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, December 22, 2010

Finding My Place Near the Manger


"They entered the house and saw the child in the arms of Mary, his mother. Overcome, they kneeled and worshiped him. Then they opened their luggage and presented gifts: gold, frankincense, myrrh."  
Matthew 2:11, The Message

All of us raised in church know this story. How wise men from the East follow the star in search of the One whom the night skies speak of as the new-born king of Israel. Every year as we unpack our Nativity set they take their place beside the shepherds and the assorted animals of the manger, adoring the baby who has come in the fullness of time to redeem mankind. All the things that have been written about who these men were, what the Bethlehem star may have been or that they very likely didn't arrive in David's town until well after the birth of it's most famous son are interesting bits of trivia and back-story but miss the point. These foreigners in their strange garb who lack the Torah and have only the stars to guide them have greater clarity of the significance of what has transpired in Palestine than the Jewish locals. They have come from a great distance, across the desert and down the King's Highway in search of the child they are certain to find whereas for the residents of Jerusalem the birth of another boy in Bethlehem is a decidedly non-event. Who are the real wise men, Matthew seems to be asking: the ones with access to the scrolls of Holy Writ and the accrued knowledge of the scholars or these queer pagans who follow what revelation they have divined in the stars above?

I think of these Magi as they arrive in Bethlehem. They enter the small home of Joseph and Mary and at long last lay eyes on him they have come so far to see. The mere sight of him is awe-inspiring and they bend their knees and lay before him their precious gifts of gold, spice and perfume. Their act of worship is visceral not something well-worn and practiced as my own. But it is not gifts alone that they bring. I suppose they could have sent their gifts via the first century's version of FedEx but worship is not something you can affect that way. To really adore is to engage all that you are. So they brought precious gifts and themselves to the Child acknowledging his lordship even in toddler-dom. They are a reminder to all of us who know the story backwards and forwards that the most precious thing we can bring to Jesus on the celebration of his birthday are our very lives yielded to him as an offering. I think this is what Paul had in mind when he wrote to a group of believers in Rome "...Take your everyday, ordinary life - your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life - and place it before God as an offering" (Romans 12:1, The Message). As crowded as my Nativity set seems to be this means there's room for me there, too. 

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Ever-Quotable Lewis

I've been reading C.S. Lewis' Miracles lately in my devotional reading. As those things go, it's pretty heady stuff (for me). It's philosophical yet with his unique touch of using such things as flamingos and German generals, for example, to prove a theorem if called upon. While I don't pretend to follow his argument line by line (the book is properly considered apologetic), I manage to hang on through some rough patches and generally get the gist of things. His argument is plain and simple: one either by disposition (not by logic) rules out the supernatural (what he would refer to as being a "Naturalist") or must accept that there exists something outside of nature which from time to time interrupts or interferes with the normal course of events. There is no logical middle ground on the matter.

This morning in chapter 11 entitled "Christianity and 'Religion'", I was trying to keep up with him as he demonstrated with his usual deftness the shallowness of those who consider themselves "Pantheists"; i.e., those who affirm that there is a god but he is not personal but a "force" permeating all that there is. About mid-way through the chapter my mind was becoming muddled with the deluge of words I was having to run through when suddenly I came in out of the rain and read this:

"Men are reluctant to pass over the notion of an abstract and negative deity to the living God. I do not wonder. Here lies the deepest tap-root of Pantheism and of the objection of traditional imagery. It was hated not, at bottom, because it pictured Him as man but because it pictured Him as king, or even as warrior. The Pantheist's God does nothing, demands nothing. He is there if you wish for Him, like a book on a shelf. He will not pursue you. There is no danger that at any time heaven and earth should flee away at His glance. If He were the truth, then we could really say that all the Christian images of kingship were a historical accident of which our religion ought to be cleansed. It is with a shock that we discover them to be indispensable. You have had a shock like that before, in connection with smaller matters - when the line pulls at your hand, when something breathes beside you in the darkness. So here; the shock comes at the precise moment when the thrill of life is communicated to us along the clue we have been following. It is always shocking to meet life where we thought we were alone. 'Look out!' we cry, 'it's alive.' And therefore this is the very point at which so many draw back - I would have done so myself if I could - and proceed no further with Christianity. An 'impersonal God' well and good. A subjective God of beauty, truth and goodness, inside our own heads - better still. A formless life-force surging through us, a vast power which we can tap - best of all. But God Himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord, perhaps approaching at an infinite speed, the hunter, king, husband - that is quite another matter. There comes a moment when the children who have been playing at burglars hush suddenly: was that a real footstep in the hall? There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion ('Man's search for God'!) suddenly draw back. Supposing we really found Him? We never meant it to come to that! Worse still, supposing He had found us?"

"So it is a sort of Rubicon [an expression meaning, the point of no return]. One goes across; or not. But if one does, there is no manner of security against miracles. One may be in for anything."

Wow. His adeptness of putting the argument in proper perspective always amazes me. I can be one thing - a person who believes in a benevolent being of an indeterminate nature - or another - a Christian commited to the revelation of God as presented in the Bible - but I can't be one while pretending to hide behind the other.

The Last Song of Jesus

"When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives." Matthew 26:30, NIV

On the night of his arrest, after Jesus celebrated Passover with his disciples, their Seder meal closed with the singing of an anthem. This was not an innovation of Jesus. This was following an ancient custom that had been passed down through the generations. This hymn was the Hallel, a Hebrew word for "praise", and it involved a verbal reciting of Psalms 113-118. By most accounts, Psalms 113 and 114 would have been sung before the meal and Psalms 115-118 afterward. In Jewish fashion, they would have been sung antiphonally in which the host of the gathering, in this case Jesus, would sing out a line from the psalm and his guests would respond with "Hallelujah!" To sing that part of the Hallel that would follow the Passover meal involved a chanting a total of 68 verses in our English Bible. A simple reading of these psalms took me about 5 minutes so if I factor in time for the disciples to respond the whole thing probably took 8-10 minutes before they gathered their things and headed out into the now dark streets of the city.

Read from the comfort of our recliner or sofa, the psalms are upbeat and replete with holy boasting.
   "Our God is in heaven
         doing whatever he wants to do.
   Their gods are metal and wood,
         handmade in a basement shop." (Psalm 115:3,4 Msg)
   "GOD is gracious - it is he who makes things right,
         our most compassionate God.
   GOD takes the side of the helpless,
         when I was at the end of my rope, he saved me." (Psalm 116:5-6)
They are the kinds of verses fitting for a gathering where the worshiper sounds more like a cheerleader officiating at a pep rally:
    "Praise GOD, everybody!
    Applaud GOD, all people!
    His love has taken over our lives;
    GOD's faithful ways are eternal.
    Hallelujah!" (Psalm 117, Msg)
A "U-RAH-RAH" seems like it would fit in perfectly here.

Charismatics like to sing "Jewish-sounding" songs because they are sung in the minor key (e.g., "Jehovah Jireh" and "The Horse and the Rider" to name two) and they get people clapping in rhythm tempting them to start dancing a jig if they could only shed their Lutheran upbringing for a moment. I have no idea how Jesus and his companions would have sung these psalms but based on their content I can't imagine they they sounded like solemn Catholic monks chanting the Benedictio.

