerely believed his mother has caused him. The tenseness that had been about his chest area was clearly gone. So I asked him to imagine that Jesus was sitting before him again. Now what do you see?

His response was totally spontaneous and without any coaching whatsoever from either me or my team-member. It came from what I believe was a true vision given to him for that moment:

“He’s smiling!” he blurted out in surprise and immediately began to weep profusely as the blackness that had been in him was evaporating under the ray of that smile.

He was not healed of his schizophrenia in our appointment. But I would venture to suggest that the curing of that condition wasn’t his first-need last night. Rather, Jesus wanted to heal his broken heart and I’d like to believe the cure has begun. When it was all over, I asked him what he was feeling or experiencing. “It’s like someone is loving me from the inside.” Sounds like the Jesus I know.

Extravagant Love #1

I once read somewhere that shortly following his conversion, Charles Wesley penned the words of the hymn, And Can It Be, That I Should Gain? with the chorus that Chris Tomlin has remixed into the chorus Amazing Love (and he even credits Wesley with the words):
Amazing love! How can it be
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me!

Each of us is a repository of God's incredibly extravagant love expressed to us in Jesus. Were it just his love that he displayed on the cross, that would be remarkable enough. But what continues to stagger me as how much he loves on us simply because he wants to. These accounts are simply from my life and from people I personally know whose lives continue to be touched by his amazing love.

I wrote the following story last spring immediately before Christine's Senior Prom:

The Dress

It's the spring of the year and though it feels like November out there, Easter is but a few days away. But it's not only Eastertide, more importantly to a certain population (if I can even say that) it's also Prom season - the time when all young women venture out into the wilds of the malls and outlet centers in search of that elusive oh-so-perfect dress. Well, preachers' daughters are no different from any other young women and so that it is how it was that last Saturday Linda and Christine (with sister Emma in tow) were at Oakwood Mall shopping for a gown. Linda was working on a $100 budget - which is like trying to find nice champagne on a beer budget. On impulse, when they arrived at the mall, she turned to Christine and said: "Let's pray before we go in and ask for God's favor so that we can find the dress for you." And so they didand made a b-line to Christine's favorite store (Deb's, if you must know).

Now due to Christine's height (or lack thereof) shopping for prom dresses usually is a bit of an ordeal. Everything is way too long or too narrow resulting in a lot of collateral stress. But on Saturday, upon entering Deb's, she went right to the rack and there, as if had been waiting for her, was a beautiful black gown. It fit perfectly. And the tag read $99. When they took it up to the register, the cashier said, "Oh, this one is on sale for 15% off." As Linda related to me later, at that her mouth dropped open and she looked at Christine whose mouth also had dropped open and they both started to laugh...and then cry...and then laugh again - all to the bemusement of this cashier. So not only did they find a beautiful dress they also had enough left over to accessorize. Isn't God good?

We all know that God knows our needs. He knows we need shelter and clothing and food and adequate transportation. But what I think is so awesome about our heavenly Father is that he also cares about our wants. In all the cosmos, with all the need that fills this planet - from the carnage in Darfur to the turmoil in Iraq - he still has more than enough compassion and love to satisfy the innate desire of an 18-year-old young woman to look beautiful for her prom.

Such extravagance makes me want to serve him all my day.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Wasting my life away

Wasting my life away

“Just before I said good-bye to Aunt Rachel after our last filming session, she grew uncharacteristically sentimental. ‘Isn’t it something,’ she asked, ‘that the Lord Jesus would have used someone like me to do His work in this special place? I was too old by the time I could apply for missionary service. I couldn’t help the Waodani much medically, I was not a Bible scholar, and I was never really a superior translator.’ I wondered why she was revealing her lack of qualifications for what she had spent half of her life doing.”

“ ‘Well, Aunt Rachel, why do you think God gave you this assignment? What do you think He saw in you that He could use?’ Her eyes brightened, and this eighty-two-year-old hero of mine responded with a formula for living: ‘Well, Stevie Boy, I loved the Lord Jesus with all my heart, and I trusted Him completely.’ She paused before continuing, ‘And I guess I just learned to persevere in whatever He gave me to do.’”

