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, January 26, 2012

Burn

“But you, dear friends, carefully build yourselves up in this most holy faith by praying in the Holy Spirit…” Jude 1:20 (Msg)


I speak in tongues. Mostly English, mind you, but also the glossolalia-kind as well. As I related in an earlier post back in October of last year (Turning Points: Third Installment - Manifestations Happen), I was filled with the Holy Spirit shortly after my conversion my senior year of high school. As those experiences go, it didn't feel like much of an Acts 2-event – no rushing wind or shaking house, tongues but no ecstasy – just a few garbled syllables repeated a few times over which after uttering them didn't propel me outside my home to preach the gospel on lonely Turner Avenue; rather, it left me feeling a little bemused and wondering, “Is that it?”


My experience was not like this...
 Of course, it wasn't the last time I was filled with the Holy Spirit. On subsequent occasions I have been filled again and over time my “prayer language”, as it is frequently referred to in Pentecostal/Charismatic circles, has grown and developed. But in the 30-some years since that one little drop fell upon me in my living room in May 1980, for the most part I have used that gift by and large infrequently – in worship and in prayer as the occasion was appropriate and in heated moments of intercession. In my early years of my ministry in Chetek, once or twice a year we would hold an event I called “Spiritual Emphasis Week” wherein I would bring someone in to speak on the work and ministry of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life. Invariably we would receive some good Bible teaching and a person or two would be filled afresh. I can recall two different guys giving teachings on the importance of praying in your prayer language daily based on Jude 20 but admittedly I never put any feet on that and continued my practice of speaking in tongues only when I was feeling a shiver of spiritual ecstasy in times of worship. Until last fall.


This is good soul-food
 Last fall as a family we read Jackie Pullinger's book, Chasing the Dragon. As a young woman of the 1960s and feeling the call to missionary service yet finding no support from any missionary organization someone gave Jackie the advice that she should buy a ticket on a boat going as far away from her native Great Britain as she could get and simply pray when to get off. She did and got off at Hong Kong and has been there ever since. Much of her ministry has focused on ministering to druggies, dealers and prostitutes in what was once referred to as “the Walled City”, at that time one of the largest opium producing centers in the world. Ministry there was, as we might say around here, tough-sledding and while she did see results in that some addicts were converted, breakthroughs came sparingly. A few years into her work there she met Rick and Jean Willan, a couple from America who were also ministering in Hong Kong and led a small Charismatic house church there. In one of her many discussions with the Willans, Jackie shares a conversation that ultimately had a profound influence on her life and ministry:

“Do you pray in tongues, Jackie?”

I was shocked by the Jean's American forthrightness. No English person would be that direct. “Well, no actually. I haven't found it that useful. I don't get anything out of it so I've stopped.” It was a relief to discuss it with someone.

But Jean would not be sympathetic. “That's very rude of you,” she said. “It's not a gift of emotion – it's a gift of the Spirit. You shouldn't despise the gifts God has given you. The Bible says he who prays in tongues will be built up spiritually, so never mind what you feel – do it.” Then she and Rick made me promise to pray daily in my heavenly language. They insisted that the Holy Spirit was given in power to the Early Church to make them effective witnesses to the risen Christ.

Then to my horror they suggested we pray together in tongues. I was not sure if this was all right since the Bible said that people should not all speak aloud in tongues at the same time. They explained that St. Paul was referring to a public meeting where an outsider coming in would think everyone was crazy; we three would not be offending anyone, and would be praying to God in the languages He gave us.

I could not get out of it. We prayed and I felt silly saying words I did not understand. I felt hot. And then to my consternation they stopped praying while I felt impelled to continue. I knew already that this gift, although holy, is under our control; I could stop or start at will. I would have done anything not to be praying out loud in a strange language in front of strange Americans, but just as I thought I would die of self-consciousness God said to me, “Are you willing to be a fool for My sake?”

I gave in. “All right, Lord – this doesn't make sense to me, but since You invented it, it must be a good gift, so I'll go ahead in obedience and You teach me how to pray.”


After we finished praying Jean said she understood what I had said. God had given her the interpretation. She translated. But it was beautiful; my heart was yearning for the Lord and calling as from the depths of a valley stream to the mountain tops for Him. I loved Him and worshiped Him and longed for Him to use me.


It was in language so much more explicit and glorious than any I could have formulated. I decided that if God helped me to pray like that when I was praying in tongues, then I would never despise this gift again. I accepted that he was helping me to pray perfectly.

