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

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

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Meeting Famous People

Never got to meet the Duke
One of the many dreams of my boyhood was to meet John Wayne. How a kid from Milwaukee would ever run into this Hollywood uber-star was beyond me but I recall wishing on a star once about that and probably praying a few times about it, too. It never happened. He died in 1979 and though I was living in Madison by then I was no closer to meeting the Duke than ever. I also dreamed of meeting Jimmy Stewart and while I know someone who actually did meet him – in Chicago, no less – that never happened either. I hear both professed Christian faith and if that's the case, I'm looking forward to meeting them someday. But in 49 years of living none of my childhood friends have grown up to be famous and neither have I had the occasion of meeting someone of fame as well. Except twice.

His friends call him "Wally"
In 2000, Pastor Sam of Chetek Lutheran (since retired) informed the ministerial that best-selling author and radio personality Walter Wangerin, Jr. was coming to Chetek promoting his radio program Lutheran Vespers. For the uninformed, Walter Wangerin, Jr. is a former Lutheran pastor who has authored multiple books including The Book of the Dun Cow (which won both the National Book Award and the New York Times Best Children's Book of the Year in 1980), The Book of Sorrows (which was Dun Cow's sequel) the wonderful series of novelizations of the Bible (The Book of God), the Gospels (Jesus: A Novel) and the New Testament letters (Paul: A Novel) and the collections of his short stories (Ragman and Other Cries of Faith, The Manger is Empty) and children's books (Thistle, Potter). While I don't own all of his works, I have read nearly all of them so to learn that he was coming to our little burb I was understandably elated.

Mr. Wangerin wouldn't be driving to Chetek, however; he would be cycling to our area – as in bicycling. His radio program issued from Indiana and an avid cyclist of the pedal variety he thought he would cycle through the Midwest that summer to raise support for his show and for some reason Chetek was on his itinerary. He would actually be arriving in Cameron where any who wanted to bike with him to Chetek could join him for that 10 mile leisurely ride. Once in Chetek he would give a reading from one of his books (as I recall it was from Paul) and then that night there would be a service at Chetek Lutheran at which he would preach. This was big news to his fans in this community and so I had Linda drop me off at Faith Lutheran on that Saturday as scheduled and waited with about 15 others for Wally (as he likes to be called) to arrive. He showed up in pony tail and biker's physique (i.e., lean and muscular) and after a few words we began our ride south using side roads that mostly ran along Prairie Lake. He was about ten bikers ahead of me and not wanting to be overly star-struck I just enjoyed the thrill of being in this small company.

Later on in the ride, however, he drifted back toward my part of the pack and suddenly I was riding side-by-side with one of my favorite authors. For the half hour before this moment I had been trying to come up with something pithy to say for just this moment but nothing I thought of seemed appropriate. Simply saying, “I really love your books,” sounded too teenage-ish and I had no questions about any of his works (though in retrospect now I might have said something like, “I loved Dun Cow but Sorrows was so...I dunno..sad and depressing.” He might have enjoyed that comment. Or he might have said the obvious: "Well, I did entitle it The Book of Sorrows." I'll never know now.) But I came up empty so swallowing hard I looked at him and said, “How's it going?” That's it. That's all I could think of and the moment I said it I thought, “Stupid! How dumb can you be?”He looked at me and said, “Good.” To wit I said, “Well,...good.” And that was that. After a while he moved on to ride with someone else and my one opportunity to chat amiably with such an accomplished author was blown.

He has a way with people
Upon arriving at Chetek Lutheran, I partook in the reading on the lawn behind Burnham-Ours Funeral Home across the street from the church. It was a small group and he ran it more like a Bible study. It was both enjoyable as well as whetted your spiritual appetite for the Word of God. That night, we took the family, including my mom and dad who were fortunate to be in town that weekend, over to Chetek Lutheran and were agog at his story-telling ability. As much as I love Garrison Keillor, Wangerin is better at delivery in that he is a pastor who shares the gospel skillfully as story making it all the more believable as opposed to a theologian proof-texting a passage of Scripture and reporting on it. At the gathering following the service we approached him in the fellowship hall with our copy of Thistle in our hands asking him to sign it. He did but when I looked at his scribble I turned to him and said, “Gee, I could have had my doctor do that.” He was really taken by Ed because when he asked our seven year old at the time what was his favorite book of his, Ed looked him, raised his right hand with his pointer finger extended and said, Potter (It's a great children's book but it concerns death and dying as well as resurrection however the tone is poignant and sober.)  “Really?” he asked and then proceeded to tell our seven year old how he was turning this book into a play and sharing with him different plot devices he was planning to use. No matter that he had already lost Ed who at that moment seemed to be more interested in the brownie he was eating.

