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.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

"Look, mom. I'm on TV!"

A few weeks ago, I sent an email to Melodee E, the editor of The Chetek Alert, simply to maker her aware that all news releases for the summer months would be coming from Kari, my now temporary Administrative Assistant. In reply, she noted the change but then wanted to know why. So, I brought her up to speed on the whole sabbatical-thing and in short order, it became news.

Still questioning if this venture was really newsworthy outside the relatively small circle of Refuge and the body of Christ in our area, Linda and I sat down with writer/reporter Anita Zimmerman last Friday at the Alert for a half hour interview. I expected her to write up a short article which would be featured on the "church" page of the Alert. So you can imagine the eyebrow moment I experienced yesterday when I realized that we had made the front page. What's more, it was a 2-pager with a nice picture of us to boot. And so we have been doubly-honored. But just so I don't get a swelled head, Matt, one of the Focus-team, retorted: "So you make the front page for doing nothing and getting paid for it." Yeah, I guess I did. As the kids would say, "sweet."

If you care to read the article follow this link:

Thank you, Mel and Anita, for your kindness extended to us. My mom and dad are faithful subscribers to the Alert and I think you made them customers for a long time to come!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Second thoughts

This is why the holy fathers also withdrew into the desert alone, men such as Elijah the Tishbite and John the Baptist. For do not suppose that because the righteous were in the midst of men it was among men they had achieved their righteousness. Rather, having first practiced much quiet, they then received the power of God dwelling in them, and then God sent them into the midst of men, having acquired every virtue, so that they might act as God’s provisioners and cure men of their infirmities
Ammonas, Epistle 12
from Worshiping with the Church Fathers by Christopher A. Hall

In this final week before my sabbatical officially begins, I anticipated that it would be much like the weeks that have preceded this one have been: relatively quiet pastorally-speaking allowing me a lot of space to tie up some loose ends and (mostly) clean my office. But, people’s lives don’t run that way and suddenly there are situations at Refuge that call for a pastor’s presence.

It began Sunday afternoon. It had already been a full day what with morning worship and our daughter’s dance recital and a graduation party immediately following. So in between the party and our high school baccalaureate service, I had laid down to catch a quick nap when the phone rang. Linda took it. There was a long pause and then I heard her say, “I’ll make sure Pastor Jeff knows.” After she hung up, she gently pulled me up from foggy bottom to inform me that Renee’s sister and brother-in-law had been in a car accident that morning; that he had died and his wife had been flown to the Cities for treatment. Renee is not just a deacon at Refuge. She and her husband, Randy, are dear friends. And knowing what struggles her family have been going through these last few years now it seems another one has been added to the mix.

I pulled myself off our bed and since I don’t have a copy of our phone tree at home, I drove over to the office to begin passing the word. I also put in a call to Renee who had been in South Dakota for the weekend and was in route to the hospital. We talked a bit and prayed together. Following the Baccalaureate service, I stopped back in the office to complete getting the word out about Renee’s family when the phone rang and it was John, our local funeral director, informing me that the father of our former neighbor had died that afternoon and his family was wondering if I might preside at his funeral. Because of my long association with this family how I could I say no.

On Monday, I spoke with Renee by phone to see how things were transpiring with her sister and later that day she, her daughter, Cassandra (now married and living out east) and I met at DQ next door for a long visit – a visit, I might add, I thoroughly enjoyed.

On Tuesday, I met one more time with the Breakfast Club, this ad-hoc group of pastors, ministry leaders and their wives who together represent a circle of strength to me personally. These are not just my colleagues in ministry. We are literally co-laborers in the greater work of Christ in our area, brothers-in-arms and comrades. It is no small thing for me to back away from the table from these dear friends.

On Tuesday, Hope (a young woman from our fellowship) called to inform me that her mother had to be hospitalized with a serious infection. We prayed together and asked her to ask her mom if she might want a pastoral visit.

On Tuesday, I learned that my friend Pete, one of the leaders of the Church of Love and Compassion, a First Nations fellowship up on the Lac Coutre Oreilles reservation, has lung cancer. We spoke by phone and prayed together.

