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, April 26, 2010

Abiding in the Vine?

The other day, Joe, who serves our fellowship as youth leader of The Focus, and I got into a conversation on the subject of "abiding." He had recently been asked by another, "How was he abiding?" (or words to that affect)and he was perplexed as to how to respond to their question. What, after all, does it mean to "abide"? Is it something we do or is something that is done to us? Is it the application of certain spiritual disciplines or is it acknowledging a sense that we intuitively grasp that, yes, indeed we are?

In John 15, Jesus shares with his first disciples and with we his later ones that the secret of fruitfulness is "abiding."

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself,
except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me.
(v. 4, KJV)

At the very least, this verse suggests organic connection with Him. If I am to bear fruit "that remains," it can only flow out of my relationship with him. If the sap ceases to flow into me, then something positionally has ceased to be (and depending what camp you fall into, that may, in fact, be theologically impossible!)

Our conversation made me reflect upon my life, if I am "abiding" or just faking it. This from my journal entry on Saturday, April 24:

"It seems like I've been tending to everything but God's Presence this week. I've been present at prayer meetings (Mon night, Tues morning & night, Sat morn). I've prayed with several individuals (Mon night, Wed night, Fri morning and afternoon). I've been reading regularly in two books - Worshiping with the Church Fathers & Surprised by the Power of the Spirit. I've met with my deacons, my elder, my fellow pastors, my youth leader (and those who work with him). I've hung out with my wife, my kids & tended to my duties as MS track coach. I've read to my kids & blogged this week. I've been w/everyone but the Lord - or so it seems."

I read this paragraph and I think, "Pastorally speaking, it was a fairly productive week." But I wonder how others might read the same. Do they notice my lack of reference to Bible reading and are shocked by that (I did some personal reading later on Saturday if that is any consolation)? Do they wonder did I "spend" time with the Father? In the end, perhaps this reveals more about their definition of "abiding" than the truth of mine.

I realize that meeting with Him is not about checking boxes or "doing" things (i.e., reading my Bible, spending x-amount of time in prayer, etc.)Fruit on the vine, after all, do not grow of their own accord or by the sole exertion of effort. Rather, they are nourished by the life-giving sap of the Vine.

Joe's friend is concerned for him, to be sure. But what is it that they are ultimately alarmed at? His lack of spiritual performance? His (apparently) un-Mary like tendencies? Is it posture? Is it attitude? Is it activity (or lack thereof)? Frankly, I get their reaction. On a fairly regular basis I freak out at myself when I lapse into "un-abiding." But what I mean by that has more to do with my perception of the quality of what was once referred to as "my Quiet Time."

Perhaps one way to gauge the degree of "abiding" that is going on is to judge what kind of fruit is growing on the "tree." Am I behaving in a more Christ-like manner or less? Is my hunger for him growing or waning? Am I growing in holiness or is my spiritual conduct more motivated by the fact that my job requires it? Do I love people or do I simply fake it so that I will be perceived as a good pastor?

Joe doesn't think he's doing a good job of "abiding." For that matter, I don't think I'm doing a great job at it as well. I'm producing messages, conducting prayer meetings, encouraging leaders, holding meetings but the unsettling truth is I could keep a lot of plates spinning, at least for awhile, and maintain some degree of spiritual vitality. They, in themselves, do not prove or disprove the truth of my "abiding." Perhaps the best people to ask are those who know us well. In my case, ask my wife, ask my kids. They are probably better judges than most of the people at Refuge or myself as to how well Christ's character is being formed in me.

As far as I'm concerned, Joe is too hard on himself (and so may his friend be, too). I see a young man who over time is growing more hungry for the Word, more attentive to his area of spiritual responsibility, more concern for his co-workers who are without Christ. I see spiritual growth and development at a pace that doesn't necessarily satisfy him but it's progress all the same. And as Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote, "The essential thing ‘in heaven and earth’ is. . . that there should be a long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living."

