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, 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.