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.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

This is my story

Recently, we finished reading Through Gates of Splendor by Elisabeth Elliott in our weekday family reading time. It’s the story of the five missionaries and their wives – Jim and Elisabeth Elliott, Nate and Marj Saint, Pete and Olive Flemming, Ed and Marilou McCully, and Roger and Barbara Youderian – who moved to the wilds of Ecuador in the 1950s pursuing God’s call on their lives. If you’ve seen the movie The End of the Spear, you know that the men were killed on a Sunday in January in 1956 at the hands of the very people they had come to serve, martyred for the sake of the Gospel. Their deaths became a national news story and captured the hearts of many who heard it. Our copy happens to be the 25th Anniversary edition which includes an epilogue written by Elliott in 1981. In it she writes:

“Although the pathway of my life has taken many unimaginable turns
since I wrote this (my first) book, I have not been allowed to forget
the story. I would not have wanted to forget it, but there have been
times when I have wondered if others might. Perhaps they have tired
of it. Should I continue the retelling as I am so often asked to do?
I spoke of my misgivings to Miss Corrie ten Boom who, as an old lady
indefatigably traveled the world to tell her own story over and over
again, of her family's providing refuge to Jews in Holland during
World War II, of their being betrayed and imprisoned in a concentration
camp,and of the death of her sister and aged father as a result.
‘Sometimes,’ she told me, ‘I have said, “Lord, I must have something
fresh. I cannot go on telling the old story.” But the Lord said to me,
“This is the story I gave you. You tell that one.”’ So Corrie encouraged
me to go on telling mine.”


We all have a story that’s been given to us to share. To our own ears and to others it may not sound overly dramatic and even worth sharing. I mean, my own story is fairly pedestrian as tales go. No drug abuse. No lewd sex. No time behind bars. No, I was just a kid raised in a church who one day, in the middle of a conversation, realized he did not know God and asked simply to be introduced. A “non-event” by the standard measure. And yet it sufficed and propelled me into the vocation I am now in – a man who is determined to spend the rest of his life telling the best Story ever told.

The problem is our perspective. We are always captivated by the famous, the glamorous, the infamous, those who stumble upon the prized “15 minutes of fame” (think, “Joe the Plumber”). We do not comprehend that we are prone to look at things through the wrong end of the telescope. It makes me think of C.S. Lewis’ protagonist in The Great Divorce who while on his journey through the borderlands of heaven, encounters a parade of sorts of someone whom he surmises must have been someone famous here on earth.

‘It’s someone ye’ll never have heard of [his guide informs him].
Her name on earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green.’”

“ ‘She seems to be…well, a person of particular importance?’”

“ ‘Aye. She is one of the great ones. Ye have heard that fame in
this country and fame on earth are two quite different things.’”


We are forever making judgments about others and about ourselves, about our significance or lack thereof. In most of us I would guess that this is a healthy dose of modesty at work. But as Paul once said about his own detractors:

“It matters very little to me what you think of me, even less where I rank in popular opinion. I don't even rank myself. Comparisons
in these matters are pointless. I'm not aware of anything that
would disqualify me from being a good guide for you, but that doesn't
mean much. The Master makes that judgment.”


So don't get ahead of the Master and jump to conclusions with
your judgments before all the evidence is in. When he comes,
he will bring out in the open and place in evidence all kinds of
things we never even dreamed of—inner motives and purposes and
prayers. Only then will any one of us get to hear the "Well done!"
of God.”

1 Corinthians 4:3-5 (Msg)

We all have but one story to tell – our own. “By the grace of God,” Paul said later in the same letter, “I am what I am” (1 Corinthians 15:10, NIV). And so as lame as my own story seems to me – and probably to others as well – I guess it’s not mine to judge. So until I see rightly, which won’t be this side of heaven, I’ll continue to sing one of my favorite Fanny Crosby hymns loudly and lustily:

Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!
O what a foretaste of glory divine
Heir of salvation, purchase of God
Born of his Spirit, washed in his blood


This is my story
This is my song
Praising my Savior all the day long
This is my story
This is my song
Praising my Savior all the day long

Friday, March 20, 2009

This, too, is my son in whom I am well pleased...

