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.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Slow Muzungo Running

Our small team from Chetek arrived in Uganda late Friday night and given that the Hopeland YWAM campus is located about 80km from Kampala, we didn't get to bed until nearly 2 a.m. Saturday morning. After 27 hours of flight and lay-over time, we were pretty much done-in. While I am a early-morning runner by habit and inclination, I didn't roll out of bed until 9 a.m. that day and by that time the sun was already high over this equatorial country. If I was going to get my run in, then, it would mean waiting until early evening before I did so.

The source of the Nile
Around 6 p.m. that evening while the sun was sinking in the western sky, I set off on my first run in Africa. Hopeland is a beautiful campus located about 20km outside of Jinja Town, whose claim to fame is that it is the headwaters of the Nile and, more recently, the adopted home of Katie Davis author of the bestselling book, Kisses from Katie. But other than the main highway, all of the roads that connect Hopeland with the rest of that area are hard red, dirt ones that probably turn into red gumbo during the rainy season. Fortunately for me the rains are late and so the road is firm.

On the day we left for Africa – Wednesday – I had gone out for my usual early morning run dressed in tights, long sleeve shirt, winter hat and gloves. The snow banks were high after the big snow that fell the week before. Now 72 hours later I have stepped into August-like heat with zero opportunity to acclimatize. Donning shorts and a cut-off running shirt I'm already hot before I leave the campus.

Hopeland's main gate
I head out the main gate and head north mentally reminding myself to run on the right hand side of the road given that Uganda was colonized by the British and so oncoming traffic will be opposite of how it is in the States. It's early evening and everyone seems to be going somewhere – workers walking home from the sugarcane fields that literally surround us or students coming home from school. The air is thick and so I'm running at a slow pace but I am the only white guy out there causing every head to turn as I maneuver around pedestrians and, at one point, a small caravan of cows being driven home. A big truck comes barreling down the road stirring up a large cloud of red dust that settles on me like a mauve mist.

I “good evening” most people I pass and they return the compliment watching this strange “muzungo” (white person) make his slow but steady way to Kakira, the small village about 2km away from Hopeland. The bodas, Uganda's infamous taxis, scream by me carrying their passengers home. When I hit the outskirts of Kakira I take a water break, walk a bit and then head back. No sense overdoing it on my first day here. When I finally made it back to Central House, our home for the 10 days we stayed in Uganda, the cold shower (the only temperature our shower provided) felt refreshingly good. I had to scrub really hard to get the red dirt off my lower calves and ankles that clung to me tenaciously.

Over the next week or so I logged four more runs and all of them in the early morning. Whenever we would leave the campus for a ministry appointment I would pay attention to the unmarked roads so that by the third day I had a sense where a few of them led. I would leave before sunrise but due to our nearness to the equator within minutes I was no longer running in the dark. Every morning, even if it was only 6:30 a.m., it felt like it was 80 degrees out already so that those first few runs I did a fair amount of walking as well. One day, upon my return, for the first time since I was a kid I threw up, whether it was from the heat or a reaction to the anti-malaria pill I would take before my run. But by the following Saturday, I set out on a pace I figured I could sustain, headed east toward the highway and then hugging the far left of the shoulder (I got buzzed by a banana truck one morning) I set out for the main entrance to the Kakira Sugarworks that lay about 5km away. As usual I was “good-morning-ing” most people I passed and getting the stares I was growing accustomed to. When I reached the road that led to the Sugarworks I had the sense it would emerge somewhere around Kakira and the road I had run on the Saturday before. I was a little nervous when I reached the gate but the guards very good-naturedly raised the bar for me and pointed me in the general direction. My hunch proved correct, I eventually found the lane that connected the Sugarworks with the village and soon found myself running there. I got a little turned around but then I saw a landmark I had noticed the day before on an early morning walk to Kakira – a dumpster that the day before had contained a cow contently grazing in it. Once I saw this, I knew I had gone one street to the west too far, corrected my course and then I was back on track, heading south toward the sugarcane fields and Hopeland that lay beyond them. It was a solid albeit slow run but my best one in Africa. If given another week perhaps I could have fully acclimated to the muggy, equatorial temperature but each morning upon my return to Central House I knew a nice, cold shower would greet me. It was something worth coming home to. If I ever get back that way – and I hope that I shall – my plan is to run to the top of the hills that stand above Hopeland where a government school is located, catch my breath and then run all the way down again. Now that will be a work-out to crow about.

