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, April 25, 2012

Meeting the Neighbors Around the Corner and Across the Ocean

This past Thursday quietly came and went (well, not so quietly for me because I was chaperoning our high school band's trip to Madison to see the annual UW-Indoor Marching Band concert) and it occurred to me on the road downstate that I have been home officially a month now. Already Africa is getting a little smaller in the rear-view mirror and I have yet to really report on what we did there.

“So what did you do there?”

This is the question I am most frequently asked by those from town since returning who knew I was going (although not so much now since I've been home a month). I think the implication that I pick up from that query (rightly or wrongly) is that we went there to “do” something – build a church, dig a well, work at a refugee camp – otherwise a trip like ours is little more than a vacation with a benevolent spin to it. The fact is we traveled over 7,700 miles from Chetek to go meet people. As I shared in an earlier post ("GO TO AFRICA!"), last April a man from Uganda shared at our annual missions event of our fellowship and invited us to come visit him. A few weeks later a man from Nigeria coincidentally was with us and did the same and a month later a man from Liberia completed the invitational trifecta. Africa was beckoning us and while we did spend some time praying about it in retrospect we probably out-thought the matter. The real question for Refuge was, Having been invited to our neighbor's home – albeit our neighbor lived a continent and a half away and an ocean between us – would we accept the invitation and go? Eleven of us ultimately did (although three were not from our fellowship) and made that long journey to meet the neighbors on the far side of the pond.

Not one but two teams

Muzungus in back
There were two groups from Refuge that actually ventured forth to Africa, Team Kenya/Israel and Team Uganda. Troy Bol, one of our elders, led Team Kenya/Israel. Troy's team stayed in Nairobi for five days in the home of a Kenyan pastor, visiting and ministering locally, and then traveled to Israel for ten days of walking where Jesus walked and experiencing personal renewal. Pastor Evanson Gitu is the Senior Pastor of Calvary Chapel Kenya Ongata Rongai as well as the overseer of Imani Yako, (Imani Yako, Inc) According to everyone who was a part of this team, in Pastor Gitu I have a “brother from another mother.” And by just looking at this picture, I can see the resemblance – short, stocky guy carrying a camera bag. Now who does that remind you of?

Even though I've heard a few of their stories on “Africa Story-telling Day” on Palm Sunday, I cannot speak much of their journey other than it was in character much like ours – meeting strangers who were both our neighbors and brothers. They were received warmly and treated graciously and one of our young women, Sarah, has since expressed her desire to return and work in their school.

Team Uganda, led by our other male elder, Randy Waterhouse, left about the time Team Kenya/Israel was coming to the end of their venture. Even though we had been invited by Pastor John of Namutumba (who had ministered at Refuge last April), we just felt for our introductory visit to Africa that it was better to stay on a YWAM campus there. Even though we knew no one on this particular campus, we know YWAM and knew they would be used to hosting North Americans like ourselves. In retrospect, that choice was providential because this particular campus turned out to be central to all the other people we ultimately met while in-country.
Team Uganda with Charles our host (left) and Joseph our driver (right)
At this particular point it would be very easy to slip into a travel-log of sorts that would be interesting to the five of us who participated in the journey but perhaps not so much to those who had sent us out and were praying for us back home. So, I'll try and limit my reminiscences to brief vignettes of our ten day stay there.

Arriving in Uganda

Part of the welcoming crew
It was late when we landed in Entebbe International - nearly 10:30 at night. But the first thing that got our attention that we were no longer in the wintry Midwest was the air temperature. Between Chicago and Uganda we not only had crossed eight time zones but had passed from winter directly into what felt like early August to me. It took us about an hour to get through customs and we were all curious who would be there to pick us up. Randy's only contact had been with the man who had agreed to serve as our host and the two of them had only communicated through email. But when we got through the doors there were not one but perhaps a dozen Ugandans waiting to meet us – some from the YWAM-Hopeland campus and some from Gospel Messengers Church (of Holiness and Righteousness) in Kampala. We were slated to minister at GMC on Sunday (a little over 36 hours following our arrival) and I think they wanted to make sure we were for real. They broke into smiles all around and hugs and very quickly were taking our bags and helping us find our way out to the parking lot. Imagine flying over 12,000 kilometers to a land you had never set foot in before and being welcomed by a dozen brothers and sisters at nearly midnight. It was not only a blessing but a reminder to the five of us that we weren't following a whim in traveling to Uganda but were being led.


