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.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Being reminded of the obvious

This past weekend, I was given a reminder of something that I know already: I have been blessed with a pretty wonderful family. Case in point: on Saturday alone, Ed turned in arguably his best race of his running career, Emma scored in the ribbon category and Charlie won (to him) the coveted Trail Walking trophy in the Adaptive Riding competition at the County Fair. “Hardware” was being collected copiously that day in two different counties by Martin kids.

On Saturday morning, Ed ran in the Woman of Courage 5 &10K race in Ladysmith. Even though he has been focusing on 10Ks of late, I wanted him to run the 5K to get a read on how his summer training was coming along. What’s more, this gave him opportunity to run with and against his budding friend Andrew Hetke, who is Ladysmith’s No. 1. All during this past track season, Andrew was the rabbit Ed chased at almost every event. Also showing up that morning was Schmidt from Flambeau, the guy who beat Ed out for the last State qualifying spot in the infamous “snow” run in Bruce last October. I knew Ed would run well but it was a bit of a thrill when in the home stretch there was Andrew and he running 1 & 2 respectively. Andrew had 3 steps on Ed and was able to hold him off but even so, Ed crossed the line at 18:18 crushing his previous best by 7 seconds. And, oh yeah, Schmidt was nowhere in sight. But taking 2nd place overall is not what thrills me but seeing Ed being rewarded for his work ethic and doing it with so much class. Before the race he asked Andrew if he could pray for him and I managed to capture that moment on camera. It’s a picture that speaks. It means that as much as Ed is passionate about running, he is as much or more passionate about Jesus and his relationship with his friends. I am more proud of that moment than the picture I snapped of him crossing the line.

That afternoon, it was off to the Fair to be wowed by two more of my kids. Our daughter, Emma, is remarkably talented – artistically, musically, dramatically and dance-wise. What’s more she’s a good golfer and a darn smart kid. She entered a variety of projects at this year’s fair – a painting, a tin man lawn ornament, jewelry, a tie-dyed shirt, an exhaustive poster about the anatomy of rabbits, a flower pot and flowers and a scrap book. She collected various ribbons – several blues, a few reds and a white and, in the case of her scrap book, a purple which spells G-R-A-N-D C-H-A-M-P-I-O-N. Emma is a very focused individual and I sincerely believe that whatever she puts her mind to she can do and do well. I not impressed with her because she is so talented. I’m impressed with her because though she is so talented she works diligently to develop her craft whatever that happens to be at the moment be it developing her golf swing or painting a picture or working on a term paper. But just as earnestly as she takes school or dance, she takes her friendship with Jesus, what one guy refers to as “the most important love relationship in our life.”

But as good as the day already had been it was about to get better. Charlie has been in the Adaptive Riding program of 4-H for the past four years. During “horse season” (May-June), Linda faithfully drives Charlie up to the fairgrounds every Wednesday night where he and his “pardner”, Lannie, work on horsemanship and riding skills. Lannie and his wife, Shirley, loan their steady mare of 14 years, Dakota, and the three of them – Charlie, Lannie and Dakota – make quite a team. But Saturday afternoon, here came Charlie sitting tall in the saddle riding Dakota without a lead rope. Lannie was at this side but Charlie was riding and, as he has been coached, smiling. He looked like he had been doing this all his life. Charlie’s autism aside, to me, his birth was so traumatic that in many ways he is like a snarled ball of string that slowly but surely as the years pass and people pour into his life and prayers are prayed over him, he unfolds and reveals the mystery that he is. Here’s a kid who when he was five years old hardly spoke a word and now is more fluent than he ever has been. He continues to grow and develop and seeing him ride atop Dakota so confidently while wearing his brand new shades was a poignant moment to me and I was reminded that he’s going to be alright. Maybe more so than when it was announced that he had won the Trail Walking trophy, the one that mattered to him more than any of the other awards they were handing out that day.

But we have another amazing kid to be proud of as well. Christine graduated from high school in 2007 and that summer spent five weeks in South Korea tutoring kindergarten through college-age kids in conversational English. Now, it’s the place she wants to get back to most of all. She works these days at a day care in Rice Lake saving what money she makes while at the same time, paying her own way. She has a wonderful eye for photography but one of her greatest strengths is her heart. Christine loves and believes in people. She never forgets a birthday and frequently buys little gifts for her friends and the other special people in her life. She has a way with babies and is a blessing to those who know her. In so many ways she is very Joan-like (referring to my mother): inordinately considerate, always encouraging and via her camera (which is always in her big bag she lugs around) ready to celebrate the moments of her life be they large or small.