Every day – as I had promised the Willans – I prayed in the language of the Spirit. Fifteen minutes by the clock. I still felt it to be an exercise. Before praying in the Spirit I said, “Lord, I don't know how to pray, or whom to pray for. Will You pray through me – and will You lead me to the people who want You.” And I would begin my fifteen-minute stint.

After about six weeks I noticed something remarkable. Those I talked to about Christ believed. I could not understand it at first and wondered how my Chinese had so suddenly improved, or if I had stumbled on a splendid new evangelistic technique. But I was saying the same things as before. It was some time before I realized what had changed. This time I was talking about Jesus to people who wanted to hear. I had let God have a hand in my prayers and it produced a direct result. Instead of my deciding what I wanted to do for God and asking His blessing I was asking Him to do His will through me as I prayed in the language He gave me.


I find her story amazing
Now I found that person after person wanted to receive Jesus. I could not be proud – I could only wonder that God let me be a small part of His work. And so the emotion came. It never came while I prayed, but when I saw the results of these prayers I was literally delighted. The Bishop should have told me what to expect at my confirmation when this could have started. (pp. 61-63)
As I read these words in our family reading time this past fall, I felt the nudge of the Holy Spirit to commit to the same exercise, to pray in my prayer language 15 minutes a day. Reading this story from her life and the plethora of others that fill her book, stirred afresh the yearning in me for the signs of the presence of the Kingdom in my place of ministry. To the best of my knowledge, we have no opium users or dealers in our little ‘burb but we have lots of lost people, lots of people whose lives appear bereft of God’s love and presence. While it’s true that in over twenty years of ministry in Chetek I have seen people come to the saving knowledge of Jesus, to be filled with the Holy Spirit and, in a few cases, be sent out to serve in other places, it’s not been a lot only a handful. How many people with cancer during that time have I prayed with and witnessed a complete healing? I cannot think of one. How many people in need of deliverance have been completely exorcised because I laid hands on them and prayed the prayer of command? Perhaps one or two. It occurred to me while reading Jackie’s story that twenty years into my career in this locale it’s fairly easy to coast – after all the paths I trod in a given week are fairly worn and fixed. I felt her words a challenge to question how much I was depending on my ability to construct a message, say, or pray a prayer and do the work that the Bible clearly states is mine to do but can only be done in his ability?

So, I committed myself to the same exercise: praying 15 minutes a day in my prayer language. Results were not the goal for me, however but a humbling, a recognition that I can only do God’s work with God’s resources. And while I had “stuff to do” and more English-oriented prayers to pray, I began to "waste" 15 minutes of my workday praying in tongues. With the exception of a day here or there, I’ve been at it ever since. In fact, often on my way to the Justice Center or even while involved in my devotions I slip into my prayer language and quietly pray. Unlike Jackie, during these past months I haven’t seen any more individuals come to Christ or played a significant role in a healing in our midst but I have felt more anointed in the pulpit or in one-on-one spiritual conversations. Admittedly, it’s a pretty subjective gauge determining if the “wasted” time has been well-wasted. However, a week ago Sunday morning, due to the fullness of the weekend’s work, I woke up not eager to get over to Refuge but slow to make my way there. My engine was cold. I put the coffee on, journaled a bit and then forced myself to maintain my near-daily exercise of tongue-speaking. Those of us who live in these northern parts know how reluctant our car engines are to turn over on bitterly cold mornings. They whine with mechanical reluctance. So it felt as I began to speak in my prayer language but I persisted and by the time I had finished my 15-minute stint not only was the caffeine beginning to have its effect but my spirit was revived. Coffee and cream can jump-start a body but not our spirit-man. The long and short of it was that by the end of this exercise I was ready to go to work.

This past Monday I came in not only tired but discouraged (despite a wonderful Sunday morning gathering the day before) but after praying in tongues for 15 minutes that heaviness of spirit was already beginning to lift. It’s these two recent experiences that remind me of the truth of Jude’s counsel, “But ye, beloved, building up yourselves on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Ghost…” (1:20, KJV) I realize brothers from another part of the Body of Christ would disagree with my interpretation in just what Jude was referring to but…they don’t worship with our fellowship and I’m not out to disrupt theirs. I found that the practice does me good and so I will continue to do it. My son, Ed, just returned from the International House of Prayer in Kansas City and there on a regular basis he and his fellow interns would meet with one of the instructors at IHOPU who would lead them in what they refer to as a “burn” session – a time of prayer where for one entire hour they pray in tongues without ceasing. If fifteen minutes is enough to burn off a cloud of spiritual smog imagine what forty-five minutes longer of glossalalia would do for me? I can think of other far less spiritual ways to waste an hour of my day.



