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.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Miracle

In over thirty years of being in Pentecost, the majority of it spent in either training for ministry or serving in it, I have never witnessed a miracle. I’ve never seen a withered hand be immediately restored ala Matthew 12. I’ve never seen a man in a wheelchair rise up and leave it for good. Like many others in our tradition, I’ve asked for one many a time. I’ve asked God to eradicate cancer from a human body or heal a mind afflicted by mental illness but those prayers, for whatever reason, have gone unanswered. But this past Christmas Eve I and the forty or so others who were gathered in our sanctuary for our annual candlelight service had front row seats to one for Troy was among the worshipers.



I’ve written about Troy before (see Being Born Again on Sunday) – he’s the guy who asked to be born again one Sunday morning at Refuge this past summer. A life-long alcoholic, Troy has since shared with us that since he’s been 18 he’s been in and out of 20 correctional facilities of all different levels of security. He’s 40 now. During the Alpha course that he and his wife, Marie, participated in this past fall he answered the icebreaker question – “What’s the best Christmas gift you’ve ever received?” – in this way: “My best Christmas gift will be to be sober and surrounded by my family.” He can’t recall a Christmas when he’s not been drunk.

This was a different Christmas for Troy and his family

This past Christmas Eve into the sanctuary he walked with his two step-daughters, Angel and Nicole, and his son, Alex, as well as a couple of his grandkids in tow (Marie was at home getting their dinner ready). And he was sober. Each one of his kids was proudly wearing a cross, a gift from their parents to announce that this Christmas was different than all the ones before. While I strummed away on my guitar and sang, it was difficult, at times, to concentrate as right before my eyes I was witnessing a miracle – a life-long drunk sober and in his right mind holding his candle, surrounded by his family and worshiping the One who has saved him. This was the not the product of a man’s will and faithful participation in A.A. (while early on I encouraged him to check out the Tuesday group that meets at Refuge, at this point he’d rather not). No, this is what comes from a man surrendering his life to the Lord Jesus and then diving head-first into a loving, local fellowship who has embraced him as he is not as he hopes he one day will be. Unconditional love by God and men is a powerful elixir that can cure the human heart of so many of the ills that plague it.

Two weeks ago, the food packaging plant that he’s been working at since he was released from jail back in May closed due to company reorganization. He’s without work but he’s also sober. That too is a miracle. A couple of times during that Service of Lights I was tempted to stop and shout: Alleluia! People – look and see the power of God! Him [pointing toward Troy] – he was drunk last Christmas, just like he’s been drunk every Christmas before – but now, look and see! See what God can do! I didn’t. While it wouldn’t have bothered him, I’m sure it would have mortally embarrassed his kids. So I just reveled in the moment allowing this picture of a father surrounded by his kids to remind me that Jesus still saves, still heals, is still able to set captives free. That it didn’t happen overnight doesn’t make it any less miraculous. His life bears testimony of the power of God to change a life. I will continue to pray for the sick and believe for the signs and wonders of the Kingdom be displayed in our midst but I also hope to witness the miracle of new birth again and again in our fellowship in the days and years to come. Either one is evidence that the Word has become flesh and has made his dwelling among us (John 1).

Friday, December 23, 2011

Lighting Christmas

Every family I suppose has a collection of holiday rituals that are reenacted every turn of the year in either the preparation for Christmas or in celebration of it. Our family was no different. Like everyone else in our neighborhood (other than the Shultzs and the Shulmans, who were Jewish), we put up a tree and decorated it and hung up our stockings with care (but on a cardboard fireplace as our home was heated by an oil burner). We hung lights up on the evergreens in our front yard and as I recall it we had a wooden Rudolf-head that we lit by spotlight that hung on the side of the house. But as far as I knew, we were the only family on our block that had an Advent candle. An Advent candle is a candle with numbers on the side of it running from number 1 at the top to number 24 at the bottom. Every night during the month of December the candle is lit to mark the passing of days leading up to Christmas. I believe it is a custom unique to those of German descent (and that we were on my mother’s side).