Downtown Jinja
Hopeland is located about 80km north of Kampala just outside of the city of Jinja, Uganda's second largest city. According to Wikipedia (Jinja, Uganda) that while Jinja may only have a population of 80,000 people on any given business day maybe 220,000 individuals may be found coming and going through her streets. (When I asked Randy how he decided on Hopeland he simply told me that he googled “YWAM, Uganda” and they were the first ministry that popped up, so he reached out to them.) They boast several schools (a Discipleship Training School, a School of Biblical Studies, and a handful of others), a sports center and ministries including running their own preschool, outreach to the local government hospital and prison and offering medical and spiritual care to women infected with HIV (YWAM-Hopeland).

Sharing with Women of Hope
During our ten-day stay, we met so many wonderful people from Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya, the UK, Canada and of course, the United States. As the largest YWAM campus in Uganda, it is a busy place what with the DTS (with 25-some students) presently in session as well as the daily preschool and the perhaps 50 associate/support staff coming and going. We had opportunities to accompany several YWAM teams to one of the prisons, the government-run hospital, as well as an outreach to a secondary school about an hour away. The women served at the preschool one morning (while Randy and I were at the prison), we shared with the Women of Hope one afternoon and helped the staff of Discovery Centre spruce up their place in anticipation of a youth event they would host the following week.

Charles and Susan
Charles, our most capable host, made sure we were where we needed to be and when we would venture off campus to connect with other people and ministries he would usually accompany us not only to ensure we got to where we needed to get to but also for the sake of the company. We liked him from the start (and were so grateful to his wife of only three months who was gracious to share him with us.) Charles connected us with Joseph the man who became our personal driver for the week driving us to Kampala, Namutumba, the back roads of Luuka District, the Source of the Nile – wherever we were beckoned to be he knew how to get there. He spoke little English and I knew zero Swahili but given that the “shotgun” seat was always reserved for the pastor, he and I became fast friends as he tried to tutor me in some elementary phrases of his native tongue as he maneuvered serpentine-like through Ugandan traffic.
Faithful driver and Swahili tutor
Finding hope in the strangest of places

The front gate
Since I am a pastor, I was given the opportunity to preach pretty much at most of the places we showed up at. The day we traveled to one of the local prisons our team consisted of Randy, myself and our driver and YWAM-staffer, Leki, a Tongan feeling called to Africa. He understood English better than he spoke it but only one month in-country he drove as if he had grew up in Uganda. We had been told that we would be ministering on “condemned row”; that is to say, death row. Immediately, that phrase conjured up images from The Shawshank Redemption and Pampilion, dark, dank, places that sucked hope and life out of those who were housed there.

We pulled up to the main building, something right out of a Dicken's novel what with a huge windowless front door and an equally huge door knocker upon it. We knocked twice, a small window slid open slightly to see who was there and then that big door was opened wide enough for us to enter a small antechamber where we signed in. And then the gate to the courtyard was opened and without so much as a “fare thee well” from the guard, we were with the prisoners. We followed a sidewalk of sorts that led to a set of stairs leading to the second level of the facility. The courtyard was full of inmates setting their wet bedding out to dry after being washed or milling about. One group began to volley with a volleyball. All of them looked in our direction. Some smiled courteously.

The courtyard was sorta like this
At the top of the stairs we were met by our interpreter, a condemned prisoner himself, and after passing through another locked gate we had entered death row. But it hardly looked dark to me. We were escorted down a hallway of sorts which opened onto the courtyard below on the left or passed the different blocks on the right where the inmates slept. We passed a very sleepy looking guard who sat ensconced on a chair about half way down the corridor and smiled at us as we passed. Captain Hadley she was not. At the end of this hallway it made a ninety-degree turn to the left and after perhaps fifty steps dead-ended. This, we learned, would be our sanctuary for the next hour or so.

A standard piece of worship equipment
The guys began filtering in almost right away and within minutes perhaps 25 inmates were seated on either side of the hallway waiting quietly for the gathering to begin. They looked at us curiously but without one drop of hostility. In fact, as I looked at their countenances every face revealed a sense of peace and contentment. These were not harrowed men gripped in a stranglehold of sin and bitterness. Rather, these were brothers who had eagerly come to hear good news. As was common at most gatherings we attended, worship always preceded Word. On two large djembes and with one crushed aluminum can filled with rocks as a shaker of sorts, the men led us in vibrant worship. We didn't know what they were singing but we obviously knew to Whom they were singing. The juxtaposition was noteworthy. From the hallway of the condemned section, loud songs of exaltation could be heard above the din of the idle chatter and game-playing of the inmates in the courtyard below. These men may be incarcerated for life (apparently no one has been executed in a very long time) but the life they lead inside these prison walls is one of hope and service and good will.