May He burn in me in greater measure


Tuesday, January 24, 2012

My just so normal life


"You cannot withdraw..."
Vincent said, “You are the extreme left of the Union line. Do you understand that?”
Yes,” Chamberlain said.
The line runs from here all the way back to Gettysburg. But it stops here. You know what that means.”
Of course.”
You cannot withdraw. Under any conditions. If you go, the line is flanked. If you go, they’ll go right up the hilltop and take us in the rear. You must defend this place to the last.”
From The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara

Most little boys dream of being a hero – to nab the game-winning TD, to hit the long ball over the big wall, to rescue a princess or defeat the black robed villain in a fantastic display of swordsmanship. But then we grow up to lead what often feels such pedestrian, ordinary lives. Instead of carrying a light saber on our utility belt we probably carry a tape measure. Instead of pow-wowing together with fellow warriors to plan our next daring raid into enemy territory, we’re more than likely gathered at a board meeting discussing next quarter’s marketing strategy. Once high school is over, the likelihood that we play ball – any kind of ball – at the next level is slim or none unless it’s a pick-up game out on the quad. And eventually we find our seats at some stadium to see some larger-than-life guy throw a football like we always dreamed of throwing and we add our loud adulation to the thousands of others doing the same. It seems it is the way of things.


Alas, I was not schooled by him
Pastors are no different. We got into this not because the money was good and we aspired – as our constituents good-naturely like to tease us – to work one day a week (and a half day at that) but because we wanted to do great things for God. Our hearts and our imaginations were fired by stories like Gideon and his 300 or David and Goliath, Peter and John before the Sanhedrin not to mention the plethora of accounts of faithfulness under pressure recorded in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. I remember the excitement I felt as a young man going off to Bible college to be trained in the ways of ministry and service by what I hoped were the Christian equivalent of Jedi Masters that I might take my part in the Great Crusade to liberate men and women from their enslavement to the Lord of Darkness. Laugh if you want to but those sentiments get pretty close to the mark of the way I felt that fall of 1982.


His story is amazing
I graduated in 1986, got married, went back to school to get my B.A. completing those requirements in 1988. After college I attempted to plant a church in southern Wisconsin from 1988-1990 while at the same time helping a friend plant his in another community. And then in 1991 I accepted the call to pastor what was then Chetek Full Gospel Tabernacle (now Refuge) and have been here ever since. In 20 years, I have preached over 700 sermons to the Sunday morning crew that gathers here, given at least that many Wednesday night teachings, spoke at the nursing home, the county jail, and community gatherings many times over and led many Bible studies with individuals or small groups. We’ve made some significant improvements to our facility during that time – gone are the pews and tiled floor sanctuary and in their stead are comfortable chairs and wall-to-wall carpet (for example). I chaired the committee that helped bring $10 million worth of improvements to our schools. I helped raise lots of money for playground equipment at our elementary school or helping young people go on mission endeavors and done the kinds of things required of pastors – praying for the sick, making hospital calls, dedicating new babies, baptizing believers, leading prayer gatherings, facilitating board meetings, officiating at weddings and funerals and all the other functions that go on at local churches. It all feels so very…normal. These are good things to do and to be done and I am honored to be able to do them but I would not call them noteworthy or heroic.


What Col. Chamberlain and his 300 Maine boys did at Little Round Top on that hot, humid day of July 2, 1863 – now that was heroic. Out of bullets and retreat not being an option he ordered a bayonet charge. The 15th Alabama Division that they had been fighting all afternoon never saw it coming and, as their commander later reported, “we ran like a herd of cattle.” The 20th Maine saved the day – and some historians contend, the war. But running down hill with nothing but a saber against a weary but determined foe – now that’s heroic. It’s a far cry from me attempting to rope down a message early Sunday morning in my office or sitting in one of the visitation rooms at the Justice Center waiting to see an inmate.



Now here is a run to remember
I will turn 50 in a few months and admittedly in the last year I’ve had moments of reflecting on the nature of what I’ve been doing the last 20 years and feeling like the sum of it doesn’t amount to much. I love what I do and by God’s grace I feel like I have done some good work during the past two decades. I have a wife who loves me and four great kids who serve in the fellowship I pastor. We have a beautiful home, vehicles that run (and that are paid for) and I lead a life that I had hoped to lead when I was a student in Bible college. But still for all that I’ve done it doesn’t seem to add up to much in the scheme of things.

