My name is Jeff and I'm a pastor of a small, local, Christian fellowship

It's a wonderful thing to love your work; to know that when you do it you are doing something that you were born to do. I am so fortunate to be both. I don't say I am the best at what I do. God knows that are so many others who do it better. But I do feel fairly lucky to be called by such a good God to do work I can only do with his help, to be loved by a beautiful woman, and to have a workshop where I can work my craft. These musings of mine are part of that work.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Being born again on Sunday

Here the Beaver's voice sank into silence and it gave one or two very mysterious nods. Then signalling to the children to stand as close around it as they possibly could, so that their faces were actually tickled by its whiskers, it added in a low whisper – 'They say Aslan is on the move – perhaps has already landed.'” from “A Day with the Beavers” in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

This past Sunday at Refuge we had a pretty unusual thing occur during our weekly worship gathering. In fact, in nearly twenty years of pastoring I have never experienced this sort of thing - a guy asked to make a public confession of Jesus Christ. Over the last two decades serving Chetek Full Gospel/Refuge we've had a fair amount of people who at the request of some evangelist or myself have closed their eyes, bowed their heads and raised their hands to receive Jesus into their heart. I think of Kale, one of our worship leaders, or my son, Ed. But never have I had an individual make such a deliberate request to do so in such a public manner. And when he did even the ones who tend to get drowsy during the scope of our usual two hour service sat up and took notice.

Most fourth Sundays of the year I'm here
I'm a volunteer chaplain at the Barron County Justice Center. Once a month since the place opened up back in 2004 – and always on the fourth Sunday – I have been leading one or two worship gatherings in the afternoon depending on how many sign up for church. Usually, I have follow-up requests from inmates to visit either once or regularly until they are released. When it comes to the worship gatherings, I never prepare a text or a message. I just bring my Bible and my guitar, strap it on, begin playing and see where things take me. Like off-roading for ATVers. So this past January, on the fourth Sunday, what I remember about that particular day is that there were two services at the jail and at both I shared my faith story. As those things go, mine's a pretty bland tale – no drugs, no booze, no loose women. Just a good church-going kid, who for the most part kept his nose clean in high school but did not know God. But that warm Friday night back in April 1980 when I met Bill I had a conversation that changed the course of my life.

Bill asked me two things – If I were to die tonight would I go to heaven? (“Yeah, I think I would...”) and If I were to die tonight and I were to stand before God and he were to ask me, “Why should I let you into my heaven?” how would you answer? (“Um...I'm a good person?...ah...I go to church? the president of my youth group?...”) I don't remember much of the rest of that conversation but I can vividly recall driving home that night and being certain of this: Up until that moment, I thought I knew God. But after meeting Bill I realized I only knew about Him while he actually knew Him. And so I prayed a prayer that went like this, “God, I want to know You like that man knows You.” A week or so later, Bill's daughter gave me a gospel tract to read which had a prayer attached to it to receive Jesus into my heart - which I did. But I think my pilgrimage really began that night driving home from Bill's house. So, this is what I shared on that fourth Sunday of January a few months ago.

What I also recall about that afternoon was that my needle, as it were, was stuck. I hammered the point home that a person, no matter how good they are, is not good enough for heaven on their own merit. Troy was in that service that day and by Tuesday afternoon – two days later – we were meeting in Personal Visitation #2 to discuss the very things I had addressed on Sunday afternoon. Troy is a 40-year old guy who began using when he was six. Since he turned 18 he's been in and out of jail for alcohol-related charges. In early January he had violated the terms of his probation putting him back inside once again. Down and discouraged though he was, with a little gentle prodding by one of his dorm mates he had reluctantly signed up for church that day I came. My story captivated him. And scared him because he was convinced that he was not ready for heaven.

Over the next several months, Troy and I met every Tuesday for 30-45 minutes discussing spiritual things. During March I was out of the country and by May, he had graduated to Huber privileges. Scheduled to be released on May 29, he wanted to meet with me one more time. I really needed to give myself to Ed's graduation party prep but wanting to touch base with him I agreed to do so. “My plan is to be at Refuge this coming Sunday.” Every time I'm at the jail I always extend the same invitation: “When you get out of here, if you don't have a local fellowship we want you to know that you are more than welcome to try us out. We may not be your cup of tea...but if you want to be healthy you're going to have to find some place to drink tea!” Over the years I've only had a few guys take me up on that offer but save one, they have never stayed. Troy was released on a Friday and that Sunday he showed up for worship just as he had promised. I had tried to prepare him for what he should expect but he had no church rubric to compare with given that he had only attended a Methodist church when he was a little guy. But when I opened up the altar for prayer that Sunday morning, Troy made a B-line for it, bowed down and began praying. With the exception of the 4th of July weekend when he was working he has been doing the same every Sunday since.

A few weeks after he got out I suggested that we resume what we had been doing when he had been “inside” - meet together to study the Bible and pray together. He readily agreed and so most Fridays since we have done just this. Sometimes his wife joins us and sometimes his son, Alex, but mostly it's been Troy, his pug dog Mack and me getting together, opening our Bibles and finding what the Spirit has to share with us. On the week we took Ed to IHOP, we met on a Tuesday since we would be leaving the following morning. And that was the day he asked me, “Del told me he was born again. So what does it mean to be born again?” Del had been one of his dorm mates – the same guy who had encouraged Troy to go to church that fourth Sunday in January. Even though I'm sure we had discussed this before, we turned to John 3 and began to review the story again:

There was a man named Nicodemus who was one of the Pharisees and an important Jewish leader. One night Nicodemus came to Jesus and said, "Teacher, we know you are a teacher sent from God, because no one can do the miracles you do unless God is with him."