“Thank you, Aunt Rachel. Those words still rang in my ears as we headed back down to the jungle to do the seemingly impossible. Our mission seemed crazy, but I knew it really was not. I had business friends who were giving their lives to make money they would never get around to spending – money that might end up ruining their children’s lives. Aunt Rachel had ‘wasted’ half her life attempting to be an ambassador of heaven to ‘savages’ whom no one cared about. At the very end of her life, she looked back on her accomplishments as insignificant. She knew what I have just recently begun to realize: God doesn’t need us to do His work, or He wouldn’t be omnipotent. He wants our love and a relationship with us. It is about ‘being,’ not doing.’”
The End of the Spear by Steve Saint

Yesterday was a fairly unproductive day. Early morning I met and prayed with our elder. We had devotions as a family and prayed together before we all took off for work or school. I read at the elementary school. In the lounge I gave a listening ear to a teacher who continues to grieve the loss of her stillborn child. I met briefly with the young woman who is presently cleaning our church as a part of her community service. I fiddled with Facebook. I sat down with our accountant to finish off our tax return. I read my Bible. I journaled. I prayed. I made a few phone calls. I gave my son a ride home from high school. I took my daughter to her 4-H practice at the nursing home and watched her group perform. I wrote a new entry for my blog. I gave the invocation at a community gathering that lasted to well past 10 o’clock. I came home and climbed into bed. Such was my day.

If I belonged to a denomination who wanted stats to gauge my overall effectiveness, it might look like this for yesterday:
Salvations: 0
Healings: 0
Prayers: 2 (if you don’t count those I made with my family)
Study time: 0
Phone calls: 1 (if you don’t count the numerous ones from my wife and children)
If I had a “super”, he might accuse me of wasting a day. And given my mood yesterday, I probably would have concurred.

But early this morning as I was reading Steve Saint’s book I came across the passage and my perspective came back to level. I just so happened to major in relationships yesterday…visiting, listening, praying, sharing…essentially “just being there.” In fact, that 7 minute conversation in the teacher’s lounge at the elementary school may have been the most spiritual moments of my day as she allowed me to gently take her hand and speak prophetically into her life. If I hadn’t been there, that moment would have been missed. She has a pastor. She has a fellowship. But for that short sliver of time I was her Father-Confessor. “Thanks for being here and thanks for listening,” she said to me. “Absolutely,” I replied. “It’s what I do.”

Being a good and available parent is a good thing, too. And taking time for people is never a bad thing. I’m reminded today that God didn’t send me to “build his Church” here. He sent me to be a shepherd over a portion of it. It’s the only thing I’m really any good at anyway. So, here’s to “wasting” my time and my life in this little burb. I could do far, far worse and find myself “successful.” God forbid.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Adrift at sea

Adrift at sea
“If you don’t know what you’re doing, pray to the Father. He loves to help. You’ll get his help, and won’t be condescended to when you ask for it. Ask boldly, believingly, without a second thought. People who ‘worry their prayers’ are wind-whipped waves. Don’t think you’re going to get anything from the Master that way, adrift at sea, keeping all your options open.” James, step-brother of Jesus (James 1:5, The Message)

I was eighteen years old and in love. I had dated other individuals during my high school years but they had all been girls. She was a woman. She moved me – emotionally, mentally and physically. I was, at times, truly love-sick. Until her, my daily life had been pretty regimented: awake early and read before breakfast; school; participate in after-school activities (e.g., cross-country, wrestling or track); dinner; study until 10 p.m. and then to bed by 10:30 p.m. But with her in my life, I began to neglect all of that much to my parents’ and friends’ chagrin. I changed. Previously an A-student, I struggled to make passing grades in all of my classes. Every spare moment I had I spent with her and even went so far as to cut class a time or two just so I could impress her with my pseudo bravado.

Despite the fact that through her father I had come to know and trust in Jesus (a true profession, not one made to simply gain his favor), our relationship was not healthy. And for a new believer, the last thing in my life that I needed at that time was a girlfriend who consumed all of my time and attention. The thing was, my spirit was alive with the Spirit of Jesus within…but my love for her was far greater than my love for Him. In short, I became a man divided – divided in heart and passion and attention. And because I feared losing her approval, I risked losing His. And when I tried to seek His face, I ended up thinking of hers. It wasn’t that we weren’t attending church together – we were. It wasn’t even that we didn’t remain active in our fellowship’s “College and Career” group – we did. We would share moments of spiritual fellowship and often pray together. But the gravitational pull of our carnal natures was slowly pulling us into their orbit. Inside I was a Yo-Yo. Augustine put it much better, “Give me chastity and continence, but not yet.” Resolve after resolve after resolve was uttered, only to crash upon the rocks of lust once again. And then Paul’s words would resound in my heart: “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?”

My insecurities and immaturity would provoke loathing in her. Her sharp and wounding tongue would only add to her own sense of loathing toward herself as she reduced me to tears. We would break up only to find ourselves back together within a week or two assuring each other that this time things would be different. And they would be for a few days or so and then would come the fall but the remorse and shame would be all the greater. I knew the Spirit of God was asking me to give her up. To my regret, I chose to resist his counsel and continue to ride the illusion that with the passing of time and the exercise of a little more self-control our relationship would finally gain the blessing of God. But that was a mirage of a man who was thoroughly double-minded. Ultimately, she had greater courage than I did and pulled the plug on a relationship that had grown terminal.