We learned later that not everyone on condemned row has committed a capital offense. Some, we were told, may actually be there for something as trivial as stealing a chicken. They are poor with no one on the outside to be their advocate and possibly their case has been lost somewhere very likely never to be found. And yet, as I walked up and down between these men and shared my impromptu message of hope and overcoming, they smiled or nodded their head or let out a loud, “Alleluia!” It was an odd place to find hope but Randy and I found it there in abundance.

Meeting Katie

Shortly after going public with our intention to travel to Uganda a friend of mine posted a link to a promotional video for the best-selling book, Kisses from Katie by Katie Davis. Up until that moment, I had never heard of this 23-year-old young woman from Nashville who at the tender age of 18 had turned her back on her affluent upbringing to embrace a life of love and service in Uganda. By the force of her will and God’s favor, she has established a ministry (Amazima, located right outside of Jinja see Amazima Ministries) that is serving the children of Uganda meeting both their physical and spiritual needs. She personally has taken 13 children into her own home (one cannot legally adopt in Uganda until the age of 25) and helped sponsor 500 others. Every Saturday, a couple hundred kids show up to play on their impressive playground (built by local Ugandan boys), participate in a wonderful chapel service led by their youth pastor, Raoul, and then enjoy a wonderful lunch of rice, beans and chicken served on the bone (in Uganda, chicken is not chicken if it does not have a bone in it.) At the end of the day, each child will leave their property with a three pound bag that will contain a pound of flour, a pound of beans and a pound of rice – sundries that will help feed these children for the next seven days.
Raoul (on right) is an amazing guy

Posing with Katie (does that make us posers?)
As the kids head for home they do so with "left-overs"

I want to be more like her
Sheryl and I both read her book on the plane over and were eager to make her acquaintance. What’s more, the folks at the American office of Amazima had sent us a tub to hand deliver to Katie. So on the Saturday before we headed for home, we showed up on their property, took the grand tour, pitched in to help load the bags the kids would later take home, sat in on chapel and sometime between the end of chapel and the beginning of lunch met Katie herself. We weren’t the only Westerners that afternoon visiting their property but Katie, the perfect host, made the rounds and made sure she introduced herself to each of us. She is as real and down-to-earth as she comes across in her book and the embodiment of what Jesus once said, “If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it” (Matthew 10:39, NLT). In her words, “I quit college; I quit cute designer clothes and my little yellow convertible; I quit my boyfriend. I no longer have all the things the world says are important. I do not have a retirement fund; I do not even have electricity some days. But I have everything I know is important. I have a joy and a peace that are unimaginable and can come only from a place better than this earth. I cannot fathom being happier. Jesus wrecked my life, shattered it to pieces, and put it back together more beautifully.” (from the introduction) I want to be more like her.

Visiting our friends at Namutumba Word of Victory Church

One of the key purposes of our journey to Africa was having been visited by Pastor John last year we wanted to return the favor by visiting his fellowship this year. It was, in fact, one of our last memories in Uganda. On our last Sunday, Joseph picked us up just at daybreak for the hour and a half drive north. We arrived a little before 8. Namutumba is a small town as Ugandan towns go – complete with cows wandering up and down the main drag - but it is difficult to estimate just how many people live there. If our home town boasts 2,100 people, Pastor John’s town of ministry probably is at least twice that size (or more?) In a simple structure a little bit larger than our own sanctuary, we worshiped and enjoyed special music and then I shared the Word (with Pastor John interpreting). In between services, we walked to a nearby home for fresh bananas and pineapple and then returned to the sanctuary for an encore presentation. Our liturgy is a bit different and we sing different songs but church is still church the world over – worship, prayer, offering, Word and, yes, announcements.

We lunched with Pastor John and his family and then right before we headed back to Hopeland to change and finish packing for the long journey home, he led us about five minutes of the road to meet two very important people. As I have related before, last year was not the first time Pastor John shared at Refuge. We met John the Summer of 2008 when he was our guest for a long weekend. During his message he shared about the orphan-sponsoring ministry Word of Victory was leading and following his presentation two families from our fellowship chose to begin sponsoring a few of the orphans that are connected with WoV. Sheryl’s family had been one of them. After nearly four years of faithfully supporting the education of two sisters, Sheryl had the honor of finally going to their home (not all orphans live in orphanages in Uganda) and meeting them. It was, for Sheryl, one of the highlights of her trip. Instead of a glossy info sheet that she can affix to her fridge back home reminding her of what her benevolence is achieving for two sisters in Uganda, she has been to their home, hugged them and their parents as well both of whom are blind. It’s one of those moments when you are reminded that whatever cost it has been to her family these past four years, it really is not a sacrifice but a blessing.
I take a copy of The Alert with me wherever I go