First story of December
In our home the candle, which usually stood at the center of our kitchen table, was lit every night of December and then usually my mother (as my dad was usually working) would gather my brother and I - and later, my sister – together either at the table or –sometimes – in our bedroom before we went to bed and read to us a Christmas story. Every December 1st, we were read C. Clement Moore’s ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. Sometimes Dad was home and then he would read it and usually with a lot of panache and silliness. As the weeks passed leading up to December 25th we would hear stories of Christmas mice and other small critters, Frosty, Rudolf and the like. I remember one year my mom attempted to read all of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol but both my brother and I were too young to appreciate this wonderful Christmas classic. But on December 24th, when the once beautiful candle was reduced to nothing but a stub, it would be lit one final time. Before we trundled out the door heading down to Racine to spend the late afternoon and evening there with my mom’s side of the family, Dad would read the account of Jesus’ birth found in the second chapter of Luke. Only then could our Christmas celebration commence.


The last (and best) story of Christmas

As far as my family is concerned, must see TV
on Christmas Eve

When my own children were very young, my mom would ship us an advent candle to set on our table and light every night of December. We did not usually read by it (our family reading still is done in the morning before Emma heads off to school) but when it was lit it would immediately bring me back to the days of my boyhood when my mom would read to me. You don’t get many years to establish a tradition when you have small children in the house: just like our family did when I was a boy, we still celebrate St. Nick’s Day on Dec 6 (See So this is Christmas); I still hide Father Christmas (even though I often have to prod my children these days to look for him now); and following the Service of Lights on Christmas Eve we will drive the neighborhoods of Chetek viewing the lights and then return home and watch the Hanna-Barbera’s version of The Nativity (Trivia: Helen Hunt is the voice of the Virgin Mary; here’s hoping the video tape lasts one more Christmas!) But sometime in the last six or seven years the Advent candle stopped being a part of the annual Christmas care package that Grandma Martin is still faithful to send to our kids (the company she always bought them from went out of business). Now I wouldn’t be surprised if I mentioned it missing they would look at me quizzically and say, “Advent what?”


I read to other small children these days – the kids of Roselawn Elementary here in Chetek – and when I read this morning to Mrs. Bowers’ kindergarten class from Greg Hildebrandt’s A Christmas Treasury (which contains wonderfully illustrated copies of both ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas and The Nativity of Jesus) it will be my way of relighting that Advent candle that once burned every night in my boyhood home on Meadow Place. And by doing so I breathe in the aroma of Christmases past and all those yet to come.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Coming home again


Soon Bilbo’s stomach was feeling full and comfortable again, and he felt he could sleep contentedly, though really he would have liked a loaf and butter better than bits of meat toasted on sticks. He slept curled up on the hard rock more soundly than ever he had done on his feather-bed in his own little hole at home. But all night he dreamed of his own house and wandered in his sleep into all his different rooms looking for something that he could not find nor remember what it looked like. – from “Out of the Frying-Pan Into the Fire” chapter 6 of The Hobbit

Well, we’re back and so is Ed. We returned a little after midnight from our journey south to retrieve our son. We had a wonderful time in Kansas City – we enjoyed long visits with Justin and Tara (and got better acquainted with their three month old daughter, Lyla Jane, too) and Janessa, one of the small company of young people from Focus/Refuge that have been drawn to IHOP over the past few years. We attended our first regular season Packer game and even though it was a clinker for the Pack, we enjoyed a beautiful Sunday afternoon in the company of our son whom we had not seen since early October. Linda cannot visit Kansas City without venturing out on brief shopping sprees with Tara or dining out at Jack’s – as planned, she accomplished both. On the way south, we had a spur-of-the-moment extended lunch with good friends James and Jennifer Petersen in Albert Lea (Minn) and the monotony of the ride home was broken up with fun stops at Liberty (MO) and at the Trails Travel Center in Albert Lea once more with traveling companions and friends the Lamberts (who were also in Kansas City retrieving their daughter, Sarah, from the same internship) and Josh and Alex, too (young men from Refuge attending school at IHOPU). And, of course, there was the main event: being present for Ed’s graduation from the Onething Internship (OTI).
 
