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, June 23, 2010

Rediscovering Huck

“Now, we’ll start this band of robbers and call it Tom Sawyer’s Gang. Everybody that wants to join has got to take an oath and write his name in blood.” From “Our Gang’s Dark Oath”, Chapter 2 in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Recently, I picked off my book shelf The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and, after a 30-some-year hiatus, began to read it again. I had to read it my junior year of high school and our teacher, Mrs. Rafoth, seemed to have skipped or disregarded the author’s warning that appears immediately prior to Page 1 warning that “persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” Mrs. Rafoth must have figured that was Twain’s way of being witty. Honestly, she ruined that book for me for many years by forcing my classmates and me to look for plots and subplots and motives and morals within the narrative, the very thing Clemmons seemed death on. I have a memory of lamenting aloud in her class one afternoon after she summoned us to look for yet another theme in the book, “Do you really think Mark Twain was thinking of all this stuff when he wrote the thing?” I might have been a 16-year-old, but as it turns out I wasn’t too far off the mark. As far as Twain was concerned, he was more Finn’s amanuensis than author or so he believed.

In any case, 32 years later I’m reading Huckleberry again but this time simply for the fun of it. I have no term paper to turn in, I care not if I find a theme or a motive or a plot. The book is more episodic than I remember it and given my penchant for read-alouds at Roselawn Elementary, I’ve found some new material for next year. You could read just a chapter from it and appreciate the taste even if you never got farther than Cairo (Illinois.) In fact, this past weekend while we were camping in the Green Bay area, I found myself chuckling aloud while reading about the forming of Tom Sawyer’s gang. Linda and Ed were sitting by the fire so I got out of the camper and went and sat by them and asked if I could read a portion of Chapter 2 to them. For the next 15 minutes or so, we sat around the fire enjoying the company of a good book and laughing aloud at the antics of a bunch of country boys who might have lived in pre-Civil War Missouri.

In the middle of the night, Tom Sawyer, forever the ring leader, summons his companions to a secret cave to form a gang of cutthroats. There is a dire oath that each must swear on pain of death as well as the death of their nearest kin should they leave the gang. And here’s where they reach their first impasse because unlike his fellow conspirators, Huck has no family to take revenge on.

            They talked it over and they was going to rule me out, because they said every
            boy must have a family or somebody to kill, or else it wouldn’t be fair and square
            for the others. Well, nobody could think of anything to do – everybody was
            stumped, and set still. I was most ready to cry, but all at once I thought of a way
            and so I offered them Miss Watson – they could kill her. Everybody said:
           “Oh, she’ll do. That’s all right. Huck can come in.” Then they all stuck a pin in their
            fingers to get blood to sign with, and I made my mark on the paper.

I’ve read that passage now three times in the last few days and it still makes me laugh. But the rest of the chapter is just delightfully good reading as Tom, Huck and the Gang work out just what kind of gang they’re going to be. According to Tom, their line of business was going to be “nothing only robbery and murder.” But unlike stealing cattle and robbing houses (“We ain’t burglars. That ain’t no sort of style,” says Tom), they will be highwaymen. “We stop stages and carriages on the road, with masks on, and kill the people and take their watches and money.” But while Tom is of the opinion that killing those you hold up is best, allowances can be made for those you keep until they are ransomed. The only problem is nobody quite seems to know what that involves. All that matters to Tom is that whatever they do should be done “by the books.”

Sitting by the fire, reading to my wife and son, I discovered, perhaps for the first time, the joy of Huckleberry Finn. Sure, there are plots and witticisms and themes that run through the story but if you stop too long to look for them, it’s like Huck’s raft getting caught up on a snag. The current is pushing you down river and your raft is straining to get loose.

At the close of the chapter, they reach yet another obstacle in the forming of their gang: just when were they going to start their murdering and thieving ways?

            …[Tom] said we would all go home and meet next week and rob somebody and
            kill some people. Ben Rogers said he couldn’t get out much, only Sundays,
            and so he wanted to begin next Sunday, but all the boys said it would be
            wicked to do it on Sunday and that settled the thing. They agreed to get
            together and fix a day as soon as they could…

I don’t know if Twain is commenting on the foolishness of those who talk about doing great deeds but never do anything or just letting us eavesdrop on boys at make believe. Perhaps it is both. But I don’t have to turn in anything to Mrs. Rafoth any time soon so if they’re there, well and good. I laughed out loud in Chapter 3 (“We Ambuscade the A-rabs”) when the gang lay in wait for what Tom has told them will be a large troupe of “Spanish merchants and rich A-rabs” coming to Cave Hollow with “two hundred elephants and six hundred camels” all loaded down with “di’monds.”