Loving her neighbors

So…we met a lot of people

To answer the original question – “What did you do there?” – we had traveled half way across the world to meet the neighbors and we met a lot them – Pastor Deason and many of the leaders of Gospel Messengers Church in Kampala; Charles, Susan, Becca, Jessica, Nixon and so many others from YWAM-Hopeland; Rhodah and Ronald, both students at Mehta Secondary School; Pastor John and his family in Namutumba; Susan, a girlfriend of Charis’ (from Focus) who is working with Henry, Hassan and others in Lukka District to alleviate suffering and poverty there; Joseph our driver; the men at the prison; Judith and the Women of Hope; the members of the Imani Children’s Choir; Pastor Patrick, the caretaker of Amazima’s property, and Raoul, the youth pastor; Katie Davis and many others to say nothing of all the folks I greeted on my morning runs to Kakira or Wairaka. They are all our neighbors whom I met, worshiped and prayed with, shared my heart with as they shared theirs with mine (and their table as well) and now consider friends. Facebook (everybody in Uganda seems to be on it) and email allows us the opportunity to nurture our fledgling relationship. And while it is unlikely that any of the Ugandans I met will be able to come and stay with me anytime soon, we hope to return to them before too long if only to become better acquainted and strengthen the ties we have now made.

In the end, building a relationship with your neighbor, whether he lives across the yard or across the ocean, takes the same thing: time, intentionality, purpose, and, of course, love. I’m not going to be able to come over after Sunday worship for apple pie ala mode very regularly but I will purpose to pray and message my new friends via Facebook. It’s almost the next best thing to being there.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Reaching the 10,000 mile mark baby-stepping it once again

Last Saturday evening, with a warm wind at my back, somewhere about seven miles east of Chetek on lonely Moose Ear Lake Road I crossed over the 10,000 mile mark since I started recording running miles in the year 2000. After about a twenty year hiatus from my “halcyon” days in high school cross country, in 1999 a kid in our youth group got me running again with a little article he had clipped out of Running Times. It was a six week plan to ease the newbie into the running habit. Call it the Baby-Step Way to Better Running. That summer, as soon as school let out, I and five or so other kids from that group as well as one of our adult mentors began to meet daily at our local track to begin our new running regimen.

That's right, baby-steps...
 Most people when they think of getting in shape they immediately think about going out for a run of two or three miles. Provided they have decent shoes, it sounds and feels like a good idea at the moment...until two days later when muscles that were atrophying for years suddenly are screaming for relief. The better call of wisdom seems to rest a day or two and then before you know it, maybe getting in shape isn't what it's all cracked up to be and the shoes go back in the closet until the next fitness whim hits. But in the Baby-Step plan you literally baby-step your way back into it.

Here it is in a nutshell:
Week 1: 20 minute work-out running 30 seconds (yes, seconds) at talking-pace and walking 90 seconds consecutively. Do this Monday thru Friday and rest on the weekend.

Week 2: 20 minute work-out running 45 seconds at talking-pace and walking 75 seconds consecutively. Again, do this Monday thru Friday and rest on the weekend.

Week 3: 20 minute work-out running 60 seconds at talking pace and walking 60 seconds consecutively. Once again, M-F off on the weekend.

Week 4: 20 minute work-out running 75 seconds at talking-pace and walking 45 seconds consecutively.

Week 5: 20 minute work-out running 90 seconds at talking pace and walking 30 seconds consecutively.

Week 6: Running 20 minutes consecutively.

The genius of it is that it not only works your body but also creates a sense of momentum that your mind becomes convinced it can indeed run 20 minutes consecutively (obviously some people have no problem in this department but many, many people do). If memory serves me right, I think Weeks 2 and 3 we repeated to build a sense of confidence but by the end of July I was running 20 minutes a day regularly.

By mid-August, I began to build on that 20-minute work-out by running 20 minutes straight and then adding an additional 10 minutes by running 30/90 and so forth until I had worked my way up to 30 minutes consecutively. By mid-October, I was working on moving up to 40 minutes straight. Of that original group, we managed to stick together for only about a couple of weeks before their enthusiasm began to wane but I am very grateful for those first few weeks of my new running-habit. For there were a couple of days in there that the only thing that got me down the track was the fact I knew some people were waiting on me.