I'm back now, back to running tights and long shirts, March being a month of transition. But my Asics have been permanently stained terra cotta as have my socks, a tangible reminder of my runs in the red dirt of Uganda.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Back to the fog

Not long after I arrived in the States, I poured out my heart about feeling like a stranger in my native land in my journal, and I came to a better understanding of why I felt I didn't belong there: I have often wondered since reentering the United States why I feel such great culture shock. How can I feel such a disconnect with the place I was born, raised, and for eighteen years called home? How can I feel that real home is a place in which I have spent just over a year? I have blamed it on many things.

American extravagance.

The grocery store that almost sends me into panic mode due to the sheer quantity and
variety of foods.
People who build million-dollar homes.

The lack of understanding and a lack of thanksgiving on the part of all of us.

The ease with which we receive medical care.

The amount of stuff that just clutters our lives.

All these things make it difficult to readjust, yes. But what has been the biggest shock to my system, the huge disconnect, is that I have stepped out of my reliance on God to meet my needs. I “miss” Jesus. He hasn't disappeared, of course, but I feel so far from Him because my life is actually functioning without Him. By “functioning,” I mean that if I am sick, I go to the drugstore or to the doctor. If I am hungry, I go to the grocery store. If I need to go somewhere, I get in my car. When I need some advice or guidance, I call my mom or go plop on my roommate's bed. If I want to feel happy, I get Brad, my little brother, or someone else to make me laugh. Katie Davis as quoted in Kisses from Katie

Already a week has gone by since returning home from my cross-continental trip to Africa. When I came in the back door last Monday night around 11:30 p.m., I was feeling the familiar fog of sleep deprivation that accompanies me every time I travel across the seas. It is the small inconvenience one must pay to make trips like that (unless, of course, one has the means to travel Business Class affording you the luxury of practically laying down to sleep while you fly, which I never have.) But unlike returning from Asia when it usually takes me about a week before I feel right again, after laying low on Tuesday by Wednesday morning I was back in the office just as I am most Wednesday mornings of the year.

My first one was one to savor
But there are other fogs to contend with in my return to “normal” life. There is the one of my return to relishing those creature comforts we so easily take for granted – hot showers, drinkable water from the tap, my two mugs of hot coffee I imbibe every morning richly flavored with Irish crème, the softness of my own bed. Thirty minutes into our flight home, I enjoyed my first ice cubes since coming to Africa. Somewhere over northern Uganda I was blessed with one of my favorite drinks – a Diet Coke with ice. It was a moment to savor the instant the sweet, cool drink passed through my lips. I love the fact that I have electricity on demand always (in Uganda it is intermittent at best. Six of the nine days we were in-country we had no electricity at all.) That if I need to make a quick trip to Eau Claire I can jump in my own car and travel rapidly down Highway 53 without having to dodge thousands of other motorists be they taxis, bicycles or Uganda's infamous bodas (not to mention her goats and cows.) And if it's summer outside, I can flip on the AC and enjoy a cool ride in the environmentally controlled space of my car. It is the way of our people, isn't it? We have developed conveniences and services that keep us insulated from just about all of life's uncomfortable feelings, smells and sights. Our trash is picked up once a week, our sewage is carried away safely and in a manner that does not harm the environment, and, in our town, if you let your house go into serious disrepair they will condemn it and forbid you to live there.