On Tuesday, I was in court with an inmate who I had met recently and who had requested my presence at his sentencing. I expected him to be released but not practically on the spot. With no family or other filial connections locally, it fell upon me to arrange housing and transportation (i.e., me) to get him to the half-way house in Polk County. I’m not complaining. The best thing for all parties involved is to help him get back to Arizona where’s he from. It just wasn’t the way I had planned to spend my afternoon.

On Tuesday, Joe (our youth leader) informed me that he and Brianna (another young woman from our fellowship) were now officially courting. It’s not bad news, mind you. But given the fact that I will be out of the loop for a few months I felt I better give my fatherly counsel about what I expected of both of them in my absence.

On Tuesday, I helped facilitate a prayer appointment with a guy that one of our men has been ministering to of late. This, too, is not a burden especially when joy and encouragement are in your wake.

Needless to say, Tuesday was a very full day indeed.

Which brings me to today, Wednesday. My final VBS planning meeting, my final consultation with my secretary. A “last lunch” with Scott, a guy from our fellowship with whom I regularly track with. A visit with the son of the father whose funeral I will conduct on Friday. One more night at Focus. To say nothing of the pastoral work yet to be done in the days ahead – two funerals, a fellowship gathering of a local para-church ministry we’re involved in, a worship gathering at the YWAM campus, Chetek’s high school graduation ceremonies on Saturday night and the worship gathering at the Justice Center this Sunday afternoon.

This probably reads as if I’m going away for good. Of course, I’m not. But so many things have arisen suddenly that tug at my heart and beckon my attendance. A pastor, after all, wants to be present at these crossroad moments in people’s lives. I realize I am not the only voice that they are listening to, that there are others often louder than my own. But a pastor speaks all the same and for reasons that still defy me, it matters. And for that reason I am tempted to look backward and consider if only momentarily my departure at this time.

Which gets to the heart of what this sabbatical seems to be about for me. It’s a wonderful thing to be needed, to feel that you make a contribution to the lives of those around you in some significant way. But if I were to die today, life would go on without me. Refuge would go on. The ministry of Jesus would definitely go on in this community. With a side glance at Bilbo, like him I am “only quite a little fellow in a wide world, after all.” No, more than they need me, they need to rely on Jesus Christ and each other, carrying each other’s burdens and by doing so fulfilling the law of Him whom they love so dearly (Galatians 6:2).

I’ve been reading Christopher A. Hall’s book, Worshiping with the Church Fathers, of late. In retrospect, it’s been good prep work before I go. The latter chapters of the book speak of the Desert Fathers, those monks of the third and fourth century who withdrew from the cities in order to pursue a vital, authentic relationship with God in the silence and inhospitable environs of the desert. But it was not an end in itself. They didn’t just withdraw for the sake of withdrawing. Rather, it was to know Him on whom they had believed and, in his time, return to “strengthen their brothers.” I hope to do just this.

I am retreating into the desert myself, if only a little ways. A good friend of mine shared this with me just recently: “The more I pray for you the more I hear... ‘He just needs to hear me again’ Did you know that the King of Kings is waiting for you? Your bridegroom is waiting to embrace you. Run... run into His arms. Feel His breath upon you. Breathe.”

I don’t know if I should be excited or terrified. But ready or not, I go there all the same. Oh, God. This is as hard as I thought it would be but “the LORD will fulfill his purpose for me; your love, O LORD, endures forever – do not abandon the works of your hands” (Ps. 138:8).

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Real Story of the Boy who Lived

The Boy Who Lived (Chapter 1 of The Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling)

Yesterday was the 20th anniversary of a miracle that our family experienced early one spring morning in 1990. That was the day our son, Charles Harry, was born under circumstances that I cannot forget.