As a family, we have been reading Dancer Off Her Feet by Julie Sheldon of late. It’s the testimony of a once professional ballet dancer in the UK who developed a muscular dystrophy called Dystonia and later was healed of her affliction. This is what she says about her struggle:

If illness is a battle, then each division of the army is vital to the success of the whole operation, and indeed, every single soldier has his unique role to play. Individual recognition or importance doesn’t come into it; the purpose of all the effort is simply to win the war. Sometimes certain people seem to play a more spectacular role, but in fact, their contribution is only possible because of the steady, unselfish preparation or back-up of others.

Somehow her words speak to my discouragement. After all, Chamberlain wasn't the only Union soldier running and screaming like a banshee down that hill – there were at least 120 last men standing (plus the Company B boys who suddenly emerged out of the fog to add trouble to the skedaddling Confederates). At nearly 50 years of age, I’m not likely to be running down any hill with sword in hand probably ever. I’m not going to be awarded the Medal of Honor – certainly not for the simple acts of service that I do. I pastor a small church in a small town in one of the poorest counties of our state. Apart from the folks around here, I’m not likely to be known outside of this small corner of the world. Twenty-five years out of Bible college I find that I am not a Jedi master or Jedi-anything. I’m just a guy – a foot soldier in the Great Campaign to extend God’s Kingdom doing what seems to be my part to play in this truly epic struggle.

I still dream – I still pray to see more lost people in Chetek and Barron County come to the saving knowledge of Jesus, I still hope for the day when more of our local fellowships are willing to do more together, I still aspire to see more young kids grow up to be kingdom players no matter their vocation or calling, I still think of the day when a local Somali fellowship made of Somali disciples exists in Barron, I still look to a day when “barren”-county is overwhelmingly fruitful. I still dream. It’s just that sometimes my life looks fairly…unimpressive. Not a failure but not stellar, either. Just normal. There are those in the history of the Church on whom great deeds have been thrust upon them to do – Peter, Paul, Athanatius of Alexandria, Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley and so forth. Hall of Famers everyone. I am reminded that Jesus exhorted his first core of leaders that true greatness in the kingdom is found in those who serve and do not seek the spotlight. Musing on that I think of the words attributed to Mother Teresa – We can do no great things; only small things with great love. May God find me faithful to be doing that: minding my post, reading and teaching the Scriptures, praying for the welfare of His Church in our community and the countless other normal things that pastors do in the course of a given week. It won't get me mentioned in Sports Illustrated or even Leadership but it is work that has to be done and it is mine to do. 




Thursday, January 19, 2012

In search of the perfect Annual Meeting

There were a lot of things they tried to teach me in Bible college – how to construct a sermon and how to preach one, how to study the Bible and how not to take verses out of context, a little counseling, a little philosophy, and a lot of other Bible-related topics. But for an aspiring pastor who hoped one day to serve a local congregation one thing they glossed right over is how to conduct an Annual Meeting, that once-a-year coming together of a local fellowship to discuss “business” – especially money business. In the course of a given year, a lot of money flows into the coffers of even a small fellowship and that means that there needs to be an accounting of where the moolah goes. And given the nature of people and how we think money should be spent and on what, these gatherings have been known to be anything but harmonious.


I was grounded in the faith by what I would call a “big” church - a (at the time) 1,000+ member congregation. In the six years I attended there I recall going to an Annual Meeting only once and that was because as an intern that year it was part of my job. As I remember, it was a simple, straightforward, up-and-down event. Our executive pastor, who oversaw the money end of things, handed out copies of the financial statement and answered any pertinent questions. I don’t recall if there were any elections but it was over and done fairly quickly. Following Bible college, while helping a friend of mine establish a new fellowship in another community, I remember being a part of one or two Annual Meetings there but again they were fairly innocuous gatherings – a financial statement was handed out, questions – if any – were taken, and the meeting summarily motioned to be closed. All this to say that nothing that I had experienced up until that time prepared me for my first Annual Meeting at Chetek Full Gospel Tabernacle in January 1992.
Okay, it wasn't that bad...
I have a faint memory of being reminded by my secretary sometime in early January that year that we needed to get things together for the Annual Meeting (by constitutional rule, our Annual Business Meeting is held on the last Friday night in January) and being puzzled by that. “The Annual what?” I asked. So she prepared the financial statement and I put together some kind of agenda (collector that I am sadly I do not have a copy of it) and appropriately informed the congregation two weeks ahead of time. The members of the board of trustees assured me that since I was new here they would run the meeting so I showed up thinking that this would be a fairly run-of-the-mill congregational gathering. How wrong I was. People didn’t show up as they did on Sunday morning, smiling and shaking hands and with an air of being happy to see everyone. As I recall they came with their game faces on, as if an ugly scrum was ahead. The board of trustees sat at a head table and it looked like they were bracing for a storm. The meeting was called to order, quorum (I’m pretty sure until that moment in time I had never heard the word before) was established by taking the role (if there were only 20 or so of us here why did we need to be so official? Couldn’t the person taking the minutes take a quick head count and note, “Yeah, we got quorum?”) and the gathering began.