There is for so many of us in North America a veil of insulation protecting us from the ugliness that is so much a reality for how so much of the rest of the world lives – crushing poverty, perpetual hunger, dire disease, gross injustice, wonderfully beautiful children who did nothing whatsoever to become infected with HIV. Those in America who want to protest how “the other 99 percent live” maybe need to take a field trip to a developing country like Uganda – or Malawi or Haiti – and see just how precarious life can be. Those things that we take for granted or expect as a right – clean water from the tap, flush toilets in the house – are delights that only the very rich enjoy in a place like Uganda. In my brief stay in Africa, our team encountered some truly desperate situations that at times affected me very emotionally. But now that I am safely back on American terra firma, the fog will settle again and try as I might, it will be easier than I am willing to admit to forget, say, the smell of 40 men at the government hospital in Jinja in a ward the size of a small wing of one of our own local hospitals, with flies buzzing around broken and hurting bodies waiting for someone to examine them. Of course, it's not my intention to forget. In fact, I resolve not to but that fog of protection from All that is Unsettling and Uncomfortable will seek to settle on me like the tide rising.
This is part of daily life for so many Ugandans
There is yet another fog I have returned to: the fog of the routine of my daily life. Appointments to keep, stuff to do, people to see, concerts and ball games and church gatherings to attend and if I'm not careful suddenly my trip to Africa that ended last week will become “last year”, a distant memory kept alive only through my on-line photo albums and the plethora of new Facebook friends I now have (just about everyone I met in Uganda – young, old and inbetween – are on Facebook.) The pace of our life that we set for ourselves is such that at day's end we have no time to reflect, to meditate, to pray, to wait on the Lord. There's a coldness to this fog which has great potency to subtly drain us of spiritual vigor and focus parasitically. I fear this fog most of all.
This bag of food will keep her alive

I don't think the answer is to walk about here feeling guilty of the rich blessings that I enjoy. Nor is it to deny myself of ice cubes as some kind of guilt offering for being North American. But if my response to the Lord's invitation to return to Africa should he do so begin with multiple caveats of “I will so long as You give me a refrigerator with a freezer so I may have my daily allowance of ice cubes or have access to a bona fide Western flushing toilet to use daily” it shows that I am not the spiritual heavyweight that I imagine myself to be but a worldling bound to mere creature comforts and still in need of healing from my spiritual myopia. 

I keep forgetting to ask God first to heal me, to fill me, to guide me, to rejoice with me. I have to set aside “time to pray” in the morning and at night instead of being in constant communication with Him. In Uganda, because I was so physically “poor,” I was completely dependent on God and spiritually as wealthy as ever. As I sit here writing, I am frustrated with my own stupidity, my human willingness to step back into dependence on stuff and these places I swore I detested.
Katie Davis as quoted in Kisses from Katie
Choosing to stay and love which is never sacrifice

Friday, March 23, 2012

Amazing Jesus

When Jesus heard this, he was amazed...” Luke 7:9, NIV

In Michael Card's wonderful phrase, Luke is “the Gospel of Amazement” (see Biblical Imagination Series by IVP, Luke: The Gospel of Amazement, © 2011). Every where you look, people are agog at the work of God connected with the man Jesus


A very good read
They were, all of them, quite simply amazed. Zechariah's friends, the shepherds, all who heard the shepherds, Joseph and Mary, the people in his hometown of Nazareth, those in Capernaum, those who heard the boy Jesus in the temple, the disciples, the parents of the girl who had died, even the Pharisees: all were amazed, astonished, in awe and afraid. Three decades later, as Luke interviews the ever-decreasing group of eyewitnesses, he finds them still amazed, still struggling to put into words just what it was like to encounter the rabbi from Nazareth. And thirty years away from the event that was Jesus' life, Luke still finds himself amazed as well.