I don’t remember anything out of the ordinary of Linda’s pregnancy but then again I don’t think I’m the one to ask about this. I remember her being pregnant of course, of her regularly taking neo-vitamins (or whatever they’re called) and going to the doctor –a Dr. Kidd, no less - for check-ups along the way. But other than this, I’d say it was a fairly normal pregnancy as those things go. She got steadily bigger and the baby’s due date in mid-May got steadily closer. But the night she went into labor, I will never forget. For dread and grace met head on in a single hour and a life was born.

I was working nights then at Bethesda Lutheran Home in Watertown, Wisconsin and our home was in Whitewater, about 40 minutes away. The hospital in Fort Atkinson was about a 30 minute drive from work for me. Due to the fact that I was gone at night, Linda’s mom had come to stay with us until the baby was born. As I recall, it had been an otherwise quiet night at Bethesda when early Thursday morning the call came that Linda and her mother were on their way to the hospital. After quickly tending to some administrative stuff, I was in my car and heading south on Highway 26. I had no way of knowing the drama that was unfolding in the emergency room at Fort Memorial about 20-some miles away. For shortly after Linda was wired and situated in the delivery room, the baby’s heart-rate had plunged precipitously and had been lost altogether. In the terror-filled moments that followed, a specialist had been paged and brought in and a crash cart of sorts was standing by in case they had to perform an emergency C-section. And then for no known medical reason, the baby’s heart began beating normally again. All of this had transpired in my 25 mile drive to the hospital. By the time I got there, people were breathing again and a modicum of calm had returned to the room. They quickly got me up to speed of the situation but then contractions began in earnest.

And then, like a bass caught in the weeds, the baby got stuck. The umbilical chord was not simply around its neck. Rather, our child had become the center of an awful snarl. A forceps delivery ensued and finally at 7:01 a.m., Charlie emerged from the birth canal exhausted from his ordeal weighing 6lbs, 15 oz and measuring 20 inches long. Like all parents after the birth of their baby, we were a hodge-podge of emotions: grateful, relieved, thankful, excited. Charlie’s head looked like it had been squeezed in a vice but otherwise he checked out okay. As wonderful as the birth of any baby is, other than those brief moments of terror when his heart had stopped beating it had been an otherwise normal delivery.

Until the letter came the following week we did not realize that we had witnessed the strange workings of God. It was from Ella, Linda’s aunt on her mother’s side, and in her congratulatory card she shared the following story – that during the early hours of Thursday, May 18, she was awakened from her sleep with a compelling need to pray for her niece, not knowing that at that very moment she was in dire need. Now Ella was known as a “praying woman” and so strong did she feel the burden she interceded in her prayer language until it seemed the weight had lifted. She happened to glance at the clock before she went back to sleep. It was 4:30 a.m. Unbeknownst to her, this was exactly when Charlie’s heart began to beat again.

Our son, Charlie, has a form of autism officially referred to as Pervasive Developmental Disorder. Early on his life we knew something was amiss with him. A diagnosis was confirmed by the time he was four or five. But the trauma of his birth, the fact that according to the small size of his placenta he may have been in fact a month overdue, has nothing to do with his condition. It is – like so much of his life – a mystery, an enigma that defies explanation except that God’s hand is weaving the story that is Charlie.

You can call it coincidence if you like to or if that makes you feel better. You can call it strange coincidence indeed. But his mother and I believe that at the very moment things seemed to hang in the balance, God laid it upon the heart of a woman who knew him and her intercession saved our son’s life. The Apostle Paul said that “We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will” (Romans 8:26, 27, NIV). Charlie is not likely to ever discover the cure for the common cold nor bring lasting peace to the Middle East. He won’t ever star on a football team or make “the big time.” No, at the moment he’s a janitor who likes to ride horses. He loves Scooby Doo movies and playing Jedi out in the back yard with his only friend, Anthony. His is a simple life full of simple pleasures and I am so grateful to God and to Aunt Ella for the life of my son. “The secret things belong to the LORD our God,” so says Moses (Deut 29:29). So for purposes all his own God preserved Charlie’s life that night and decreed that he would be the boy who LIVED. And we have Aunt Ella to thank in part for that.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Denounced by Jesus