That last quote was for you, Joe. Keep up the good work and may the Lord teach us both to abide and rid us all of performance-minded activity that we may live lives truly pleasing to Him.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Prayer Walking in Barron

It is a warm spring night and no one has shown at our monthly intercessory prayer gathering in Barron. We are never more than a handful but this night we are, apparently, just a finger - me. We gather at a place called The Well in our county seat to pray regularly for our Somali neighbors and for those who are in relationship with them. We've been praying for this slice of Africa that moved to our nearly all-white county a little over ten years ago for some time now. But this night other priorities must be taking precedent in the lives of those who share the same burden as I.

After about ten minutes and no late-comers have pulled up, it's such a pleasant evening I decide to go on a prayer-walk. I head up 14th Street and then turn left on LaSalle heading toward the business district of the city. I have walked no more than 500 feet when I notice Salem Lutheran's sign which reads: "Jesus said, 'Listen to Me.'" And so I pray silently, "Lord, help me to listen to You as I walk."

Though it is about 6:45 p.m. there are few cars on the road. The birds are trilling louder than the hum of the traffic a block over on Highway 8. People - all white - are out walking their dog or working in their yard. There is not a Somali in sight. Barron has the feel of a town that has seen its better days. The homes on LaSalle - especially as you get closer to down town - were glorious, imposing edifices in their day. But now there is a feel of general decay all around as if the city has succumbed to old age. As I get closer to the Post Office, there are more and more empty storefronts. I look in the window at the Barron Bakery and it looks like how I would imagine a bakery in the former Soviet Union would appear - empty shelves, empty racks and no goods in the window to incite a potential customer to come in and take a gander at their wares.

I reach Safari, the "Somali restaurant" as it is known to the locals, and go in. A few old ones are listening to some man speaking in what I assume is Somali on a lap top. I say "Mafiantahi" ("Hello" in Somali) to them and they either do not hear me or do not care to acknowledge me. I order a Chai tea and wander a bit through the few aisles of groceries just to pass the time while I wait. I pay for my tea, thank the man and exit and continue on my walk. With the exception of the four guys I saw in Safari, there are no other Somali about. Just white people - and not many of them, either - enjoying the evening air. A young dad ahead of me pushes a jogging stroller with a couple of kids in it. He is stopped by a Somali man walking with his two young daughters. As I come upon them, he is asking the young man about his children and the stroller that clearly intrigues him.

I pass some Cub Scouts and their leaders who are out on the lawn of the courthouse batting a beach ball around. Later on, I pass a group of kids playing what we refer to as "blob-tag" out on the lawn of First Lutheran. It must be some kind of kids' program as a number of adults are shouting instructions and generally looking on.

I have been walking for about a half hour now and have not really prayed anything of substance other than, "Lord, I don't know how to pray so please teach me to pray for Barron tonight." I walk on. I notice a block or so ahead of me what must be a Somali woman out walking for she is in traditional dress. She turns down another street. I reach First Baptist and I begin to think again about the sign at Salem Lutheran: "Jesus said, 'Listen to me.'" So I begin to imagine what a city would look like if they listened to Jesus.

When Jesus was transfigured, the Father is reported to have spoken "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!" (Matthew 17:5)So I pray that Barron would listen to Jesus. That they would bless those who treated them poorly; that they would pray for those who spitefully use them; that they would forgive their enemies and love their neighbors. I arrive at the Copland's home on Lake St and stop in.

Wade & Jessica have lived in Barron for three years now and came from sunny California due to the call of the Lord to work with the Somali. They head up The Well and are doing a wonderful work at incarnating the Gospel among their Muslim neighbors. In fact, recently Wade had the opportunity to pray with one of them who has professed faith in Jesus Christ (the first one in Barron to do so to our knowledge). They are sitting in their living room having just finished their dinner. We visit about "the work", about the two Mormon guys who have been dropping in for lengthy conversations, and about Jessica's doctor-prescribed bed rest due to a baby who is too eager for its own good to join his or her family. She is due in August - a long time from now - and as you would expect from someone who is doing a lot of sitting, she seems tired. I stay about 30 minutes and then pray with them and then resume my walk.