And I must not forget Linda, my wife and life-companion. During the twenty-four years we have been married most certainly I have been loved more than I have loved. She’s cheerfully and willingly followed me whether we ended up living in an apartment, a trailer, a rented house or in the home we have owned since a week before Ed was born. But on this Saturday afternoon, I was reminded again of what a wonderful mother she is to her our children. There she was in the stands cheering for Charlie while Emma nestled in her lap, and in between performances, either joking with Ed or talking with Christine about trivia at the day care in a way that only mothers can multi-task.

So, I’ve taken nearly 1,200 words to state what most of you already know or could have told me much fewer: I am very fortunate to be surrounded by such good company. But it’s good to be reminded of these things because the response can only be gratitude for the small circle of love that you find yourself a part of.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Madness of John the Baptizer

“The king was distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he ordered her request be granted and had John beheaded in the prison. His head was brought in on a platter and given to the girl, who carried it to her mother.” Matthew 14:9-11

So ends the life of a man who truly lived a life set apart. His birth was foretold by Gabriel the archangel and when still in utero, he recognized his Lord though he, too, was still within his mother’s womb when she had come to visit her kinswoman, Elizabeth. True to the angel’s words, when he came of age he embarked on the ministry foretold of him hundreds of years before by the prophet Isaiah. He tirelessly prepared people for the coming of the One who would “take away the sins of the world” (John 1:29). For a season, the whole country as it were turned out to see this strange “Robinson Crusoe”-like figure living in the desert places. When Jesus finally did begin to reveal himself, John pointed him out to those who ultimately would cease being his disciples and become those of Jesus. “A man can only receive what is given him from heaven,” he would reply to those who wondered why he wasn’t upset at those who chose to leave his ranks to join the following of Jesus. “He must increase and I must decrease” (see John 1).

But as astute as John was he, too, was confounded by the purpose of Jesus when he did not begin to do the things John expected him to do. While sitting in prison for (presumably) calling the king on the carpet for his illicit affair with his sister-in-law, John sends a delegation to ask Jesus (in so many words) “Was I wrong? Aren’t you the one who is sent to establish God’s kingdom?” (Matthew 11). Jesus makes his inquiry a teaching point. “John is a most godly man and the greatest and last of the great prophets and yet, those who “get it” – who understand what the kingdom is really all about – are greater than John the Baptizer. You are blessed if you are get this point.”

And so here sits Zachariah and Elizabeth’s son, sitting in cell for being unafraid to stand up to the king wondering if he has indeed fulfilled what his mission had been, if somehow he had let God down or missed that which he was born to do. And then one night, quite suddenly he is dragged from his cell and executed for reasons that are, in the scope of things, quite trivial. Herodias, in her best impression of “Lady Macbeth”, wanted to settle a score and when her daughter dances the Dance of the Seven Veils and Herod and his court are all agog at her, she finds a way to do it. So dies he whom Jesus referred to as “the greatest of all who have ever been born of a woman.”

This past winter I read (for the first time in its entirety) Foxe’s Book of Martyrs followed up by VOM’s Jesus Freaks. I’d like to hope that if it was ever called upon me to die for the faith that first, I would be found faithful and second, I would know that I was dying for “the Cause.” Like so many of the faithful witnesses that have gone before us, I would hope to say something on the level of those brave words uttered by Daniel’s friends before King Nebuchadnezzar: “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up” (3:17-18). But what if you meet your demise simply because there was a glitch in the paperwork? I mean, it’s one thing to go to your death Sydney Carton-style knowing that it is a “…far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest than I go to, than I have ever known” but it’s quite another to be martyred because a king in a drunken moment is embarrassed to lose face with his guests and against his better judgment orders your execution.

I think of Jeremiah who though he was invited to live in relative comfort in Babylon after the fall of Jerusalem chose to remain with people who never listened to him in the first place. According to tradition, he died in Egypt – the very place he was adamant that the remnant should not return to. I think of Paul alone languishing in the Maritima prison dictating his last letter out (2 Timothy) before meeting his demise. “Do your best to come to me quickly, for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, and Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me” (2 Tim 4:9-11). I’m only speculating here, but I wonder if the rigors of his circumstances even caused the indefatigable Paul to second guess his plight in weaker moments. Did I do that which I was asked to do? Is God unhappy with me? Is this how it ends? Preach righteousness and the glory of the kingdom and then die for what amounts ultimately for silly reasons?