“Next Jesus let fly on the cities where he had worked the hardest but whose people had responded the least, shrugging their shoulders and going their own way.” (Matthew 11: 20, Msg)

In my personal reading of Scripture the other day I was reading along in Matthew when I stumbled over an adverbial phrase: “Then Jesus began to denounce the cities…” (v. 20, NIV.) I’ve read this passage plenty of times before but on that afternoon it stuck up like a lip of a slab of sidewalk which my big toe happened to collide with. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus shushes the “Sons of Thunder” for wanting to call down fire on a Samaritan crowd that was driving them crazy. But in this instance, Jesus seems to want to do the same. This is not the speech of him whom Charles Wesley once wrote, “Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild.”

This whole section is a bit unsettling when you linger over it. Think of the cities that Jesus cites – Tyre, Sidon and Sodom. Think of who comes to mind when you mention these places – the guys who wanted to rape Lot’s guests and Jezebel, to name a few. They are the epitome of centers of evil. And all of them were ultimately subject to the judgment of God. The original Tyre is beneath the waves of the Mediterranean. Sodom may be beneath the Dead Sea. But by comparison, things will be far “more bearable” for the Tyrians, Sidonians and Sodomites on Judgment Day than it will be for the Korazinites, Bethsaidaians and Capernaumonians. That statement in itself ought to cause us to say, “Huh?” After all what can be worse than idolatry, immorality and infanticide? Apparently there are worse sins than these.

Previous to this diatribe, Jesus had sent his disciples out on their first mission. In every knock about town and village they were to preach, heal and deliver. If they met resistance, they weren’t supposed to make a big deal about it but kick the dirt of that town off their sandals and move on to the next. For the town that doesn’t welcome the message he pronounces doom: “I tell you the truth – i.e., I solemnly swear – it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town” (10:15). That is staggering. Given all the rhetoric that emanates from the conservative camp of Christianity (of which I am a member) leveled against the growing acceptance of the practice of homosexuality which seems to be increasing in our land, despite the way that heterosexual individuals are usually creeped out by just the thought of people actually engaged in such behavior, there is a sin which is worse. Namely, the sin of unbelief.

Despite the manifestation of God’s power through Jesus and his followers in these communities, they remain nonplussed and unconvinced of the authenticity of his authority as the Son of Man. Think on Matthew 11:24 for a second: “But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.” It makes me think of something a bus driver in town once said to some kids on his school bus who were teasing a fellow student with a cognitive disability, “He was born that way – what’s your excuse?” Jesus states that had he ministered in Tyre, in Sidon, or in Sodom they would have responded like Nineveh in the days of Jonah: in sackcloth and ashes, in total repentance and anguish over how they had justly incurred the wrath of God. By comparison, the good folks of Korazin, Bethdsaida and Capernaum are either irritated or – worse! – indifferent to his message and ministry. And what a fearful thing it is to be this way.

In our small city of Chetek, I am going to assume there is not a lot of homosexuality going on (per capita). Yes, there is a good deal of cohabitation, teen sex, bullying, stealing, and drunkenness that happens within our city limits. But percentage-wise, I’m going to guess there are far more nice and neighborly pagans who are generally indifferent to the goings on of God’s kingdom. I, for one, have never been told by anyone in this town, “I wish you would leave.” No one has ever burned a cross in my yard or threatened my life. No, there is just general indifference and apathy. This both inside and outside the Church. We believers tip-toe around not wanting to be scary or dangerous or impolite or rude. We are nice people going about our lives, cutting our grass, planting our gardens, minding our own business. If people come to our church, we generally welcome them. If they never come back, we don’t chase after them. “Good riddance,” seems to be our message. Or, “Sucks to be you.”

