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, March 22, 2010

"What does this mean?"

When it comes to evaluating spiritual experiences that are noted within the covers of the Bible, it's easy to forget that we read about them from the comfortable vantage point of history and canonical endorsement. In other words, they may appear strange (e.g., Ezekiel laying on his side before his model of Jerusalem)or downright odd (tell me Hosea marrying a girl from the red light district isn't odd), but Wise People Who Know Things tell us that these actions were acts of God and therefore not just strange but true. But we've read about them enough by now that they're not as strange as they once seemed to our ears. Mostly because we were not there...and we know, after all, the rest of the story.

So when "signs and wonders" happen in real-time, in our own sanctuary or city, then we are in the same soup as Ezekiel or the Apostles on the Day of Pentecost. Some are wowed. Some mock. But most don't have the foggiest idea of what is going on. Recently, I was reminded of this very thing at a regular gathering of the youth fellowship that meets on Wednesday night in our sanctuary.

It was another night at The Focus. The kids had gone around the circle and shared some of the high-lites of their week. Joe - our youth leader - facilitated a lengthy discussion that began as a response to a message they had listened to the week before on "dating." As these things go, over the course of 40 minutes we touched on issues of purity, dress, and all things relating to how our actions influence members of the opposite sex. It was fun and real and yet serious, too.

Following the discussion, as Focus is wont to do these things, they turned the lights down low and worship began. Kayla, a very prophetic young woman in her own right, was burdened to pray for a pressing need in Morocco where many of us have friends there. She and her brother, Noah, knelt down by a chair and began to pray in earnest. It was something about Kayla's demeanor, however, that caused me to think that perhaps I ought to go and pray over her. Soon several of the kids joined me and we either stood or knelt by these two as they interceded for Morocco. And then things began to morph before me. Kayla was becoming more agitated...not just in her words but her body language as well. Her breathing increased rapidly as did the volume of her voice. I continued to watch and pray in my prayer language while at the same time asking the Father what was going on. As emotional as she was becoming, it didn't feel emotional (if that makes any sense). And then she screamed for the first time. It wasn't a "come-out-in-the-name-of-Jesus"-type scream as you might hear from someone being exorcised. At that first scream, I knew then what was going on for I have heard that scream before on at least four occasions. Kayla was in labor. She was "pregnant" but not with any human child. She was in the process of giving birth to something in the Spirit.

For the next half hour this continued. Kayla was having regular "contractions" that were increasing in intensity as "the child" was entering the birth canal (okay, these are totally human terms that I'm using in trying to describe what I witnessed but hopefully you get the drift.) During the course of her ordeal she had even assumed the position in order to give birth. Nicole, a mom and a woman who helps us on Wednesday nights, and Sarah, one of the other students, were on each side of her assisting her. Having said all this, however, Kayla was not "out of it" because in between "contractions" she would coach us - "Okay, guys pray for Noah! Girls, pray over me!" and the like. Finally, after an extended period, "the baby" was born (complete with afterbirth a few minutes later - really!)

But it didn't end there. Because then the focus moved to Noah. As a few of the guys had continued to pray for him, the Holy Spirit's presence on him seemed to increase. But after the baby was born, he assumed a crouched position and began to stomp the floor with his right foot over and over again. Ed seemed intuitively to know what to do and began exhorting him to stamp harder. Meanwhile, Kayla was off the floor and she and several of the girls who had been praying over her began to dance in a circle around Noah and Ed while the drummer drummed out a war beat on the djimbae. As the girls danced faster, Noah pounded stronger. The whole thing reminded me of dying Elisha's encouragement to King Jehoash to strike the ground with the arrows from his quiver (see 2 Kings 13). This went on for perhaps 10 minutes until the Spirit seemed to lift from us as if the work was completed.

On the Day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples in the Upper Room, what happened in those wild and woolly moments that followed was enough to offend the mind of more than a few who were witnessing this strange display of glossolalia. "They're drunk" is the conclusion of some who were eyewitnesses. Peterson translates verse 12 in this way: "Their heads were spinning; they couldn't make head or tail of any of it. They talked back and forth, confused: 'What's going on here?'" (Msg). It's probably the most honest thing we can ask when such strange things occur: "What does this mean?" (Acts 2:12) After all, what is a "sign and a wonder" but something that makes us wonder?