I'm cognizant of the fact that I read them as an American who has never known the reality of being a resident of an occupid country longing for freedom and liberatoin. Sung in that manner, however, they are not just psalms of praise. They are songs of protest against the status quo, their words barked out almost with military-like cadence.
    "GOD's now at my side and I'm not afraid;
            who would dare lay a hand on me?
    GOD's my strong champion;
            I flick off my enemies like flies.
    Far better to take refuge in GOD
            than trust in people;
    Far better to take refuge in GOD
           than trust in celebrities.
    Hemmed in by barbarians,
           in GOD's name I rubbed their faces in the dirt..."
          (Psalm 118:5-10, Msg)

The Jewish people had been waiting hundreds of years for the promised son of David who would arise and lead them to a new era of peace and prosperity. Singing the Hallel had to be an act of hope and trust in Yahweh as well as a way of quietly thumbing their nose at whomever was their present ruler be it Babylonian or Persian king or Roman Caesar. In the Seder they revisited the ancient salvation story of their deliverance from Pharoah in Egypt. As they sang the words it was a prophetic act that collectively turned their focus from history past -
     "After Israel left Egypt,
          the clan of Jacob left those barbarians behind;
     Judah became holy land for him,
         Israel the place of holy rule.
     Sea took one look and ran the other way;
        River Jordan turned around and ran off." (Psalm 114:1-3, Msg)
- to a future glorious victory over those who would defy the rightful rule of God -
    "Hear the shouts, hear the triumph songs
        in the camp of the saved?
    'The hand of GOD as turned the tide!
    The hand of GOD is raised in victory!
    The hand of GOD has turned the tide!"" (Psalm 118:15, Msg)

On that night that Jesus celebrated his last Passover with his friends they were not aware of how violently the hours that followed would become. But he did. He knew the hour had come for "the Son of Man to be glorified" (John 12:23). He knew that the hand of him who would betray him was dipping into the same common bowl as he was. And he knew from Scripture that his ending would be painful beyond description. That being the case, the words of the song must have given him some measure of strength especially as he sang,
   "I will not die but live,
      and will proclaim what the LORD has done..." (Psalm 118:17, NIV)

The irony of verses 22-24 of Psalm 118 is palpable for he is the very one they are about:
   "The stone the builders rejected
   has become the capstone;
   the LORD has done this,
   and it is marvelous in our eyes.
   This is the day the LORD has made;
   let us rejoice and be glad in it." (NIV)

And now the song is nearing its climax. Earlier he had sang, "In my anguish I cried to the LORD, and he answered by setting me free" (v. 5, NIV) but now he affirms what the crowds had chanted only a few days before as he had entered Jerusalem:
   "Blessed is he who comes in the name of
      the LORD.
   From the house of the LORD we bless
     you." (v. 26, NIV)
They are words that speak of the ultimate triumph of God over all his enemies.

Jesus must have had a beautiful singing voice. In my mind, there would be something incongruous about the Messiah of God who couldn't carry a tune in a paper sack. As he prepared himself for the agony ahead these words sung in faith of a Day of victory coming must have buoyed him in some visceral way. There he stood with his friends with sandals and cloak on reenacting their forebears who partook of the first Passover in like manner, singing his last song in the shadow of imminent suffering and death.

   "The LORD is God,
       and he has made his light shine upon us.
   With boughs in hand, join in the festal
       up to the horns of the altar."

   "You are my God, and I will give you
    you are my God, and I will exalt you."

   "Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
      his love endures forever" (vv. 27-29, NIV)

This isn't whistling past the graveyard, living in denial of the trial he is about to go through. This is seeing the graveyard in its proper perspective, as God sees it, and agreeing with the truth of what the Scriptures affirm: "I will not die but live." It is a credo of faith and trust flung in the face of despair "mixed with gall" his enemy tempts him to swallow on the eve of the most difficult day of his life.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Wednesday Night Wonder

"Everyone was excited and confused. Some of them even kept asking each other, 'What does all this mean?'" Acts 2:12, Contemporary English Version

Last week at The Focus, the youth church held on Wednesday nights at Refuge, something out of the ordinary happened. It's not the first time that our mid-week gathering has taken an unexpected turn  (see, for example, my post from March 22 of this year entitled, "What does this mean?") but the fact that it did makes it no less memorable. In fact, when things transpire in such an unusual way it should make those of us who attend Focus regularly to sit up and, at the very least, ask, "What gives?"

Here's what happened. It had been a pretty normal night at Focus. Kayla and team had led worship for maybe 40 minutes or so. Some of those gathered were purposeful in their worship. Some were (as far as I could tell) just sitting there while others were using the "down" time to catch up with their Like I said, it was a pretty normal Wednesday night. After worship we circled up at the front of the sanctuary and shared announcements, God-stories from the week past and prayer requests. Trisha shared a prayer request for a friend of hers I'll just call Jane. (Anyone who was there and reads this will know who I am talking about. I only change her name because people are always in process and making pronouncements about a person who hasn't "gone public" themselves is always an act that teeters on presumption. But it's such a good story, I'm going to forge ahead anyway). Jane and her family have been going through a very difficult year or so. Her dad is battling cancer and has already exceeded his doctor's expectations for his lifespan. But that doesn't make it any easier to bear for a young woman who loves her father and has already lost her mother. In any case, Trisha had bumped into her the night before at a basketball game and they had ended up talking together. At the end of the conversation, Trish invited Jane to Focus. That was the long and short of it. We had moved on to other requests and the like when Trish received a text from Jane informing her that she was, in fact, on her way to group as we speak. Cool coincidence, right?

A modern day "high place"
The weekend before, Troy had taken a car-load of kids from Focus down to the International House of Prayre in Kansas City, MO, just to "soak" in the prayer room as the saying goes. The plan of the evening was to have these kids share a sample of their experiences with the group. While they were down south they encountered God in various ways. One fell down in the presence of the Lord during ministry time (apparently more than once). One received a dramatic healing. A few were used to pray for someone suffering from asthma and God touched that person in a demonstrative way and healed them. One experienced the joy of the Lord in the manner that the "King James'" folk describe as "joy unspeakable and full of glory." And one smelled unusual and beautiful aromas in different settings the end result of which was to heighten their hunger for the Lord. Jane showed up about 10 minutes into the story-telling time. We paused and welcomed her and the sharing continued unabatedly like popcorn kernels going off for another 20 minutes or so. I think to the unitiated it would have all sounded very weird but given that many of these same kids have made the trip down to KC for one event or another over the last several years it sounded "typical" KC/IHOP: God shows up and people fall down or shake, rattle and roll and return from the high place like Saul among the prophets. If Jane was weirded out or perplexed by the sharing her body language didn't giver her away. She sat and listened politely to the stories like everyone else.

When it was clear that the sharing had pretty much run its course, I felt it would be appropriate to summarize Acts 2:1-21. For those of us from Pentecostal/Charismatic circles, its familiar territory. The disciples were waiting on God during an important feast of the Jews and while they were waiting He shows up in wind and fire. They are so filled with the Spirit that their behavior defies reasonable explanation. In fact, to some who gather their only grid for understanding what's going on is to conclude that they must have started pretty early in the morning to go on a bender. But there are others who raise the more sensible question, "What is the meaning of all this?" Peter seizes the moment and with an unfamiliar boldness proclaims that what they are all witnessing is, in fact, Scripture being fulfilled. The last days have begun just as God had said they would by pouring out his Spirit on everyone - young and old, men and women, rich and poor, Jewish and Gentile - and now is the day of salvation. It seemed logical then that just as Peter and the disciples ministered to the crowd that gathered outside their prayer room on that day, these kids and Troy newly returned from the prayer room in Kansas City should pray for any and all who wanted it. And, as it is our usual custom, we designated chairs for just this purpose and several pepole responded, Jane among them.