              …when we got the word we rushed out of the woods and down the hill. But there
              warn’t no Spaniards and A-rabs and there warn’t no camels nor no elephants.
              it warn’t anything but a Sunday-school picnic, and only a primer class at that.
             We busted it up and chased the children up the hollow, but we never got anything
              but some doughnuts and jam, though Ben Rogers got a rag doll and Joe Harper
             got a hymn book and a tract, and then the teacher charged in and made us drop
             everything and cut. I didn’t see no di’monds, and I told Tom Sawyer so.

Somehow, I’d forgotten these episodes from Huck’s story. It’s good to read them again. Better to read them aloud in the company of people you love and who love you. And I can’t wait until this fall when I’ll be reading again at Roselawn to share a chapter or two from this book with kids who really need to hear this stuff before an English teacher comes along and sours the milk way before they’ve even developed a taste for it.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

...Thy Kingdom Come...

Yesterday, I drove down to Menomonie to attend the visitation of a girl I used to know. Jill and I were classmates, went to the same church and youth group and graduated together in the Spring of 1980 from Madison LaFollette High School. We weren’t what you would call close friends. We ran in different circles. But the summer between our sophomore and junior year of high school she and I and about 20 others from our youth group went by train on what to me remains the ultimate retreat of all time: a week’s stay at Holden Village high up in the Cascade Mountains of Washington. (She's the one in the middle somewhere atop a mountain side with friends Bonnie & Laura). Those of us who went formed a unique bond and for the remaining years of high school though Jill and I hung out with different people, whenever we saw each other in the hall or at church we would hug each other like old friends being reunited again after a long interval.

After high school, she attended UW-Whitewater while I attended UW-Madison. I have a vague memory of seeing her at Christmastime in the narthex of Lake Edge Lutheran and like always she embraced me like a long lost family member. That might have been the last time I saw her – December 1980 or ’81. She never made it to any of our high school reunions and in the intervening years I largely kept track of her through our mothers who were good friends and part of the same Circle. Pep – her mom – was something of a spiritual mother to me. After I had received Jesus and been filled with the Holy Spirit, I began to drift away from Lake Edge and worship at another fellowship in Madison. While my folks and others who knew me were troubled by this radical change, Pep cheered me on for she, too, was filled with the Spirit and understood the hunger for worship and the Word. In later years, when I would attend Lake Edge with my family for special occasions, she would draw me aside and look me in the eye to discern how her young disciple was doing.

Sometime in the last ten years, Jill contracted cancer in her sinuses but through the auspices of Mayo Clinic in Rochester, she beat it back and made a full recovery. In fact, PBS’ Frontline featured her story in a piece they did on treating cancer. Two years ago, the cancer returned and this time held on to her (apparently) with a vengeance. She died last week but not before writing her own obituary. She leaves a husband and two adult children, her mom and oodles of friends to mourn her. Jill and her family moved to Menomonie a few years ago. I had every intention of connecting with her – even called their home once and left a message on their answering machine. But she didn’t call me back and somehow I never got around for a second attempt. When my mom called the other day to inform me that her condition was dire, I thought I should drive down and pray with her. But apparently, I would have been too late as unbeknownst to her, she had already passed away. In fact, as my mom was calling me to pray, Pep was rallying people to pray that the Lord would take her daughter such was the suffering she was experiencing.

As I sat in the sanctuary with Pep, my arms around her as we watched the slide show the funeral home people had put together on the big screen, she spoke of her daughter’s journey (“she lost her faith when the cancer came back but right before the end found it again”), her marriage to her husband, Jim (“they had the most excellent marriage ever”) and her daughter’s legacy (“she loved life”). She then turned her head to me and said, “I’ve lost two of them now and it’s not fair.” This referring to her son, Teddy, who died as a young boy. He and “Jilly” (as Pep oft referred to her) were out in a field near their home in Madison collecting purple flowers (“they were weeds, really”) for their mom. He had been chasing their little puppy around and had gotten tired. He handed the pup to Jill and told her he was going to take the flowers home to their mom and as he was crossing the street a car struck and killed him instantly. Teddy was seven years old when he died. Jill was 47. One was taken in a moment. One was slowly strangled by cancer. But both are most certainly gone before their time.

As I watched the slideshow I was struck by Jill’s smile. In almost every picture she exhibited her trademark big toothy smile well known to so many of us back in high school days. This was a woman who had loved life indeed. Too soon was she taken from the ones she loved and who loved her. Too soon that smile won’t shine again this side of heaven.

