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, October 26, 2010

Precious in his sight: A meditation on Matthew 19:15

"One day children were brought to Jesus in the hope that he would lay hands on them and pray over them. The disciples shooed them off. But Jesus intervened: 'Let the children alone, don't prevent them from coming to me. God's kingdom is made up of people like these.' After laying his hands on them, he left." Matthew 19:13-15, The Message

It's another day in the life of Jesus, the wandering healer/teacher. He's just finished yet another round of discourse with a group of religious types who continually are looking for ways to discredit him. This time the subject happens to be about marriage and by the end of their conversation he has managed to confound both his enemies and his friends. A group of locals have been patiently waiting for him to finish their interchange that he might pronounce a blessing on their children. The disciples, acting more like his handlers than his students, are more intent on shooing them away. 'Give the guy a break for crying out loud,' I imagine one of them saying to these groupies of sorts. But Jesus will have none of it and tersely rebukes his disciples and announces, "Bring them to me, everyone of them. They are a blessing and they represent just the kind of citizens that the kingdom of heaven is made up of."

So here's Jesus, sitting in the midst of a gaggle of parents who have been bringing them their children to bless. We don't know how many and we don't know how long it takes but I love the little detail Matthew gives: "When he placed his hands on them [that is to say, all of them] he went on from there." No one gets missed. Every child is welcomed and lovingly touched. We're not told if there were any in that group that were afflicted with birth defects or suffered from abject poverty (although both are possible). We're just told that he warmly gathers each one to himself and blesses the Father for creating each life.

I've been reading at Roselawn, our city's elementary school, since our oldest was in kindergarten (and she's 22 now!) I show up on a scheduled day and read the stories that kids love to hear - about talking pigs and frogs and teddy bears who are really mean and pirates who refuse to change diapers (oh, now that's a good one!) I don't read many Bible stories. It' not that I'm not allowed; it's just that I haven't found many good Bible stories in children's books that are neither too preachy or illustrated well. All I do is read to them and make them laugh and want to hear more. This year, more so than ever before, when I enter a room kids flock to me to hug me. And not just little girls (that's a pretty normal occurrence) but lots of little boys, too. They want to show their love and delight with my company and are in need of the same. I return each hug - first, because I love hugs; second, because each of these children are precious.

I celebrate their significance and this is my reward: they hug me. But this is what I really think: I think that when I read to them somehow, some way, they hear their Maker's voice in mine; that just like animals can sense things lost to our human perspective, children often have a means of discernment that evades we grown-up ones. And I also think (or I certainly hope) that the Spirit of God in me stirs something within them and this is why as they hear my voice they are drawn to me. But not me, Christ in me and as I return their hugs Jesus in me blesses each one. So, I love reading at Roselawn. Sure, I like to entertain people and I think I'm a pretty good story teller, too. But I love this certain intangible transaction that occurs every time I enter a room via the Spirit of Jesus who dwells in me.

A few days ago at our local Justice Center, I shared a similar thought with about 20 inmates ranging between 18 and 50 years old. I took them into that moment of Jesus touching, blessing, celebrating each child that was placed on his lap or thrust in his arms. For a brief moment I saw these assorted individuals in their jail issue orange jumpsuits as little children with their whole lives ahead of them and not as the scarred, broken, chewed-up people they have become because of sin, pain and self-hatred in all its manifestations. I told them that in a group this size, it was possible that there was someone here that instead of being celebrated at birth they had been rejected or seen as a burden and a hardship to this very day they bear the emotional scars from such abandonment. And then I said this, "But if that had been you as a child thrust into Jesus' arms he would have received you gladly and blessed you and thanked the Father for you." In that moment, a 50-ish year old woman in the audience began to weep. And so before I closed the service on inspiration I lifted my hands over that group of sex offenders, alcoholics and drug addicts and blessed them and thanked God for each one. Hugging is discouraged at the jail - for good reason - but perhaps in that moment of blessing I'd like to think the Father reached out to hug each one.

Jesus loves the little children
All the children of the world
Red and yellow, black and white
They are precious in his sight
Jesus loves the little children of the world.
  - "Jesus loves the Little Children" by C. Herbert Woolston, 1856-1927

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Finishing his course

'...for them that honor me I will honor..." (1 Samuel 2:30, KJV)

Our son, Ed, who is a senior in high school, has been a runner for a good part of his young life. I think it was during his first season of middle school Cross Country that his coach and teammates gave him the nickname, Fast Eddie, and for good reason. While he never won any of the races we ran in as a team, he consistently finished near the front end of the pack. These last two years, he's been our Number 1 guy and our Team Captain. Running is more than a sport for him. It's a passion and a means of expressing his heart. Eric Liddell, the famed "Flying Scot" of Chariots of Fire fame, is one of his heroes and Ed (in the best Scottish brogue he can muster), frequently quotes his favorite line from that movie: "I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure."