I still remember the Friday of my first official week as pastor of the fellowship I now serve. We had moved to town on a Tuesday night and the next few days I spent setting up house and office as well as meeting with the leaders of our small congregation. But now it was Friday, the first “normal” day as Pastor of what was then Chetek Full Gospel Tabernacle. I had rose early, showered, donned suit and tie and drove the three blocks to church. After putting the coffee on, I read my Bible and spent some time in prayer. I looked at the clock. It was 6:30 a.m. Now what do I do?

I had no meetings to go to. I was not yet part of any volunteer organization in Chetek. I had no people to meet with (besides it was way too early). Other than sermon prep for Sunday, what in the world do I do with the rest of my day?

Thinking about that moment seventeen and a half years later I long for such a simpler time. Since then I’ve collected an odd assortment of assignments and titles that would fill a manila folder to overflowing:
• President or Secretary of the Chetek Christian Ministerial Association
• Member of the Lions Club
• President of the Facilities Improvement Committee (a local citizens group
that helped lead a school referendum initiative)
• President or Vice President of the Chetek Youth Center Project
(our local youth center)
• President or Vice President of Kinship of Chetek (a youth mentoring group)
• Ministerial liaison to the Chetek Food Shelf (our local food bank)
• President of the Barron County chapter of the Salvation Army
• Board member of the Chetek Food Shelf
• Volunteer chaplain at the Barron County Justice Center
• President of The Well International (a ministry to the local Somali
refugee population)
• Member of the citizens’ Task Force committee exploring the possibility of
Weyerhaeuser and Chetek school districts merging
• Great Books leader at Roselawn Elementary School
• Odyssey of the Mind coach
• President or other officer of the Chetek Parent Teacher Organization
• Plus I read weekly at our local elementary school to the tune of about 3 ½
hours per week
• To say nothing of the various tasks any pastor of a small church is
called upon to do whether he feels it or not including serving as
youth leader, Sunday School teacher, VBS Director, camp counselor,
worship leader and Bible study facilitator.
In retrospect, I did not have the maturity nor experience to appreciate what a wonderful moment in time that was back in the Fall of 1991 when early one Friday morning I had nothing to do…nothing to do but tend to the Word of God and prayer, something that Scripture says (at least) is my main job description.

Over time, I went from being the “new guy” to the “everything-pastor”. It was intentional – mostly. I mean, I had an interest in many of these things at the time that I became associated with them and felt like I was honoring God by my involvement in them. But seasons change – and we with the seasons. And long after the passion subsides all that’s left is dogged adherence to your original commitment. Which is an honorable and altogether right course of action (say) in marriage but can be such a life-draining thing when it comes to volunteer associations. But my reluctance to break my word or my fear of letting others down often keeps me – as a pastor – at a place of interior clutter most often reflected in the chaos that abides in my office.

About a month ago, Linda and I attended the College of Prayer held in Menomonie. Dr. Ron Walborn of Alliance Theological Seminary in Nyack, New York was teaching on physical healing. He was following his notes that he had distributed to us earlier about the healing ministry of Jesus and then made this comment: “Oh, incidentally, Jesus had his Father’s approval before he performed any healings or miracles.” It was an aside; a throw-away comment. But it struck home. I had just finished taking the kids at The Focus (the youth church that meets in our building) through Mark 1. And there it was: Jesus is baptized, the Holy Spirit comes upon him and the Father pronounces his blessing on him: “You are my Son whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). Turn back to Matthew’s Gospel and find this: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17). Turn forward to Luke’s Gospel and the good doctor records it this way: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). Everything that he is known for – the wonderful teachings, the amazing healings, the awe-ful power encounters – all of it is found after the fact.