My one brush with fame and it's my little boy who with one word manages to get this well-known author to gush unashamedly about his work.

As seen on TV
This past Black Friday while shopping at Oakwood Mall I met my second famous person. Well, let me clarify. If you don't live in the Eau Claire area, her name will mean nothing to you and if you don't watch TV-13 Sunrise, you probably won't know to whom I refer to either. But she is – or was – a local TV personality and to meet her was serendipitous. Salina Heller used to be the anchor of the two-hour early morning news show that daily preceded the Today Show on NBC. She was funny, perky, relaxed, didn't appear to be too scripted, pretty and was very involved in community theater. Compared to the woman who now hosts the show she was a natural. And then one morning when I turned on TV-13, she and her co-host, Andrew, were off the air. Just like that. No celebratory send-off. No “We wish Salina well as she moves on in her career”-speak. No, the producers just made a change and soon we had the anchorwoman who now hosts the show (too much teeth, too scripted to be natural). In any case, I went to TV-13's website to see if they had announced the change but found nothing. I went to her Facebook page (I am not one of her friends...okay, I did send a friend request once that was, apparently, “quietly ignored”) and that had no information as well. So after a week or so, I decided to message her on Facebook and send her my good wishes for her future career and telling her that I missed seeing her in the early hours of my day. About a month later she wrote me back thanking me for my kind words and that was the end of that.

Until Black Friday. As in last Friday. I was with my daughter, Christine, and my mom standing in Aeropostale at Oakwood and Christine had just gone back to the dressing room to try some things on. I was just standing there, minding my own business, when I looked to my right and who should be standing next to me glancing over a bin of clothes was...she. “Well, Salina Heller. How are you?” It came out of my mouth as if I was greeting an old friend. She looked at me, smiled and said, “Fine.” I then told her, “You don't know me. I'm Jeff and I just want to tell you I miss seeing you on TV.” She seemed sincerely touched by that remark and fearing I had touched a sore spot I quickly added, “Sorry to interrupt your shopping but I just wanted to tell you that.” She thanked me again and asked me where I was from and how my shopping was going to wit I replied, “Oh, I'm not shopping. I'm here for moral support and to drive people around.” She laughed at that and not wanting to take any more of her time I said, “Well, I hope things are going well for you after TV-13 but I sure miss seeing you there” (yeah, I said it three times). At which point she touched me on the arm and said, “Thank you for saying that” and then I wished her well and she continued on with her shopping. I did have my camera with me and for a second I was tempted to take her pic...or even ask if my mom could take a picture of she and I together but thought better of it. I didn't want to creep her out after all. (I did back out of Aeropostale and quickly cross the mall to the store where Linda and Charlie were at and said, “Guess who I just met?” That's about as Bieber as I get.)

Liberal but master storyteller
Translated the Bible all by himself
"We'll never forget you, Brent..."
Warren has done Big Top and Refuge
I'm only 49 so there's still time for me to meet some other famous people. I mean Mike Perry comes through the area from time to time and now that I think of it, I did meet Warren Nelson of Big Top Chautauqua fame last Christmas who did a live concert right in our sanctuary. Then again, maybe one of the kids from our fellowship will garner the kind of fame that causes me to say, “I knew them when...” When I think of my bucket-list of people I'd like to meet someday, it isn't that long: Garrison Keillor perhaps (although I'm afraid I'd be just as dumbstruck around him as I was with Wangerin), Eugene H. Peterson of The Message-fame (got a personal post card from him once when he responded to a letter I sent him), and maybe Brett Favre (but what are we going to talk about? John Deere tractors perhaps?) I still regret that I never got to meet The Duke or Jimmy Stewart but maybe if I had I would have been disappointed. I dunno but for the time being I'm just reveling in the fact that I met Salina Heller in Aeropostale and didn't clam up and get that deer-in-the-headlight look. If I had, she definitely would have been creeped out by that.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Parked in the Story of the Patriarchs

