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.

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.