The worship team reassembled and began to lead in a song and the kids, Troy and I began to pray for those who had sat themselves down in the chairs. I joined Trisha and Sarah and the three of us began to pray for Jane. It seemed that the Lord began to thaw her heart as all three tissue boxes were called into service (not just by her but others who were sitting in the chairs). I read Psalm 27 over her and asked Cody to pray behind her since it seemed to me that she needed a taste of the joy of the Lord. He knelt behind her and was convulsing quietly (it's an odd juxtaposition, I realize) in the Spirit as he prayed for her. After awhile I moved over to Mary (another pseduo name), a young woman who has been a Christian for several years now and has recently returned from an extended missions trip overseas. Mary was weeping as if she had just lost her mother or father. In the meantime, Troy took my spot with Jane and began to minister to her. At some point during this time, the song of the Lord came upon Kayla and she began to sing and play a spontaneous worship song upon the keyboard. It was a simple song as those things usually go but beautifully sung.

Now, here's where things took an unexpected turn. While Troy and Trisha are ministering to Jane she tells him that she is hearing something in the song that Kayla is singing. But it's not the words that she's singing which are speaking to her but the notes she is playing upon the keyboard. "They're telling me a story that I need to hear" is the gist of what she told Troy. He speaks prophetically into her life and she confirms the stuff he is saying but more than anything else it's the story in the notes that has grabbed her attention. Scintillating, to say the least. Later, Trish moves on to Mary and joins Troy who has been ministering to her now for awhile. But Jane gets up from her chair and joins the small circle as well and places her hands upon Mary and begins to prophesy over her. I don't want to overstate it. She didn't say, "Thus saith the Lord, etc., etc." I don't even know if she realized what she was doing. In fact, I suspect she didn't. But as Troy listened to her pronouce a very simple "word" over Mary to his amazement it was "spot on."

Artwork from the Prayer Room in KC
So what does it mean when a person whose commitment to Christianity is uncertain but shows up and hears a story in random notes played upon a keyboard under prophetic inspiration and then proceeds to deliver an accurate "word from God" to a disciple of Jesus who at that present moment (unbeknownst to Jane) is resisting the Holy Spirit? It's a sign and a wonder, that's what is. It's a sign that God is in our midst (see 1 Corinthians 14). It's a reminder to all of us that we are, indeed, living in those days spoke of so long ago - days of God's Spirit who like cascading waters is being poured out upon all people and demonstrating his wonders in the skies above and leaving signs on the earth below that he "will save everyone who asks for his help" (Acts 2:12, CEV). It means that God can use any means he chooses to deliver his good news to people be it rustic shepherds "keeping watch o'er their flocks by night" or an undergraduate student who just happens to show up at a worship gathering and becomes both the recepient and the conduit of God's grace and truth.

I spoke with Mary just the other night. She looks like her "old" self, her eyes revealing the new joy of the Lord within her. We talked about what had happened at Focus the week before and she recounted how much she had been resisting God these last few months. Sometime during the gathering, however, her will began to soften and during ministry time she sat herself in one of those chairs and suddenly could not hold back the flood of tears that came. But when Jane spoke her word to her she needed no more persuasion but came running home like the prodigal she really was. Coincidence? No, sign - a sign to all of us  - Jane, Mary, Troy, myself - that now is the day of salvation and truly "everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved" (NIV).

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Leaving us a breadcrumb trail to follow

A trail to follow
On the way, Jesus told them, "Tonight all of you will desert me. For the Scriptures say,
      'God will strike the Shepherd,
        and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.'
But after I have been raised from the dead, I will go ahead of you to Galilee and meet you there."  
Matthew 26:31-32, New Living Translation

On the night of his arrest, after celebrating Passover with his disciples, Jesus leads his small band out of Jerusalem and back up the road to the Mount of Olives. He is pensive and it seems as if he has retreated into some deep place of quiet preparing himself for the violence that awaits a short time from now. Around him he can hear the heavy breathing of his followers as they plod their way up the hill, their mood reflective of his own. Somewhere along the way he makes the announcement that this night they will all fail him, that when push comes to shove they will cut and run instead of standing with him in his hour of need. Think of the impact of the same words being spoken to you by a close friend or revered minister and you relate to Peter's protests to such a prediction. "Others may do that but I never will," is the sense of how they reply to his dire words.

How quickly we run
All of us who consider ourselves friends of the Savior have made similar vows before. New Year resolutions, promises wept out at an altar, declarations on our return from a retreat are all samples of this same sort of thing: "From now on, Lord, I'm keeping myself pure"; "Others may backslide but I am determined to follow you"; "never again, Lord; I promise I won't do that ever again" - they are all echoes of Peter's denial, "Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will" (v. 33, NIV). But despite our profession of unending devotion, all of us have broken promises and turned back or turned tail (to our own chagrin) at different points in our journey. When faithfulness was called for, we were fickle. When courage was needed, we backed down. When sacrifice was required, we lost our spiritual backbone and caved to peer pressure. And what makes our denial worse than than that of the disciples is that we have the means for courage, for faithfulness and sacrifice in the Person of the Holy Spirit who resides within where they did not. Yes, we, too, have failed him, our proclamations of undying affection all the same.

Follow the breadcrumbs
But in his prediction there is hope. Yes, they will scatter to the winds when he is accosted by the authorities but when all this is over, they will reunite in Galilee. If Jerusalem is the place where every time Jesus shows up there he gets into some kind of controversy, Galilee is where he rides the waves of public approval. In Galilee, people want to join him. They want him to touch them or their loved one. Houses get packed when he teaches and villages and towns know joy because of the remarkable works of God that are done within them by he and his followers. Galilee means fellowship, sharing together in the work of the kingdom, being close to him and enjoying his friendship. “But after I have been raised from the dead, I will go ahead of you to Galilee and meet you there” (emphasis mine). In his dour announcement he was leaving a breadcrumb trail out of the thicket of the despair they – and us – would find themselves following their duplicity. That they would scatter was a given – the Scriptures foretold that they would. That we from time to time in our life as Christians “discreetly distance” ourselves from the One we profess to love and follow is a pretty sure thing as well. Why else would one who knew well enough about deserting Jesus write to later followers (including us) these now time-worn words of hope:

         If we claim that we're free of sin, we're only fooling ourselves. A claim like that 
         is errant nonsense. On the other hand, if we admit our sins—make a clean breast 
        of them—he won't let us down; he'll be true to himself. He'll forgive our sins and 
        purge us of all wrongdoing.  
       (1 John 1:8-9, The Message)

No need to keep cowering in fear and shame in a Jerusalem upper room. Make your way back to Galilee, make your way home to the old stomping grounds of faith where you enjoyed a pleasant closeness with him and enjoyed better days as you led “a great procession to the house of God,singing for joy and giving thanks amid the sound of a great celebration!” (Ps 42:4, NLT) Instead of scorn and a scowl you fear to find upon his face, more than likely he'll be working on breakfast and look up at you and smile. 


Friday, December 3, 2010

Advent Meditation: Do I See What He Sees?

Jesus and his first Advent
"Saints before the altar bending, watching long in hope and fear.
Suddenly the Lord, descending, In His temple shall appear.
Come and worship! Come and worship! Worship Christ the new born King."
4th verse of "Angels from the Realms of Glory" by James Montgomery

In the closing chapters of Matthew, we encounter Jesus pensive, on edge, thoroughly aware that the last week of his life is upon him. Matthew 23 almost reads like a precursor of Luther nailing his protests upon the door at All Saints Church in Wittenberg as he denounces the religious authorities who have corrupted the Scriptures and have turned God into something that he isn't. I like the rawness of The Message which captures the bite of Jesus' polemic against the Pharisees and teachers of the law:

Pulling no punches
  "Snakes! Reptilian sneaks! Do you think you can worm your way out of this? Never have to pay the piper? It's on account of people like you that I send prophets and wise guides and scholars generation after generation - and generation after generation you treat them like dirt,
  greeting them with lynch mobs, hounding them with abuse."

  "You can't squirm out of this: Every drop of righteous blood ever spilled on this earth, beginning with the blood of that good man Abel right down to the blood of Zechariah, Barachiah's son, whom you murdered at his prayers, is on your head. All this, I'm telling you, is coming down on you, on your generation" (vv. 33-34).
Clint as a picture of Jesus?