Jacob woke up from his sleep. He said, "God is in this place—truly. And I didn't even know it!" He was terrified. He whispered in awe, 'Incredible. Wonderful. Holy. This is God's House. This is the Gate of Heaven.'” Genesis 28:16-17, Msg

Ever since I was a young disciple, I have sought to read through the Bible once a year and for perhaps 25 years I did just this. But in that last year or so of that quarter century, I found myself skimming more often than not than actually paying attention to the content itself. So, in 2010 I resolved to break with tradition and begin a new one. Instead of reading all 66 books of the Bible I would park myself in just one and meander through it at a leisurely pace. With my Bible open and my Zondervan's NIV Complete Study Bible file on my office computer open as well, I would tap out my thoughts and reflections out into a...yes...a Word file. That year I compiled 165 pages of thoughts, reflections, and quotes from various commentators all from my perusal in the Gospel of Matthew. It wasn't preaching fodder – although I got a message or two out of it I'm sure and a few blog postings as well – it was just for personal devotional purposes.

This year, my intent had been to spend the beginning of the year in the Abraham story (Genesis 11:10-25:11) and then return to the Gospels, say Mark. But the more I read of Abraham and his journey physically and spiritually from Ur the more I found myself wrapped up in the Story of the Patriarchs and just kept reading. As of today, I'm nearly through Chapter 42 which contains the dramatic moment in the Joseph story when suddenly he finds his brothers bowing before him now regent of Egypt in hopes of his good will so desperate they are for food. Joseph had named his oldest son Manasseh as a tribute to how he had forgotten all the trouble he had experienced back in Canaan. But now with his brothers prostrate before him (not knowing to whom they bow) suddenly it all comes back to him - the dream that had incited his brothers to even greater hatred of him when he had been a boy parading about in that ornamental robe of his (Gen 37:5-7). At the present time, I have collected 316 pages of thoughts, reflections, and commentary collected from three major sources. While I wasn't planning on going there, I have spent the better part of the summer and fall preaching the Abraham Story (After 14 installments, I'm not sure I'm going to finish it by Christmas!) and 5 posts to my blog to date have arisen from my stay in Genesis (Before the Wastes of Sodom, The Sins of Sodom, Lot Looked, Leaving Ur and The Company We Keep). In 2012 my plan is to return to the Gospels – Luke, as a matter of fact – and personally, I'm looking forward to returning to a regular focus on Jesus. In saying that, however, that is not implying that I have not benefited from my stay in the unfolding story of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

I'm sure this is how it happened
In the Story of the Patriarchs, I walk away marveling at God – his choosing, his calling, his mysterious working out of his purposes in and through sinful individuals, his providence, his, if you will, big-ness. And while every one of the major players has his day in the sun, the narrator – or narrators as some commentators theorize – won't allow us for a moment to exalt these men or their wives. Frankly, we're given too much dirt to lionize them. Abraham has a penchant for lying and unbelief, Isaac likes venison way too much causing him to prefer Esau over his twin brother, Jacob is a cheat and a schemer of incredible talent and Joseph is the favorite son who is dumb enough to think that his family will applaud the strange dreams that he shares with them in which he is preeminent. These are not one dimensional flannelboard characters that fit neatly onto a felt board. Whatever else may be said of them these are real, flawed people but called of God nonetheless to be conduits of blessing not only for their own household but ultimately for humankind everywhere. At times in the Isaac story, I found that I liked none of them – not Isaac drooling in anticipation of his venison stew, not Esau who demonstrates no sense of responsibility, not Rebekah setting up her son to pull the literal wool over her husband's eyes and not Jacob who is the sharpest knife in the drawer in this bunch but is so self-absorbed that he has no concern of cheating both his brother and his father to get not what's coming to him but simply what he wants. The First Family of Genesis seems to have more in common with reality TV than a lot of the families that attend our fellowship or I would guess, most fellowships. 