That was a lot of miles ago. I was 37 when I began baby-stepping my way down the road. Within two years I ran my first marathon of the eight that I have since run (I've also run one ultra – a 50K – as well as perhaps six dozen other races of variable distances. It's a lot of t-shirts to be sure.) Most years I have managed to log about 700 miles but in 2001, 2003 and 2007 I ran over 1,000 miles. I've also had a few lean years when either injury or a case of life-interruptus has put a damper on my running groove (2004 and 2011, specifically when I only logged about 500 miles those years).

These are considered badges of honor
 Speaking of injuries, I've been pretty fortunate in that department (if you don’t count innumerable cases of groin, armpit and nipple rashes, occasional blood blisters on a few of my toes and getting a slight case of frost bite on my left thumb one blustery day) but have had to deal with plantar fasciitus and iliotibial band syndrome (ibs) which was such that I actually had to see a physical therapist for. I also no longer have much of a toenail on my second toe of my right foot. It’s an ailment many runners suffer from (in my recent journey to Uganda, I met activist-author Katie Davis, also a runner, who I couldn’t help but notice had a blood blister on the same second toe on her right foot.)

I've “bonked” in more than a fair share of my long races but have never (yet) recorded a DNF (Did Not Finish) to my name. Over the years, I've run from dozens of dogs as well as a small flock of sheep that for some reason was intent on following me one spring day a few years back. I've kicked up deer, run with a fair amount of horses and cattle and twice veered to the far side of the road just to stay clear of the skunk that happened to be out for an early morning run himself. Just last week right as dawn was breaking I was startled by a black bear that was running head-long towards the woods (apparently away from me). I've run on days when the temperature was in the 90s as well as being the only fool one wintry morning to be running in -20 degree weather. I've run in Canada, in the Philippines and, most recently, in Uganda. In fact, if I’m going somewhere – anywhere, really – more than likely my gear is going with me.

Dumbest running-thing I've ever done? Well, that would take too much space to record but in retrospect it wasn't very smart to go running to London (Wisconsin) on the Glacial Drumlin Trail a few days after running in Grandma's one June summer. I hadn't recovered my running legs yet and ended up walking a lot and when I finally got to London (Wisconsin) and discovered there was nothing really there, I had to walk back to Deerfield where there was a convenient store so that I could call my dad to come pick me up. So much for being a running stud. I remember accidentally tearing my contact the morning I ran the Lake Monona 20K and essentially had to run it blind. And while the Whistlestop 2001 Marathon remains my fastest one to date (4:37), I was a bit under-dressed for it and by race's end, as my wife could tell you, my lips were blue (Whistlestop is Ashland's premier event and it's either a gorgeous fall day or rainy with slightly blizzard-like conditions. Like the year I ran it.)

Great running moments? One early winter morning I was running on 22 ¾ St just outside of town and suddenly a shadow came up on my right and running in stride by the light of the moon was a white stallion in the adjoining field. It was a moment that still gives me shivers when I think of it. The first year I ran Bayfield's Run-On-Water (2003). There I was running out on the ice road connecting Bayfield and Madeleine Island and thinking, “I'm running on Lake Superior!” I know it's just ice but it was an exhilarating thought. And the last time I ran Grandma's Marathon (2007). As usual, I was struggling with the heat and once again my quest to run a sub-5 hour Grandma's had ignominiously failed but in the homestretch, my two youngest kids, Ed and Emma, jumped out of the grandstands and ran the last 50 yards with me. That made all the blood (I usually have a case of the bloody nipples during long, hot runs), sweat and tears worth it. My best 10K has got to be the Amery Fall Festival in 2000 (48:49 – I don’t think I’ll ever see that again) and my worst 4-miler – the Fishy Four (Chetek’s premier running event) was just last year (37:42) (may I not see that again!)
A special moment for me
I have yet to figure out how to use an mp3 player so I still run with nothing but my thoughts (unlike my much more accomplished son who runs with a whole collection of inspiring songs on his unit.) Occasionally, the beat that my shoes make on the pavement reminds me of a song and it plays for awhile in my mind (sometimes repeatedly and annoyingly so). I’ve tried running mantras but the only one that sticks all these years later is actually a modified quote from the 1973 movie Papillon, the story of a young man’s quest to escape from a penal colony that he has been condemned to for a crime he never committed. At the end of the movie, when he is now an old man but at last successful in making his escape, from the little raft he has made he yells up into the sky, “Hey, you ****, I’m still here!” So at the end of an especially tough run I may not have the strength to yell it but I sure do think it.