Talk about not mincing words. In my mind, substitute whatever face you imagine as the countenance of Jesus at this moment and insert Clint Eastwood's from Pale Rider. Judgment Day for them is fast approaching.

As he leaves Jerusalem for Bethany, apparently some of his disciples had never been to the city before or why else would they marvel over the structures they saw here? Herod's Temple alone was forty years in the making and so any previous visitor to Jerusalem would already be familiar with the great construction projects going on there. But like awed sightseers in D.C., a few of them come up to Jesus thinking he will share in their wonder. Instead he responds with prophetic words that quickly dampens their enthusiasm. "One day, in the not-too-distant future, these impressive structures will be nothing but a heap of rubble" (see Matthew 24:2). There must have been something in his voice that sent chills up their spine for later some of them come to him and ask when this cataclysmic event would happen and what other signs would accompany his coming.

Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives
He begins a long, somber dissertation that has been dissected and discussed ever since. He doesn't paint a picture of things getting better and better but ultimately worse and worse. Wars, famines, natural disasters and the like are all the stuff of routine history. Every tsunami or tornado we experience is another spike on the monitor that tells us that a new world is closer to being birthed. But in the process everything that appears permanent will be shaken and many who profess devotion will betray him and one another. " will be dog-eat-dog, everyone at each other's throat, everyone hating each other" (v. 10, Msg). At this point, things are falling apart - preachers are deceiving, people are turning away or ratting each other out to the authorities. It's not just the terrain that is no longer certain (e.g., "earthquakes") it's who you can trust and depend on. Your nearest and dearest may stab you in the back because they fear for their life. "Because of the increase of wickedness the love of most will grow cold..." (v. 12, NIV). Such are the conditions that will prevail immediately before his return.

What is required of disciples (says Jesus) is persistence in the face of great adversity and pressure to bail out. As he continues his soliloquy, Jesus is painting in broad strokes of believers running for their lives, seeking refuge outside the city and of travail never known in the record of history. These times will be so difficult that it will be a mercy that heaven cuts them short. "End-times" people - people who like to study these things - have come up with a myriad of explanations, charts, graphs and what have you to tell us when exactly these things will happen. Other than my first two years of following Jesus (1980-81), my interest in this stuff has pretty much waned. Every other year or so, a new prophetic guy arises professing greater insight than those that have preceded him. They can cause a bit of a stir and for awhile they are the "end-time" guru but as time goes forward it is easy to disregard their "sky-is-falling" mentality. Jesus, however, counsels against a "Que sera sera" attitude. On the contrary, he warns us to be ready to run, to flee lest we get consumed in the coming conflagration that is certain to come.

We are now in the season of Advent and just the other day at our monthly ministerial gathering, Pastor Norm reminded all of us that the word, advent, means "coming." Most of this month we pastor-types will spend a lot of energy in our sermonizing looking backwards reminiscing about his first coming replete with its pastoral images of shepherds and wise men and a star. It's a story that needs to be retold at least once a year. But instead of hanging out in Luke 2 or Matthew 2, we might do a better job of preparing the members of our parish for Christmas by turning their attention to Matthew 23-25 or Mark 13. If "coming" is what the season is all about whatever else Jesus may mean by such things as "the abomination that causes desolation" (24:15) and the lesson from the fig tree (24:32) watchfulness among his disciples is called for as his Second Advent draws ever closer.
Jesus at his second Advent

Saturday, November 27, 2010

On Acting Crazy in Gath

"That's life, that's what all the people say.
You're riding high in April,
Shot down in May.
But I know I'm gonna change that tune,
When I'm back on top, back on top in June."
   "That's Life" sung by Frank Sinatra

Psalm 34 in my NIV Bible includes an editorial commnet: "Of David. When he pretended to be insane before Abimelech, who drove him away and he left." Not really a catchy phrase to start a song but when I read it again today it sent me turning the pages of my Old Testament trying to refamiliarize myself with that odd little episode from King David's life. As most of us are aware, his life was replete with ups and downs. In fact, Sinatra might have been singing about David when he sang, "'re riding high in April, shot down in May..." He explodes onto the scene as a teenager and becomes a hero when he takes Goliath out with a stone. From then on there can be no going back to his life of obscurity as a shepherd boy. But popularity has its price and soon King Saul is peeved at how loudly the people are singing his praises instead of his own. In fact, a bounty is put on his head and Saul wants him brought in dead or alive (but preferably dead). So when we pick up his tale in 1 Samuel 21, David is a man on the run. After a quick stop in the priest town of Nob where he picks up food and weaponry (most notably the sword of the aforementioned Goliath), David leads his small band of devoted followers into Philistine territory to lay low for awhile.

As luck or fate would have it, they end up in Gath, the home-town of Goliath. Maybe it was by accident that they ended up there. After all, how was he to know when they picked this city to hole up in that it was, in fact, the giant's old stomping grounds? Or was he being cagey thinking the safest place to hide is in plain sight of your enemies? Whatever the case, soon after arriving his cover is blown and now he and his men are deep behind enemy lines and in the open. It's soon reported to King Achish that David the giant-killer has taken up residence in his town and he intends to meet the man who cut down their native hero in the prime of his life. As for David, the lives of his men are in his hands so he must act quickly and cunningly if he is to get them out of this jam. So, he decides to gamble with a ruse and acts like a man who's lost his marbles, beating his head against the gate, moaning and groaning and foaming at the mouth. When King Achish is escorted to where David is carrying on he can't believe that the lunatic before him is the famed hero of Israel. "Are you serious? Whoever this guy is, he's lost it. Am I so short of crazy people in this town that you had to find me one more?" (see 1 Samuel 21:14-15). "Street the guy and get him outta here," orders Achish and unknowingly helps David and his men make their getaway. It had been a close shave but his gamble had paid off. They had made it out of Gath alive.

Soon he and his rag tag band of fighters take up residence in the cave of Adullam, near his home town of Bethlehem, where they remain for some time. Now safely hid in the Judean wilderness he has a little time to reflect on the events of the past few years. It had not been too long ago that the wandering seer Samuel had unexpectedly showed up at his family's home and to his surprise had poured anointing oil upon his head. Soon after he had confronted Goliath in the field and with the death of the giant he was catapulted from obscurity to fame overnight. He was not just the talk of town; he became Israel's favorite son and Saul's foremost champion. But his meteoric rise to fame had its price and soon he is perceived as a rival to be eliminated. Time and time again, Saul's attempts on his life are foiled, one near escape after another which ultimately lead to his "Robin Hood"-like existence living in the Judean hills surrounded by his own circle of merry men.

"I will extol the LORD at all times; his praise will always be on my lips..." the psalm begins. In comparison to David, I live a rather pedestrian life. Every night I come home to my wife and children. I sleep in a comfortable bed and my refrigerator is well stocked. And I certainly don't live in need of constant vigilance against enemies raiding my house. But I confess, I don't extol the Lord at all times and his praise is not always on my lips. Often Thursdays aren't good for me for my soul to "boast in the Lord" (v. 2). That's the day Linda and I usually sit down and sort through our bills. For me, it's a weekly reminder that our financial security hangs by a very frayed thread. It seems like our "Prayer and Praise" insert in our weekly bulletin contains far more prayer requests than answers. Our offerings are never adequate to pay me, our missionaries and our obligations. We pray for the sick and few are healed (or even get a little better!) Lives in our fellowship more often than not are waning with fear and unbelief than waxing with faith and devotion. No, truth be told, I don't "bless God every chance I get" (Msg).