During the ministry time that followed, I knelt at my chair and tried to still myself before the Lord. One of the guys in my section came over and knelt beside me and began to pray for me. I shared with him how Dr. Walborn’s so-called ‘throw-away’ comment had hit me like a heat-seeking missile in search of acquisitioning a target. So he simply encouraged me to “pray into” that. Now, up until this moment I had not been feeling anything out of the ordinary. Many others in the room were expressing themselves freely but I was emotionally neutral. But as I began to pray, I had something of a vision – a vision that created an immediate emotional response in me.

It was my son, Charlie. Charlie is a great kid who is always willing to help me or Linda out at home. He has autism, a condition that only augments his natural shyness and makes him an enigma, at times, even to those who know him best. He doesn’t have a job description. While he helps out in the nursery when called upon, he doesn’t “do” anything at church. He has no assigned responsibilities. Like so many of the folks who make up the Refuge family, on Sundays he partakes of the shared worship experience and then goes home. So, here’s what I saw: it was simply a picture of Charlie walking up the steps of Refuge and the sight of him doing so moved me emotionally. And then I heard the words of the Father: “You are my dearly loved Son, and you bring me great joy” (Mark 1, NLT). Charlie doesn’t do anything to gain my approval. He just has it because he is my son. And quite unexpectedly I found myself weeping with the realization that maybe this is the same way that the Father looks at me. I don’t have to do a thing to have his approval. I don’t have to rack up a score card to impress him. I have his approval already whether or not people get saved or healed or delivered – even though it is my desire to see these very things.

It is very hard for me to say no to anyone as my resume clearly shows. And in that picture of my son I saw how much I remain bound to the fear of man, that fear that is common to many pastors. The vision, however, only accentuates my hunger to be free of the fear so that I may only be about the things He calls me to. And in tending to those things I suspect I’ll experience a sense of freedom like I knew once on a certain Friday morning back in October 1991. Except this time I’ll not feel guilty about it but enjoy the sheer pleasure of knowing Him.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Afterdim

I consider myself a Pentecostal in that I have experienced the baptism of the Holy Spirit and, among other things, I have been graced with spiritual language.

I pastor what some would call a Pentecostal fellowship in that many of its members have had the same experience.

And yet, when I pray for someone to receive the filling of the Holy Spirit, nothing “happens.” No shaking. No rolling. No laughter. No “joy unspeakable and full of glory”. Not so much of a “she-came-in-a-Honda/see-my-bow-tie-tie-my-bow-tie.” Usually when I pray for people in this way, judging by appearances I’d say it was (almost) a non-event.

So what is it with me?

Tonight was a good case in point. I’ve been sharing from Mark 1 lately with the students from The Focus, our Wednesday night youth church. Our text tonight was Mark 1:9-11 which reads,

“At this time, Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. The moment he came out of the water, he saw the sky split open and God's Spirit, looking like a dove, come down on him. Along with the Spirit, a voice: ‘You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.’”

All the gospel writers put this event at the beginning of their story. In Mark’s case, it’s in the opening lines. Before the miracles, before the healings, before Lazarus shuffles out from the tomb, before all the amazing things that make up the stories of Jesus’ life, he is baptized in water and in the Spirit. If he, though fully God, as a man required Spirit baptism, what keeps the rest of us from submitting to the same? If to be a Christian is to walk as Jesus did and do what Jesus does, it is impossible without the Holy Spirit coming upon us. This was my message in abbreviated form.

After sharing, we tied in to our internet feed with the International House of Prayer in Kansas City, encouraged the kids to find a separate place in the sanctuary, dimmed the lights and asked them to turn to the One who longs to fill them afresh. After about twenty minutes or so, I made an invitation to any and all who were longing to be filled for the first time or in need of experiencing a fresh infilling, to come forward. Perhaps a quarter of those present did (and four of them were my own kids). I asked one of the youth leaders to join me and one by one we prayed over the perhaps 8 kids who were sitting in the provided chairs.