Steve says it with much more panache
I still dream of running a sub-Grandma’s 5 hour marathon, would love to do Chicago someday and while it would be a hoot to somehow qualify for Boston (I think I’d need a coach and some illegal substances for that kind of feat), my true uber-dream is, in fact, to run the Antarctica Marathon. Somehow to run on the land that Shackleton and his ilk once crossed on sled and ski seems so alluring to me (as expensive as this pipe dream really is!) But in the meantime, I keep running. Through the seasons, through the good years and the not-so-good ones, reveling in the good runs and enduring the long ones that kick my butt. In fact, last Saturday night’s run is a great case in point. The Saturday before I had ran 16 miles in a comfortable 3-hour pace. At the end of the run I was a bit winded but if I had needed to, I could have run further. But this past Saturday, on an evening perhaps 20-25 degrees warmer than the Saturday before and with a warm wind at my back, despite “crossing over” by the end of the run (which turned out to be just a few feet short of 16) I not only was bushed but I had run it almost 8 minutes slower than the week before. All these years later on that run it felt like I was still baby-stepping. The best thing about it that can be said is that at every hill when I wanted to walk I kept running albeit slowly (at one time being paced by one of  the cows  from Sugar Bol Farms) until I was done. It wasn’t pretty but…well, you know…nearly twelve years and now over 10,000 miles later “…I’m still here!”

In honor of my upcoming 50th birthday, a week from Saturday I will run the Chippewa Moraine 50K, an out and back race on the Ice Age Trail. I figure if I can make it to the turn-around in a little more than 3 hours (after all, it is a trail race), that will give me nearly 6 hours to finish the rest of it. My last ultra (the Tuscobia Ultra run in 2009) took me 9:03. Perhaps this time I can run a sub-9? Hope springs eternal. Besides you don’t know unless you put the shoes on and go try, right? What’s the worst thing that can happen? My thoughts exactly.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Judas, How Could You? A Maundy Thursday Meditation

What would be my price?
After he had said this, Jesus was troubled in spirit and testified, 'I tell you the truth, one of you is going to betray me.'”

His disciples stared at one another, at a loss to know which of them he meant. One of them, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was reclining next to him. Simon Peter motioned to this disciple and said, 'Ask him which one he means.'”

Leaning back against Jesus, he asked him, 'Lord, who is it?'”

Jesus answered, 'It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.' Then, dipping the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas Iscariot, son of Simon. As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him.”

'What you are about to do, do quickly,' Jesus told him, but no one at the meal understood why Jesus said this to him. Since Judas had charge of the money, some thought Jesus was telling him to buy what was needed for the Feast, or to give something to the poor. As soon as Judas had taken the bread, he went out. And it was night.” John 13:21-30, NIV

Last night during our annual Maundy Thursday service I was struck once again by the question I usually have about Judas Iscariot when I reflect on the events leading up to the Crucifixion. I get the fact that the Scriptures had to be fulfilled so that Jesus' betrayer would come from the very ranks of his small rabbinic school he had formed. But still, the question plagues me: Why did he do it? What would provoke him to sell out his friend – especially if your friend is Jesus of Nazareth? I can't believe it was solely for money. Thirty pieces of silver even in Jesus' day isn't a lot to write home about. If not for money, then, what for? Was it a high-risk gamble to get him backed into a corner so that he would be forced to reveal himself as the political Messiah Judas certainly had pegged him to be? When I think of all the miraculous things that Judas must have witnessed in his three-year stint with Jesus – things I have read about but never seen myself – was he impatient with Jesus and all his coy speak about “the kingdom”? “All right already,” (I can imagine him saying) “The whole country is coming to your side. All you need to do is give the word and the Romans will have more on their hands then they know what to do with.” Given that some think that he may have been a member of the zelts this may not be too far off the mark.

Whatever motives lay at the heart of his actions that night, however, not one of the Gospel writers have anything good to say about him. He is usually introduced to the story with the moniker, “who betrayed him.” In fact, to my ear John's account, written by he who was referred to as “the Beloved Disciple” and who wrote so much about God's love, seems especially bitter toward Judas. Following Judas' feigned protest of what could have been done for the poor with the aromatic oil Mary of Bethany had wasted by pouring out on Jesus' feet, John comments
He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.” (John 12:6, NIV)
Written near the end of the 1st Century some sixty years later, his commentary still has a bite to it.