Still, they are remarkable people: Abraham turns his back on the only life he's ever known for the “frontier” because the Voice calls him to and many years later he surrenders his only son in love for the same Voice. Isaac persists in his father's calling. Jacob wrestles with God and begins his transformation into Israel. And Joseph sees through the trouble he's been put through as the strange workings of God all along (okay, I peeked ahead to chapter 50). But for all this it's their God who appears eminently remarkable. As I near the end of the Patriarch Story my reaction is awe and gratitude and hope and comfort that though I am at times sinful and faithless, God is greater than my sins and the consequences they may produce. As I think on it, my reading of this section of Genesis awakens in me hunger to read in Luke how this descendant of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob fulfills the great promise made to them that through them (and him) one day all the peoples of the earth will be blessed.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Turning Points: Fourth Installment - When Messes Happen

Bible scholarship has suggested that Mary of Nazareth may have been as young as 14 when she became the mother of Jesus based on the fact that it was common custom for girls in that day and age to marry around this time. What I remember most of the Christmas of 1994 was that in our small fellowship we had another “Mary” in our midst, a teen who was found to be “with child” but not of the Holy Ghost. No, it was in the usual way and the fact that she was became another turning point in my philosophical development as a pastor. I have permission to tell this story. Those close to me or who were part of our fellowship at that time will know who I speak of. But since this column is about how her pregnancy affected me and my understanding of what it means to be a pastor, I choose to reference her simply as Liz to protect her and her daughter who is sixteen now (and one of my friends on Facebook, too) from any unneeded attention. In this case, this isn't their story but mine.

Turning Point: Fall 1994-Winter 1995 – Pastors walk with people through their messes.

We had moved next door to Liz and her mother, Jill, in the fall of 1993 and within one week of our arrival in their neighborhood, Jill, without any invitation on our part, began regularly worshiping with us. She was a Christian but had not been a practicing one for many years. She was a single mom who happened to be friends with another single mom in our fellowship and apparently the fact that a pastor was now her neighbor was God’s way of awakening her out of her spiritual slumber. Jill was not tentative in waking from deep REM sleep. She practically leapt out of bed. She not only became regular in attendance, but within short order she became known as the “sucker lady” for her penchant of gifting young kids who memorized Bible verses with a lollipop. She joined our early Tuesday morning prayer group and became one of our most fervent members.

Liz, however, was of a different stripe. She came with her mother to the weekly worship gathering only sparingly and usually it was clear that she was present only at her mother’s behest. She was fourteen and fearing that coercion might only stiffen her resolve against God and anything to do with Him, Jill had left it up to her to decide when and if she would come to Sunday worship. But with a little parental encouragement, Liz did check out our Wednesday night youth ministry and shortly after became a regular participant in it. Ultrahigh Frequency (Uhf) was an entry-level youth group whose focus was evangelism. We did a lot of crazy stunts and games and at the end of the night shared Jesus and his love for them. In the early years, we really were made up of two groups – some Middle School-aged “church” kids and a whole slew of teens outside the walls of our fellowship (or any fellowship whatsoever). In fact, at times they – that is, the kids who didn’t really know what they believed – outnumbered those who considered themselves “in the door.” It created some interesting dynamics and when we had, for a short season, two pregnant teenage girls participating in our Wednesday night programming we encountered essentially Pharisaical attitudes among a few of the parents of the “church” kids who attended. “Why do they have to come?” But we carried on persuaded of Jesus’ wisdom, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick” (Matt 9).