I sincerely was hoping that there would be some demonstration of the Spirit’s presence. Tongues. Tears. Joy. Laughter. Anything that would suggest that the Holy Spirit had come upon them but with the exception of one, it was the drill I have grown accustomed to in my ministry, which is to say nothing meeting the eye.

My theology prevents me from going home discouraged. After all, we seek Him not a feeling. And just because nothing seems to be going on doesn’t mean that nothing is going on. But every once in a while my faith needs a little bolstering. I mean, after all those first Christians prayed that God would stretch out his hand and show his stuff and the house they were in shook and they left boldly going where before they had been afraid to go.

I don’t think that’s asking too much. I don’t think I’m tasking the Lord when I ask him to show up if only to awaken the kids who didn’t seem so moved to sit in one of the chairs and in one case are fast asleep.

Maybe it’s me?

Monday, January 19, 2009

How Do You Actually Win a War on Terror?

“For we are attempting to conquer Sauron with the Ring. And we shall (it seems) succeed. But the penalty is, as you will know, to breed new Saurons, and slowly turn Men and Elves into Orcs.” – J.R.R. Tolkien to his son, Christopher, May 1944, who was in the RAF and stationed in South Africa as quoted in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien



Tomorrow the reigns of power will once again peacefully transition from one President to the next. One will enter Washington in the atmosphere of a conquering hero. The other will quietly slip out the back door and move into his new home in suburban Dallas and presumably begin to write his memoirs. For all the rhetoric of change that is common fare in American politics, certain things, however, will remain the same come tomorrow evening. Among them the ongoing “War on Terror” that was declared following the horrible events of September 11, 2001. Eight years later the battles of that war still rage and, in fact, are heating up in Afghanistan. When will it end? How do you actually win a “War on Terror”? Is it when every last bad guy is dead or incarcerated? Is it when we bring in Osama bin Laden dead or alive and declare ourselves winners? How do you know which cough is the last gasp of the Taliban in the end?

In 2003, then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfield announced with customary bravado that the coming invasion of Iraq would best be characterized as “shock and awe”. And it was. Though was anyone really surprised that we rolled over Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guards as easily as we did? If this had been a movie, then certainly the falling of Saddam’s statue in Firdos Square in Baghdad a month later would have been an excellent backdrop for the credits to roll. But that was not the end of it. It wasn’t even the end of the beginning of it. How many lives have been affected since that time on all sides of the conflict? And are we even closer to its desired conclusion? And do we even know what that looks like?

I have no degrees in international relations. I know personally only two Muslims. But overcoming terror by inflicting terror savagely on those who would seek to hinder our peace-seeking efforts in both those countries seems like using a hammer to solve a problem that requires far more skill and expertise. And time. Hatred cannot be healed or overcome by the use of blunt force alone. You may indeed have the bigger hammer and subdue your foe – for the time being. But in time he will return with friends.

This is no criticism of our soldiers or their conduct in the current conflict. Good soldiers in every war do the best they can to fulfill their mission within the hostile circumstances that are forced upon them. But it seems to me what is needed most in the long run are boots on the ground. And not regulation issued ones either. Where are the sons of God in Iraq and Afghanistan right now? “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus said, “for they will be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9). Where are those who are willing to go the extra mile, to give the shirt off their back, to love him who feels committed to kill the other? My guess is that they are there already but in numbers too small to be recognized at this safe distance between me and the war that rages half a world away.

The War on Terror as we are fighting it is un-winable because it assumes that ultimately we will kill all the bad guys and gone will be the threat they pose to our society. But for every father we take out, for every brother who is killed accidentally in the crossfire of urban warfare, for every mother or daughter who is terrorized, what’s to say that we haven’t bred already another generation of individuals who hate us and are prepared to seek the revenge they crave?