"I sought the LORD, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears" (v. 4). I try and put myself in David's place and the fears he must have dealt with as the outlaw leader of a band of brigands. Obviously, the fear of King Saul was real enough but so also must have been anxiety over his family in Bethlehem or how to provide for his growing following that joined him at the cave or that one or more of his new recruits might, in fact, be assassins feigning friendship long enough to get close enough to put a knife in him. Compared to these, my own fears seem so shallow and trivial - fear that my ministry won't amount to much, fear that I won't get airfare together for my teaching gig in January in the Philippines, fear that our fellowship will always be scrambling to rob Peter to pay Paul. "This poor man called, and the LORD heard him; he saved him out of all his troubles" (v. 6). Certainly David's life bears witness to this truth but by my reckoning it's been a long time since I've truly been in a "tight spot" (Msg).

I do recall a particularly tight place for Linda and I, though. It was the summer of 1988 and when we were attempting to plant a fellowship in southern Wisconsin. Christine was just a few months old and we had moved back from Illinois and were temporarily living in my in-laws' basement in Madison. I helped Linda's dad paint a barn and when we could we drove the 50 miles to Whitewater trying to make livable the broken down trailer we had bought and moved there. After two weeks of this, however, we decided that the best thing we could do was move into the trailer, ready or not, and for me to look for work around there. We had about a two and a half week window before the lot rent was due. I would go out each day and look for work and found jobs cutting grass or doing odds and ends for senior citizens. At the same time, we were waiting on my last pay check from the job I had left in Illinois as well as a large disbursement from a benefit package I had with them. "This poor man called..." and call we did, daily, upon the Lord. If the check did not come in a day or more, we figured we would have to vacate and move back to Madison. "...and the LORD heard him" and at seemingly the 11th hour (or, at least as I remember it) the check was in the mailbox just in time to pay our rent as well as put some food on the table. It certainly wasn't the ultimate fix. It was just God's provision for that month. As we would learn in time, there would be more "troubles" to come but more answers, too. And somehow or other, we didn't starve and for the next two years we made a serious go at our attempt to begin a Christian fellowship in that area.

It occurs to me as I think on David in that cave working out this irregular accrostic that we know as Psalm 34 that he wasn't an old man sitting in a rocking chair looking out on the hills recalling the good old days of his youth. He was a fugitive living in the shadows, hiding out and waiting for God to do something about mad King Saul. And while he waited for regime change there would be more difficult days ahead for him and his men, more tight places to wiggle out from. But for all that, who knows but years later when he was finally ensconced as king in Jerusalem, his every enemy defeated, perhaps he looked back on days like the day he played the fool in Gath, his life in the balance and smiled as he recalled how narrowly he beat fate, not for the first time, and how fully alive he must have felt knowing that his life was in the Lord's hands and how he had heard David's cry for help and rescued him (v. 17).

From time to time, Linda and I remind each other of those halcyon days when we were first married and moved to Illinois with first month's rent for an apartment in hand but no job awaiting for either of us. We were young enough and naive enough to believe that work would come one way or another. And it did eventually. Or we think on that move to Whitewater hoping and crossing our fingers that the proverbial check in the mail would arrive soon. It was something of a nail-biter but came it did. Neither place was ever as bad as holing up in a cave or living hand to mouth but both memories serve as a reminder to me that "a righteous man may have many troubles, but the LORD delivers him from them all..." (v. 19).

Friday, November 19, 2010

His Name is Earl

This is Earl wearing a funny hat
This past Monday morning I had a pleasant surprise. I got a visit from Earl, a man I haven't seen in many a year. The light was off in the entryway so when I heard the front door open and someone coming up the stairs I rolled my chair over to the door of my office to get a look-see. By his silhouette, I didn't recognize him for Earl has lost perhaps 70 pounds since I last saw him. But the moment he stepped into the light of my office, I knew him immediately. "Do you know who I am?..." he playfully asked as we eagerly embraced.

When we came to Chetek in 1991, Earl was the pastor of Chetek United Methodist. With his long, bold, white hair tied in a pony tail and usually sporting an EMT jacket he made an instant impression on me (as in, "Who is this guy?") He was in town this Monday to conduct a funeral. We moved into the sanctuary so we could more comfortably visit. Sitting across from me he sized me up and said, "Well, I see you've lost the suit." Dressed in a long sleeve tee and jeans, his comment brought a smile to my face and a vivid memory to mind.

The only pastors I ever had as mentors in my Bible school years were good men who believed in dressing your best for your job. They all wore shirt and tie, dress pants and polished shoes for their daily attire (even at the Saturday morning prayer breakfast!) This must have been before "Casual Fridays" were invented. In any case, when I landed here I just assumed that this was the proper uniform for a minister to don. Not that I cared to dress this way but I certainly didn't want to create any waves unnecessarily by dressing down right off the bat of my time here. Until one morning in mid-November of that first fall in Chetek when Earl and I happened to pull up at the post office at the same time. He was wearing jeans and his EMT jacket and I was wearing a trench coat over what had quickly become my standard suit and tie. "Who do you think you are?" is what he said to me. I was a little taken back since all I had said to him was, "Good morning." "I see you dressed up like that a lot," he answered me, "as if you have somewhere to go and I was just wondering if you like dressing that way?" "Frankly," I told him, "no. As a matter of fact, I don't. But I just thought that this was what was expected of me." "Lose the suit. Wear blue jeans if you like 'em. Be yourself," he told me with a smile. "Don't try and be someone that you're not." I've gone casual ever since and I've always been grateful to him for that good advice.

He left Chetek after an 11-year run and took a church in Milwaukee that was right off Wisconsin Avenue and near the hotel my uncle used to own. I recall one summer day when we were down that popping in for a visit after he had relocated. He retired in 2004 and after two years, he told me, he was "bored stiff" so he went back to work. He got a job on a cleaning crew at a Ronald McDonald House with an injunction from his boss that he was not allowed to pray with anyone due to his long resume as a pastor. If his boss didn't want him to pray with anyone it would have been better for him not to say anything at all to Earl on the matter rather than giving him a cause to champion. Fortunately, she did say something because one day while he was cleaning he noticed a poor mother weeping uncontrollably. Her baby had just died. He sat down beside her and patter her hand until she settled a bit. She then asked him if he would pray for her (not knowing that he was a "former pastor") and, as he tells me the story, "I told her I would but not here." He escorted her down to the non-sectarian chapel and prayed for here there. It riled his boss up a bit but now four years later Earl the janitor is their unofficial chaplain.

He missed preaching and said as much to a friend who is a Methodist official and shortly afterward became pulpit supply to a small, dying Methodist fellowship "five miles west of East Troy" (he told me with a grin). There were eight people present on his first Sunday. They average 25 now and that growth has forced the powers that be in Methodism to refrain from closing the doors - at least for the time being. I think that gives Earl a small sense of satisfaction.

Prior to retirement he became very active in the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee, an ecumenical council made up of 13 denominations who advocate for the poor and address other social justice issues. Under his leadership, they have made monies available for poor families seeking loans for home improvements. And during the last few years, he and his wife, Audrey, though senior citizens, have become surrogate parents for a young girl whose mother is an addict. Their relationship with the girl stems back to when her mother was attending their church and pregnant with her. She asked Earl after church one Sunday if he wanted to help save a child. When he asked her which child she simply patted her abdomen and said, "This one." For a long while, the mother was clean but now has been sucked back into that lifestyle. So, Brianna, who is eleven now, has a safe place to be and grow up.

In that half hour or that I caught up with Earl, he shared with me about his Muslim neighbors "in the hood", the two guys with whom he and Audrey co-own their duplex and several other bits of trivia from his life since leaving Chetek. If ever I needed proof that "the gifts and callings of God are without repentance" here it is. They can push the old horse out to pasture but they can't put him down.