Jesus answered, 'I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot be in God's kingdom.'”
Nicodemus said, 'But if a person is already old, how can he be born again? He cannot enter his mother's womb again. So how can a person be born a second time?'”
But Jesus answered, 'I tell you the truth, unless you are born from water and the Spirit, you cannot enter God's kingdom. Human life comes from human parents, but spiritual life comes from the Spirit. Don't be surprised when I tell you, “You must all be born again.” The wind blows where it wants to and you hear the sound of it, but you don't know where the wind comes from or where it is going. It is the same with every person who is born from the Spirit.'” John 3:1-8, NCV

We talked at length of Nicodemus' predicament – here's a religious guy who knows the Law backwards and forwards and has met the first requirement of heaven – he's been born. But one thing he lacks – his spirit made dead by sin must be born anew by the Spirit of God. “I think you're probably there” I suggested even though he and I had never officially prayed together about that very matter. “No, I don't think so,” he countered. “Nope. I'm not there yet.” So, I left it at that for the time being.

The following Sunday morning while I was sitting in the sound booth helping Kale level out the mics he came up to me and said, “I can't get it out of my head. Ever since we spoke it's been bugging me so I think I want to be born again.” Understand, I don't get told that sort of thing very often. In fact, I get that request hardly ever. So I looked up from what I was doing and asked, “Now?” “No, I think I want to be born again next Sunday.” On the principal of carpe diem (i.e., seize the day) I gently persuaded him, “Why not today?” To wit he replied, “I want my family here to see this and they said they would come if I would be born again.” Then I asked, “Do you want to do it before the service or after it?” “No,” he said, “During the service would be good.” So, we set the date accordingly. Later that morning, he was particularly being touched at the altar and a few of the guys attempted to pray with him to receive Jesus but he gently held to his original decision: “I want my family here to be a part of it,” he insisted.

Last Friday, Linda was with me and as we walked up to their trailer, I half expected to find that he had talked himself out of his decision. But on the contrary we found him more determined than ever. His wife, his son and his daughter from Barron was planning to be present as well as her kids. Knowing how our mutual enemy likes to rain on people's parades, I warned him to not be surprised if his family has a big fight that morning taking whatever want-to to attend worship together right out of them. But he was adamant: “Even if they won't come with me, I'm going to be born again on Sunday. To me, I figure it's like getting married. You can't be private about that sort of thing.” Clearly, Troy has another Teacher who has been schooling him in these matters.

Lost kid gets found
So Sunday morning came and as promised here was Troy and a good many of the members of his family present to witness him be born again. It was a small crowd – many were gone on vacation or elsewhere – but we worshiped and, as his habit has been, he came to the altar to pray during that time in the gathering. I think he was the only one, in fact, but he came all the same. When it was message-time, I opened up to Luke 15 and began to share about meeting Troy at the jail and how we had been talking about spiritual things for quite awhile. I then invited him up and over the next 15-20 minutes I interviewed him. Troy was very candid about his story and about his failures but was ready now to make a profession of faith. Before we did, however, I opened the floor to those gathered and encouraged anyone who wanted to offer him any encouragement as he took this step. As expected, several people responded with filial counsel as ones who are trying to walk with Jesus as well. I then invited Troy to stand at the altar and any who would stand with him. Over a dozen Refuge-es came to stand around him and join him as he prayed my made-up-on-the-spot version of “the sinner's prayer.” When it was over, people began to clap spontaneously – one even stood to their feet – joining in with celebration that was no doubt going on in the heavenlies at that very moment. 

Last Sunday was the fourth Sunday of July which meant that once again I was heading to the Justice Center that afternoon. Just like a guy who's learned that he's just become a dad, I went excited to tell those inmates who had signed up for worship that day what God had did that morning. Such was the power of Troy's story that even telling it second-hand it provoked six people make first-time requests to see me this past Tuesday. It took me all afternoon too meet with these drug dealers and users and a few others who after hearing about Troy found it possible to hope for themselves again.
I love going to jail
For me, one of the coolest things about his story is that little tid-bit about his dorm mate, Del. Del is a Christian who got into some trouble (not all of it his own making) and will be inside until this fall. Prior to going in, a relative connected with Rick and Sandy, a couple from Refuge, asked if they could meet with him prior to his incarceration. They met with him three or four times praying for him and asking that God would use him while he was locked up. He had been at the Justice Center maybe six months before Troy arrived. It was Del who had encouraged Troy to sign up for worship that fourth Sunday in January and when his heart had been pricked with conviction of the Holy Spirit who did he have to turn to? Del, of course. In fact, those first few weeks of meeting with Troy was made easier simply having a man on the inside fielding his many questions. Though we hardly knew each other we were working in tandem to point this man to Jesus. How cool is that?

Jesus is still saving people. He's still healing and ridding people of unclean spirits. He's still traveling from burb to burb teaching and preaching “the gospel of the kingdom and healing every sickness and every disease among the people” (Matt 9:35, KJV). Though it may feel at times like we, personally, are working in the middle of a Narnian winter devoid of Christmas, Aslan is, indeed, on the move. Jesus said as much, “My Father never stops working, and so I keep working, too” (John 5:17, NCV). And every time we are graced to partake in helping someone make a profession of faith or pray for someone who begins to experience freedom from tormenting devils it's a reminder that the Kingdom of God is at hand.