James and Jennifer Petersen (and some of their brood)
Looking for anybody to be open

I think of the Christmas of 1982, my first extended stay home since leaving for Bible college the August before. I had been home for a weekend here and there during that time but after being on my own, as it were, for several months, forming new friendships and beginning to be spiritually reoriented, to be home again over break felt so good and yet so...unsettling. It was good because I could enjoy the plenty of my parents' kitchen and mom's cooking. It was unsettling because even though I'd only been gone four and a half months I had been in a community that was intentionally be equipped for ministry. No doubt there was sin in our midst but my classmates and housemates were also my comrades in spiritual formation. And now that I was home, I was more sensitive to the fact that many of the same people I worshiped with were, for whatever reason, not able to sustain the devotion they expressed so exuberantly on Sunday morning. This sounds harsh but I do not mean it that way. What I mean is that come Monday, they would be back at their job or back in high school while I would be either in chapel or in a class learning how to study the Bible. So, I don't recall any kind of judgment towards them; I just felt out of place. But that “out of place”-ness was not all about them, either. Many of my new friendships were forming in that community called Christian Life College and not within the circle of Madison Gospel Tabernacle.
Janessa with Lyla Jane
Fatherhood suits him
KC and Jack Stack go together like peas and carrots

A greenhouse something like this...
The community that Ed has been a part of these past six months spiritually speaking was far more intense and energized than I recall the one I had been a part of back in Bible school days. I mean spending thirty-six (36) hours in the Global Prayer Room on a weekly basis, participating in regular fasting days and all that goes with being a member of the IHOP community as well as being essentially unplugged from TV, movies and the like for half a year has left its mark on him. He's still Ed – as far as I can perceive – still jovial, still quick to smile and laugh but at the same time his hunger for God and his passion for Jesus has multiplied. I don't discern any kind of spiritual snobbyness about him but how can you live in that environment for this extended season and not be affected by it? I think these next few weeks are going to be hard as he comes up from the deep as it were. Some of the disciplines he practiced while in Kansas City may fall away simply because there is no real community to enforce them (we still watch some TV at our house) but that is, to some degree, to be expected. He's been in a spiritual green house for a season – a temperature controlled environment designed to maximize growth – and now, now he's been placed back in the garden out back with all the other plants. Culture shock is to be expected.
Lyla is pretty like her momma
Our friends the Lamberts and their amazing daughter, Sarah

Coming up from the deep...
So he's home...and yet, understandably, he misses his friends, fellow interns, teachers and core group leaders. Praying for an hour in a prayer room anywhere for most of us we would deem that heroic. But six hours a day every day...? We who go to work or run a household would call that something for the professionals. And we'd be right, of course. A man who has a family to support and nurture needs gainful employment unless his gainful employment is doing labor like prayer and worship. Yeah...now he's back in the “real world.” But having said that I trust that what has been imparted to him will rub off some on me and the rest of us who live at 825 Fifth Street and the greater Refuge/Focus community.
Graduation day
It's official
Ed with is Core Group
This afternoon at lunch I showed him a video at YouTube I had been wanting to share with him since September when I first came across it. It's just something weird and random by the maker of “Charlie the Unicorn” called “Marshmallow People.” I was laughing hysterically through it. He laughed, too but I wonder if it was more like a courtesy-laugh for my benefit as opposed to something he found in any guise entertaining for himself. Later I felt bad. I mean, the two and a half minute video had nothing inappropriate in it (unless you call stabbing and eating a triangle man inappropriate) but I think in my hurry to get things “back to normal” I have to remember that maybe some things are not supposed to get “back” and a new normal is being established in our household. His “sight” that has been sensitized by six months of spiritual intensity may, in fact, be keener than mine right now worldling that I feel I am at times. Being around him these last few days spurs me on to know better the One who has instilled that passion in him. And for that I'm extremely grateful.
He's back

Friday, December 16, 2011

"You're Cured"


He carved her sorta like this...
At the end of October, my wife Linda had a hysterectomy. It was October 31 and before they wheeled her into surgery in her attempt at gallows humor she asked Dr. Bernard, “Well, Doc, are you gonna carve me like a pumpkin?” Everything went according to plan. For several years now she has been plagued by an irregular menstrual cycle accompanied by an unusual heavy flow. About a week later when we met with the surgeon for the post-operation appointment he informed us that the average uterus weighs 200 grams. According to the pathology report, her's had weighed 400. What's more, they had quit counting at 20 the fibrous tumors that they found within it. There was no poutyness on her part of saying good-bye to her child-bearing equipment (she did that shortly after Emma was born back in 1995). She was glad to be rid of it.

Since her three-year bout with depression back in the mid-90s, she has infrequently experienced what are usually referred to as “panic attacks” - these brief periods of time wherein your heart races, your head swims and leave you – depending upon the length of it – in need of a nap. For dealing with these odd occurrences her doctor prescribed Xanax to use as needed. On the morning she was to be discharged from the hospital following surgery, however, she had one of these. For an hour and a half her heart raced at 200 beats a minute all the while she was laying in bed. Essentially, she was running a race lying perfectly still. The good news is that they hooked her up to monitors and immediately informed us that whatever else was going on with her what she had just experienced was not a panic attack. So, an appointment was made to see a heart specialist at Luther Hospital in Eau Claire.