Earl's a lot thinner now
I marvel at the guy. He is a strange amalgamation of theologies, on the one hand able to tell you his faith-story of hearing the audible voice of God and his conversion at a Billy Graham crusade and on the other to affirm that Muslims and Hindus, though on different paths, will certainly find their way to heaven; practicing presence-based ministry like few others I know while attending a church whose pastor is gay ("I thought I was liberal" he chuckled, "but she's such a good preacher") But for all that, this man, title or not, is a pastor and his visit on Monday morning warmed my heart. Not only was it good to see him but it was good to be reminded that certain gifts that come from God are not determined or restricted by the vote of a certain group of individuals. I'd like to think that the good people of Refuge will embrace me as their pastor forever. But it may not be so. I may get old and slow down and they may then want some younger guy to fill the chair I now fill. To be fair, it may be the only way to get rid of me! But if it ever comes to that Earl's example reminds me that in these things God has the final word on the gifts he shares with us. After all, "Once a king or queen in Narnia, always a king or queen in Narnia." Refuge may come to a point where they feel they do not need my gift any longer but there will be others who will and may yet benefit from it albeit, perhaps, as one of those Wal-Mart greeter guys who welcome you as you enter their store.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Taste and see

"I sought the LORD, and he answered me;
 he delivered me from all my fears."

"Those who look to him are radiant;
 their faces are never covered with shame."

"This poor man called, and the LORD heard him;
 he saved him out of all his troubles."

"The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him,
 and he delivers them."

"Taste and see that the LORD is good; 
 blessed is the one who takes refuge in him." 
    Psalm 34:4-8, NIV

Before the gathering
This past Sunday, our fellowship celebrated Thanksgiving. While we used to hold our annual service of giving thanks on the night before the day itself, we've come to do it on the first Sunday of November because, well, in this family deer hunting trumps turkey dinner every time. But regardless of when we do it, I love this gathering that I prefer to call the Service of Thanks Bringing. The chairs in the sanctuary, instead of standing on the parade ground in perfect formation, are arranged in two concentric circles with a table set with communion elements standing in the center. When everyone arrives it'll be like Pangea splitting up and great continents of customary turf dividing or disappearing altogether. Now we have to look at each other for a change while we worship instead of at the backs of our heads. On the outside walls of the sanctuary, the tables for dinner are preset hinting of the feast to come. While we will have a song to settle us in, all the worship on this day will be brought by those who will testify of God's faithfulness. It's unknown and unscripted who will share or what they will say. Psalm 107:1-2 are our basic guidelines: "O give thanks unto the LORD, for he is good; for his mercy endureth for ever. Let the redeemed of the LORD say so..." (KJV).

Father's house is packed
The house is packed. At least a third of our guests are related to Jon & Melissa who are celebrating the adoption of Erin and Cameron, Jon's step-children. But there are other visitors present. There are two guys who work the night shift at Wal-Mart and one of them has brought his toddler son. Both have been invited by a couple of their coworkers who are a part of Refuge. Two other guys are in attendance, one of which until recently was cooling his heels at the Barron County Justice Center where I serve as a volunteer chaplain. His friend has a tattoo on his neck which in order to read you would have to walk nearly all around him to do so. Another couple who used to live in our area but left when their construction business fell into legal trouble have moved back for a season and are in attendance this morning. A handful of YWAM-ers from the local campus join us as well, 20-somethings in search of a deeper walk with God among them which is a single mom accompanied by her three-year-old daughter. All have come into God's house either by happenstance or design on this day.

Jesse gathers the stones
After I state our few simple guidelines, thanks are invited to be brought and immediately Lenny stands to his feet to share. Lenny is my dad's age (75) and still gives ski lessons at nearby Christie Mountain. This past spring I had the joy to preside at the re-marriage of he and Paulette, formerly divorced from each other but now brought back together because of Jesus. And with that, the floodgate is opened and for the next 45 minutes thanks are brought and shared amid tears and laughter. Young and old, single and married, teens and senior-types, affluent and broke, a young single mom and a grandma of many, all give thanks to the Lord "because he's so good. His love never runs out" (Psalm 107:1, Msg). If there is a common thread it is the fact that though our lives are messy, God is good and he loves us. Jesse is a guy who came to us by way of his wife, Sheryl. To say that it's not been a good year for them is to keep mum on a lot of details. But he's had a change of heart in the last few months and he recently got a tattoo as a "memorial stone" of sorts. If a guy as shy as he has the wherewithal to stand up in he midst of so many strangers to thank God isn't proof of the change going on him, passing on the upcoming deer-rifle season in favor of more family time probably is. Again and again, I hear the same story: I screw up but he saves me. Another guy who is present has something less than a stellar, spiritual resume: he's been on and off the wagon for years and spent this past summer at the Justice Center for a DUI violation. He's present at my invitation. His theology is pretty screwy - part JW, part Christian, part AA - but he said something worth hearing when after giving his thanks said, "I've decided to let him love me." If ever there was an example of one's insight exceeding one's maturity, here it was.

The Family Lee (Hannah & Liz are sitting behind their dad)
After the sharing, we turn to blessing Jon and Melissa's family. The Lees came to us one Sunday morning in March 2004. All eight of them walked in and took occupancy in the second row where they have pretty much parked themselves ever since. Jon had been raised in a Christian home and had drifted a long way since then; Melissa had never been a part of a church before. Their brood of six were a his-hers-and-ours assortment and since that time we have seen salvation visit their home. Melissa's two children from her second husband (Jon is her third) have rarely seen their dad in the span of their young lives and from the Montana prison where he is presently incarcerated he recently relinquished his parental rights. Their birth certificates will now state that Jon is the biological father. Talk about spiritual analogy! So, Troy, our elder, and Jon's parents, who are godly people both, and a few others and myself gather around the Lees and begin to pray God's blessing upon them. Something of significant spiritual import is happening the extent of which none of us can appreciate.

Erin & Cameron's adoption cake
 We then turn to the elements and I give some simple instructions and read from Titus 3:
The meal of blessing
    It wasn't so long ago that we ourselves were stupid and stubborn,  dupes of sin, ordered every which way by our glands, going around with a chip on our shoulder, hated and hating back. But when God, our kind and loving Savior God, stepped in, he saved us from all that. It was all his doing; we had nothing to do with it. He gave us a good bath,and we came out of it new people, washed inside and out by the Holy Spirit. Our Savior Jesus poured out new life so generously. God's gift restored our relationship with him and given us back our lives. And there's more life to come - an eternity of life! You can count on this. (Msg)

"O taste and see...!"
Families and individuals are then encouraged to come to the table, pour themselves some of the juice and take a piece from one of the loaves and eat as a family or with friends. It is the meal of blessing before the meal. After it is complete, I give simple instructions to clear the sanctuary so that the crew designated to arrange the tables and food have room to operate. It's such a beautiful day no one minds stepping outside for a bit. Within 20 minutes we are all called back inside and once more I thank God for the blessing of each other and for good food. And then the feasting begins and continues for a good long while. As it is at all the dinners that Jesus hosts, there is plenty and to spare. The scene the ensues in the sanctuary is almost like something out of a Breugel painting - good food, laughter and sharing with all the marks of a love feast.

Subject material Breugel would get
Having been a part of the evangelical tradition for nearly thirty years now, I understand that in the lexicon of an "evangelistic meeting" you will find it includes a message about Jesus saving us from our sin and a call to respond to his invitation of forgiveness. That response usually entails a raising of a hand or coming forward to the front of the sanctuary to be prayed for. But in my mind, Sunday's gathering was one of the most evangelistic I had ever been a part of. It included a welcome from Jesus, plenty of testimony of how good he is and an object lesson of what happens when the Father adopts us into his family. If ever a seeker needed evidence that there was something more to this Jesus-thing other than talk, they saw and heard and tasted and smelled and felt the evidence that it is so. Maybe it was lost on a lot of those present but it wasn't lost on me.
Sort of like Refuge (Peasant Wedding by Pieter Breugel)

Sunday, November 7, 2010

I want to see, too.