Which church out there doesn't make a habit of inviting the Lord's Presence at the onset of their worship service? The traditionalists even put in their bulletin: Invocation. But do any of us have a clue of what we're asking? Poet laureate Annie Dillard once wrote:

On the whole, I do not find Christians outside of the
catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does
anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so
blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe
a word of it? The churches are children playing on the
floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of
TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear
ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should
all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life
preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to
our pews. For the sleeping god (sic) may wake someday
and take offense, or the waking god (sic) may draw us
out to where we can never return.
Quoted by Guy Chevreau in Catch the Fire, pg. 2

I don't know what she means by her words but I know how I hear them. It means - in short - be careful of what you wish for ("Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you!" Is 64:1 - talk about strong medicine!) you may get it. And that may mean that a nice, pleasant Sunday morning is overturned by an angry Jesus overturning tables in the meeting place or a virgin daughter at the altar giving birth to a baby conceived by the Holy Spirit. Like most people when these things happen - if they happen at all - we probably will find ourselves "amazed and perplexed" asking one another "What does this mean?" (Acts 2:12, NIV)

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A Taste of Grace

Last night in Chetek was the Ralph Dewey Memorial Concert. It’s the concert held every March featuring the talents of both the vocal and instrumental groups in our school. All the proceeds help send aspiring students to music camps every summer.

My two youngest children, Ed and Emma, are in a variety of musical groups in both departments. God has deposited within them talent that, at least around here, is recognized and appreciated. But last night the hundred or so who gathered in the “small” gym at Chetek HS experienced more than just a musical exposition. We were given a taste of grace. It came on us unawares and so suddenly that it quite literally took our breath away.

Midway through the program, Emma and two of her friends, all freshman, performed “You Raise Me Up” by Josh Groban. The girls began to sing and all of us were listening politely and encouragingly. But then their song took us by force. Such sound was emanating from these young women. A sound of such beauty and strength. Tears were streaming down many a face. The alto in the group especially was moving and I leaned in attempting to discern who was singing this part. And then I realized in an instant it was my daughter, my daughter singing with the sound of an angel. She may be only 14 years old but already I have great admiration for her. She is a very confident, intelligent, talented and beautiful young woman. But listening to her sing last night I was overcome with my sinfulness and God’s goodness toward me that he would grant such a wonderful individual to father and to care for. I know I do not deserve such goodness. How could a voice so pure come from someone fathered by me?

I’m fully serious. I’m not just carrying on as you would expect a father to do. In fact, as I type this short reminiscence I tear up still touched by that wonderful, awesome moment of grace we all experienced in that high school gym. It wasn’t the words (as inspiring as the words to that song are). It was the sound – the sound of heaven blessing us whether we were worthy of the blessing or not (and most of us are not).

And then this morning, another blessing occurred. Suzy Favor Hamilton, winner of multiple awards at the high school, collegiate and professional level and three time Olympian, visited our small town. She and fellow Madison-athlete Casey Fitzrandolf (a 2002 Gold medalist himself) were in town promoting healthy living and fitness. Apparently before she speaks, she likes to work out for awhile and so an invitation to run with her was extended to anyone who cared to. Of course, Ed volunteered to do just this along with perhaps 8 of his classmates. And so on a beautiful Tuesday morning, they gathered by the track and Coach Knicker turned to Ed and said, “Okay, Ed, lead ‘em out.” And, with Suzy at his side and the rest all around her, they took off for the short trail behind the school. For the next 30 minutes or so she schooled them. Her energy was palpable and her humor was infectious. This, too, was a taste of grace.

It’s not every day you get to run with an Olympian and – if only for a brief time – have her as your personal trainer. It’s not every day you get to take the stage and be heaven’s amplifier to announce to all who would hear it that God is good and he means our good. But in a span of 12 short hours I had a taste of grace that humbles completely and fills me anew with a sense of awe all over again at his love extended to someone like me.