When I think of that night on which he had his last meal with his disciples, Judas was present. Laying around the common bowl, he shared in intimate fellowship with the Lord (even though he had already gone to the priests privately to work out a deal.) If he was plagued by second thoughts, we are left to conjecture for the gospels are silent about it. He was there when uncharacteristically, Jesus stripped down to his waist and went around the circle and performed the work of a servant. What did he feel when the water was being poured over his feet and Jesus, so carefully dried them? Did he wrestle with remorse or guilt about what he was about to do? In Matthew's account of that night following Jesus announcement that one of them would betray him, Judas point blank says, “Surely not I, Rabbi?” to wit Jesus responds nonplussed, “Yes, it is you” (Matthew 26:25).

And then the tragic moment of fate arrives which surprisingly no one there comprehends. When John asks Jesus just who it is that is going to betray him, Jesus tells him, “It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish” (John 13:26). And then as if John is recalling in slow motion that terrible moment, Jesus immediately dips the piece of bread into the bowl and hands it to Judas and grimly states, “What you are about to do, do quickly” (v. 27). There it is. Jesus has just fingered the culprit but no one present gets it. They are all clueless. John explains that Judas, being the treasurer of their small company, everyone just assumed he had an errand to run. Later on the Mount of Olives, they all seem taken aback that it was, in fact, Judas, leading the delegation of soldiers to their place of prayer.

I think of that moment – the elements of unleavened bread and the cup of redemption within him, his feet newly washed symbolizing his partnership in Jesus' kingdom agenda and now the piece of bread freshly dipped from their table held in his hand – and John's comment is telling. At exactly that instant, “...Satan entered him...[and] he went out. And it was night” (13:27, 30). I think more than time of day is inferred here. A light, by its own volition, has just been extinguished and according to Jesus, “...woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born” (Matthew 26:24).

He is a terribly, complicated individual. It seems that none of the disciples waste any tears on the tragedy that is Judas. Wasn't Peter's betrayal just as keen as the man from Isacariot? Didn't all the disciples cut and run that night? None of them – save maybe John – understood the plan of God as it concerned the man Jesus until after the Resurrection? Why then do they refer to him with so much disdain in their voices years later? I think had he availed himself of Christ's mercy, he could have been restored to fellowship as Peter and the rest were. But not comprehending Jesus and God's purpose in the Crucifixion, he drowns in an ocean of guilt and self-recrimination when he realizes that the cabal of priests he had so unwittingly got in cahoots with are determined to put Jesus to death. It is too much for his soul to handle.

How many times have we each betrayed the Son of Man denying, Peter-like, that we are associated with him or failing to comprehend his words even though he has been speaking them plainly all along? And yet in turning back to the Lord we find mercy and forgiveness. How I wish the Gospels had ended differently with Judas, like Peter in John 21, being restored to the Company. But sadly one of the last real pictures we are left with is him running into the darkness with the bread of fellowship in his hand and his feet newly cleaned by his Master.

Carpe Logos!

"But the seed in the good earth—these are the good-hearts who seize the Word and hold on no matter what, sticking with it until there's a harvest.” Jesus, as found in Luke 8:15, The Message

When we approach this text, we tend to present it as a one-moment response: “As you hear this message today, which soil are you?” But the question is more comprehensive: “As you look at your spiritual walk up to today, which soil are you?” The parable looks at a career of response, as is clear when one considers that the good soil brings up various levels of fruit. The assessment is built on moments, to be sure, but it requires a life of response to consider what one's soul looks like relative to a slowly developing crop. A plant does not sprout forth overnight, nor does the harvest of the heart.”
Darrell Bock, Luke: The NIV Application Commentary, p. 232

If you grew up in church or read the Gospels even once than you are familiar with what is traditionally referred to as The Parable of the Sower. It's mentioned in every Gospel (Matthew 13:1-23, Mark 4:1-20 and Luke 8:5-15) save John's and in Mark's version, Jesus explains that the key to understanding every other thing he says lays within this one; that if you don't get this parable you won't get anything else he says. All this to say that this story is the touchstone to comprehending the gospel of the kingdom.

But the focus of the story is really not on the sower nor on the seed. It's about the soils and so many refer to it in just this way now: The Parable of the Soils. The sower cast the seed on four different types of ground – the hard, baked earth, the rocky ground loosely covered with top-soil, the weed-infested field and the good earth. Only one plot is going to come to something. The rest, sadly, will come to nothing. In the first three fields, the seed will either become food for the birds or never develop the potential that lies within. But the field of the good earth yields a bumper crop and wise people, the parable assumes, want to be this kind of field.