Liz, Jill and I traveled to Mexico to serve
Liz, while raised sporadically in church, really didn’t run with that crowd but as time passed we witnessed this young woman’s hard heart soften in incremental ways. After several months, in fact, she came with her mom on her own accord to the Sunday morning worship gathering and was one of the leveling factors in our discussions on Wednesday nights that helped keep us more or less on track. In the wake of these pregnant girls joining our weekly gathering one of my co-workers decided to hold a day-long retreat at her fellowship focused on abstinence. I don't recall the particulars but at some time during the day Liz shared her story with the others about how she had lost her virginity two years before but was now committing herself to chastity until her wedding day. In the winter of 1994, Liz, Jill and about ten others from our fellowship traveled to northeastern Mexico where we spent a week in the mountains helping lay the foundation of a new church building there. It was yet another milestone in the spiritual development of this young woman and something that kept our team “in the game” when it was easy to despair over the lack of progress many of her peers at Uhf were experiencing. Maybe...just maybe...we were going to “win” this one.

It was a Friday night football game that fall, however, that alerted me something ill was afoot. It was a home game but I don't remember who we were playing. I do, however, vividly recall seeing Liz there in tow with a guy I'll call Bubba. Everything about him spelled trouble and my heart sank when I saw them together. After she missed a few Wednesday nights as well I asked her if we could get together to talk. She agreed and a few days later after school we met at Norm's for pop and fries and I asked her what was going on. She had been busy (she said) and even though the new school year was just a few weeks old, already she was behind in several of her classes which is why she had not been at group. And what of Bubba? I'll never forget what she told me, “Don't worry, Pastor Jeff. We're just friends.” I didn't believe her when she told me but with nothing profound to say, we ended our little chat with prayer and a gentle admonishment to be careful. She assured me she would be.

A month later I was at Troy's (one of my co-workers on Wednesday nights) helping him winterize his house by helping him tack plastic on his windows. It was mid-morning and who should pull into Troy's driveway but Liz and Bubba. I waved and said hello as they went into the house to speak to Troy's wife, Kim. All I remember thinking is, It's the middle of the morning on a school day. What possibly could they be doing here? At lunch, I found out. Liz was pregnant and too ashamed to face me she had asked Kim to break the news to me.

It was like a roundhouse punch to the gut that just took all the wind out of me. I was sick to my stomach. And angry. How could she? Why didn't she listen to me? After all the crap we often had to put up with because we let “those kids” come to group, here was yet more grist for the complaint mill. Of your own volition you went public with your story vowing to remain chaste until marriage. What about all those young girls who respected you for your candor and your resolve to stay pure? This is vaguely what I remember about my state of mind at the time of her disclosure. I didn't name drop at the weekly worship gathering but in those first few weeks I segued into rants during my sermons enough to catch the attention of those closest to me. “You sound angry,” Renee told me privately. I argued that I had a right to be since everybody else seemed indifferent about the whole matter. “It happens,” I actually heard someone remark. To wit I shot back, “Shouldn't we care? Is this best we got for all those young girls in our midst, “It happens”? At the same time, while Liz had made her way back to group, I emotionally distanced myself from her. She had betrayed my trust, spurned my counsel and I was not in the mood to carry on as if what had happened was no big deal.

It was somewhere around that time that Glen called me one Wednesday night before group. He was on staff at the local YWAM campus and he and his family worshiped regularly with us on Sunday mornings. We were not especially close but were colleagues in ministry and so we had a mutual regard for one another's work. But he wasn't calling to shoot the breeze. He called to get in my face. He, too, had picked up on the spirit behind some of the things I had been sharing on Sunday morning. At first, former youth pastor that he was he commiserated with me appreciating the disappointment I was experiencing. But as our conversation evolved he deftly turned the focus off what she had done to how I was reacting to her actions. And then he said something that hit real close to home: The day you can say to someone, ‘Blow hot or blow cold, I'm for you’ - that's the day you know you are a pastor.” I don't remember anything more of that conversation but in retrospect that 20-minute phone call became a turning point in my development as a pastor. 

As I thought on that comment over the next few weeks, I realized what had happened. In some subtle way, over the last year or so I had begun to use Liz as a means to validate the effectiveness of my ministry. After all, wasn't it after she began attending Uhf that she returned to the God of her childhood years? Hadn't she, of her own accord, gone public in her intent to remain pure until marriage? Didn't she accompany us on our mission to Mexico? And now that she was pregnant she was making me look bad, as if her situation was a referendum on my calling as a pastor. In fact, it was but not in the way that I was, at the moment, consciously aware of. If there was anyone who was in need of repenting it was me. In fact, sometime after this realization I went to her privately and asked her to forgive me for distancing myself from her. Her response was touching, “Don’t worry, Pastor Jeff. I know you love me.” Frankly, I don’t think I deserved that.