Do you follow?
Dr. Valverde is Peruvian (we asked) and is a prim, proper and soft-spoken man. He entered the examination room, shook our hands and asked Linda to describe what these “attacks” are like. He then got out his obligatory stethoscope, listened to her heart a few times and then said, “You have a condition called atrioventricular nodal reentry tachycardia (or AVNRT – Vanna, can I buy a vowel?)” As I understand the literature they put in our hands, the heart is an electrical machine and her's at the moment had a short in it. They would send a catheter into her heart and essentially “zap” that circuit so electricity could no longer run down that corridor and send her heart into arrhythmia. I courteously cleared my throat and asked “Um, no offense...I know you are an expert but can you really tell she has that condition just by listening to her heart for a few moments?” (I'm thinking he needs to hook her up to some machine at least). “Yes” was his curt answer. So an ablation was scheduled for early December.

This, too, went according to plan (apparently on the day Linda had her procedure, 4 other individuals had the same procedure done to them). Just the other day we sat in an examination room for her post-operative consultation with Dr. Valverde. Once again he came in and shook her hand and then mine and sat down and asked her how she felt. She informed him she was feeling good and that despite feeling her heart wanting to go into that irregular heart-beat on a few occasions since the ablation it was prevented. He thoughtfully nodded his head and said, “Well, you're cured.” 

"Well, you're cured."

We both are firm believers in healing prayer. We have never advocated anyone not going to a doctor for healing but we have come to encourage people to be prayed over as they begin something other than run-of-the-mill medical treatment. Linda herself had been prayed over on numerous occasions to be healed of both these conditions but in the absence of any improvement, medical intervention was sought. A month and a half later she is feeling wondrously better not just physically but spiritually and emotionally, too. It's just another reminder that each of us is an amazingly complex creation of not just matter and liquid but of spirit and soul, too. To treat one and ignore the other is to act like a materialist (i.e., “matter is everything”). To seek healing in the Name of Jesus Christ, however, is to trust that either via the prayer of faith or the tools that man has devised for the treatment of the ails of the human body – or both – is to show we have confidence in God's love and abiding presence with us.

She feels sorta like this these days
So, she's better. Lots better. She's lighter (well, physically maybe only 400 grams lighter) but the weight of the yoke of sickness has been lifted from her. Dr. Valverde and Dr. Bernard have done their wonders but the healing virtue of Jesus has lifted her spirits and continues to make her whole.

Right after Dr. Valverde announced quietly, “You're cured” he then said, “Let's see the groin” (it is where he had inserted the catheter after all). Linda looked at me and I smiled. Only in a hospital would a man say to another man's wife “Let's see the groin” in front of her husband as if he was asking for the time of day. If I had been faster on my feet, I would have said: “It's okay, Doc. I got this. I'm an expert at conducting that kind of exam on her.” Maybe next time...well, let's trust there is no next time.


Thursday, December 15, 2011

Eager to see Ed

Before...
Six months ago in mid-July we drove Ed down to Kansas City to begin his six-month internship at the International House of Prayer. Since that time he has spent most of his days in class, serving at the ministry center or praying in what they refer to as the Global Prayer Room, where for the last 12 years there has been day and night prayer and worship. He’s made a lot of new friends, introduced the Muffin Joke to the IHOP-KC community and has pretty much loved every minute of his time there. He graduates on Tuesday and this Saturday Linda and I will be heading south to retrieve our son. As far as we are concerned, we can’t wait.

The cleanest version of the Muffin Joke I could find on-line
I think of all that has happened since he’s been gone that he’s missed out on – “the 40” camp-out, Grandpa Darrell’s 75th soiree, Emma’s 16th Blessing Celebration, our annual visit to the Orchards, the 20 Year Celebration at Refuge, Thanks-bringing, the Indoor Marching Concert, and the Annual Candlelight Worship Service at the Wiesner Chapel. He missed all but one meet of the C-W Cross Country season, deer hunting and Thanksgiving. At each gathering, at every meet, at Refuge and at Focus, his presence has been (by me) keenly felt.
Notably absent...