Things were moving along mostly according to plan until we got to the reviewing of the 1991 Financial Statement and then all heck broke out. $10,000 was “missing” from our savings account and there was a great hue and outcry from the members gathered. (“SHOW ME THE MONEY!” is probably the way someone might have said it had that movie been made yet.) As it turned out, the money wasn’t missing, it had been spent - primarily in the replacement of the roof in the month or so prior to our arrival. “How do you think we paid for that roof?” I recall one of the board members yelling which didn’t defuse the emotional tension one iota. The money that had been given in trust was supposed to have been used for something other than capital improvements apparently (for what the offended could not say) and the board had done wrong by spending that much money without congregational knowledge. But as far as the board was concerned, nobody had ever told them that this gift had been especially earmarked and figured why hold a meeting to discuss replacing the roof when we have the money to do it?

In the end, the money was still spent, a much needed repair had been done and a new rule was put in play: from herein out unless it was already in the operating budget there could be henceforth no expenditure exceeding $1,000 without duly informing the congregation. Twenty years later, that rule still stands to this day. But there was one other lasting change that came out of that gathering that night as well.

People who were there (and there are not many of them left in our present congregation) tell me that whenever they hear me recount this story they think I exaggerate, that it wasn’t that bad, that while things got a little heated it was, after all, just a simple misunderstanding. Okay, but there was a whole lot of yelling, too, as I remember it and I made a vow that night that we would never have a meeting like that again. We’re a family and while families have their moments you do not build a loving community in an atmosphere of accusation and mistrust. Besides, an Annual Meeting of a local Christian fellowship is supposed to be different than your Annual Town Board meeting and so I began to re-craft the way we did our gathering.

The business meeting of ’93 ran a whole lot different than the one of ’92. For starters, we had the report out 2-3 weeks ahead of time (following the principle that “forewarned is forearmed”) and even had it impressively bound in a cloth folder. I asked for the gathering to be held in the sanctuary as opposed to the fellowship hall (the fear of God, I figured, would help everybody be on good behavior) and I ran the meeting. I also began the gathering politely putting people on notice how they should conduct themselves. In retrospect, it was overkill. We had a very quiet and subdued meeting that went on without incident. As one of the folks told me later, “Of couse it did. You had us all walking on egg shells.” She was right. I had yelled at them to behave and they had (they would of anyway) but this atmosphere was not representative of a loving, Christian fellowship either.

For several years I ran the annual gatherings but somewhere along the way I relinquished my hold on them and began to allow one of the trustees to conduct it. The meeting place has bounced between upstairs and downstairs during that time depending on the year until the hybrid version we now use was decided upon (which is both). We’ve had a few threshold gatherings – the year we embraced our Vision and Mission Statement (’05) and the year we became Refuge (’07) – but for the most part up until a few years ago they have been fairly standard Annual Meetings as those things go, cordial and generally respectful. A couple of years ago when we were reviewing the Financial Statement of the previous year we got derailed a bit as a few well-meaning people took up a lot of time to mention where they could get a deal on paper products given the amount of money we were budgeting for this item but never have we returned to that screamfest in the basement of Chetek Full Gospel Tabernacle in January 1992.

But I was still not satisfied with the way we conducted this gathering. People shouldn’t show up to the annual meeting of the official membership looking like they’ve come for their yearly proctology exam. This should be a celebratory-thing, a high-fiving, “look-at-what-the-Lord-has-done” kinda thing. So a few years ago we began including dinner and “a movie” – a slide show that one of our guys has put together featuring the highlights of the previous year – and worship and sharing. Last year, I think we got the closest to what I think it’s supposed to be like: we sat down to dinner together in the fellowship hall, convened our meeting after dinner that lasted all of 15 minutes (admittedly there wasn’t a lot of official business to conduct) and then moved upstairs for the movie, worship, prayer and sharing. It was, in my mind, fun.