And maybe that is one of the things that can be gleaned from John’s story. Some of us will die in worthy causes – a soldier bravely manning his post so that members of his company may gain higher ground, a preacher refusing to fold in the face of public pressure to recant. But many of us do and may suffer or perish at the petty whims of the powers that be. But God knows our heart and in the end, we can only do what we can do with what we have been given to do and trust our lives to Him reminding ourselves that we walk by faith not by sight.

Brennan Manning puts it this way,

     In the final analysis, discipleship is a life of sublime madness.

    The truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ does not rise and fall on the issues of corrupt clergy,
    the exploitation of the poor, the stinginess of multinationals, or the irrational fanaticism      of  modern dictatorship. It deserves to be accepted or rejected for what it is: an answer to the most fundamental questions a person may ask: Is life absurd or does it have a purpose? Jesus replies that only do our lives have a purpose but God has directly intervened in human affairs to make abundantly clear what that purpose is. What is the nature of Ultimate Reality? Jesus responds that the Really Real is generous, forgiving, saving love. In the end, will life triumph over death? With unshaken confidence Jesus answers, The kingdom of My Father cannot be overcome, even by death. In the end everything will be all right. Nothing can harm you permanently; no loss is lasting, no defeat more than transitory, no disappointment is conclusive. Suffering, failure, loneliness, sorrow, discouragement, and death will be part of your journey, but the kingdom of God will conquer these horrors. No evil can resist grace forever.
The Ragamuffin Gospel, Pp. 199-200

May God find we who trust in Him equally mad as the one Jesus referred to as he who was not surpassed by any in history regardless of what circumstances ultimately result in our own death.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Missing the Barn


There's no business like show business

Like no business I know


Everything about it is appealing


Everything the traffic will allow


No where could you have that happy feeling


When you aren't stealing that extra bow

There's no people like show people

They smile when they are low


Yesterday they told you you would not go far


That night you opened and there you are


Next day on your dressing room they've hung a star


Let's go on with the show

“There’s No Business Like Show Business” from Annie Get Your Gun

Last night, Linda and I took in “Mame” at the Red Barn Theater east of Rice Lake. We were treated to an evening laced with some wonderful performances and a show that left you humming some of its songs on the drive home. I never tire of getting wowed by what some creative people can do with paint and plywood in creating sets that are believable and (from a community theater’s point-of-view, cost effective). Having been fortunate to perform in other venues around the county there is something unique about the atmosphere of the Barn, the sense of intimacy the audience feels with the performers and the performers with their audience. It is a very special place.

When we knew we would be going on sabbatical leave this summer we made a conscious decision not to audition for any of the shows this season. To commit to a show, you commit pretty much a month to five weeks of your evenings to it so if any of us would have said yes to a show that would have meant a third of our summer. It was the right choice to make for this summer. But sitting out in the audience last night I also was aware that I was missing being up there as well as missing our friends many of whom were dancing and singing upon the stage.

We’ve been attending performances at the Barn since the mid-1990s when many of the kids in our youth group – one of whom was also in the audience last night – were cast in various shows: “Sound of Music”, “Camelot”, and “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown” are three that come to mind. I always said to myself if I was ever offered an opportunity to perform I would give it a whirl but January auditions would come and go and I’d either forget about the date or chicken out. And then in the summer of 2003 Barn veteran Chris Fritz called me up and wondered if I would be interested in a part in the upcoming production of “Minnie’s Boys,” a Broadway musical I had never heard of about the Marx Brothers. The guy they had cast as Harpo had pulled out and they were in dire need of a replacement. I spoke with the director (Nancy Erickson Dutmer – who, by the way, was Mame last night) and with a little rearranging of my schedule said, “Sure.” The rest is (for us) history. I enjoyed myself capitally and, to my surprise, grabbed a “Barney” nomination for “Best Male New Comer”. Someone else won that year but I had been bitten by the bug and with the exception of 2004 and this year, members of our family have been performing upon the stage at the Barn every season since. Ed and Emma joined me in 2007 with “The King and I” and even Charlie got in on the act with “Alladin and the Wonderful Lamp” last year.