The closest he got to our Thanksgiving celebration
 At first I shared his excitement of being on a new adventure and missed him in a cursory manner. But as the weeks and months have passed, my longing for his company has grown keener. I have missed the joy of bantering movie, Seinfeld, and Chad Vader quotes with him at dinnertime, his laughter after sharing the quintessential Edwardian quote “You can lead a horse to water but a pencil must be lead” for the ten thousandth time and the simple joy of watching him go out on yet another run. The long and short of it is I miss my son.


When our friends Rick & Sandy blessed us by flying him home for his mid-term break back in October, those four days were very special – he came to practice and ran with the team, he was there for Sam’s baptism, he was at Focus, he connected with former classmates and teachers. He was home. It was a sheer gift which Linda and I reveled in. Throughout this six-month season of his life fairly regularly he has either borrowed someone’s cell and phoned home (thanks, Sarah, Josh, et. Al.) or skyped us on Thursdays from Higher Grounds, the coffee shop next door to the House (of Prayer). But as neat as these mediums are there is nothing quite like being there. And soon…soon we’ll be there.



With his teammates again in early October...

...and with his fellow members of Focus
That first night he’s home-home I hope I can beat off the temptation to be like the mother in Robert Munsch’s wonderful book, Love You Forever. But in my mind’s eye I see myself doing just this very thing. I’ll try and be discreet.

I realize it is the way of things – little kids grow up to leave home and ultimately make one for themselves somewhere else. My father did it and I did, too. And I’m fully aware that this first leaving will not be his last – that he will go off to some state school or return to IHOPU and, eventually, call another place home. It is yet another reminder to me that these years that we have our children all under one roof, stressful as it can be at times, is also a gift over before we fully appreciate it.

We have tickets for the Packer-Chief game at Arrowhead Stadium this Sunday and according to the most recent weather report it’s supposed to be sunny with a high of 52. It will be my first regular season professional football game. And unless the Pack travels all that way to lay an egg, it should be an exciting atmosphere for those of us who wear the green and gold. To be there will be awesome but to be there with Linda and Ed will be, yes, priceless.


Wednesday, December 14, 2011

"Maybe we're not Christians"


The following quote is from an article I read a few years ago by an author whose name I'll share at the end of this post. When I read it, I copied it immediately for a lot of reasons. Namely because I agree with the sentiments the author expresses but also because of the irony of who it is who penned them. I re-post this segment here because I am troubled by something: I have been an evangelical Christian for 31 years now, 24 of which I have spent either training for ministry or working in it. During that time the songs we worship to have changed both in content and in style, the meeting places where we gather to sing those songs have been radically modernized, and the delivery systems by which we disseminate the message have exponentially increased. We are relevant, contemporary, casual, accessible, non-judgmental and we have Wi-Fi. If you worship at a newer evangelical fellowship there's a good chance that the theater seat you sit in will have a place to put your coffee mocha that you picked up in the foyer. But are we living any better?

If the experts are right, though we have bigger ΓΌber-churches where the saints can gather to share a worship experience in a pristine thoroughly modern facility, Christianity in America continues to decline despite all our best efforts to “grow” the Church. Our marriages fail as frequently as our pagan neighbors' do, we have many of the same financial problems they do and live, in some cases, as poorly as they do. In fact, often we look just like them. For someone who makes his living by serving as the pastor of a local fellowship, I can't help but wonder why as an aggregate we seem to have so little influence on the American landscape. Well, here's how one guy answers that question (you should know that his audience is primarily pastors and other ministry-types):

When Martin Luther lamented at the end of his life that he might not be justified, he must have seen something dark in himself in relation to the Scriptures, something that we in the modern church might be overlooking. The Scriptures say that we are to be known as followers of Christ by the evidence of our love for one another, but we’re not (see John 13:35). The Scriptures say that we are not to boast about what we have or what we have done, but we do (see Jer. 9:23-24). The Scriptures say that in the last days people will be lovers of themselves and lovers of money, and we are (see 2 Tim. 3:5, NKJV). Very often we charismatics rejoice in the power of God, and rightly so. But we subject ourselves to ridicule when we boast that we are not among those “having a form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Timothy 3:5). We claim that we have spiritual power and others don’t because of our openness to accept and operate in the gifts of the Holy Spirit. But our words fall short when our marriages don’t work, our children are wild and disobedient, and we refine the art of giving and receiving money to the point that we could qualify as the experts in greed that Peter warns about in his second letter (see 2 Pet. 2:14). We have a credibility problem. We have some wonderful churches, but increasingly, people do not seek to be connected. We have some outstanding para-church leaders, but others are seen as self-satisfied right-wing crusaders who wouldn’t hesitate to banish the Supreme Court, establish a Christian theocracy, and use the power of the state to force the non-compliant into godly living. We have some wonderful givers, but many of them have become seduced by the major donor departments of ministries who have convinced them that if they will fund one more Christian project, then the world will become a better place. Thus, churches are discouraged, para-church ministries preach to their own choirs rather than finding their intended audiences, and God’s money is squandered on projects that don’t work. It is no wonder that the secular world is hesitant to look to Christian leaders for realistic answers to today’s problems. They think that we are just another special interest group, and I doubt that they see us as bastions of wisdom and insight. Salt and light we are not.