Which is not to say that this was the end of the matter. I was still wrestling with what our response as a fellowship was supposed to be. I knew that there was a time when congregations like ours required the offending parties to go before the fellowship and declare their sorrow for engaging in such sin but what if they didn’t want to do as much? Wouldn’t it be the same as telling one of your kids to tell their sibling they’re sorry when it was clear they weren’t very sorry at all? Mercifully, Jill settled the matter for us. She called me one Saturday afternoon weeping. She felt so bad over what had happened and blamed herself for her daughter’s circumstance. She wanted to say something to the fellowship but by this time my heart was free of rancor and I simply told Jill that I couldn’t make that call on my own. But given that our board was meeting that very night I invited her to come and share her story with us. And come she did and shared with us her journey from divorcee to cohabiting with another man for a season to where she was now. Again and again she was adamant about the fact that given the way she was living when Liz was coming of age, she made her predisposed to engaging in such a lifestyle. As she was nearing the end of her sharing, I asked myself – What are we supposed to do with this? – and suddenly a Scripture was dropped into my consciousness: “If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven” (John 20:23, NIV). I realized then and there that in matters like these, Jesus defers authority to the designated leaders of a given fellowship, regardless of how unspiritual they may feel, to decide if a person is truly repentant and declare them so. So I recognized immediately then what needed to be done. Persuaded of her sincerity, one by one, the board members needed to affirm Jill in this manner: “The Lord Jesus forgives you.” It started with me and by the time it got to Harvey, the fifth man, he was weeping and could hardly get the words out. The presence of Jesus was thick at that table. Having concluded this matter by praying over Jill we then asked the obvious: “Is this it? Is this all we need to do?” But Jill was insistent. Now that she had shared with the leaders, she felt obligated to share with the rest of the membership. She suggested that the next morning, she and Liz would stand before the congregation and share an abbreviated version of what she had just shared with all of us. And given that she was willing to do this, we were willing to go there with her.

It was Communion Sunday – the one Sunday in a given month at which we celebrate the Lords’ Supper. I remember we were hosting friends who were pastoring a small fellowship in northern Minnesota and were with us for a little bit of R&R. I don’t remember if he preached that day or was just part of our worship gathering. But at some point in the service, after sharing some preliminary words, I invited Jill and Liz to come forward and share their story. There they were, mother and daughter, standing hand in hand, single mom with one who would soon be a single mom, before all of us and drawing us into their journey. When Jill was done, I shared with the congregation what had transpired the night before and so for the congregation’s sake I repeated what had been the consensus of the leadership: The Lord Jesus forgives you, Jill. And then I turned to Liz, and said the same to her at which point I saw something physical break in the spiritual realm – I saw a yoke that was weighing heavily down upon her break in half and fall off her as she hung onto me for dear life. I then turned to the congregation and invited them now to do as I had done and affirm Liz and Jill together. I was not prepared for what happened next. Those gathered arose out of their seats and began to form a line – a line that stretched from the front of the sanctuary all the way into the entryway. It was like a reception line at a wedding as one person after another came up to them, affirmed them and loved on them. And then we had communion like we have not celebrated in many services since then. It was the Supper of the Redeemed, those forgiven and cleansed by the Lord Jesus. There was a palpable sense of joy in the place and truth be told, as worship followed the sharing of the Meal, it was the first time I ever danced in the weekly gathering – but not the last.

By publicly affirming Liz and Jill, we released the fellowship to embrace them and walk with them through the months leading up to the time when she delivered a healthy, beautiful daughter. I realized through this episode in the life of our congregation that church discipline was not for the purpose of punishment but for the sake of restoration – and thankfully, Jill and Liz were wanting to be restored. At the same time there was another single young woman in our midst who became pregnant while away at college. She had been a “good” church girl but she and her boyfriend “just got carried away.” Her mother was deeply mortified by her daughter’s condition but instead of inviting us into their trouble, her family chose to keep it a “family” matter and conveniently, her daughter remained “away” until the day she married the father of her baby. How different the journeys – on the one hand we were free to love on Liz all the way through her pregnancy but with the other we could do nothing but try and console the parents who really didn’t want to talk about it anyway.