"What do you want me to do for you?" Jesus in Jericho (as found in Matthew 20:32)

It's just a brief vignette in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. In between more teaching on the "upside-down"-ness of the kingdom of God and the Triumphal Entry is this brief little episode of healing, yet another in the storied life of the rabbi from Galilee. It is a story of desperateness and what despair can cause you to do. Two men from Jericho - one who may have been the Bartimaeus in Mark's gospel - both of whom are blind, hear that Jesus is passing by and though the moment be inopportune, these guys seize the day. The healer of great renown is pasing by and this is their moment. So with a 'now or never' kind of swagger, they raise a cry: "Master, have mercy on us! Mercy, Son of David!" (Matthew 20:30, Msg)

They must have been loud - loud enough to disrupt an otherwise uneventful walk out of Jericho as Jesus and his following began the trek to Jerusalem. Why else would they have been shushed by the rest of the lookers-on? But these guys won't be denied and cry out all the louder. In a day where there were no social safety nets like SSI or HUD or food stamps, after years of living in degradation and shame, what, after all, did they have to lose? Like it or not, they were going to make their need known and if the Son of David refused to stop and pay them a small kindness, then it wouldn't be because he had not heard their plea for help. Imagine their joy when Jesus stops what he's doing and calls to them, "What do you want me to do for you?"

There have been several times over the past few years I've tried to put myself in their place and imagine how I would answer if the Lord of all the earth would ask me the very same thing. Would I revert to my native Lutheranism and go religious - you know, "Oh, Lord, I know you're busy and my needs really aren't worth quibbling over..." Or would I pontificate questions that come to me easily while I sit in my comfortable chair typing these words that you read now. Things like, "I want to be free from my debt I'm under" or "I want whatever it is I need to become a successful writer" or "I want the discipline I seem to lack so that I eat better"? I wonder how he would respond to these rather bland requests. Would he smile and pat me on the shoulder and simply say, 'God bless you"? Or what?

Their needs were far more visceral and immediate: "Lord, we want our sight. A blind person is a nothing and worse than a nothing to his family - he's a burden and life is nothing but trouble. You can't work or contribute meaningfully to society. We want to see and have a chance at life." There was no apologizing for asking a decidedly self-centered request. They ask as children would ask (with tears in their eyes, no doubt): "WE WNAT TO SEE!" "Deeply moved, Jesus touched their eyes. They had their sight back that very instant and joined the procession" (Msg).

On Monday morning, I began thinking of the Service of Healing and Wholeness which will be held tonight in our sanctuary. We have held a monthly gathering dedicated to healing for over five years now. They have usually been gatherings attended by only a few if you don't include the ministry team most of whom are present because they want to be and also because they know it is expected of them. And God has been present, people have been blesed and every once in a while, something a little out of the ordinary occurs. But for the most part they are fairly non-events as healings services in a Pentecostal tradition go. Last month, no one came (other than the ministry team). I place a small notice in our local paper. I announce it from the pulpit. So what does it mean when you host a Service of Healing and no one comes? Certaily, we are not in the Millenial yet. There are still sick among us - at Refuge and in our community - but for whatever reason sick people do not come to these gatherings as a rule. Maybe they prefer going to a doctor instead. Maybe there's just that much unbelief in our hearts. And when a few of my ministry team members hint that maybe we need to give "this thing" a rest, while I understand where they're coming from my discouragement increases nonetheless.

Over the last five years I have read perhaps two dozen books on healing from those who minister healing in many different traditions of the Church - Catholic (Francis MacNutt), Anglican (Roy Lawrence), "Third-Wavers" (John Wimber, Charles Kraft), Episcopal (Dennis Bennett), Presbyterian (Anges Sanford), and others - and every time I read my heart is stirred and my faith elevated. I've attended conferences on healing and gone through training for the same. And every time my heart says to all of it - "YES, YES, YES!" Which leads me back to these two guys sitting aside the road in Jericho. I feel in my spirit somewhat like them. I'm a begger wanting to see - to see the works of the kingdom manifested in my community. I know exactly how I would answer if the Lord were to ask me the same question this morning he asked them: "I WANT TO SEE! I DON'T WANT TO TALK ABOUT HEALING ANYMORE OR CITE EXAMPLES OF HOW THE POWER OF GOD FLOWED THROUGH OTHERS TO BRING HEALING. I WANT TO SEE THE POWER OF GOD MANIFESTED IN OUR MIDST. IT DOESN'T HAVE TO BE ME - USE SOMEBODY ELSE. STILL, I'D LIKE TO DO THE STUFF. FOR PETE'S SAKE, I WANT TO SEE YOUR KINGDOM COME!!!"

I don't think I can quit "this thing." To quit praying for the sick is to succumb to the notion that the medical establishment has all the answers and the church should just stick to giving out messages of the peace and reward in the kingdom to come. So, I'm sitting beside the road this morning with my bowl out hoping that the Man from Nazareth will walk by me tonight and hear my plea and touch my eyes that I, too, may see the power of his Kingdom in action. If he comes, I'm not going to be shushed by anyone who tells me not to make a big deal about it. I'm going to raise a cheer and follow the procession wherever it goes.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Precious in his sight: A meditation on Matthew 19:15

"One day children were brought to Jesus in the hope that he would lay hands on them and pray over them. The disciples shooed them off. But Jesus intervened: 'Let the children alone, don't prevent them from coming to me. God's kingdom is made up of people like these.' After laying his hands on them, he left." Matthew 19:13-15, The Message

It's another day in the life of Jesus, the wandering healer/teacher. He's just finished yet another round of discourse with a group of religious types who continually are looking for ways to discredit him. This time the subject happens to be about marriage and by the end of their conversation he has managed to confound both his enemies and his friends. A group of locals have been patiently waiting for him to finish their interchange that he might pronounce a blessing on their children. The disciples, acting more like his handlers than his students, are more intent on shooing them away. 'Give the guy a break for crying out loud,' I imagine one of them saying to these groupies of sorts. But Jesus will have none of it and tersely rebukes his disciples and announces, "Bring them to me, everyone of them. They are a blessing and they represent just the kind of citizens that the kingdom of heaven is made up of."

So here's Jesus, sitting in the midst of a gaggle of parents who have been bringing them their children to bless. We don't know how many and we don't know how long it takes but I love the little detail Matthew gives: "When he placed his hands on them [that is to say, all of them] he went on from there." No one gets missed. Every child is welcomed and lovingly touched. We're not told if there were any in that group that were afflicted with birth defects or suffered from abject poverty (although both are possible). We're just told that he warmly gathers each one to himself and blesses the Father for creating each life.

I've been reading at Roselawn, our city's elementary school, since our oldest was in kindergarten (and she's 22 now!) I show up on a scheduled day and read the stories that kids love to hear - about talking pigs and frogs and teddy bears who are really mean and pirates who refuse to change diapers (oh, now that's a good one!) I don't read many Bible stories. It' not that I'm not allowed; it's just that I haven't found many good Bible stories in children's books that are neither too preachy or illustrated well. All I do is read to them and make them laugh and want to hear more. This year, more so than ever before, when I enter a room kids flock to me to hug me. And not just little girls (that's a pretty normal occurrence) but lots of little boys, too. They want to show their love and delight with my company and are in need of the same. I return each hug - first, because I love hugs; second, because each of these children are precious.