Sunday, July 24, 2011

When the chicks begin to fly the coop

Fly the coop (mainly American)
to leave somewhere, especially to leave your home for the first time in order to live away from the family

Last night we went to bed with a house with only four people in it – Charlie, Emma, Linda and I. It's not like it hasn't happened before. Through the middle school and high school years camp, school outings and the occasional sleep-over have reduced our household by three or more. But last night, maybe for the first time, Linda and I experienced what will be our new normal at least for the immediate future. We have entered the beginning stages of becoming “empty-nesters.”

Packed and raring to go
A week or so ago, we drove Ed down to Kansas City, MO so that he could begin a six-month internship at the International House of Prayer there. On a hot, Thursday morning we moved him into his apartment, helped him get his clothes and things situated and then connected at Applebees for lunch with our friends the Lamberts who were there to do the same with their daughter, Sarah. It was like a collective “last supper” together. After lunch, Sarah jumped in our car and together we went in search for a Wal-Mart to buy things like laundry soap and the like. Then after dropping Sarah off back at the House of Prayer, we tooled over to Justin and Tara's house, former Refuge-es, to rest a bit before dinner and the orientation to follow. The plan had been to join Ed for dinner in the cafeteria at the main complex on Red Bridge Road with all the other interns and their parents but apparently there was a little mix-up between the kitchen and administration because when we arrived, the queue was decidedly all interns. Not wanting to seem like we needed to hold Ed's hand, we told him we would meet him after dinner and we stepped outside and grabbed something at Higher Grounds next door (as well as ran into our girls who were down in Kansas City attending the Fascinate Young Adult Conference).

Outside the door of his new digs
After dinner, we drove over to IHOPU to attend orientation. Linda became quiet and pensive knowing that the time for saying good-bye was nearing. Orientation was held in a large room that was already buzzing with idle chatter as we entered. The set-up was awkward to say the least. They had arranged 9 large circles around the room for the interns to sit and be oriented by what is referred to as their Core Leaders. There were chairs for parents placed just outside the circle so that we could listen in but it felt like we were spectators at some kind of athletic event. The guy who is over the Onething Internship (OTI) introduced himself as well as a dozen other leaders and asked each to share their heart for the next six months. Almost to a man (there were women leaders as well), however, they each said the same thing: “We hope your son or daughter has encounter with the God who loves them.” Well, duh...that's why he's here. I'd rather had heard what a normal day in the life of an IHOP intern would look like and what kinds of classes he would be attending. And then the guy said, “We're going to be filling out forms and the like for the next three hours. You're welcome to stay but we just want you to know it's going to be awhile.” And just like that it was clear this was the time to exit stage right. So, I whipped out my video camera, had him record a few thoughts and then hugged him and we exited the room. We drove over to Justin and Tara's home and they took us out for ice cream but that night as we lay in bed, the pang of separation was keenly felt by both of us.
Ah, those were the days...
Christine's new place
Last Friday, we helped Christine move her things and clothes into the house she will be sharing with Hope, a young woman from Refuge. At 23 years of age, she has been despairing that she would ever get out of the house but about a month ago Hope approached her with an offer. While she's not out of Chetek yet, at least she's one block further away from home. Grandma Martin bought her first two new pieces of furniture – a nightstand and dresser – but assembly was required. The nightstand was easy but the dresser became a consuming event for Friday afternoon and evening. We may have not been making clocks, as the guy who remodeled my house loved to always quip, but we put that thing together at least twice before we moved it into her room.

Moving day
Emma stayed with her Friday night but last night was her first night “on her own” in her new home. Of course, a severe thunderstorm came through our area around 10:30 p.m. causing the sirens to go off and when lightning struck a nearby utility pole knocking out power all over town, I realized we had never discussed where she should hide in case of such a scenario. So I tried to reach her on her cell phone to no avail. She called around 11 asking for the number for the power company but we assured her that they were aware and were working the problem. The rain was coming down in a torrential downpour and the wind was gusting and suddenly I had the urge to run down the street and stay with her until the storm passed. But, she sounded okay on the phone and reckoning that sooner or later she would have to deal with just this kind of trouble, I turned over and went to sleep.

After 10 days of not hearing anything from Ed other than the few items he posted on his Facebook page, he called yesterday. He sounded good and he was excited to share with us some highlights from his life at IHOP thus far. Linda was on one extension and I on the other as we plied him with questions ranging from how he was adjusting to his roommates (“great!”) to his first successful completion of his laundry (“Mom, is it better to put my pink shirt with whites or darks?”) He told me he had figured out a running route down there but when he told me his plan to run between “the House,” as it is frequently referred to, and FCF (Forerunner Christian Fellowship), I immediately reminded him to run facing traffic knowing how busy both Red Bridge and Grandview Roads are and suggested he try a few of the quieter neighborhoods nearby. This letting-go thing isn't easy.