We now call it The Annual Gathering – dinner and a movie along with fellowship, prayer and worship. Yes, we do our business and elect our Deacons and approve our budget but the mood is different. We come together to recognize God’s work in and through us during the previous year and anticipate what he may do in us in the year ahead. Admittedly, there’s a few who don’t like the changes – “If you’re gonna have a meeting, let’s have a meeting and go home” – but my argument is we’re a family and a family should at least enjoy getting together once a year.

Okay, this has NEVER happened at our Annual Meeting...yet
The third week of January has, for me, been “Annual Report” week for many years now. With the help of my secretary, we put together the, on average, 20-page Annual Report that will include the previous year’s Financial Statement, the current year’s Proposed Budget, minutes from the previous gathering, and several other documents. They’ll go out this Sunday with the hopes that some of the folks will read through it before our official gathering next Friday night. We don’t do the cloth folders anymore (paper will do fine) and admittedly it’s not what you call great literature. It’s just a record of what we did, what we spent and what we plan to spend this coming year but it’s just the sort of thing that helps keep everyone in the know of what’s what and it’s my experience that this sort of thing only reassures us that at Refuge the more you know the better you feel about the fellowship you are a part of.

                                                                   
                                                




Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Road Goes Ever On and On and On

Roads go ever ever on,
  over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
  by streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
  and through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
  and under mountains in the moon.

Those who know me know I'm very much a hobbit - I'm short, stocky and have hair on my toes. Since 2006, I have made it my intent to hike the entire length of the Ice Age Trail, a 1,000 mile trail that meanders east and west, north and south throughout  Wisconsin. I have since logged 52 hikes, most of them 8 miles or less, and have traversed six counties (and am halfway through a seventh). Truthfully, I've got a long way to go. At the rate I'm going, I literally may be an old man by the time I get to the journey's end.

Rather than post entries at this blog, I've begun a new one dedicated entirely to this goal entitled "Ice Age Trail Sojourner" that you can find by following this link Ice Age Sojourner: Tookish Me. At this site I plan to post lots of pictures and entries from the journal I've kept of all my hikes since the first one in January of 2006. If you are a traveler or like to read of those who do perhaps you'll enjoy reading the record of my journey.

Roads go ever on and on
  under cloud and under star,
Yet feet that wandering have gone
  turn at last to home afar.
Eyes that fire and sword have seen
  and horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green
  and trees and hills they long have known.
from "Roads Go Ever On" from "The Last Stage" in The Hobbit

Same time next year


Look who's moved into the neighborhood?

I live in a predominantly white county. That’s not a matter of pride so much as a statement of fact: there are mostly white people who live around here. There are some Hispanic but most of them live in the western part of the county working for agribusiness giant Seneca Foods. But around the year 2000, a new demographical wrinkle began to develop in Barron, the county seat. Jennie-O’s Turkey Store, known to slaughter 27,000 birds a day, began to hire Somali refugees hailing from the Twin Cities. Barron, like many small towns around here, has a Catholic church and a smattering of other Protestant congregations spread around the city. But now it has a mosque as well because while in the early days the Somali commuted here to work at the plant only to return to their families in Minneapolis or St. Paul on the weekend now nearly 700 of them live here – 20% of the entire population of Barron! What would the town fathers in 1869 think today if they knew that among the descendants of the German and Norwegian immigrants who now reside here also lives a small slice of Africa? A mosque in Barron County? Who would have thunk it?


A few years ago our fellowship partnered with a few others to help create The Well International, a ministry’s whose sole purpose is to serve our Somali neighbors in the name of Jesus. We do this primarily through tutoring, English training and relationship building. It’s a slow process given that the Somali are among the most resistant to the Gospel worldwide. But we feel we must do what we can to love our new neighbors even though we are separated by culture, language, outlook, history and religion.

One of the first things we tried was cold-call on Somali apartments and residences at Christmastime delivering gift bags full of small household products, fruit, dates (they love dates) and candy. We didn’t really see it as a “witnessing” opportunity (although a few years we included Bible verses in Somali in the bags and one year we actually distributed the Jesus movie in Somali on DVD). It was more like taking a batch of cookies to your next door neighbors in order to make them feel welcome in the neighborhood. We would split up into teams of 2 or 3 and take 7 or so bags between us and then randomly knock on Somali doors and give a spiel that went something like this:

Salaam Aleikum [A traditional Muslim greeting that means “Peace be onto you”]. In our country it is traditional to bring a gift to our friends or neighbors at this time of the year and we were wondering if you would receive our gift as a gesture of welcome to our community?