While watching the show last night, I found myself empathizing with all the performers having to wear winter coats or sweaters during their dance routines. I’ve been there before. I don’t know if I ever was so hot as those nights I played Fagin in “Oliver!” wearing heavy wool coat, full beard and long hair and capering about the stage in my best impression of Ron Moody. But what joy it was each night to throw all that garb on just for the moment I could step into the audience to sing “Reviewing the Situation.” In the opening scene of “Mame”, there was Ross wearing the Aladdin's turban from last year’s show and later, he reappeared as a different character with that same damn trench coat I wore as Harpo, Sydney Lipton in “God’s Favorite” and Oscar Lundquist in “Sweet Charity”. What memories were made in all those shows as I sweated my way through each song and dance routine. There to stage right was the proscenium “window” where by virtue of climbing up a ladder and then standing precariously upon a chair, I sang “Sweet Chairty” to Tzeitel Dutmer while literally the sweat poured off my head upon her face looking up lovingly at me. Now that’s acting!

All this aside, for me the real icing on the cake is to be able to hang out with some truly wonderful and talented people, many of whom have become very dear to us. As we exited the Barn last night and made our slow walk down the hill shaking (and in many cases) embracing friends who had wowed us with their performances I knew that as soon as the parking lot was empty they’d be walking back to their various dressing rooms which would be pretty rank with sweat and body odor, change out of their wet clothes and head over to Adventures to celebrate a standing o and cool off after a hot night’s work. I miss that, too, the fellowship of the Barn and the shared joy of making some people laugh and enjoy themselves for a few hours of their night. So, here’s to the Barn now in her 49th year. Hopefully there’ll be a part for me next season even if it means putting on that trench coat yet one more time.

Friday, July 9, 2010

For the love of Linda and of painting

After a month of hiking, canoeing, geocaching and essentially waking up most days and following my whimsy, I find myself longing for some routine of late. In fact, as much as people have been joking with me about it, I have come to remind myself that I am, in fact, not retired but on hiatus. So, this past week at about the half-way mark of our Sabbath’s rest, I am trying to establish some measure of routine to my day. After Linda leaves for work, I get up, grab a quick bite to eat, shower and clean up and then spend a good chunk of my morning, journaling, reading and meditating in the Word. The weather has been beautiful which has allowed me to find some space for quiet out in my yard. Following this, I change into my grubbies and take up what is one of the major projects of the summer – painting the trim of the house. It’s slow – painstakingly slow – work and requires a great deal of meticulousness but after four days I may have the north side of the house done today. And if the weather holds, who knows I may have the majority of the work done before we head out on our trip out to D.C. Besides, one thing I have in abundance of is time so I putz my way through my day.

Admittedly, this is a major item on Linda’s “honey-do” list but truthfully, I enjoy the work and am reminded again that by spending five or six hours each day in this manner is in reality a way of loving my wife. When we were young, foreplay was…well…what usually comes to mind when you think of that word. But at mid-life, foreplay is laying in bed with her at night watching the evening news or spending a good part of day with a paintbrush in hand walking up and down a ladder. In ways that I will never understand painting and yard work is an aphrodisiac to a woman whose primary love language is gifts of service. So, I paint away knowing it’s one way I may honor and love her.

At this point of our summer, I feel I have received no new revelation about the Lord or about myself or about my ministry. There have been no “a-ha” moments, no resolutions made or plans laid upon my return. I have enjoyed myself capitally and feel incredibly blessed and fortunate. Due to Linda’s job – a job that originally was only going to last a week – we have plenty of space from each other during the day so that we are not weary of each other’s company. I see her each evening – which is way more than I am wont to see her. Christine is off to work early, Charlie has a certain path that he follows each day and Ed and Emma, spend a good part of their day reading. Last night when I knocked off around 8, we went for a long family walk together ending up down at the beach. The kids jumped on the swings and Linda and I sat on a bench watching the boaters and pontooners and the beautiful sunset God graced us with. Doing stuff like this is on the big, white board in the living room, too.

So, these days I paint and I am content. Yesterday, while working out in the yard, I met a neighbor I had never met before. Joe is a Chicago-native who lives with his lady-friend down the way. He was out for his morning constitution and saw me power-washing the house and stopped by to ask me what solution I was using. Forty-five minutes later, I learned something about Joe’s vocation, his kids, what brought him to Chetek and he learned some things about my garden which he was curious to see. When Linda comes home these days she usually asks me, “How was your day?” and I reply – usually from atop a ladder – “Well, this is it.” It’s not whining. It’s just what it is and what it will be for another few weeks. There are worse ways to spend a summer day and, in my case, few better.