When we had three in diapers (three! - and all in cloth diapers at that), sweet old ladies at church would pat Linda on the shoulder and say, “Enjoy these years, honey, because one day you'll miss this.” To wit Linda would often mutter when they were out of earshot, “I can't wait to miss these days.” For years, my dad has been warning me, “Enjoy your kids and all this activity because one day your house is going to be a whole lot quieter.” I never disagreed with him. In fact, I have thoroughly delighted in the litany of concerts and plays and athletic events our kids have been involved in through their growing up years (okay, I admit, I wasn't a fan of the traveling basketball team that Christine was on when she was in middle school). Back in May following the conclusion of the Sectional track meet where Ed ran his last race as a high school athlete, both Linda and I felt like weeping (and did) because we realized that it was over. While there will be other Chetek-Weyerhaueser athletes to cheer for, never again will our son wear the purple and black. Last night, as Linda and I laid in bed listening to the rain pound upon the roof she said, “Two of our babies have left the nest.” Yeah. And this is just the beginning – by next summer, Emma will be posing for her senior pictures. Where does it go?

Our last meal together for awhile
When we were down in Kansas City, a good friend of mine messaged me on Facebook and asked me how it was going. I shared with her some of the emotions we both were experiencing to wit she replied,
“It's hard but I guess that's what we raise them to do. Most of our life is an adult. The window is so short that we have them. We forget it's a gift.” It's so true. We take for granted what a blessing it is to sit down with your family and enjoy a simple meal. Like we did the night before the girls left for Fascinate. It was a Monday night and fish sticks were on the menu. It suddenly occurred to me that this would be the last time we would all be together for awhile – the girls were leaving in the morning, we would be traveling to Kansas City the day afterward and when we returned, Christine would be moving out. I'm sure we're going to have dinner together again but we have crossed a certain threshold. After dinner we walked down to Dairy Queen for dessert, quoting movie lines, laughing and playing an impromptu game of tag as we have played for years running (Charlie has long since lost any pleasure in the thing). When we got back home, the kids were heading off to the drive-in when Ed suggested we pray together as a family given this would be the last time we would be together for awhile. As he began to pray, he also began to cry thanking God for his family and all the wonderful times we have shared together through the years. His tears provoked a chain reaction in the rest of us – save Charlie – as we each took our turn in giving thanks. Charlie's response to this display was pragmatic: “Can we go now?” He was eager, after all, to see Cars 2 at the drive-in. And that's how our last evening together for awhile ended – with the kids piling into the van and driving off to the movies and mom and dad busying themselves in the garden or sweeping off the porch.

Oh, that terrible storm we had last night? Lightning not only struck the utility pole near their house – it struck their house. Christine first called home early this morning describing a very blackened outlet. Since I wasn't there she reached me at the office and she reported it being “a little smoky” and that it was “sparking a bit”. Honestly, I didn't think too much about it but before I drove home to get cleaned up for worship I stopped in at her place to check things out. When I walked into her kitchen, I knew something was amiss. There was a tinge of burnt something in the room and the outlet had definitely been fried. When I hit the breaker to reset power to the kitchen, however, fire flared out of the outlet. It died down right away but I took her cell and quickly dialed 911. I just wanted someone from the fire department to look at it. But within five minutes there were two fire trucks, an ambulance and a full complement of EMTs, a police officer and about a dozen firefighters on scene. One night out on her own and already we have drama (though not of her own making.) They suspect that thing had smoldered all night long so it could have been far worse.

Ed will be back come Christmas after the completion of his internship. And so may Christine depending on the job market or other unseen factors. But there's no turning back the clock. Our little chicks are flapping their wings in anticipation of flying the coop. And as my dad reminded me just tonight, not only are they getting older I am too.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Pontooning with the Breakfast Club

The left front pontoon went under the Agnes D, stopped dead in the water and turned to port. They had reached the edge of the laws of physics. They lurched to the starboard side and both pontoons went under and there – in full view of the town – the boat pitched forward and dumped some ballast: eight Lutheran ministers in full informal garb took their step for total immersion.” - from “Pontoon Boat” in Leaving Home – A Collection of Lake Wobegon Stories by Garrison Keillor

One of my favorite stories from Lake Wobegon has got to be “Pontoon Boat”. It's the rather farcical tale of how twenty-four Lutheran ministers on a tour of rural Minnesota studying the pastoral needs of small towns end up on Wally Bunsen's 26-foot pontoon boat out on Lake Wobegon. “Sprinklers” the lot of them, by defying the laws of physics they briefly dabble in the domain of the Baptists when Wally's boat, the Agnes D, capsizes. As Keillor explains, there they were “...twenty-four ministers standing up to their smiles in water, chins up, trying to understand this experience and its deeper meaning.” Ever since I heard it the first time, I can't take a ride on a pontoon boat without thinking of this yarn. So the other day when Pastor Norm suggested that we conduct our weekly prayer meeting from his pontoon boat, I was chuckling already at the prospect of joining the brethren out upon the waters of Lake Chetek.

Our usual Tuesday digs
For eight or nine years now “the Breakfast Club” (as I refer to ourselves) have met at the back table at Bob's Grill every Tuesday morning for prayer and fellowship. This is no meeting. This is a gathering of brothers and sisters who share a common faith in the Lord Jesus and a desire to see his transforming love visit the town we all call home. Our agenda is always the same: enjoy breakfast together and then pray for one another and for His work in our community. Over the years our numbers have waxed and waned depending on appointments, vacations or other obligations or what Keillor would refer to as “the shyness” of a particular minister. Frankly, there are some guys who are just not “joiners.” They prefer to keep to themselves or to their own kind. But most who throw in their lot with us find friendship and a sense of common cause in the work of Jesus' ministry in this city.