Maybe we’re not Christians. Maybe we’re just the most popular religion of the day, using the power of persuasion, the force of our numbers, and the strength of our money to advance our ideology. Maybe we just believe whatever makes sense to us by default, and we don’t truly—as individuals and as communities of Christians—seek to be genuine disciples and to do God’s work of caring for the fatherless and the widow of our day. Could we be Pharisees? Our own books, television programs and prophecies should make us wonder. I believe that we all know and love the Word, but we live in earthly vessels with a fallen nature. We feel and see the hopes of the Spirit within, but we also end up doing the very things we do not want to do. When we preach, write, lobby, raise money, build, broadcast, threaten, sue and spin, we present conflicting images that don’t stand up very well against the tests of time and scrutiny. We are confusing the world, other Christians, and our families. This isn’t something that can be changed with a list of practical exercises. This is something that has to be dealt with deep within us by exposing ourselves to the wisdom of the Scriptures, to one another, and to God. 
 - from November 2003 issue of Ministries Today, a leading magazine for Charismatic ministry leaders.

There's more to that article but these two paragraphs touch on the matter at hand – if we are as Christian as much as we say that we are, then why does it seem so many of us live so badly? Could it be, as this individual suggests, that for all our noise to the contrary we really have yet to believe? In thirty years those first disciples went from Jerusalem to Rome with missionary zeal. Even after the martyrdom of Stephen when many of them fled the city in fear of their lives “wherever they were scattered, they preached the Message about Jesus” ( Acts 8:4, Msg). If I really believe that time is short, the Lord's return is near and with him comes blessing and reward for those who who have remained faithful and “...anger and fury on those who, in selfish pride, refuse to believe the truth and who follow what is wrong” (Rom 2:8, GWT), why do I choose to live not as a citizen of the Kingdom to come but as a worldling very much at home here?

Oh, yeah. I didn't mention the author yet. These words were written by Ted Haggard before the scandal of 2006 when he admitted to being unfaithful to his wife by having sex with a male prostitute as well as using recreational drugs. When the news broke after initial denial of the same, he admitted as much and resigned as pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs. According to his website, he submitted to the leadership of NLC and followed their counsel for restoring his marriage. After being out of the pulpit for several years he returned to Colorado Springs to begin St. James Church where he pastors today. Honestly, if I lived in that city and was looking for a fellowship to worship with I don't think it would be my first stop. But having said that if he were speaking from the pulpit of Refuge this Sunday and reiterated these very words, I would offer up an “Amen.” Because he may just be right: maybe we don't live well or Biblically because we may have “gone down the altar, knelt [Tebow-style is how we do it now] and prayed the prayer” but it's just so much talk. That we still seem committed to the same agenda we have professed to renounce demonstrates that in reality we have not really repented of our unbelief and are therefore not saved. 
 

Monday, December 12, 2011

Mary, Do You Know?

This past Saturday, members from Refuge and Chetek Alliance fellowships in our community pooled our talents and for 4 ½ hours on a beautiful moonlit night read Scripture, worshiped and interceded for our community. The site of this unique prayer gathering was the newly opened House of Prayer in Chetek located in the Courtyard right next door to the Hope and Anchor Coffeehouse. In 2009, our two congregations, with some help from two other fellowships in town, had put on a Live Nativity at Main Street Park a block away. The concept was simple: read the story from Scripture, involve some worship and add some sheep, a calf and an uncooperative mule, and from 6-11 p.m. with live actors reenact the story of the First Christmas. While few people came out to witness the event that had not really been the point: the purpose had been to simply read the Story over and over again our city one night in December. Last year the plan had been to reprise this but the historic December 11 blizzard changed all that. This year, the brain trust of Kari & Nicole felt led to take a different tack. Instead of just reading the appropriate passages from Isaiah, Matthew and Luke, why not read portions of the Jesus Story from all the Gospels and Revelation? So they put together 35 pages worth of Scripture readings interspersed with songs by the worship team made up of kids from Refuge and Alliance led by Kayla and on Saturday night gathered downtown at the House of Prayer.

