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.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Less than a handful

Last Wednesday we held our annual “Around-the-Grounds” prayer event. For several years running, we have held a “back-to-school” prayer walk and gathering on the Wednesday before school begins. On a typical prayer walk, we may have 15-20 people of all ages on hand who, after brief, corporate prayer at the flag pole outside of the school, disperse into teams of 2 and 3 to either pray around the school grounds or through the school halls. It's usually a mixed crowd of parents, supportive members of the community and kids of all ages. We start at the high school/middle school and later move over to the elementary school to repeat the whole process there. The teams who move inside pray in different places of the building invoking God's presence there. They are also encouraged to sensitively approach teachers and other staff and ask if they can pray for them. In a small town, most people know each other anyway and staff usually welcome prayer and are frequently touched by the fact that someone would pray for them.

But this year's walk, at least on the surface, appeared to be almost a non-event. Only two other individuals besides myself were on hand – a 17-year old senior and a retired teacher. Despite news releases in both the “Back to School” special insert in our weekly paper as well as on the “church page”, despite discussion at the Breakfast Club and email reminders, vacations, appointments, and other things, apparently took precedent over this important walk. But on the kingdom principle that three is a quorum (“For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them." Matthew 18:20), we began our walk at noon as planned. We spent a good fifteen minutes praying by the flag pole before making our slow meander around the grounds of Chetek-Weyerhaeuser high school and middle school. Two of us use a prayer language and so frequently while one was praying in English the other was quietly speaking in tongues. We took Paul's counsel to heart about “praying every way you know how for everyone you know” (1 Timothy 2:1, Msg) and asked God to fill the place, to protect those who would frequent it or play upon the fields around it, and for gospel-sharing activity to take place within it. With the exception of the Middle School secretary, who is a part of the Refuge faith family, we found no one else to pray for. All else were either on lunch break or in staff meetings.
Part of the 2011 prayer walk
When it was time to move over to Roselawn, our senior had to go so it was now just Teresa and I. But we metaphorically linked arms and began the process all over again. All the teachers at the elementary school were in a staff meeting with the principal so we walked the halls mostly just quietly praying in tongues. Admittedly, given the fact that we had been at this for over two hours now, we both were beginning to run out of gas and out of things to pray for. But we finished the task and considered our schools sufficiently blessed for the onset of the new school year which begins just a few days from now.

That night I had invited all the other fellowships in town as well as anyone else from the community who were not able to participate in the prayer walk to join us at Focus for a prayer meeting. Apart from our own kids, Pastor Norm and my wife were the only two “outsiders” to bolster our ranks. But we worshiped, we had the group of about 20 break into three prayer circles and pray spontaneously for the upcoming school year and then, later, I opened the floor mic for anyone who wanted to pray something for us to corporately agree with. I had only two takers (but these kids can pray!) And then we returned to worship to end the gathering.

 So, was it a failed prayer meeting? I mean, what does it mean when you invite people to pray with you about a place and for some people that are important to us all and nobody (or very few) respond? Is it unbelief? Is it indifference? Is it not appreciating the significance of the Body of Christ corporately gathering together? Those who normally would have been there made a point of calling me up and letting me know they would not be able to participate this year on account of various reasons. And this is not the first time I have called a prayer meeting to order and there was no need of a gavel. But it isn't that prayers weren't prayed – they were! And they were not pale prayers, strung out needlessly to fill space. Both the three prayer-walkers and the twenty individuals who gathered in the sanctuary this past Wednesday night prayed sincerely and, at times, passionately for the things that were on their heart to pray. The fact that less than 25 were on hand to agree together on these things does not lessen the significance of their prayers. God heard and I trust that it matters.

At the annual Night of Power vigil held at The Well a few weeks ago, only six participated in the 6 p.m.-12 midnight prayer gathering on behalf of our Somali neighbors. A few nights ago at the House of Prayer, an all night prayer meeting was held on behalf of Steve and Kari from our fellowship as Steve continues to recover from a traumatic brain injury suffered on account of a motorcycle accident this past spring. While I certainly wasn't there for all of it, I think they had a good turn-out (maybe two dozen individuals who showed up at different times during the 12-hour set.) Worship was led and prayers were said. I don't doubt that they were effectual regardless of how any of us felt about the flow of our intercession.