Pastor Norm, our skipper
A few years ago, Pastor Norm invited us all to join him for a ride on his pontoon boat and from that platform we saw our town from a different angle and with a fresh perspective. So as he drove us around we talked and prayed and worshiped and asked God to pour out His Spirit on our area. The waters of Lake Chetek by mid-summer are typically green – too much algae, not enough rain fall, not enough oxygen in the water, too much nitrogen and phosphates finding their way to the lake. In fact, most of the locals don't even swim here. And I don't know a pastor who baptizes any in our waters, either. The one and only time that I did (very early in my ministry here), I recall shooing the five individuals up to the bathhouse to shower off right away lest they contract “swimmer's itch.” There's something oxymoronic in that when you have just referred to the cleansing waters of baptism. But inspired by 2 Chronicles 7:14 (i.e., “If my people...will pray...and turn...then...I will forgive their sins and heal their land”) and George Otis, Jr.'s Transformation Videos (here's a link to a trailer of one of them: that speak of documented revivals from around the world that have resulted not only in conversions but in the very transformation of the landscape, we have been asking God to heal our waters as well as the spiritual contour of our community.

Last week, Norm suggested we ride the waters again and so the day before yesterday, on a humid, gray morning, eight of us climbed aboard his boat to engage in conversation and prayer. As our skipper slowly steered our boat in the direction of the dam, instead of engaging in light-hearted banter as we are often wont to do, the quietness of the lake provoked a comfortable silence among us. Norm, a 78-year old stalwart soldier of Jesus who this past January lost his beloved wife of 52 years, Karen, began talking about “the thinness” of the veil that separates us from what Paul refers to as “the heavenlies” and what we know as corporeal reality. He got a little misty-eyed as he shared about how near God actually is though we often proceed through our day totally unaware of his presence. I was struck with the quiet authority in his voice and whether it was that most of us hadn't had our morning coffee yet or the stillness of the lake, for a moment it felt like he was our rabbi and we his disciples and class was in session. As we slowly puttered up and down the lake between the dam and the long bridge our conversation meandered casually between spiritual matters, the depth of the lake, how church had gone last Sunday and the history of certain homes.

I laughed with the guys about the thought I was struck with last Sunday morning before our worship gathering began. It occurred to me that our congregation would be made up of loosely of two groups that morning: the group returning from Kansas City afire with enthusiasm from their recent encounter with Jesus there and those showing up dead on their feet hoping for a good worship experience that morning to pick them up. The contingent of those returning from the Fascinate young adult conference had just spent nearly a week with 5,000 others being led into worship by accomplished and talented leaders and sitting under anointed teaching. While they were there, they had drank deep of God's manifest presence and he had, as we Pentecostals like to say, “showed up.” Now as they walked into the sanctuary at Refuge on hot, humid morning, there would be no band, no lights, no smoke, no temperature controlled room, no Matt Gilman or Corey Asbury. It would be just Kale on a guitar backed by his wife and my daughter as singers. And it was warm in the sanctuary. Instead of Mike Bickle or Corey Russell or Lou Engle (there is only one of him!), it would be just Pastor Jeff as usual. On the other side of the aisle, there were those who were not coming to worship “tanked up” but profoundly dry and with that look in their eyes that says, “Move me.” The thought of it made me laugh as we circled up to pray before the gathering began. It would be like two storm fronts converging and whichever was the strongest would most likely hold sway. Which brought us back to the conversation topic of the moment, the nearness of God in our everyday life. So often for me, he doesn't feel that near or close.

Looking toward the dam
A little ways before the dam, we began to pray as we do every Tuesday morning, praying together in concert that God would send, in Pastor Kirk's favorite expression, “a heaven-sent, Holy Ghost revival” - a move of God that not only would fire us up but transform the very culture of our city. Every summer thousands of tourists come to our area to recreate, to relax, to find solace away from their lives in Chicago or the Twin Cities. In some way, Chetek is already a city of refuge – certainly it is for those who summer here. We asked again the other morning that God would make us that in the spiritual arena as well – believing for a day that thousands come to our area and experience repentance “...that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord” (Acts 3:19, NASB). In fact, none of the things we prayed for the other morning were any different than the things we have prayed for on countless Tuesday mornings before – just some guys who minister primarily in small congregations asking as Isaiah once did himself, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down...” (64:1).

the long bridge
After we landed, we said our good-byes wishing each other a good day and a good week. Each of us had things that needed our attention or people to tend to and while it's impossible to gauge how effective our prayers were out upon the lake that morning, we certainly left built up and encouraged in our work. Pastoring is difficult work at times. You often feel like a lone cheerleader in front of the home crowd whose team is getting their butt kicked again trying to rally everyone to lift up a shout. You sometimes identify with Elijah exhausted and dejected in the cave complaining to God, “I'm the only one left...” It's not true. No matter how it looks sometimes devoted saints may be found all over the place who remain faithful to the Lord Jesus and who love their pastor and the church they belong to. But this group of guys (which includes Pastor Carrie) encourages me in my work simply by being with them and tooling around on Norm's pontoon. We didn't go overboard that morning but when the ride was over we were all, like those fictitious Lutheran ministers standing in Lake Wobegon, heading up the hill with smiles on knowing that we, too, though perfectly dry, had been touched by the goodness of God.