I'm walking eastward on Highway 8. Traffic is steady. I pass one house whose owner is trying to get his yard cut before it is completely dark. After a few blocks on "8", it's too busy for my liking and I cut over to LaSalle again which by contrast is completely deserted. A kid on his bike is heading either home or on a quick errand. Dark is coming rapidly. The Somali man with the two little girls is heading my way. I quick pray that God will help me as I greet him only to see him duck into a building. I have LaSalle again to myself.

"Barron, listen to Jesus," I pray again. I pray for the Church of Jesus in this community to listen to their Lord. I pray for the Muslim people to listen to Isa. I pray for the LDSers and the pagans as well who reside in this city to "Listen to Him", to heed his voice, to walk in his way. As I walk the final quarter mile or so back to my van, I pray that God would root out all manner of division between the various Christian fellowships in Barron which seems to have two of everything - two Lutheran congregations, two Baptist, two Methodist as well as a group of Mennonites, Four Square, St. Joseph's and the various Christians no doubt living in this city who are disaffected and do not find the present structures of any of the fellowships life-giving to say the least. I pray for them that they will bless their brothers, speak well of each other and love each other as if their lives depended on it so that "the world will know" that the Father has sent Jesus and loves them as much as he loves Him (John 17:23).

I'm back at my van. I drive up 14th Street but this time turn right on LaSalle, past the mosque and onto Highway 8 heading for home. It has been pretty - well, dare I say it? - pedestrian as intercession goes I suppose. But it was a beautiful night for a walk and I trust as simple as my prayers were, God led me and taught me how to pray for Barron on this warm night in April.

Monday, April 12, 2010

So now it's real: I am on Sabbatical leave officially June 1

Yesterday at Refuge we went "public" on the decision that the Leadership Team had agreed upon in principle a year ago and reaffirmed in January: to send their pastor on Sabbatical leave the Summer of 2010. While we have been slowly letting the air out of the bag, as it were, for some time - after all, most of our leaders have spouses, some have kids and most of the pastors I pray and generally hobnob with are all in the know - when you announce it from the pulpit its official. It's no longer an idea or a dream. It's for real.

Seven weeks from now, I am officially off line. I will have no office hours to keep, no services to conduct, no meetings to attend. Pastorally speaking, I will be unavailable. After 18 and a half years of faithful plodding, my field will lay fallow. Am I excited? Frankly, as I type these sentences I'm getting a little weirded out. For almost 30 years I have either dreamed about being in ministry, looking for a post in it or been busy working at it that I can't recall what consumed my time before all this. Obviously, I'm not leaving the ministry. It's more like a pause - and a healthy one at that - before the next chapter. But it's the pause that's got me spooked a bit and for all kinds of reasons.

What will I do with my time? Yes, there's yard work - mine and the others whom I cut for, the trim on the house needs painting and other odds and ends Linda will find me for me to tend to. Sure, I'll spend a lot more time with my wife and kids (but having hinted all these years that they would love my company more, they may find out that too much of a thing may not be good!) And I'll hike. And run. And read. And sit in the sun. But that still leaves a lot of time in my day and week.

With whom will I fellowship with? Some of my most significant conversations over the years involve people from Refuge or the Breakfast Club or The Well as we try to discern the Lord's will on a particular matter. But now I must withdraw from all these relationships for a season. I'm such a people person that the thought of having to go into seclusion of sorts scares me.

How will they do without me? A lot can happen in three months. In a real way, this pause is a referendum on how well I'm doing at the task God has called me to do: to raise and nurture healthy Kingdom leaders to carry on ministry. I believe in the people it is my joy to serve with but in my absence will they sink or swim? Which inevitably leads me to another question...

What if they do so well without me that they won't want me back? What if I'm the "x" factor that is holding them down and now while I'm away they soar? I realize this is what I'm supposed to be preparing them for. But I'm human enough to admit I like the feel of being, er, indispensable.

Who am I? As every man can testify to, we draw our identity from what we do. Around here, I'm "Pastor Jeff." "Everyone" knows me and frankly, I love that. But if I go down State to attend, say, the fellowship we were originally from, I'm just a guy with no position, no job, no task to perform. I'll be a man who takes his family to worship with the other saints in a given locale. I'll sing and pray and listen to the pastor preach, shake a few hands, perhaps, and then go home. I can imagine one week of that. But 13? Oi veh.