Of course, I was devastated. There went “the girl of my dreams.” There went “the love of my life.” There went “my only reason for living.” I feel rather silly to write these things over twenty-five years later, but they are an accurate description of my perspective at the time. I simply had no clue as to how wrong I really was.

So now, all these years later, why dig up the past? Why remember that time at all? I’ll call her Sue. She’s a woman who has been a part of our fellowship for awhile now. She came to us after life had sent her through a meat grinder of broken relationships, betrayal and abuse. Refuge, the fellowship I pastor, is a great place for people like that. It’s not for nothing that one of our unofficial monikers is “the island of misfit toys”. She was embraced. Not by a few but by all. In the world’s eyes she is poor white trash. But to us she is family and belongs.

Sometime in the last month or so, her former lover who abused and mistreated her repeatedly, has crept back into her life. Her loneliness has made her vulnerable to his apparent renewed affection. And now, according to her, he’s “found Jesus.” When she tells me this, everything in my heart screams, “WHAT, ARE YOU THAT STUPID AND BLIND? HOW COULD YOU BELIEVE SUCH MALARKEY?!!!!!!!!!!!” She’s come so far in the past three years and thrived in a community of love, acceptance and forgiveness. But your family can’t hold you in the middle of the night while you lie in bed feeling so alone and distraught. Never mind that this, too, is a mirage that will evaporate all too quickly and be replaced with the ugly reality of a barren wasteland full of “fiery serpents and scorpions.”

I’ve lovingly counseled, admonished and even warned her to no avail. She will return to him – if she has not already. She assures me that she hasn’t and she won’t. She assures me that she will be back with “her family” (as she is wont to call us) next Sunday – as she has promised for several Sundays running. She is, like my former self, thoroughly double-minded and been duped by her soulish self who believes right now that her greatest need is for intimate companionship. It’s a lie. The kind of lie our enemy likes to spin in our hearts, a half-truth that leads us into danger of falling into greater perdition.

I see her behavior and it reminds me of my 19-year-old self who believed the same. How can I despise her? How can I write her off when I have been equally duplicitous in my life at more times than I care to recount? So I pray fervently for her protection – not only from him but also from herself when the shame of her actions comes crashing down on her. And I wait, knowing full well that when she awakens from the stupor she has fallen into we will be busy picking up the pieces.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Our Own 24

This past week the Martin clan cashed in on a gift the fellowship that I serve as pastor gave to us last fall. It was Pastor Appreciation Day – a day that is celebrated in this house yearly sometime between September and November depending on people’s schedules and (more often than not) whether the Packers have a bye that Sunday. In 2007, they chose to recognize and affirm their pastor on the Opening Day of the deer-rifle season (which took out about a third of our congregation; after all, I may be their shepherd but I’m not that important to supersede the hunt.) But this past year they did it up big in so many ways.

First, a few of our deacons cooked up breakfast for everyone and then served it to us as an alternative to our normal worship experience. In other words, instead of worship and preaching between 10 and 12 that day we ate and shared together for the first hour and then they opened the floor and honored us. Most years, a card is passed around for me and people sign their names and slip in some cash. But this year they chose to recognize our entire family and so for the next hour people got up as they wanted and went to the mic and blessed not only Linda and I but the rest of our brood as well. It was an awesomely humbling morning. And they capped it off with some small gifts and a large one: a $500 gift certificate to a waterpark of our own choosing. So, given the fact that it was Spring Break in these parts this past week we decided it was time to head to the beach.

We booked a night at the Duluth Edgewater Resort and Water Park (a place we had been wanting to try for a couple of years), filled up the gas tank and headed north (when one of my leaders heard that we were headed that way for spring break he quipped, “We just can’t get you guys to head south for anything, can we?”) During that next 24 hours we may have not moved like Jack Bauer trying to beat the clock, but we made the most of it. We ate out three times, floated the lazy river endlessly, hit the tubes as much as we cared to, did some shopping, went out to a movie that we all enjoyed and generally enjoyed this good gift our fellowship had gave to us.

Now, our van had been making some odd sounds for over a month…and so I shouldn’t have been too surprised on the way back when thirty miles from home that odd sound got definitively worse. Lucky for us, we were about to pass Sarona, a little village north of Rice Lake, and so we pulled into town and drove up to the only establishment open on a late Tuesday afternoon, The Teddy Bear Tap. Now, one look at The Tap and “respectable” is not the first adjective that comes to mind. It was a seedy little joint whose only inhabitants at the moment were the bartender and two guys, who apparently had been to the watering hole frequently that afternoon, playing a friendly game of pool. We all had to use the facilities and in doing so got way too much than we bargained for in our ensuing exposure to lewd and generally pornographic material posted upon the bathroom walls.