People make messes, messes that are not always easy to clean up. And some messes are such that they often opt to go into seclusion until their lot improves. In modern parlance, they drop out of church until the baby comes or their situation is not so personally embarrassing. In one sense, they become lost. A good shepherd, however, goes looking for his lost sheep. He leaves the flock and searches diligently until he finds it. And when he does, he hoists it upon his shoulders and makes the long journey home whereupon he calls upon his friends to help him celebrate the finding. As Jesus put it to his original audience, “I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent” (Luke 15:7). I stumbled my way to finding my lost sheep. In fact, if it hadn’t been for Glen I’m not sure I would have ever even thought to find her but only wish she quietly fade from our fellowship. But thankfully God was better to me than I deserved and the sheep was found anyway and brought home where a big party was held in her honor. She taught me that being a pastor is way more than preaching or visiting people in the hospital or organizing a youth group activity. It’s being there, in the middle of the storm when the outcome is not certain and it’s not clear yet whether or not the lost one will come home.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

"What is going on here?"

As a rule, Charismatics don't do it this way
As a rule, we Charismatics like to pride ourselves on the fact that, unlike our liturgical brothers, we have no liturgy that we are bound to. But, truth be told, that’s just not so. Of course we have a way of “doing” church – we just don’t put it in the bulletin (to post the order in our circles is definitely NOT PC). At Refuge, most Sundays of the month our order of service runs thusly: opening song, meet and greet, offering and announcements, worship (usually 3-4 songs) which involves an invitation to the altar for personal prayer and ends with a corporate time of intercession led by various individuals of the congregation, message and, usually, response. On Communion Sunday, which is on the first Sunday of the month, we reverse-order things and hear the Word first and then worship in preparation to receive the Lord’s Supper. That’s how we “do” it and we don’t vary from that order too often. Which is not to say there are not occasional Sundays where we definitely “off road”-it a bit, an unexpected extended time of worship or prayer or an altar call that takes us way beyond the 12-bell. But most who belong to Refuge expect about the same from their worship experience week-in and week-out. And most would agree they like it that way.

This is more our style
But this past Sunday was different. On Sunday the normal stream at Refuge broke into a river bed that has been known to run at Focus (the youth fellowship that meets at our place on Wednesday nights) from time to time but hardly ever at the Sunday morning gathering. But last Sunday the river overflowed its banks a bit and coursed through our sanctuary. The night before as I was pulling songs for the gathering, with each song a greater anticipation of the coming worship service welled up in my heart. In fact, as I ran through the songs on my Fender I just had an increasing sense that something out of the ordinary was going to happen as we gathered together the next day. During our warm-up on Sunday morning, I was hacking chords and progressions on a few of the songs but when my sixteen year-old daughter Emma, my accompanist, and I prayed together right before the service, I felt as if the waters were rising. And upon the very first strums of my guitar, for me the banks overflowed – my legs began to inadvertently shake to the point that I was sincerely concerned that I might topple over. On Saturday night I had already decided then to set aside our normal order of service and spend the first 15 minutes or so just in extended worship. People were not expecting this – they were, in fact, caught a bit off-guard but instead of drawing back they were lured in by, I assume, the Spirit of God on me.

I consider myself a cheerleader when it comes to worship. I believe I am called to exhort people to extol the Living God all the while recognizing that you cannot force worship or coerce devotion. I do not intentionally manipulate emotions but I admit there is something that goes off in me when we are singing songs such as “Our God”, “Revelation Song” and, even, “I Exalt Thee” and people continue to sip on their Lattes indifferent to the words we are professing corporately together.

Our God is greater, our God is stronger, God you are higher than any other.
Our God is Healer, Awesome in Power, Our God! Our God!