Luke exhausts the language of amazement. They were “amazed,” “astonished,” “in awe,”astounded,” “spellbound.” Surely Matthew, Mark and John were amazed as well: Matthew speaks twelve times of the people being amazed, and Mark does it fifteen times. John only uses the term six times. There are five Greek words that can be translated “amazed,” and only Luke uses every one of them. Sometimes he uses two different words in the same sentence (see Lk 5:26)! (Luke: The Gospel of Amazement, p. 22)

Rich, poor, outcast, religious and nonreligious alike, they are all “amazed” at Jesus – the things he does, the things he says. Imagine being audacious enough to touch a leper or uninhibited at plopping himself down upon the luxurious cushions in Levi's home right next to some of his disreputable friends. In the first seven chapters of Luke there are already a plethora of those OMG moments. But one day in Capernaum, it's Jesus who is the one who is amazed, by a Gentile and a Roman officer no less.

He is man of important rank and a hated member of the occupying army but in his case locally much beloved for the simple fact that he has done much for the people of Capernaum and built the house of worship at which they gather every Sabbath. His favorite servant is deathly ill and so when he hears Jesus is in town, he asks the Jewish elders if they might ask him to come and minister to his servant. They are eager to do just this and implore Jesus to come and heal the centurion's retainer. Jesus agrees to accompany him but no sooner does he set out for the man's quarters when a messenger arrives with another message from the commander, countermanding his previous request. “You don't need to come to my house, Lord. Just give the order and my servant will be entirely whole” (see Luke 7:7).

Jesus never saw it coming. He was, as we used to say, totally “blown away” by the message of the centurion. He stops in his tracks and lets the message sink in. How is it that this outsider intuitively understands what his fellow Jewish brothers cannot comprehend? Taken aback, Jesus addressed the accompanying crowd: 'I've yet to come across this kind of simple trust anywhere in Israel, the very people who are supposed to know about God and how he works." When the messengers got back home, they found the servant up and well. (Luke 7:9, Msg)

Here's my question: has Jesus been amazed since? Are there actions or statements that we mortals do and say that still get his attention all these millenia later and cause him to be amazed? I know he loves us passionately and is committed to our transformation but from time to time do any of us still surprise him? Or after 2,000 years and how many people later has he seen it all?

Betsie & Corrie ten Boom left and center
I realize God knows all things but this world is not a computer program running as originally planned. We remain free-will agents with the potential to say “yes” to him every day and with the same potential to say “no” to him as well. The further along you go, the more difficult it is to bail but people who are Christ-followers still are known to do so anyway. So, do any of us even come close to amazing him still? Surprise him by our response to his invitation? I think there must be. I think when two old ladies from Holland chose to forgo their fears of the Nazi occupiers and hide and give aid to Jews anyway, he was amazed. Or when President Nixon's former “ax-man” Chuck Colson sat in a federal prison and learned that Christ followers who were also Democrats were willing to exchange places with him, Jesus was amazed. I think any time any of his followers resist the natural desire to preserve our life and enjoy what creature comforts are provided to us to embrace a life of love and service and sacrifice he is wowed.

Last summer I was surprised when Troy announced that he wanted to be born again the Sunday next. That day remains an amazing event to me. [See Being Born Again On Sunday] My recent journey to Africa and the fact that the five members of our team were on it was amazing to me. A few years ago, none of us were in a place of saying “yes” to such an invitation and yet there we were walking in the red, Ugandan dirt and sharing at worship gatherings held in church buildings, a Gothic-looking prison or under a large shade tree. Was Jesus amazed? Or just pleased? I don't ask because I seek to do something that will impress him. I just wonder that though he is God and knows acutely what we are made of, are any of us able to make him shake his head twice to comprehend what he is seeing? I want to take to heart his exhortation to Thomas the week after that first Easter Sunday, be not faithless, but believing” (John 20:27, KJV) and walk, with his invitation, on water be it all the way back to Africa or just across my yard.