The Breakfast Club (minus Pastor Carrie and few others)

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Geocaching in Grandview, MO 64030

Caching, from the word cache, has two different meanings, which makes it very appropriate for the activity. A french word invented in 1797, the original definition referred to a hiding place someone would use to temporarily store items. The word cache stirs up visions of pioneers, gold miners, and even pirates. Today the word is still even used in the news to describe hidden weapons locations.”
from The Complete Idiot's Guide® to Geocaching, Second Edition

Real soul food found here
Most people I know come to Grandview, MO for one reason alone: to either attend a conference at IHOP or go to school there. Of course, by IHOP I don't mean the national restaurant chain of pancake fame but the International House of Prayer, the ministry center that has been carrying on night and day prayer for over 12 years now in expectation of the soon return of the Lord. Since 2003, perhaps two thirds of the people from our fellowship have either participated in a conference there (many have made that 1,000 mile round trip several times) or been a student at one of the various schools that make up IHOPU. But other than a few of the local eateries (Fiorella's Jack Stack Barbeque in nearby Martin City is a must stop), I know little else of this city of 25,000 whose real claim to fame is that it was the home for a while of America's 33rd President, Harry S. Truman. Last week when we brought Ed down to IHOP so that he could begin a six-month internship there, I had a small window of time that was not committed to either getting him oriented or visiting with those from Refuge who now live there. I probably should have spent those two hours “soaking” in the House of Prayer as the saying goes. I certainly could use it. But instead, I opted to get my little hand-held Garmin eTrex GPS out of my black case and do a little exploring around the neighborhood. 
This ain't bad food, either


Harry once lived there, too
Most “muggles” - the geocaching term for “non-cachers” - do not realize that all around them lie all sorts of caches hid by fellow members of this growing community of techno explorers. And sure enough, after surfing over to, typing in Grandview's zip code and specifying my parameters as all caches within a 10 mile radius, several hundred caches appeared on the map. I chose the five closest to my location, plugged in the longitude and latitude codes for each, and went hunting.

Edna Duckworth Memorial
Harry helped bury some of these people
If you're an IHOPU student or intern, you frequent Forerunner Christian Fellowship (FCF) a lot. It is not only the site of the EGS (Encountering God Service) on Friday night but is also where the IHOP community gathers for worship on Saturday night and Sunday morning. Located just a few miles from the International House of Prayer on Red Bridge Road, there is a lot of shuttling between the places that occurs especially on the weekend. To the immediate north of FCF is Grandview Assembly of God. And right across the road to the east is Blue Ridge Cemetery, a small plot of several dozen graves about the size of my backyard. It is also the site of the first hide on my radar, the Edna Duckworth Memorial. It's a fairly easy find, what cachers refer to as a “Catch and Grab”, and also a “micro” - what is known in the caching community as a container on the smallish side that usually contains nothing more than a rolled paper log for you to sign and fortunately for me there's space enough for one more signature. “Who's Edna Duckworth?” you ask. I have no idea but just to clarify – you do not need to disturb Edna to find the hide. This is not only considered bad form for geocachers but it's also illegal. Micros are frequent hides in cemeteries and are usually located in a tree or a bush located near, in this case, Edna's grave. If you like old graveyards, this is worth a stop just for that reason alone for while the grounds are kept up, many of the stones no longer stand but lay prone over the plot of the deceased they were erected to memorialize. One little bit of trivia about the place, as I learned later, is that Harry Truman actually helped dig a few of the graves when he lived just across the way between 1906-1917.
Here Lies Edna

One of Edna's neighbors

A TRU Micro MAN (with a serendipitous tour of The Truman Farm House)
Located less than a tenth of a mile from Blue Ridge Cemetery was the next cache on my list but the only way to get there is to back track on Grandview Road to the stop lights at the intersection of Grandview and Blue Ridge Roads and turn left. My Garmin led me to a stretch of scrub to the immediate south of the Truman Farm. According to StealthRT (every cacher has a handle) who is responsible for the hide, the cache is not located on National Park Service grounds. So I parked my car on an abandoned road, grabbed my walking stick, which doubles as a prod for poking into thick underbrush, and went searching. Within a few hundred feet of my car, my Garmin informed me I was at or near ground zero. Micros come in all kinds of shapes and sizes but usually are small pill bottles wrapped up in camo tape. But after a search of 10 or more minutes, I came up empty. This, too, is part of caching – sometimes you find and sometimes you don't. It did look like some city crew had been doing some serious trimming of the trees lately and so possibly it had been attached to one of the branches that now are lying all over the ground. Or I just missed it. So after a fruitless search, I decided to get on the other side of the scrub line and wander over the grounds of the Truman Farm. While doing just that, a National Park Service ranger named Sheila came up to me and asked if I wanted to go on a tour of the house. At only $4 admission, how could I say no?

The Truman Farm
For a great overview of the place, go to but one of the best reasons to take the tour that morning for me was pragmatic:I wanted to get out of the 90+ degree blistering heat. It was delightfully cool on the inside and the tour consisted of Sheila, a guy from Dallas and me which meant it was a very informative, leisurely stroll through this 100+ year home where Harry spent most of his 20s before heading off to war in 1917. Not all the furniture is original. In fact, much of it are authentic replicas of the very pieces that used to be in the house but they helped me visualize Harry sitting at the piano playing for the innumerable guests he often entertained or pouring over the books at his desk keeping a watchful eye on wasteful spending on the farm. This was, after all, his claim to fame and what put him on the national radar. During World War II the “Truman Committee” was responsible for weeding out wasteful spending in the War Department. According to his mom, it was on the farm in Grandview where he developed a knack for that sort of thing.