It's at moments like these I want to shout, “EVERYBODY DOWN ON YOUR KNEES….NOW!!!”
Of course, I restrain myself and instead either kneel or encourage people in polite fashion to lift up their voice to the King within our midst.

This past Sunday, after our normal meet and greet, offering and announcement break, I referenced Genesis 18. It’s the heat of the day and Abraham is dozing in the shade of his tent when he looks up and sees the Lord passing by. The narrator doesn’t elucidate how Abraham recognized “the Boss”; rather, he focuses on Abraham’s reaction to the fact that Yahweh was outside his door. He runs and throws himself down upon the ground and begs him to stay for dinner. He runs to Sarah and tells her to bake a cake just as fast as she can. He runs to his servant and tells him to pick a choice calf out of the pen. He is in earnest to lay before his Lord a sumptuous meal. Commentators like to point out that his actions reflect customary Bedouin hospitality and while I have no reason to question them I am simply struck by his posture – everything is done with alacrity. There is nothing casual or familial in this encounter. So I challenged everyone present at the gathering that in our worship this morning to copy Father Abraham in his response to the reality of God passing by his tent. Their instructions are simply to respond in whatever way they find appropriate.

As we resumed worship, several got out of their chairs and came to the altar and knelt down. A few others went to the back of the sanctuary and stood with hands lifted up. Despite the fact that one of our deacons had grabbed a stool for me in case I was feeling the need for it, my legs no longer were shaking and, unlike many Sundays, my fingers never tired of moving over the frets of my guitar. And we just continued to worship. I really didn't know where we were headed other than we were doing pretty much what the agenda was for this gathering. Nearing the end of the songs I had pulled and having played through all of them several times, I asked if anyone was feeling if they had a “word” for the fellowship that would be beneficial for everyone. That question is greeted with silence so I resumed playing at which point one of the guys thought maybe he did, after all, have something to say. Jeff suggested that if anyone was wanting to enter in but felt unable to do so to allow the Body of Christ to pray for them. Whether it was the word of the Lord or not, it was good counsel. Only a few raised their hands – one got up from their seat and came to the altar – but otherwise worship went on. Janet made her way to the floor mic and during a lull in the music simply shared that she was feeling the same thing Jeff had and then shared what had happened to her at the altar earlier in the gathering. And the band played on…and then our daughter, Emma, began to weep and pray over her mic for all those in our midst who needed healing. Apart from a little more commentary on my part as to what was happening that morning, we played on dismissing those who felt they needed to go. Most got up to leave although perhaps a quarter of those present remained soaking in the moment. Once again, Emma extended an invitation to those who wanted healing to come to the altar so that she could pray for them. Only one responded.

When it was all over and we moved into that afterglow time of the worship gathering of those who remained many made a point to tell me in superlative terms how they felt about the morning. And of those who left as soon as they were given pastoral permission to do so, nothing was said; i.e., their quick departure from the sanctuary was not necessarily commentary on their response to what had happened. (If you ask me, any time a sixteen year old - albeit a very spiritually mature one - invites people to the altar to be prayed over for healing everyone else present should be asking, “What gives?”) But here’s my take: In August, during a 24 hour prayer vigil held at Refuge in which only a very small percentage of the congregation participated in, the word we received was “wake up.” In response to that, in early September we began a twice a month worship and intercession gathering on Friday night. With a few exceptions, only the elders have been present but collectively we feel we have been digging a new well for Refuge. A week after beginning, Kees, a friend of mine from Holland, was in town and preached at the Sunday morning gathering. His message? “Wake up.” About the same time, I was challenged to begin intentionally pray in my prayer language 15 minutes a day and since then, not counting a day or two, I have done just this. Two weeks ago during our worship gathering, someone from our fellowship who had been longing to be filled with the Spirit, suddenly began to speak in tongues. And then we have what happened last Sunday at the gathering. The sum of these things taken together tells me that while we haven’t hit water yet we’re getting closer. All the more reason for us to keep digging, to keep asking, to keep knocking, to show up this Friday night at MORE (what we now refer to the Friday night gathering) and ask the Father for more. To be content with same-o, same-o is to reveal just how much asleep we really are.