Monday, March 5, 2012

You can get there from here

The view from the mission house
“[Bilbo] used often to say there was only one Road; that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary. ‘It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,’ he used to say. ‘You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to. Do you realize that this is the very path that goes through Mirkwood, and that if you let it, it might take you to the Lonely Mountain or even further and to worse places?’”

“Three is Company”, chapter 3 in The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien

This a post that I began a week after returning from my 19-day journey to the Philippines a year ago in March and now a few days before I fly out to Africa I’m attempting to finish. I don’t remember why I didn’t complete it. It probably had more to do with life interrupting than anything else but on the cusp of my next journey “over there”, the thing I was reminded of then remains clear in my mind now: you can get there from here.

Dibungko from the river
 Last year, I travelled to Baguio City in central Luzon to teach at the Youth With A Mission (YWAM) campus located there. I was there by invitation of friends, Duane & Lois Pederson, who were, at the time, directors of the Crossroads Discipleship Training School as well as part of the leadership team of the campus. (I wrote about this experience in a March 2011 post entitled The essence of discipleship). Following my week of teaching, Randy Waterhouse, one of the elders of our fellowship, joined me in Baguio and together we accompanied Duane, one of his former students, Freek, and his friend, Kees, both from Holland and Hazel our Filipino translator, to northeastern Luzon for a week of ministry in the Agta village of Dibungko.

Duane with friend Unoy
 Duane is about as low-key as they come. For a man who has been heavily invested in making disciples on the Pacific Rim for many years now, when he and Lois return to us when on furlough he hardly ever regales us with stereotypical missionary stories. He is soft-spoken and philosophically opposed to telling tales. But coax him into speaking of the Agta and there is a fire in his eyes that belie his dead pan delivery. The Filipino equivalent of Native Americans, the Agta were on the island long before the first Europeans arrived. For thousands of years they lived nomadically and only recently have they begun to settle more permanently in villages. Due to the work of SIL (Summer Institute of Linguistics) and CMU (Church Mission to the Unreached) many of the Agta around Palanan town in Isabella Province have become converts to Christianity. Once considered an unreached people group, whole Agta villages have come to Christ and many Agta have become pastors and church planters themselves.

Baloi is a fierce Agta
 Former hunter-gatherers, the Agta have become farmers and due to their proximity to the forests and the sea continue to harvest from the bounty of both. They live simply in what is referred to as a nipa hut, an indigenous house made of bamboo and covered in nipa leaves (but for the more prosperous or fortunate corrugated iron gleaned from an NGO like World Vision is preferrable), and a whole family including assorted relatives may live in a hut half the size of my living room. They are pygmie-like in that the average height of an Agta may be five feet tall but all sinew, bone and muscle (I don’t recall meeting any overweight Agta.) In any case, short as I am I would be tall for an Agta man. They speak a dialect known as Paranan-Agta and while we were in their village, every night in chapel (chapel is held nightly in Dibungko) the few among them who have been trained to read by CMU read from SIL’s prototype of the first-of-its-kind Agta New Testament. All this to say that there are a plethora of differences between our world and the one the Agta live in. What business did a couple of guys from North America and Northern Europe have doing in a little jungle village like Dibungko?