Of course, we're speaking of matters of the heart. Some hearts are too hard, some too shallow and other too full of that which will suck the life right out of a person. But those with “good hearts” eat up the seed, giving it fertile ground to germinate within and, in time, see the harvest come forth in their lives. And there's the rub: a good harvest does not magically spring forth from the ground overnight. It has to be nurtured along with water, cultivation and oversight. People who want to be “good field” people, Jesus exhorts us, need to, in Peterson's artful translation, “seize the Word” - grab it, hold to it, devour it, persist in it despite set back and disappointment and occasional backsliding – “until there's a harvest.”

A very good read
The year I became a Christian, Eugene H. Peterson came out with a book entitled A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society (IVP). I read it for the first time the fall I left for Bible college a few years later and in the opening chapter Peterson writes:

One aspect of world [i.e., what he refers to as the current “mood” that a particular generation has to contend with] that I have been able to identify as harmful to Christians is the assumption that anything worthwhile can be acquired at once. We assume that if something can be done at all, it can be done quickly and efficiently. Our attention spans have been conditioned by thirty-second commercials. Our sense of reality has been flattened by thirty-page abridgments.

It is not difficult in such a world to get a person interested in the message of the gospel; it is terrifically difficult to sustain the interest. Millions of people in our culture make decisions for Christ, but there is a dreadful attrition rate. Many claim to have been born again, but the evidence for mature Christian discipleship is slim. In our kind of culture anything, even news about God, can be sold if it is packaged freshly; but when it loses its novelty, it goes on the garbage heap. There is a great market for religious experience in our world; there is little enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue, little inclination to sign up for a long apprenticeship in what earlier generations of Christians called holiness. (pp. 11-12)

What's astounding to me is that he wrote these words in 1980before the dawn of the internet, before cell phones, before “there's an app for that” became parlance in our vocabulary. If our need for speed was such then do we even have a grid for it now? I mean who among us want to go back to the glory days of dial-up? Exactly. If we were already prone to crave a microwaved package of Christian virtue in the late 20th Century, our condition has only worsened some thirty years later. Thirty-page abridgments! Some people can't abide three-page ones!

But in thirty years, let alone two thousand years, the seed sown pretty much grows at the same rate it always has. We've souped up the genes, perhaps, and thrown a lot of chemicals on the ground to speed the rate of germination but corn still grows at the rate it always has grown (or so I presume). Where I live, I haven't yet heard of a two-crop corn season (although you can count on three crops of hay). No, any day now farmers will be out in their fields in force tilling the soil and planting the seed. The ground has been de-rocked and after the seed is sowed, some kind of weed suppressant will be laid down giving that little kernel it's greatest chance for germination and growth. But ultimately a corn crop around here comes about the same time it has always come time out of mind. Certainly, not by next week (or the week after that).

We all know of people who raised their hand at a service to receive Jesus or went forward to do the same but no longer consider themselves one of us. I know people I went to Bible school with who were intent on serving God – one who was featured prominently in our promotional material for a couple years running – who presumably now look at that time in their life as a phase they passed through until they grew out of it. They, too, no longer profess allegiance to Jesus and the kingdom. Either trouble revealed how shallow their roots actually were or so many other things over time crowded out the good seed “until nothing came of it” (Luke 8:14). It is, to me, incredibly sad.

Carpe Diem” is one of my son Ed's favorite quotes. I have yet to see Dead Poets Society but I do love what Professor Keating says to his students: “Carpe diem - Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary”. Who couldn't say “Amen” to that? Jesus tells us that to make our lives extraordinary for the kingdom we must Carpe Logos - “Seize the Word”. It's not about memorization of Scripture or even the acquisition of knowledge of the same so much as taking to heart what the Word says and living it out over the long haul – or as Peterson (actually quoting of all people, Nietzche) puts it, “a long obedience in the same direction.” The fruit of the Spirit that all “good-hearted” disciples of Jesus want growing within – love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – don't spring from us overnight but subtly overtime as we persist in both personal and corporate fellowship with Him through the various seasons of our life. In the same way, producing the sour grapes and crab apples of the flesh – things like sexual immorality, hatred, jealousy, and selfish ambition – grow slowly yet steadily as we persist in neglecting the Holy Spirit's gentle pressure to turn from the same. In the end, we produce the kind of life we end up living out of the substance and quality of the soil of our heart - just like Jesus says we would. Persistence in anything – be it holy living or carnal behavior – leads to just this very thing.

So, with apologies to the folk who brought us Dead Poets Society, my battle-cry for this day is Carpe Logos – Seize the Word – boys, and make your lives extraordinary!