Just like any kind of soliciting adventure, sometimes there was no one home, sometimes the answer was no in no uncertain terms and sometimes they would simply take our gift, say “thank you” and close the door. I learned early on that some Somali were touched by my offering of “Salaam” while others were offended that a man who was not a Muslim would say such a thing. But without fail each of us would have a story or two to share at the night’s end. As much as the thought of going out into my own neighborhood to randomly drop in on some of my white neighbors makes me squeamish, this venture I always found good fun. We couldn’t nor wouldn’t dare go to Somalia but God in his providence has moved a small tribe into our own backyard.

This is how I came to meet Hassan and his wife, Abdah, and their large brood of children. (Note: While I have no illusions that many people read my blog, I want to safeguard the identity of this family. So while they are real people who live in Barron and have heard the gospel on different occasions from various Christians, these are not their names). The first time I knocked on their door was 2008 accompanied by Akram (an Egyptian staffer from the local YWAM campus) and my daughter, Emma. We were greeted by a kindly woman with a beautiful smile. I went through my brief presentation and she enthusiastically said, “Yes and thank you!” A gaggle of children were peering around the corner at us, giggling in expectation as to what we had brought. She even went so far to invite us in for tea but we graciously declined knowing we had other doors to knock on (besides Akram told me it would not be good form for two men to be having tea in a Somali woman’s apartment even if one of the men had his daughter in tow). When she shut the door we could hear the screams of delight coming from her children as they tore open the bag.

The following year I and two young girls from Refuge stood outside their door but this time we had been assigned to them and in addition to our Christmas bag for their family we were bringing additional gifts for their children. After repeating a variation of my pitch I use every year since we started this little good will campaign, we were warmly welcomed into their apartment and the kids like horses chomping on their bits waiting for the starting bell to ring tore into the goods just as soon as we bid them good night.

In 2010, our fellowship “adopted” their family for this campaign and a week before Christmas, my family and I with the monies we had received went shopping for their children. We picked up school supplies, candy, nuts, dates and other items as well as lots of socks (most American kids would frown at this sort of thing but we were encouraged to put this on the top of our shopping list). We then drove over to Barron and just like I had the two years before stood outside their door and knocked. Shortly, all of us were sitting on one side of their small living room while on the other side sat all of them, smiling awkwardly at one another. Abdah quickly offered and served us tea as I tried to make small talk with Hassan and his children. The obligatory seasonal comments about being excited for Christmas were out as well as anything related to that day. So, we focused on our kids, their names, their year in school and what each was involved in. It didn’t help that I had a low-grade fever so I really wasn’t in a chatty mood but after our tea we left our gifts, bid them “Salaam!” (apparently they are Muslims who appreciate the gesture) and departed into the cold December night. As I left, I slipped an envelope containing $300 into Hassan’s hand with the hopes that it would help toward their rent that I knew they were behind on.

This past Christmas Wade and Jessica (the Directors of The Well) decided that after a five or six year run they wouldn’t do the Christmas bag campaign. After all, the Somali are no longer “new” neighbors in town. But a week before Christmas, Hassan called me. For several years I volunteered for the Barron County chapter of the Salvation Army and had occasion to speak with him by phone whenever they were behind in their rent so I assumed that this was what this conversation was going to be about. But no, he was calling to ask when I planned to stop over that week. “Jeef, no, no need rent,” he said in his thick Somali accent. “For the kids! For the kids!” This was a curious development – a Muslim man who has a picture of the great black stone in the Kaaba on his living room wall – inviting this follower of Christ to bring Christmas gifts for his children. Some Somali imans have stated on the internet that for a Somali to receive a Christmas gift is an offense punishable by death. So, how could I say no? “Thursday,” I said and informed everyone at dinner that night that tomorrow we were going shopping. This is how I found myself for the fourth year in a row standing outside their door surrounded by my family laden with bags of the usual stuff for Hassan and Abdah’s children. We had other folks in Barron to visit that night so we didn’t arrive until nearly 9 o’clock. Their youngest had already gone to bed and Abdah, who now works at the Turkey Store, was clearly up past her bedtime but they were gracious as ever. We hadn’t picked Ed up from Kansas City yet so we just told them that he was off at college there. But out of respect for Abdah we cut our visit short and left soon after but not before hearing the squeals of their older children as they opened up the bags.