Driving home in the rain, my hatred of cancer was rekindled. As the years pass and I attend or preside at the funerals of the growing number of friends and family members snuffed out by this ogre – Bob (my roommate from college), Grandpa and Grandma Martin, Aunts Dorothy, Ella and Nancy, Denise (a 21-year-old young woman from Refuge) – it doesn’t make me wish for breakthroughs in cancer research or provoke me to do fundraising for the same. No, a longing steadily grows within me for the coming of the Kingdom in its fullness. In The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, the prophecy that sustains all faithful subjects of the King while enduring the troubles of a land that is “always winter and never Christmas” is

                    Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight,
                    At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more,
                    When he bares his teeth, winter meets its death,
                    And when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again.

Driving home last night, I found myself longing for Aslan’s return for on that day He will put an end to wars and rumors of wars and bear his teeth at murder and mayhem, sickness and suffering, calamity and cancer. “Then the end will come,” wrote Paul, “when Christ will hand over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor 15:25-26, NIV).” I can’t wait until he stomps for good on all those things that plague us as we wait for the Thaw foretold. On that day, there will be a great hue and cry that will arise more louder than those bothersome vuvuzela horns that have been plaguing the World Cup series of late. For then the saying will come true, “Death has been swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor 15:54, NIV). Even so, Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!

“So we're not giving up. How could we! Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without his unfolding grace. These hard times are small potatoes compared to the coming good times, the lavish celebration prepared for us. There's far more here than meets the eye. The things we see now are here today, gone tomorrow. But the things we can't see now will last forever” Paul, Apostle and Martyr for Jesus Christ, 1st Century (2 Cor 4:16-18, Msg).

P.S. Here's the link to Jill's obituary which she wrote herself: http://rhielfuneralhome.com/obituaries.php?id=340

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Lots and lots of time

“Our adversary the devil majors in three things: noise, hurry, and crowds. If he can keep us involved in muchness and manyness he will rest satisfied.”
                                       Richard Foster in Celebration of Discipline

Everyone has pet peeves. People who chew their food with their mouth open, teen agers somehow symbiotically connected to their I-Phone and not, as you would expect a minister to despise, cell phones going off in church but people who actually feel the need to answer their phone while at church – during worship, during a wedding (and worst!) during a funeral. But right up there with these is the standard reply that Christians and non-Christians alike give to the query, “How ya been?” More often than not I bet you’ve heard – or found yourself saying - “Oh, I’ve been busy.” Of all my personal peeves, this is the peeviest.

These days I wake up most mornings with absolutely nothing to do. I have no meetings to attend, no people to meet with, no messages to produce. I follow my whimsy. I lay in my bed and think, “What should I do today?” and then I think of something and say to myself, “That’s what I’m gonna do.” So on Monday, I worked in my garden and began to power wash the house because that’s what I wanted to do. On Tuesday, however, I read or scanned pictures into my hard drive and uploaded pictures to my Facebook account because that’s what I wanted to do. On Wednesday, I went hiking on the Ice Age Trail because that’s what I wanted to do. On Thursday…well, you get the idea. What with Linda and Christine working and Ed and Emma serving at Vacation Bible School, I’ve had my days pretty much to myself. And, frankly, it feels great and weird all at the same time. But one thing I am decidedly NOT these days is “busy” and I am content.

Last night at Wal-Mart I ran into a pastor-friend of mine and when I shared this with him, he laughed and said, “This might give you a taste of what retirement is all about.” But I wonder. Most retired people I know are busier – or seem to be busier – than most working people I associate with. Yes, they golf or fish or spend time with their grandkids, but so many of them are out of breath and not just because they are septua or octogenarians. Maybe it’s all a ruse to keep people like me usually on the look-out for volunteers at bay!

I recognize that this season I am in is unique and come September 1 (if not before) the pace of my life will pick-up if for no other reason that the new school year will commence. But if we all find “being busy” such the plague, how do we rid ourselves of the compulsion to “muchness and manyness”? Is it too much to state the obvious that we need to unplug more? Less TV, less internet, less I-Phone in exchange for what? In the Story of the Soils, Jesus spoke of a certain heart condition that due to the “worries about all the things they have to do and all the things they want to get” and is thereby strangled by the stress of it all so that nothing comes of it (Mark 4:19, Msg). I can’t help but think this is where a lot of us are at. Oh, the “kingdom plant” in our heart is hanging on but not growing, not thriving and certainly not producing fruit a hundred fold.