We were there to minister at a gathering of pastors and church workers who had come together for three days of worship, prayer, teaching and fellowship. About eighty “low-landers” (who look like traditional Filipinos) and Agta (who look like they hail from darkest Africa) made up the congregation. Freek was the main speaker and with the help of Hazel or a few other local translators he spoke morning, afternoon and evening. He spoke on the family and on family-issues, standard Bible teaching on loving and honoring one another much as you would hear in most evangelical fellowships across the United States. While Freek preached, Randy, Kees, Duane and I were across the way in the mission house praying for numerous Agta and lowland couples. They stood in line for hours waiting for the opportunity to be prayed for and after the first day of ministry I had something of an epiphany: people are people the world over.
Hybrid Nipa hut
With the help of a translator, an Agtan or lowland couple would sit across from us, share their struggle or hurt and then we would begin to pray – Duane and Randy in one room, Kees and I in another. All afternoon and into the evening we prayed for couples who were not getting along or were having trouble with rebellious children. Truthfully that entire week we prayed for people I was struck again and again by the fact that save for the translator how normal it felt to be praying for these people. We didn’t speak their language and knew only a bit of some of the unique cultural nuances of Filipinos in general and yet the Holy Spirit was able to bridge the gap between us. By the end of the week, I was persuaded that if the ministry team at Refuge was so inclined to join us here, the hardest thing for them would be either the 17-hour airline flight to Manila, or the six-hour bus ride to Baguio or the six hour bus ride to Cagayan City or the 45-minute Cessna ride over the mountain or the thirty minute Bangka ride down the Palanan River or the steep climb up the hill to the village of Dibungko. This would be the hard part of the journey. By comparison, ministering peace and comfort to an Agta or a lowlander despite the language gap between us would be relatively easy.

Who's that big Agta in the front?
That’s what my week with the Agta reminded me of – people are people, sin is sin, hurt is hurt, pain is pain, bitterness is bitterness whatever cultural form it may take. In other words, you can get there from here – yes, even from mostly Caucasian Barron County. If you are willing to be a vessel of peace and friendship, the Lord Jesus can send a redneck from northern Wisconsin into the bush of northern Uganda and by the grace of God he can be culturally relevant. In the Kingdom of God, this makes perfect sense.
As I begin to pack for my next cross-cultural ministry experience, the same old fear seeks to reassert itself. Not of travel in strange places or of getting my pocket picked or of contracting some jungle disease. These are simply standard risks of traveling internationally. No, the fear is we’ll finally get to where we are going and I will be totally out of my element and be something even less useful than a tourist (at least a tourist has plenty of cash on hands to see the sights.) But then I am reminded of my week in Dibungko and recall that as crazy as it may be for a North American pastor to travel across the Atlantic and the Mediterranean just to bring a message or pray a prayer with a Ugandan national or hug an orphan (or ten) may not be that crazy after all.

After posting this Monday night, early Tuesday morning I read this from Chapter 8 of Katie Davis' Kisses from Katie entitled (appropriately for this post) "How Great A Distance Love Can Bridge":
    I had learned while being “home” in America and away from “home” in Uganda just how small this earth really is. It was as if the two worlds I had been living in had finally merged a bit and I was discovering just how great a distance love can bridge. God really does have the whole world sitting in the palm of His hand. All of us are, literally, neighbors. With the simple purchase of a plane ticket, I can get from my house in the village to my parents' living room in twenty-four hours. And I could get back to Jinja from Brentwood in twenty-four hours as well. People tell me they miss me; they think I am so far away. But I'm not. I'm right here, on the same earth as everybody else, doing what I know to do to make it a little bit better...

    ...People are people. They all need food and water and medicine, but mostly they need love and truth and Jesus. I can do that. We can do that. We can give people food, water, medicine, love, truth, and Jesus. The same God created all of us for a purpose, which is to serve Him and to love and care for His people. It is universal. We can't do it in our own strength or out of our own resources, but as we follow God to wherever He is leading us, He makes the impossible happen. 

Thursday, March 1, 2012

What Barb Jones taught me

Between 1988-1990, my wife and I attempted to plant a church in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin. Shortly after Christine was born, we moved there from northern Illinois, set up shop, as it were, in a small, aging mobile home and were fortunate enough to have a well-known couple who lived in “Fort” open their home to us for Bible study on Thursday nights. I was working third shift at a nursing home facility in Watertown, about twenty miles north of Fort, and so I would lead the study, enjoy coffee and dessert afterward and then drive to work. We officially began the study in the fall of 1989 and every Thursday night met in Barb and Joe Jones' home located right on Highway 12 on the south end of town. As fall turned into winter, however, the snow began to fly and as luck or fate or whatever would have it, more often than not it flew a lot on Thursday nights that winter of 1989-90. And so in the interest of people's safety I would call Barb and tell her I had decided to cancel for that night.