It’s difficult for to me to conclude if Chetek has reached Capernaum’s status because that requires outright rejection and how can you reject a message that you have never heard? You are left to draw your own conclusions and whatever “outsiders” may think of us, they are clearly not flocking to join our ranks. Last week Christians all across America and ones right close to home gathered at courthouses, churches, and city halls on the National Day of Prayer to seek God on behalf of our country. And obviously there is much to be concerned about: the ongoing tearing of the moral fabric of our society, runaway greed, abortion, self-centeredness, gross national debt. These are enough to make us anxious in their own right. But how many of us are gripped by a sense that rampant unbelief exists within our own house or in our own camp? That’s the stuff that should put the fear of God in us for it is what provoked Jesus to “let fly” on certain communities in the First Century. And I think we would all agree that to be denounced by Jesus is a fearful thing indeed.

Friday, May 7, 2010

In Search of Love

On an otherwise normal day at Knapp Haven I experience his love all over again.

Every nine weeks a fellowship in our town takes a turn leading the weekly afternoon worship services at Knapp Haven Nursing Home and last Sunday was mine. What this involves is 15 minutes of singing old hymns and gospel songs in the Special Care Unit (i.e., the Alzheimer’s wing) and a 30 minute service in the Activities Room which involves much of the same with a brief time of sharing. Over the nearly 19 years of my ministry here in Chetek my motives for going when it has been our turn have run the gambit from joy to obligation to duty to desire again. When we first came, Linda and the kids came with me. It was something we did as a family and fun to do. But as the years have passed it is only me now who every nine weeks tunes up his guitar, grabs his Bible and drives over to “Knapp” (as the locals refer to it) for church. Honestly, this past Sunday due to the fullness of the weekend I would have only been too happy to pass. But duty called and sometimes duty is all you have.

The residents in Unit 1 (i.e., the Special Care unit) were resting in the many recliners that line the walls. A few are up in their wheel chairs. One of the ladies has been blessed this day with a visit from a large gaggle of relatives and they are blathering away in the back of the room. It’s okay with me. Ministering in Unit 1 is sort of what I assume ministry in a coffee house is like: people are coming and going as they like. A few of the residents are assisted to sit in a semi-circle around me and I dutifully begin to play. I choose “Beautiful Savior” and a few lines in I hear a beautiful voice that is singing along with me. It is a woman named Helen with blazing white hair and I am sincerely blessed to have this day a participatory audience. She knows every word. When we come to the end of the song, her face brightens with a smile and she claps with joyous appreciation. And there is something in this small gesture that ignites my dull spirit with life. I sing “Jesus Loves Me” for a follow up and as Helen and I sing, the well-worn words become real to me all over again as if I’m learning them for the first time. When we complete the song, she smiles and claps again as if I were some famed troubadour who has come to grace these poor people with my presence. But it’s the other way round. I have been the one graced with Helen’s voice and smile and applause and I am sincerely humbled by her generosity.

In that moment I am reminded of something Duane had said in the midst of his message at Refuge that morning: “Our name is very special and calling someone by name is a way of honoring each other for God knows our name.” I share that and without a hint of patronizing pastorspeak, I remind them that they are all special to God and he knows them by name. At the close of our brief gathering, as I have done ever since I first began coming to Knapp Haven, I go around the room with Sue (the nurse in charge that afternoon), shake each hand carefully and call them by name.

A few minutes later I’m in the Activity Room which during the course of a given week is the place for daily devotions or Bingo or whatever the need may call. God’s presence, of course, turns the room into a meeting place. With my heart still warmed by what had just occurred on the other end of the building, after introducing myself instead of leading in the singing of a few hymns quite uncharacteristically I begin to preach. Marjorie is sitting in her usual place and it makes me think of her granddaughter, Stephanie. She’s a girl from Focus who presently is in New Zealand attending the Around-the-World in 80 Days Discipleship Training School. Right before Stephanie left, she shared at Refuge that the real reason she was traveling to the far side of the world was that she wanted to know that God loves her.

Now, Stephanie is a remarkably put together young woman. In 2007, she was not only crowned Miss Chetek but Miss Teen Wisconsin. She graduated in the Top 10 of her class in 2008 and carries herself very gracefully. In fact, as I told my audience that afternoon, if I could use one word to describe Stephanie it would be “grace.” She is a very beautiful young woman and yet equally secure (the two do not always go together). She has walked with Jesus for as long as I have known her and has been a model of integrity. But for all this she questions whether God loves her.