In The Kingdom (2007), director Peter Berg underscores this point in the closing scene of the movie. This fictional story is about FBI agents working together with Saudi Arabian military personnel to capture the man responsible for killing Americans living in a housing compound in Riyadh. At movie’s end, there is a flashback to one of the opening scenes of the story when lead investigator Ronald Fleury (played by Jaimee Fox) is comforting the widow of his best friend who was killed in the bombing. When we see it the first time, we don’t hear what he tells her. But this time we do. He’s asked by his colleague, “Tell me what you whispered to Janet, in the briefing…before we even got airborne. What’d you stay to her?” At the same time, we see the grandson of the terrorist who had perpetrated the bombing being asked the same question by his aunt. “What did your grandfather whisper in your ear before he died?” Chillingly, they answer the same way:

Ronald Fleury: I told her we were gonna kill 'em all.
15-Year-Old Grandson: Don't fear them, my child. We are going to kill them all.


The only weapons that are powerful enough to overcome such hate are sacrificial love and forgiveness. Only these things have the virility to absorb whatever bitterness may throw at them and transform it into real peace.

I’m sure I’m speaking nonsense to those who know Arab culture or who have a far better grasp of the history of that particular region of the world than I do. But it begs the question, are Jesus’ words about loving our enemies and praying for those who do us wrong only words we use around a camp fire while on retreat or the very means to overcoming evil, wherever it rears its ugly head, with good?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Jesus was the 12th Man

It’s Saturday night in the town in which I pastor, and only 11 people have showed up for our quarterly prayer gathering. Of the eleven, five are pastors, one is wife of one of the pastors present, one is the guy who leads the local prayer initiative accompanied by his wife, and one is an elder of one of the fellowships represented who is also serving as our worship leader tonight. That leaves two people who make up “the congregation.” And given we are meeting in the Lutheran church sanctuary whose parallel rows of pews stand at attention like soldiers on parade ground stretching into the distance, it makes our already small group feel even smaller. Understandably, a pall of disappointment hangs in the air. Certainly it makes the worship leader’s gesture of plugging into the amp and all the testing of mics a bit superfluous.

But Kirk, our prayer leader, opens as if there were a whole company of intercessors assembled instead of a platoon and we follow the predetermined program as planned. Earl, our worship leader, leads in song and then as arranged, one by one we each carry out our assignment for the evening. I lead in prayers of adoration. Pastor Mike from a neighboring community leads in prayer of confession. Pastor Dan leads us in thanksgiving and finally Pastor Norm, the grand old man, leads us in intercession for our community. Interspersed in all of this are songs and opportunities to pray spontaneously. And pray we do – fervently, joyfully, and expectantly. There are moments of silence – pauses – but never a lag in the flow of the evening. Early on a prophetic word is shared affirming us of God’s pleasure in our gathering together. All of this took perhaps two hours but it was the last 40 minutes of the gathering that made my night.

We had adored the Lord, confessed our sins, gave thanks to God and interceded for our communities and His church and now it was time to pray for each other. A hot seat was pulled out and one of the pastor’s wives sat in it confessing her need for deliverance from demonic oppression. Pastor Guy, the host pastor, placed the oil in my hands and we all circled around this woman of God and began to pray – some in English, some quietly in tongues – all of us pronouncing Christ’s authority in her life and commanding those things that were afflicting her to go to the feet of Christ to be dealt with as he saw fit. We proceeded to pray for a few more of our friends – one wanting wisdom, one seeking healing, another seeking healing for a friend of his. There we were eleven individuals from various fellowships but all from the Body of Christ ministering to one another as God has called us to do. Afterwards, as we stood in a circle around the vacated hot seat, Pastor Guy began to lead us in a spontaneous chorus of intercession. “Let the glory of the Lord rise among us!” followed by similar verses for God’s healing, blessing and favor upon the Church of Jesus in our area. It seemed to me at that moment that the joy of the Lord filled that place. And then Guy led us in the singing of “The Lord’s Prayer” as a benediction.