I suppose I'm not sounding like a man who is thrilled that he is in fellowship with a group of people who love him and his family so much they are willing to bless him with such a gift so that "when I return I will strengthen my brothers." I am grateful. Extremely so. But I'm also melancholy because for the first time since the fall of 1991, I won't be at Vacation Bible School nor at Sand Hill Lake Bible Camp. I will miss the fellowship of The Breakfast Club. I will miss "my" tribe and the place I have among them.

I think they'll do fine. It's me that I'm worried about. But if I am sincere in believing that the Lord led us to this decision than I must believe that he will be faithful to shepherd them and us through this particular season. Lord, in Your mercy, hear my prayer.

Monday, April 5, 2010

My Soul Sings: A Post-Easter Meditation

Yesterday was Easter. It was a good day but then again, why shouldn't it be? Resurrection Sunday (as we at Refuge refer to the day)brings people to worship gatherings who haven't been "in church" since Christmas. Many people dress up for the day and sport new dresses and shoes or suits. At fellowships everywhere it's like "old home" week as siblings, some-time prodigals and assorted relatives make their way to their old spiritual stomping grounds if only for family's sake if for no other. There is excitement in the air of family feasts and get togethers that will follow the morning religious activities. Worship - or the worship experience - is "better." At some gatherings there are special numbers. Or maybe the choir presents their cantata. Most pastors preach a message pertaining to...well...Easter and Christ's victory over death. Sanctuaries are fuller. (Sometimes offerings are, too). Faith is greater (especially if the sun is shining). And all these things coalesce and make preaching much more anointed.

But for me, the best part of yesterday's worship gathering came in the last five or so minutes. The Word had been preached, worship and prayer had taken us to the table of the Lord, Communion had been shared. And then Kale, our worship leader, led us in one more song ("Jesus is the Lord" by Robert Fuller and James Mark Gulley).

Jesus Christ crucified
You bled and died to save our lives
Giver of boundless love
Faithful One to You we run

Our fellowship loves this song and so very quickly I sensed that subtle but very perceptible shift from singing along to worship. Though the hour was late, spirits who had been quietly steeping in the presence of the Lord for the last two hours began to swell as the song moved through their souls. But then another shift occurred more subtle and yet distinctly perceptible because it seemed to me suddenly we were not just having an anointed worship experience but we're enveloped in a song that grew longer, wider, fuller. The worship team singers began to weave their own harmonies around Kale's melody and though their voices remained at the same timbre, the sound became richer.

Every knee will bow, every tongue will shout
Jesus is the Lord
Jesus is the Lord
Every eye will see the coming of the King
Jesus is the Lord
Jesus is the Lord

It was as if the uber-thin veil that separates us from the heavenlies was pulled back a tab and for the briefest of moments we joined the worship set presently going on there. And in my spirit I "heard" the words of John once again:

After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:
Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.

All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying:
Praise and glory
and wisdom and thanks and honor
and power and strength
be to our God for ever and ever.

(Revelation 7:1-12)

There was nothing "out of the body" going on. But our spirits in touch with God's Spirit were relishing in the moment, reveling in the song of heaven that for shortest of spans filled a room and a people.

I'd like to think I'm a spiritual man. I love the Lord Jesus, his Word and his ways. But I have a difficult time grasping a verse like Revelation 4:8 referring to the four living creatures around the throne who "day and night" never stop saying "Holy, holy, holy" or the uncounted choir of angels who sing for ever before the throne "Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain" (Rev 5:12). Who hasn't thought at one time or another of the incessant worship that goes on in the heavens with a little bit of consternation (i.e., "IS THAT ALL WE'RE GOING TO DO THERE?") But a few minutes on a Sunday morning enveloped in the music of the place where He is reminds me that when we're there it will be more wonderful than words can articulate. In fact, there is no real good vocabulary known to man to best express what our spirits already know.

Son of Man, Great I AM
Healing power is in Your hands
Risen One, it is done
Sin and death are overcome

You’re worthy of worship You’re worthy of praise
You’re worthy of honor You’re worthy of thanks