People who know me now probably find that difficult to believe given my penchant for not canceling for any reason be it the worst Sunday blizzard imaginable or an anticipated low turn-out day. But that's because of what Barb taught me one day after a visit with her and Joe in their home. “Personally,” she said with the tone that only a spiritual matriarch can assume, “I don't like canceling for any reason. You never know what God may want to do. We're here and if you and Linda come that makes four which is more than a quorum. And what if someone showed up thinking there would be study?” She was right, of course. Apart from a snowapocalyse, there really wasn't a good reason for canceling any of the gatherings. It was a snow day – or night, as it were – and I wanted a good reason to stay home and relax. I took Barb's lesson to heart and to the best of my knowledge, have not canceled any church activity save one in the past twenty-some years of ministry here (one year a late January blizzard forced us to postpone our annual congregational meeting for the following week; if we didn't need a quorum that was decidedly larger than four we would have met). Because, as Barb put it, you just never know.

This is tame compared to the drifts we have right now in Chetek

A usual welcome at Focus
Last night at Focus was a case in point. In honor of Leap Year, the kids had planned a scavenger hunt calling it “Leap Year Lunacy.” But Tuesday night the snow began to fall and by early Wednesday morning there was over a foot of heavy, wet snow that shut down school and pretty much everything else. The kids enjoyed a snow day while a lot of us adults spent it moving snow. By mid-afternoon, the roads were clear and the calls began to come in wondering if Focus was still on. While the kids in town could easily get to Refuge those outside of town whose roads were still being plowed out would have a time of it. By four o'clock my daughter, Emma, and I made an executive decision to postpone the scavenger hunt but carry on with “the show” in the interest of those kids who might turn up and the principle that even a handful of us showing up would not be a waste of time.

And it wasn't. Only seven were on hand (Focus usually runs between 20-25 on a Wednesday night): three of my four kids – Christine, 23, Ed, 18, and Emma, 16 – Alan, a senior from Cameron High School, two sixth graders, Rachel and her friend, Alyssa, and myself. Rachel, who is homeschooled, was quite proud of the fact that she had invited Alyssa to come. And for a first-timer, Alyssa was very enthusiastic about being there. I quick grabbed a few things from a closet in the basement, we circled up seven chairs in the sanctuary,  made sure that Alyssa knew everyone's name and then we began an evening that I was definitely making up on the fly. We played standard youth group games like “This is a ball,” “I have never...”, and the Noodle Game (maybe the best teen game ever invented). We laughed and giggled. We whacked each other with a foam noodle. And Alan did an unintentional back flip off one of the chairs that was perhaps the funniest thing that happened all night. When we had run those games to ground, I asked kids to share a favorite Bible character and like they had buzzers right under them, both Rachel and Alyssa were quick to volunteer. I then asked each kid to share a prayer request and then we went around the circle praying for the person to our immediate left in brief, sentence prayers. Remembering we had ice cream in the freezer and chocolate sauce in the fridge after we were done praying we went downstairs for ice cream sundaes.

That was it. That was our gathering for Leap Year – some silly games, a little prayer and ice cream. Not what you call a spiritually high-octane event. But Alan, who is bipolar and rarely makes it until 9 p.m., stayed the whole night reveling in being the center of attention. Rachel was stoked that her friend came and I heard her excitedly tell her mom as they headed out the door how much Alyssa had enjoyed herself and was hoping to get her parents to allow her to come every Wednesday night. And everyone enjoyed a good laugh. I'd say that was a pretty successful gathering. Just think what wouldn't have happened had we canceled because only a handful were going to be present. Thanks, Barb. Thanks for teaching me a valuable lesson that I took to heart and have practiced ever since. Last night a small group of kids were the beneficiary of that instruction and who knows the ripple affect that may have in their life. 
Thanks, Barb...