The House of Prayer is not really a house – it's more like two rooms that are still being painted and decorated. So at the onset of the evening there may have been 50 people squeezed into that small space giving it the ambiance of a Christmas party more than a prayer meeting. Lots of cookies, bars and hot chocolate were on hand so that only added to the party-feel. Meanwhile out in the courtyard, a single speaker was broadcasting both whoever read Scripture on the outside and the worship team who played on the inside (cold air and playing musical instruments for an extended time do not make for a good combination.) After about an hour, both Kari and Nicole felt like a stop had to be made to the “party” and encourage people to start praying so they spoke with Rick who graciously reminded everyone what it was we were doing here. Eventually as some of the kids left and the readers kept reading and the worshipers kept worshiping, a distinct change occurred in the atmosphere inside the House of Prayer. It became more worshipful, more contemplative. Out in the courtyard, unexpectedly a couple of guys from Stringers, one of the drinking establishments in town, walked across the street and wanted to know what was going on. Troy, one of the guys from the local YWAM-Campus, had fun with that. But for the most part it was just Christians engaging in prophetic acts that not surprisingly went unheralded by those frequenting B&B next door or the aforementioned Stringers and Indianhead Bar across the street or Mary's Pub around the corner. I'm sure if we did anything it was raise eyebrows than raise awareness. But I'm okay with that – that first Christmas Luke when the shepherds ran in from the fields in their haste to find this One the angels had sung of they must have raised some eyebrows, too.




Maybe the weirdest moment of the night for me, however, was around 10 p.m. when Mary came in. Mary used to be one of our volunteers at The Garage, our local youth center and she and I, as members of the governing board, had occasion to work and interact together. She is a pleasant person who works in corrections (actually I know quite a few nice jailers) and has a heart for kids. And is a lesbian. For as long as I have known her (maybe 9 years or so) she and her partner have lived outside of Chetek. And Saturday night, exactly as Nicole was reading from the closing chapters of Revelation, she and her partner and her partner's mother walked into the House of Prayer. By that time, all of the little kids were gone and a very worshipful attitude had come upon the 20 or so people who were left. The atmosphere was anything but jolly. Most were praying silently with their eyes closed but in came this crew and headed right to the hot chocolate and began mixing some up. Mary saw where I was sitting and came over and after a quick embrace sat next to me. After the exchange of a few whispered pleasantries and bringing me up to speed on her life, I asked her: “So, Mary...what brings you here?” “We saw it in the paper and came to listen to the singing,” was her reply. There was not supposed to be any advertisement but someone at The Chetek Alert had taken it upon themselves to post a news release figuring we had forgotten to do so. So, right at the moment that people were quietly praying and Nicole was reading this -

"Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city. Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood...”

- here I sat with Mary, while trying to listen to her but also wondering to myself if she was actually hearing what was being read. My guess is she did not. When I indicated to her that most of the singing was done (it really was), she figured she would join the rest of her party who, according to Kari, had left abruptly after grabbing their hot chocolate. We'd like to think it was the convicting power of the Holy Spirit at work that produced their rapid departure but it could have very well been that what they saw perplexed them – a woman reading from something outside while everyone sitting in Quaker-like silence on the inside. It probably was weird for them, too.




Since Saturday night I've wondered to myself, “What was that all about?” Was it just an odd coincidence? A freak occurrence that out of the thousands of locals who saw that news release only two people committed to what the Bible calls an immoral lifestyle actually stopped by to see the “show”? I didn't try and engage Mary in a conversation about eternal things. I just made small talk. Anyway, she caught me in the middle of my own prayer reverie when she came in and I'm usually not that quick on my feet. Maybe I was supposed to say something after all. Or maybe the Lord was putting a face on this passage of Scripture so that I would be provoked to care more and thus pray more for God's kingdom to come to our city for Mary's sake and her partner's sake and for all who live here who are in danger of being found on the outside when His kingdom ultimately comes in its fullness.