Admittedly, our once-a-year visit to their apartment is not the basis for a long and lasting friendship. Perhaps if we lived in Barron we’d have opportunity to see each other more regularly at school functions or at the Kwik Trip in town. Of course, we could invite them over for dinner at some time in the future and maybe the fact that he called me this past Christmas is an indicator that were we to do so they would accept our invitation. I’m sure it’s hard for them, too. After all, we may be some of the only Christian people they know by first name. Still, a bridge, flimsy though it may be, has been built by minute gestures like ours (several other individuals and families in the Christian community also have contact with them) and who knows what may come of such small acts of kindness and neighborliness. Perhaps more than we know. But for now, it’s “same time next year” to Hassan and his family. I think it more than coincidental that for four years running I’ve stood outside their door the week before Christmas bearing gifts. It is a prophetic picture of what God in Isa (that is, Jesus) is doing - knocking on their front door that he might come in and “[then] we will share a meal together as friends” (Revelation 3:20, NLT.)


Friday, January 6, 2012

"This book will change your life"


Since I have investigated all the reports in close detail, starting from the story's beginning, I decided to write it all out for you...so you can know beyond the shadow of a doubt the reliability of what you were taught. Luke 1:3, 4 The Message

I've begun the new year with the intent to spend all of my personal Bible reflection in the Gospel of Luke. Having spent all of last year in the Story of the Patriarchs (see Parked in the Story of the Patriarchs), I have been longing to return to the Jesus Story, the best story of all stories. So, this past Monday I opened to the third gospel and read the lines I quoted above. In the times before when I've read Luke's account, I've glossed right over these verses, a sort of “blah, blah, blah, yes, yes, I see” kinda gloss. But right away I was struck by something he wrote: it's the claim he's making to those who read his book seriously. He tells me (and any one who else who may be listening) that if I read this treatise carefully it will change me.

As I reflected upon that, I immediately imagined myself at some future book-signing event at long last a published author. People are standing courteously in line in hopes to have my signature inside the cover of their copy. They gush, “I really loved your book” and I somewhat embarrassingly respond, “Gee, thanks. I'm glad you did” or as they walk away with my latest edition in hand I wish them well and say, “Hope you like it.” But if that day ever comes I can't imagine ever writing something so good that I would have the audacity to say, “Hey, read this book, man. It'll change your life.” But that's just exactly what Luke has told me – that if I read his words carefully I will be strengthened in the things I already know about Jesus. That's quite a claim for any man to make, let alone someone who's imploring you to read his book. Read this so you can know beyond the shadow of a doubt the reliability of what you were taught (Msg).

Not being the scholarly type but having read a few things by those who are, it is not just happenstance that the word “certainty” is at the end of the long sentence that makes up verses 3-4. It's Luke's way of underlining the point he is so emphatic about:

I have written all this, Theophilus, so that you may be sure”...my Gospel, says Luke, will offer you certainty. And in saying this he grasps...another twentieth-century nettle. For the word is asphaleia, which might be translated “infallibility” - a concept around which long warfare has been waged. Without apology Luke claims it for his Gospel, and its real meaning becomes plain. Read what I have written, he says, and you will see the facts on which Christianity is based; and you will find there something firm and solid and absolutely trustworthy, a sure foundation for faith.
The Message of Luke by Michael Wilcock, pp. 30-31

Who makes such a claim like that? Someone who is either a selfishly motivated promoter or a true believer who after “carefully investigating everything from the beginning” (v. 3) is fully persuaded that if I do the same as he I, too, will be persuaded about what I already believe about Jesus. It's a reminder to me long catechized in the faith that I cannot read this account at arm's length. I like what Michael Card has to say about the identity of Theophilus:

[while] we can never be sure of the identity of the mysterious Theophilus [his name means
“lover of God”]...that is not, strictly speaking, true either. He is you. He is me. For we have received some initial instruction on Jesus' life and ministry. We need to know with more certainty the truth of what we have heard. And you would not be holding Luke's book in your hands if you weren't in some sense a “lover of God,” or at least someone who longed to become one.
Luke: The Gospel of Amazement by Michael Card, p. 34

So I plan to read Luke's account with that intent – as a lover of God who aspires to love him more and know him better. May the Teacher of hearts instruct mine as I hear the Story all over again.
Reader beware