Where Harry once lived
But the neatest find for me on this tour came the moment that Sheila had me and the guy from Dallas look out the second story window right outside Mary Jane Truman's (his sister's) bedroom. From there you could look due west toward what is now Blue Ridge Road. On the far side of the road is the Western Sizzlin Steakhouse and way in the back of their parking lot which exits onto Grandview Road are two large stone pillars. In my previous travels to Grandview, I have passed these odd looking posts dozens of time never knowing that they mark the original entrance to the Truman Farm. Up until the night of May 20, 1957 when an F-5 tornado 70 miles in length devastated the region the long boulevard leading up to the farm house was lined by maple trees which had been planted by Harry's grandparents.

The original entrance
After the tour, I strolled a little more on the grounds and then walked the quarter mile or so over to those stone pillars and tried to imagine that stately lane shaded by magnificent maples. How it must have shone like fire in the fall of the year.

Mapleview Park
Woodfield Off of I-5
My window was closing quickly which meant that I only had time for one more cache. So returning to my car, I pulled out on to Blue Ridge and headed south and then headed east on Harry Truman Drive following the needle of my Garmin. On the other side of US 71, I took a right onto E 125th Street and simply followed this road until it ended at Mapleview Park, one of the many small parks in Grandview. To the south was the picnic shelter and playground area but dead ahead was a wide trail that my unit was begging me to follow. Within a couple of hundred feet, the needle took a short dip to the south and there stood a very impressive tree buried in all kinds of vines and other growth, a prime place to hide a cache and sure enough, “x” marked the spot. In the nook of this massive monster was hidden a small, traditional cache about the size of a Vaseline bottle. It was pretty light in swag – only a rubber ball and a racing car - and while it is customary to exchange goods, I enhanced the cache with several of the doodads that I carry on me when I am out hunting. It was about that time that Linda texted “Where are you?” informing me that my window for exploration was now closed.
Can I help it if he likes the car?

Hides #4 and #5 will have to wait for another day. Now that Ed is down there for at least the next six months, perhaps this fall if we're there for a visit I can take another stab at A TRU Micro MAN as well as Slaughter of the gods Grandview (#4) and Zodiac (#5). I never made it to the International House of Prayer on this trip. The closest I got to it was its entryway in search of directions to where orientation for IHOP interns was being held. I probably would have been wise to squeeze an hour or two in but I don't feel guilty for spending those two hours the way I did either. I made a few discoveries of a different kind and while they won't transform my life they certainly enhance it.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Company We Keep

Trying to talk sense to Marie
You hang around with coconuts, you get nowhere. They're lemons
Hang out with nice people, you get nice friends.
Hang out with smart people, you get smart friends.
Hang out with yo-yo people, you get yo-yo friends.
It's simple mathematics.
Rocky to Marie in Rocky

It happens every fall: good Christian kids sprout wings and head off to college or leave for boot camp. And their parents who are left behind struggle with the same fear: that their regular church-going child who generally keeps their nose clean will fall into bad company and become tainted. That this very scenario is, in fact, played out again and again doesn't help these same parents feel any better about dropping their kid off at school and driving away. Because truly the company we keep affects the conduct of our life more than we realize.

I think about that moment in Abraham's life when Lot, having chosen the greener pastures of the plain, leads his herds away (Genesis 13:11). That kid has been the closest thing to a son he's ever had. He joined him on the great migration from Ur to Canaan. He took the Egyptian detour with him and, when he had been given his walking papers from there, “Lot went with him” (Genesis 13:1). Their travels and trials they had shared certainly had bonded them together as much as lineage had. But in Lot literally throwing in his lot with the “cities of the plain”, there is something more than a change in scenery going on. He is renouncing his uncle's way of life – the simple life of a herdsmen living remotely in the hill country comfortably far from the urban trade centers in the valley below. Abram's routine of pitching his tent and building an altar (Genesis 12:8) perhaps is too austere for a young guy with Lot's aspirations. So while the parting of the ways was a pragmatic and amicable solution to a very real problem of resources, it was bound to happen. Though related by blood, these guys are captivated by two very different visions. Still, while Scripture is silent, I can't imagine Abram not feeling the sting of loss as he watches Lot and his entourage slowly slip off the horizon.

At first, Lot “lived among the cities of the plain and pitched his tents near Sodom” (13:12). By the time war comes to the plains, he is living in Sodom (14:12). While we naturally assume what was going on in that town, the author doesn't tell us. He simply states that the atmosphere of this community was “against the LORD” (13:13). There is no fear of God in the place. While the fruit may have been ripe for the picking in Sodom is it really the place you want to call home? Apparently for Lot this was not deterrent enough to keep him from moving in and setting up shop. Many years later on the eve of judgment, Lot is now “sitting in the gate” (19:1), a Bible euphemism that means he had become a leader in that community. First he lived near them, then among them and by the night the fire fell from the sky he was one of them, his wandering days with Uncle Abe a distant memory. It's the Bible's way of describing the natural progression away from the lifestyle of his upbringing and that of the man who had been his surrogate dad for many, many years. Lot would have been wiser to find better neighbors.