I called Hap, our next door neighbor and tow-guy, and then began to work our list of friends who would be willing to drive up the highway and rescue us from being stranded at The Teddy Bear any longer than necessary. But no one was home and I began to work out Plan B in the event that we struck out. By then, Hap had pulled up with his flatbed. He quickly attached his chains and began to cinch up his watchmacallit when he turned to us and said: “Jump in, keep the van running and enjoy the ride.” At first we thought he was kidding. “Are you serious?” “Sure,” he replied, “you’re not all gonna fit up in the cab.”

So, that’s how our awesome 24 hours ended…riding atop Hap’s flatbed, enjoying the view, laughing at the silliness of the whole thing. When we entered town I was half hoping to see someone from our fellowship or, at least, someone we knew but it was nearly 7 p.m. and there was no one around. He took us right to our driveway and even lowered the van down a bit “so that first step isn’t so high” and as soon as we were out with all our gear, he drove off to the shop with it.

It was a great gift given to us by some wonderful folks. It’s a wonderful thing to be loved and to know your place in the world. My place happens to be pastor of The Refuge. Maybe it’s not for the rest of my career but if it plays out that way…well, I’d say I was pretty lucky and blessed to work out my calling here.

Bad News First

The room is crowded. Such is Jesus’ reputation that when Simon, a member of the Pharisee sect in Nain and its richest member, invites him to dinner everyone shows up - even those not invited. It’s a warm night and along with Simon’s other guests, some of the local-yokels find places to sit on the window ledges if only to see the famous miracle-worker maybe work his magic. After all, just a few days ago, he had wonderfully interrupted the funeral procession of the widow’s son and recalled him back to life. Perhaps tonight he will turn water into wine again like he did up in Cana to everyone’s delight and amusement.

The guest of honor reclines at the table waiting for the meal to be served. The room is generally abuzz with before dinner conversation and pleasantries. No doubt the mistress of the house can be heard hurrying along her servants who are busily putting the last touches on the fare they are about to serve. And then the room goes abruptly quiet.

Somehow the town whore has slipped in unnoticed into the small crowd that fills Simon’s dining area. That would be outrageous enough were it not for what she does next: she touches him. She is overcome with emotion and her tears fall like rain upon Jesus’ feet. She then has the temerity to let down her hair in public - a thing a Jewish woman, trolop or not, knows not to do - and kneels down and dries his feet with her long tresses. And the third thing she does tops all the rest of her indiscretions: from within the folds of her robe, she draws out a bottle of expensive perfume, no doubt purchased from her earnings, and anoints his feet. The fragrance fills the room. It would be a sweet and tender moment were the atmosphere not already tense with ire and indignation. It is only the presence of Jesus that holds back the storm.

Into this silence, Jesus begins to speak. He addresses his host and conversationally tells him a story. "Two men owed the same banker money. One owed him 500 silver coins, the other 50. The banker, however, cancelled both debts. Who’s happier?" It’s not a trick question. "Umm...I suppose the man who owed 500?" "You’re right," Jesus concurs but then he turns the table on his host and gets highly personal: "You see this woman? I showed up at your house and you could not be so polite as to offer me water for my feet but she supplied what was lacking with her tears. You did not greet me with the traditional kiss of peace on my cheek but she has showered my feet with kisses since her arrival. You gave me nothing to freshen up with and she has upstaged you with her generosity and welcome by soothing my feet with perfume. Those who have been forgiven much, love much. But those who have been forgiven little, love little."

As a person who has spent most of his life in church, this saying of Jesus bothered me for quite a long time. I mean, I was raised in church, I have never known a time in my life when I was "away". I’ve never been drunk nor high. And the only woman I’ve ever been with I’ve been married to for the last 22 years. I try to be a good person, am nice to my neighbors and always hold a door open for a woman if she happens to be entering a building at the same time as I am. What sins I have been forgiven of would be very little indeed. At least, this is what I used to think. Until one day while thinking on this passage, a light went on and I got a glimpse of the great irony that is contained in this story. Here is this unlearned woman whose life has been steeped in sin and degradation surrounded by all these guys with theological degrees and religious habits and she is the only one who has a clue of her utter need for the mercy of God. They may look pretty good on the outside but the intents and attitudes of their hearts are as wicked and perverse as the lifestyle of this woman they despise. Yet this is hidden from them because they are looking at their sin as they esteem it, not as God does.

I was 20 years old when the light went on. For a very brief moment I was given a glimpse into my heart as God sees it and was shocked by its darkness and gripped by my utter need for his grace. That’s how it is with us mortals - before we can get the Good News we need to get the bad news about ourselves first. Only then do we realize that we owe the banker at least 500 silver coins, if not more.

The night ends abruptly but with a benediction and a blessing for the one uninvited guest of the evening. "Woman, your sins are forgiven you. Go in peace." This is the blessing that all such penitents receive when enlightened by the reality of our bad-ness we grab "aholt" of the love and acceptance of God that is only found in Jesus.