It made me think of a story from my daughter’s life. When Christine was a senior in high school, in the spring of the year Linda and she went prom dressing shopping with but $100 in their budget which, as anyone knows about these things, is akin to trying to buy champagne on a beer budget. In the parking lot of Oakwood Mall, however, my wife turned to our daughter and said, “Let’s pray first.” So they did and then in fear and trepidation made their way into the mall. Finding it was as easy as walking into the store which is what they did and there, as if waiting for Christine, was a beautiful black dress that, as it turned out, fit her perfectly. But that wasn’t the best of it for as they were going through the check-out line, the cashier scanned the tag attached to the dress and offhandedly said, “Oh, this one is on sale. It’s $85.” To her surprise, a mother and daughter were suddenly laughing and crying together having just tasted afresh and seeing again that the Lord is good.

I’ve told that story before. In fact, it’s one I’ve already blogged about (Extravagant Love 1, 4-14-08) and every time I retell it for me it is proof of God’s love for each of us. For not only does he love my daughter but he cares that she look her best for her senior prom even leaving enough left over so that she could accessorize. He’s that kind of God. Which reminded me of another chapter from Christine’s life which I then shared with all of them.

The summer after she graduated from high school, Christine spent four and half weeks in South Korea teaching conversational English. For a young woman who has struggled with a learning disability her whole life this was a remarkable undertaking. For two weeks she lived in the home of a Korean couple in a city the size of Rice Lake (about 8,000). Though she knew not a lick of Korean and only the husband spoke rudimentary English, they got along capitally. And, as she tells me, when the time came to move to another town she was sad to go and fearful as to what the next few weeks would bring. This time she would be living in the small village of Inje, a mountain hamlet of 17 buildings. When she arrived, full of fear and angst, what was her surprise when she heard, “Well, hello Christine. How are your parents?” It was Pastor Myoungdae Pyo, the Methodist minister with whose family Christine would be living. Pastor ‘Dae’ as he is known had been to Chetek five years before leading a small contingent of Korean middle school students who had lived in our city a month. We had him over for dinner during his stay in our city and during our meal together he had said to Christine, “You must come and stay at my home one day.” And now five years later she was standing outside the very place thousands of miles from Chetek but nearer to home than she could have possibly imagined. In my opinion, that moment was worth the trip – to find out for herself that while she may not always know where she is but He knows the way she takes and she is always in His care.

Stephanie’s whole trip to New Zealand and elsewhere has cost her $15,000. That’s a lot of money to find out if God loves you. Some might opine that it would have been better to spend these funds furthering her education and that this whole episode in her life is a waste of time and money. But what glorious waste. There is some knowledge in life that is essentially meaningless simply as concept or theory. To know that one is loved by God and to know it personally is perhaps the best knowledge of all and if need be worth spending $15,000 to find out. No matter what else happens to Stephanie Down Under during her stay there, regardless of the awesome sights and wonderful experiences she’ll enjoy, if she finds out for herself that Jesus loves her it is knowledge enough to transform a life. No wonder Paul prayed for a group of believers that

…out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through
his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts
through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love,
may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

(Ephesians 3:16-19, NIV)

There are some people who travel through life and never know for themselves that they are loved by God. That afternoon I looked out on my small congregation and I wondered how many of them were just like that. Oh, they’ve been to church most of the Sundays of their days and been rightly catechized in the faith of their choosing but their hearts remain devoid of the love that Paul says “surpasses knowledge.” And so before picking up my guitar to fill the last ten minutes or so with singing, I prayed Paul’s prayer for all the residents gathered in that room that day.

As I drove home from Knapp Haven following the service that afternoon, I found myself grateful for the call of duty that had brought me there in the first place. Think what I would have missed out on - Helen’s smile, her enthusiastic applause, the poignant moment of silence which followed my sharing the stories of Christine and the sweet taste of God’s goodness which I feasted on all over again.