The people of Refuge probably get tired of me referencing that wonderful scene from Rocky where Rocky is escorting Marie home through a fairly seedy neighborhood. He's trying to share some fatherly advice with this young girl about being smart about the people you “hang” with:

This is how good advice is often received
Hang out with nice people, you get nice friends.
Hang out with smart people, you get smart friends.
Hang out with yo-yo people, you get yo-yo friends.
It's simple mathematics.

Certainly good parents would agree with Rocky's advice. In fact, most of us are keen to the company our kids keep because we know that if the friends of our kids are “a bunch of coconuts” it will only spell trouble sooner or later. But his advice applies to we adult-types, too. If our circle of friends is made up of “worldlings” exclusively how can their attitudes and values not have some impact on us if we are not also interacting with fellow disciples of the Way? It's not that we should avoid friendships with pagans and outsiders but if they are our only circle of friends we may find one day that we have moved from living near them to living among them and have developed a taste for some of their fare. All the more reason to seek out authentic Christian fellowship where we can be mutually encouraged in the way of faith and the kingdom of God. 

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The fellowship of the hill: Watching the fireworks from Pastor Norm's place

We watched the fireworks on the 4th this year from the same spot we have watched them for many years now – from the hill behind Pastor Norm's house. In fact, excluding last year when our family was on sabbatical, the hill has been our seat of choice for viewing Chetek's firework displays almost from the first summer we lived here. Of course, we aren't the only ones who have parked ourselves on that incline over the years. Others have done the same – some since us and some way before us – but together we form a loose-knit “Fellowship of the Hill”.

On Monday night, we sat next to the Madison clan. I recall when Amber was in middle school and her older sisters were either in high school or in college. Now Amber, Leslie, Heather and Kara all have families of their own Their whole brood was out on the hill the night of the 4th and like Linda and I ten years ago, they were chasing their little ones around trying to get them to sit down for the show. Their careers have scattered them to the wind – New York, Madison, the Cities and Menomonie – but Liberty Fest is like a great family reunion which brings the exiles home (much to Grandma Madison's delight).

This was Brianna's first year on the hill
The McClurkens were to our left – as they have sat for as long as I can remember. The girls weren't with them – Cailey lives in Kansas City now, Sarah just graduated from high school and Rosie must have been with friends - but Ed and Barb brought company with them who had a small gaggle of children of their own. When their fellowship, Red Cedar Presbyterian Church, was still gathering a few families from there would often join us out on the hill as well. I'm embarrassed to say I don't recall their names now even though the boys and their mother helped with VBS for several years running.

Somewhere along the line, the Waterhouses began to watch the fireworks from there. Denise now lives in Hudson and Cassie in Knoxville but Shannon was with them Monday night and while they parked themselves to the right of the Madisons, I made a point to visit as it was getting dark (Shannon and I laughed about Samuel L. Jackson's narration of Adam Mansbach's Go the F**k to Sleep and Renee and I spoke of spiritual things – this is, for me, par for the course for discussions on the hill). I remember fondly the nights when it was the Waterhouse girls, their cousin, Jen, and sometimes a friend or two that would squeeze onto a blanket and giggle away both before and during the fireworks.

She's been coming to this spot for years
A few years ago, the Lees also began to congregate with the rest of us on the hill. Cameron and Nathan were with mom and dad (who sat with Randy and Renee) and Eric sat down the way with Matt (who used to sit closer to our blanket). But missing were Erin (home), Liz (who lives in Rice Lake now) and Hannah. For a couple of years, Steve and Kari used to join us as well until Steve got a boat and now they enjoy the fireworks from the lake and make up that great nautical light show that wows all us landlubbers.

Over the years we have brought guests – my own folks, the Halburs from Minneapolis, and – this year – the Marxes from Fosston. Like everyone else, they have spread out across the yard taking their place with the rest of us and entering into the fellowship of the hill. Most years, kids from youth group – be it Uhf or Focus – have been in attendance as well. The year we did SonCastle Faire VBS ('99), David grabbed our inflatable alligator, put it in the water, crawled out on it and managed to watch the fireworks while laying on his back floating out in the bay. Somehow, he remained completely dry. I recall the year when someone dared Kale to swim out to one of the pontoon boats and tell them Jesus loved them. He did. When he finally got to the boat, he grabbed on to the deck and said what he had come to say. Apparently, the boat's owner was not amused and told him to get off his boat in no uncertain terms. It was, to say the least, a witnessing opportunity that did not go according to plan. One 4th, Dan brought his lap top and while we waited for the sky to darken, he played Worms with all comers. But most times, those kids from group who came would spread out on blankets and join in the random chatter and banter that is common to people who are happy to be together on the 4th after a long day of parade watching and picnicking.

Case in point was the company that we kept Monday night: Behind us were our kids (minus Charlie who was sacked out between Linda and I), Brianna, the young woman who is living with us presently, the Holmbecks, Sarah L and all of the De Yarman brood. The kids were laughing and enjoying themselves and joining in with little Emily and Olivia Holmbeck's “oohing” and “aahing” at every aerial burst just like the Fritzs, Tonya, and David used to join my kids when they did the same when they were little. Who knows? - if we're here long enough the day may come when like Yvonne and Dennis on Monday night, we'll be delighting in the “oohs” and “aahs” of our own grandchildren taking their place in the great fellowship of the hill. By that time, the make-up of our group will most likely have changed, but as long as there are little ones to squeal at fireworks, there will be people to gather behind the parsonage of the Advent Christian Church and be reminded of what a wonderful thing it is to live in this country we call home.