I celebrate their significance and this is my reward: they hug me. But this is what I really think: I think that when I read to them somehow, some way, they hear their Maker's voice in mine; that just like animals can sense things lost to our human perspective, children often have a means of discernment that evades we grown-up ones. And I also think (or I certainly hope) that the Spirit of God in me stirs something within them and this is why as they hear my voice they are drawn to me. But not me, Christ in me and as I return their hugs Jesus in me blesses each one. So, I love reading at Roselawn. Sure, I like to entertain people and I think I'm a pretty good story teller, too. But I love this certain intangible transaction that occurs every time I enter a room via the Spirit of Jesus who dwells in me.

A few days ago at our local Justice Center, I shared a similar thought with about 20 inmates ranging between 18 and 50 years old. I took them into that moment of Jesus touching, blessing, celebrating each child that was placed on his lap or thrust in his arms. For a brief moment I saw these assorted individuals in their jail issue orange jumpsuits as little children with their whole lives ahead of them and not as the scarred, broken, chewed-up people they have become because of sin, pain and self-hatred in all its manifestations. I told them that in a group this size, it was possible that there was someone here that instead of being celebrated at birth they had been rejected or seen as a burden and a hardship to this very day they bear the emotional scars from such abandonment. And then I said this, "But if that had been you as a child thrust into Jesus' arms he would have received you gladly and blessed you and thanked the Father for you." In that moment, a 50-ish year old woman in the audience began to weep. And so before I closed the service on inspiration I lifted my hands over that group of sex offenders, alcoholics and drug addicts and blessed them and thanked God for each one. Hugging is discouraged at the jail - for good reason - but perhaps in that moment of blessing I'd like to think the Father reached out to hug each one.

Jesus loves the little children
All the children of the world
Red and yellow, black and white
They are precious in his sight
Jesus loves the little children of the world.
  - "Jesus loves the Little Children" by C. Herbert Woolston, 1856-1927

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Finishing his course

'...for them that honor me I will honor..." (1 Samuel 2:30, KJV)

Our son, Ed, who is a senior in high school, has been a runner for a good part of his young life. I think it was during his first season of middle school Cross Country that his coach and teammates gave him the nickname, Fast Eddie, and for good reason. While he never won any of the races we ran in as a team, he consistently finished near the front end of the pack. These last two years, he's been our Number 1 guy and our Team Captain. Running is more than a sport for him. It's a passion and a means of expressing his heart. Eric Liddell, the famed "Flying Scot" of Chariots of Fire fame, is one of his heroes and Ed (in the best Scottish brogue he can muster), frequently quotes his favorite line from that movie: "I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure."

His runnin' bud, Andrew
One of his goals for this season was to finish in the Top Ten at our conference meet. He missed it by one spot last season (and on Hayward's "monster" course, too!) and this year his hopes were solidly pinned on gaining that platform on Ladysmith's far more flatter and runner-friendly course. The day of the Heart of the North Conference meet dawned bright and clear. Midway through ou family's devotions that morning before school began, the phone rang. It was Andrew, Ed's friend from Ladysmith and their Number 1 guy. He called to wish Ed well in the race that afternoon and to have him pray for him. And so Ed did as much and wished him best of luck. The day was off to a propitious start.

Praying with his teammates
For October 12, the day actually turned out to be on the warmish side of things when the temperature was at or near 65 degrees by race time. As he has every race this season, prior to the girls' race he gathered them into a circle and prayed over them and then he and his teammates cheered them on as he ran. When it was the guys' turn to race, he gathered them up into a circle and prayed over them. He then ran over to Andrew and hugged him quick and wished him well before resuming his own pre-race preparations. Soon all the guys were off to the races.

Leader of his pack
He ran well and at the mile marker he was running solidly in the fifth or sixth position. But Cross Country is all about stamina and speed over 5 kilometers not just 1600 meters in and by the home stretch he was in 10th place and a Northwestern kid was closing fast. That kid caught him with about 40 yards to go and for the second time in two years, Ed crossed the line in 11th place at our conference meet. Given the fact that the race was still going on, I had to turn my attention to the rest of my runners. He joined me soon enough, dejected and fighting back tears but to his credit, cheering every one of the guys into the chute.

After the guys had all crossed the line, our team began packing up their things due to the fact that no one would be standing to collect any hardware that afternoon. I was reluctant to join them wanting to see the official results before heading to the bus myself. So there Ed and I stood before the results board waiting for the chip-timing guy to post the official times, Ed looking as if he had just lost his best friend. The team results were posted first listing not just the scores but the ranking of each one of the runners from every team. So imagine our perplexity when we noticed that the print-out stated that our first runner (Ed) was listed as finishing 10th. I had counted him as 11. Linda, who had stood nearer the finish line, had counted 11 and the rest of the members of our team not running in the race had counted 11. So how could the computer have calculated incorrectly?  While we were waiting for the individual results to be posted, one of the coaches from Northwestern revealed the mystery to us: one of their runners, who normally ran Varsity, had been entered in the JV race that afternoon. While these races were run at the same time, the computer considered them two individual events and while their runner had, indeed, finished sixth, he did not count in the final tabulation. Ed had made Top Ten after all and his face went from dejection to joy in a heartbeat.

Top Ten Heart of the North 2010
But now there was another matter to deal with. His teammates (and his mother) were now all on the bus waiting for he and I to join them and the bus was parked about 100 yards away. The awards ceremony was about to begin and none of them were present to cheer for him. I managed to flag one of our guys and shout enough for him to turn and get Linda. She got to the awards ceremony ring just as his name was announced. Neither of us were prepared for what happened next. For at the mention of his name, members from several of the other teams and many of their parents joined our cheers in loud acclamation. Here his own team wasn't  present but his network of friendships on some of the other teams took up the slack. And when we finally got back to the bus, his teammates stood to their feet, began clapping and shouting his name: "ED! ED! ED!" Were we not on a moving bus, they might have tried to pick him up and carry him from the field. I am more proud of those two moments than any hardware he might have brought home that night or any other night for it speaks loudly of the character of the man he is becoming.

Moments before the start of the Sectional race
I wish I could write the rest of the story of his season like this: "Two weeks later, in the WIAA Sectionals race, Ed ran the race of his life and qualified for the State meet at Wisconsin Rapids." But it didn't play out that way. He ran well at the Sectional meet but did not qualify. Truthfully, time-wise he wasn't even close. His four year dream of competing at State will have to remain that way - a dream. Just like the morning of the conference meet, Andrew called him up on Friday morning to wish him well and have Ed pray over him. Just like he has done at every race this season, he gathered the team up to pray over them before they ran and wished his friends on opposing teams well. If I were writing his story, I would write it the way I dreamt about it, too: Ed running to Sectional glory and being able to testify from that platform of God's strength and power in helping him to do just that. But I am not the Author of Ed's story - and that's a good thing, too. The Father works in our disappointments as much as He works in our accomplishments and will certainly use yesterday's "defeat" as grist in Ed's life.

After the conference meet, when we had a quiet moment, I told Ed this: "You didn't luck out, Ed. You didn't get any charity here today. You earned it and you were due. God says, 'He who honors me I will honor' and God wants you to know how proud of you he is for being faithful to him and being a good captain of this team.' During our last practice the night before Sectionals, I had our team sit in a circle and go around and affirm each other. When it was Ed's turn, Rachel - our other team Captain - said, "Ed, you're a champion. You are definitely the leader of this pack." And Joey added: "When I think of Chetek Cross Country, I think of you. You are the face of this team." Okay, I admit it. Today, I'm feeling a little sorry for my son because, yeah, I think he deserves to run in the Big Race at Wisconsin Rapids. I'm sure so many dads of so many runners who won't be there next week as well are feeling the same today. But in the bigger picture how proud Linda and I are of Ed because of his care for his teammates and the guys on the other teams and the faithfulness to Jesus both on and off the trail, whether it was a good run or not. No parent could ask of their child more and there can be no award greater than the "well done" of heaven.

The champion