His runnin' bud, Andrew
One of his goals for this season was to finish in the Top Ten at our conference meet. He missed it by one spot last season (and on Hayward's "monster" course, too!) and this year his hopes were solidly pinned on gaining that platform on Ladysmith's far more flatter and runner-friendly course. The day of the Heart of the North Conference meet dawned bright and clear. Midway through ou family's devotions that morning before school began, the phone rang. It was Andrew, Ed's friend from Ladysmith and their Number 1 guy. He called to wish Ed well in the race that afternoon and to have him pray for him. And so Ed did as much and wished him best of luck. The day was off to a propitious start.

Praying with his teammates
For October 12, the day actually turned out to be on the warmish side of things when the temperature was at or near 65 degrees by race time. As he has every race this season, prior to the girls' race he gathered them into a circle and prayed over them and then he and his teammates cheered them on as he ran. When it was the guys' turn to race, he gathered them up into a circle and prayed over them. He then ran over to Andrew and hugged him quick and wished him well before resuming his own pre-race preparations. Soon all the guys were off to the races.

Leader of his pack
He ran well and at the mile marker he was running solidly in the fifth or sixth position. But Cross Country is all about stamina and speed over 5 kilometers not just 1600 meters in and by the home stretch he was in 10th place and a Northwestern kid was closing fast. That kid caught him with about 40 yards to go and for the second time in two years, Ed crossed the line in 11th place at our conference meet. Given the fact that the race was still going on, I had to turn my attention to the rest of my runners. He joined me soon enough, dejected and fighting back tears but to his credit, cheering every one of the guys into the chute.

After the guys had all crossed the line, our team began packing up their things due to the fact that no one would be standing to collect any hardware that afternoon. I was reluctant to join them wanting to see the official results before heading to the bus myself. So there Ed and I stood before the results board waiting for the chip-timing guy to post the official times, Ed looking as if he had just lost his best friend. The team results were posted first listing not just the scores but the ranking of each one of the runners from every team. So imagine our perplexity when we noticed that the print-out stated that our first runner (Ed) was listed as finishing 10th. I had counted him as 11. Linda, who had stood nearer the finish line, had counted 11 and the rest of the members of our team not running in the race had counted 11. So how could the computer have calculated incorrectly?  While we were waiting for the individual results to be posted, one of the coaches from Northwestern revealed the mystery to us: one of their runners, who normally ran Varsity, had been entered in the JV race that afternoon. While these races were run at the same time, the computer considered them two individual events and while their runner had, indeed, finished sixth, he did not count in the final tabulation. Ed had made Top Ten after all and his face went from dejection to joy in a heartbeat.

Top Ten Heart of the North 2010
But now there was another matter to deal with. His teammates (and his mother) were now all on the bus waiting for he and I to join them and the bus was parked about 100 yards away. The awards ceremony was about to begin and none of them were present to cheer for him. I managed to flag one of our guys and shout enough for him to turn and get Linda. She got to the awards ceremony ring just as his name was announced. Neither of us were prepared for what happened next. For at the mention of his name, members from several of the other teams and many of their parents joined our cheers in loud acclamation. Here his own team wasn't  present but his network of friendships on some of the other teams took up the slack. And when we finally got back to the bus, his teammates stood to their feet, began clapping and shouting his name: "ED! ED! ED!" Were we not on a moving bus, they might have tried to pick him up and carry him from the field. I am more proud of those two moments than any hardware he might have brought home that night or any other night for it speaks loudly of the character of the man he is becoming.

Moments before the start of the Sectional race
I wish I could write the rest of the story of his season like this: "Two weeks later, in the WIAA Sectionals race, Ed ran the race of his life and qualified for the State meet at Wisconsin Rapids." But it didn't play out that way. He ran well at the Sectional meet but did not qualify. Truthfully, time-wise he wasn't even close. His four year dream of competing at State will have to remain that way - a dream. Just like the morning of the conference meet, Andrew called him up on Friday morning to wish him well and have Ed pray over him. Just like he has done at every race this season, he gathered the team up to pray over them before they ran and wished his friends on opposing teams well. If I were writing his story, I would write it the way I dreamt about it, too: Ed running to Sectional glory and being able to testify from that platform of God's strength and power in helping him to do just that. But I am not the Author of Ed's story - and that's a good thing, too. The Father works in our disappointments as much as He works in our accomplishments and will certainly use yesterday's "defeat" as grist in Ed's life.

After the conference meet, when we had a quiet moment, I told Ed this: "You didn't luck out, Ed. You didn't get any charity here today. You earned it and you were due. God says, 'He who honors me I will honor' and God wants you to know how proud of you he is for being faithful to him and being a good captain of this team.' During our last practice the night before Sectionals, I had our team sit in a circle and go around and affirm each other. When it was Ed's turn, Rachel - our other team Captain - said, "Ed, you're a champion. You are definitely the leader of this pack." And Joey added: "When I think of Chetek Cross Country, I think of you. You are the face of this team." Okay, I admit it. Today, I'm feeling a little sorry for my son because, yeah, I think he deserves to run in the Big Race at Wisconsin Rapids. I'm sure so many dads of so many runners who won't be there next week as well are feeling the same today. But in the bigger picture how proud Linda and I are of Ed because of his care for his teammates and the guys on the other teams and the faithfulness to Jesus both on and off the trail, whether it was a good run or not. No parent could ask of their child more and there can be no award greater than the "well done" of heaven.

The champion