This is not new news. Others have stated this in many places before (think Charles Hummel’s booklet, The Tyranny of the Urgent). But if Jack Deere is right when he states that the essence of Christian maturity is “sharing his affections and discerning his voice,” than it should be priority to me to get in a place where I can hear him speak. I know this and have known it from way before this Sabbath rest began so maybe it’s not a matter of knowledge but of affection. I may miss my folks enough to call home every few weeks or so. But do I miss them enough to get in my car and drive down to Madison and spend the day with them especially now that time is definitely not a factor? I know how I’m supposed to answer that question but the truth is I have to think about that a bit. And maybe, in a similar way, this is the secret of why so many of us know we should spend more time with the Lord and do not has more to do with our lack of affection for him than our lack of devotion or discipline. Maybe the “muchness and manyness” of life has sapped us of the affections we should have toward God, our family and each other? Maybe, just maybe, this is what Jesus referred to as “the love of many growing cold” in the last days (Matt 24). It will grow this way because of “wickedness” (v. 12) which may mean that more wicked than the proliferation of immoral behavior, corporate greed, and political corruption in our society is the drivenness – the busyness – that many of us feel and act out of. It is straining the love of God out of us more than we know.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Charlie had it right. I'm on vacation.

1va•ca•tion

Pronunciation: \vā-ˈkā-shən, və-\
Function: noun
Usage: often attributive
Etymology: Middle English vacacioun, from Anglo-French vacacion, from Latin vacation-, vacatio freedom, exemption, from vacare
Date: 14th century

1 : a respite or a time of respite from something : INTERMISSION

2 a : a scheduled period during which activity (as of a court or school) is suspended b : a period of exemption from work granted to an employee
from Merriam-Webster On-line Dictionary

A year ago, on Charlie’s last day of school, he said to me, “Well, today’s the day – my last day of school and then I’m outta here.” When I asked him where he was going, he looked at me and simply said, “I’m on vacation.” During his graduation party a week later when people customarily ask graduates what they’re planning to do now that high school is over he would simply reply with the same refrain: “I’m on vacation.” At the end of the first week of my 13 week sabbatical that pretty much sums up how the preceding six days have felt: vacation.

Because the younger two were still in school and Linda, Christine and Charlie all were working last week I had the house to myself (not including Memorial Day). So, most mornings I spent reading, journaling and spending time meditating on the Scriptures. Some days I got my guitar out and worshiped. The phone didn’t ring. No one stopped in for a visit. There was nothing on the “To-Do List” as there was no list. It felt freeing, wonderfully freeing. As for the rest of my day, I followed my inklings. On Tuesday I hiked seven miles over in Taylor County on the Ice Age Trail. Okay, it was a road connector hike so it was all on Highway 64 but got some wonderful pictures breaking in my new SLR camera. On Thursday afternoon I did a little geocaching between Sand Creek and Bloomer. On Friday – yesterday – that was the best. Fairly spur of the moment, Linda and I decided to drive to Superior/Duluth. We haven’t been spontaneous since way before Christine came along. It was like sneaking out of school with your girl friend and yet having your teacher’s and your parents’ blessing to do so. We did a little shopping at Miller Hall Mall in Duluth, did a little beach walking on Wisconsin Point (as well as slipping in a little geocaching as long as we were there) and ate at a restaurant we’ve always wanted to try – Eddie’s World Famous Ribs (and yes, I had a full rack). We did some other things I shant write about but you get the drift – it was a wonderfully, fun day.

Since the newspaper article in the Alert came out a week or so ago (see my last installment), I’ve been stopped most days at different places in town and asked, “So, how’s your vacation going?” At Kwik Trip, at a graduation party, in my driveway this morning when someone who stopped by our little garage sale asked me, “Aren’t you the minister who is on vacation? So, how’s it going?” My recluse neighbor even had something to say about it: “I hear you’ve retired.” But probably most surprising to me is how many people from the greater community of Chetek have been making a point to come up to express how happy they are for us. I mean, everyone is entitled to a vacation but a three month one for most people (other than educators) is unheard of. And yet the people who stop us are genuinely thrilled for us. We were at Dairy Queen the other night and an elderly woman neither of us know came up to us smiling and hugged us both as if we were departing on an ocean voyage to an exotic location.

At Eric and Hannah’s graduation party today, Jessie from Refuge asked me how my first week had gone. I looked at him and said, “Well, it feels like vacation and I feel great.” Three weeks from now it may not wear as well but for now I feel like I’ve come up for air and I can breathe again.