It was only eleven people among how many hundred believers in this area. And yet, Jesus – our 12th Man – had brought us victory – and we exited the building feeling confident that “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil 1:6).

Saturday, January 10, 2009

With fortune cookie comes egg roll

We take it as a given that God has spoken and he still speaks – whether it be in the heavens who daily pour forth speech (Psalm 19:2), the words of holy writ (2 Timothy 3:16), or through his Son, Jesus (Hebrews 1:2). What’s more, who among us have not “heard” God speak through the words of pastors, teachers, speakers, friends, our spouse, our children or our boss let alone through the medium of television, music, movies, or books? As for me all the above apply and I would add one more: From time to time, God has spoken – even prophetically - to me through a handful of the plethora of fortune cookies I have cracked open in my life.


Allow me to cite three examples of this occurrence:


On the night before my ordination in October 1995, Linda and I had left the kids with the folks and gone out to eat at our favorite restaurant before we were married, The Lotus, on Madison’s East side. Following dinner, we were reminiscing and such about how we used to frequent this Vietnamese-Chinese eatery back in our dating-days when I opened my cookie and read this:


You take a reverent attitude towards life and

are most capable in guiding others


I’m not making this up. I just copied it from the original copy that is taped to the wall behind my computer in the office of the fellowship I now pastor. I know we’re not to take stock in these things, but on the eve of one of the most important days of my life it was wonderfully comforting if not amusing.


I don’ recall when I received the next fortuitous message but it now lays atop my bedroom dresser and I cast my eyes upon it most days as I’m getting dressed:


You cannot fix the problems of those who don’t want them fixed


Obviously, it’s not much of a fortune. It’s more like home-spun wisdom – something Grandma Chang might say? - and yet time and again since opening that cookie it’s truth has been proved, especially to a pastor-type like myself who has the notion that he has can save the world single-handedly with just a little more effort. As most people who have been around the block in ministry know, it just ain’t so. There’s plenty of people with issues. But a lot of them want people like me to fix their life but the power to do that lies in other hands (mostly their own).


You will step on the soil of many countries


I don’t know where or when I found this one but the moment I read it there was – and still is – a definitive YES that went off in my heart. It is a great summary of one of my life’s dream: to be an ambassador for the Kingdom in places that make up the “uttermost parts of the earth.” I don’t feel called to go and plant churches or evangelize. No, I want to be a part of planting His flag in places that are off the beaten path. I want to worship in Rebat or pray in Baku or run the steppes of the Great Wall or encourage the saints who may be in hiding near Mosul. I don’t want to go and make a nuisance of myself or go simply to say that I did with the bravado I sometimes detect in the voices of those who are graced to travel so. I want to be sent as one on assignment, who has received a “come over here and help us” summons as Paul did to Macedonia.


Since receiving this fortune, I have not traveled outside this country at all. But, noteworthy to me, is that despite the fact that I pastor a fellowship in a county mostly white and fourth-generation Norwegian, German or Polish, individuals from the following countries have come into my orbit or visited our fellowship: Canada, Russia, Ecuador, Morocco, Pakistan, Azerbaijan, Qatar, Thailand, Uganda, Liberia and South Korea. Meanwhile, people from our fellowship have been sent out on assignments to Morocco, Turkey, China, Thailand, Egypt, Philippines, South Korea and Canada during the same time period. So maybe the prophetic word has as much to do about influencing those from these locales as it does to actually getting on a plane and flying there. I guess time will tell.


I know we’re not to go looking for God’s counsel in this manner. Neither here nor in this week’s horoscope, to say nothing of Madame Rositta and her crystal ball. His Word and His Spirit are more than sufficient to lead us in the way we are to go. But God being God can do what He pleases and for reasons that are all His own speak through something as insignificant as a fortune cookie after a night out at China Buffet.