I don't think our experience in Barron County is all that different than a lot of places in America. As a people we have no stomach for corporate prayer gatherings or we no longer know how to sit quietly and wait so “plugged in” are we. Things come up and certainly no one can be at everything but the relatively low turnout to these gatherings suggest to me that we lack understanding about the significance of when Christians in a certain community come together and pray. What's more, it is another sign that as a people we are maxed out emotionally and our appetite for God and his kingdom has been spoiled by other – and I would add, lesser – things. Nevertheless, I am grateful for those who came, for those who maybe did not come but prayed at work or at home and for all the other prayers that will be lifted on behalf of our teachers and students through the course of the next school year.

Sometimes the leopard can

The gist of [Luke] 15 is that it is God who saves men, and that he does so because he wishes and delights to do so.” The Message of Luke by Michael Wilcock. The Bible Speaks Today Series. © 1979 by IVP. P. 156

Last Sunday afternoon in the multipurpose room of the Barron County Justice Center about 30 inmates and three jailers bore witness to God's ability to save. For the first time in his life, Troy went to jail on his own accord (he's been taken to jail lots of time before.) I've written about Troy before. Last July I shared about that remarkable Sunday when he asked to be born again (Being Born Again on Sunday - July 28) and then in December following Christmas Eve service (Miracle - Dec 30). Watching salvation come to his home in realtime has been one of my personal highlights of the past year.

Baptized at "the 40"
Troy and I met at the JC a few days after the services I held on the last Sunday in January 2011 and then began to meet weekly right up until I left for a three-week missions trip to the Philippines and he acquired Huber privileges. When he was released at the end of May, he was at our next worship gathering just as he had promised he would be. And he's been there ever since. After his release, we continued to meet weekly at his home reading Scripture and praying together. His wife, Marie, would sometimes sit with us but mostly it was he and I sharing together while the rest of his household came and went. He was born again in July and baptized at our Annual Faith Family Camp a few weeks later. Last fall, we ran a modified Alpha course of which Marie and he were a part of . When the plant he worked at relocated out of state, he didn't climb into the bottle (although he insists he was tempted to.) Within a week or two, he was hired by a factory in Rice Lake and has been working there ever since. His 13-year old son, Alex, comes to our weekly worship gathering from time to time as does Marie. Troy has used his many skills to repair all sorts of things at our facility, served as our cook for the Alpha Course and, when his wife was laid up, he actually baked a wedding cake for a young couple of our fellowship who were recently married. Is there anything this man cannot do?
Troy's son, Alex, and I share the same birthday (plus or minus 37years)

The man's got talent

Our Annual Missions Event this past May focused on loving our neighbors whether they live across the street or across the ocean. Troy shared at the Friday night story-telling session how he planned to return to jail as soon as we “off paper” (in order for a former inmate of the JC to participate in any of the worship gatherings they must be clean for one year or more) so that he could share his story with people who are sitting where he once sat. He met with Sheree, the Director of Inmate Services, in mid-July and was issued his official badge that designates that he is a member of the ministry team (his “get-out-of-jail-free” card.) And this past Sunday he accompanied me as I drove over to Barron to conduct the service there. He was understandably nervous. He has been to the JC way too many times for a guy his age and now, for the first time, he would be on the other side of it. Before we walked in, he turned to me and said, “I need a quick smoke.” A few puffs later, we were on our way in.

Due to the fact that there would only be one service today, the multipurpose room was full and because it was the sergeant on duty would assist the two other jailers who normally sit in on the worship gatherings. Jim knows Troy well having had to lock him up many times before. When the last block of guys were seated, Jim gave me the high sign and we began. Troy had told me at Refuge when we met for prayer before we drove over that he didn't think he would share much. When I introduced him to the guys (and gals), he took about three minutes to share a little bit about himself. It wasn't what you would call an eloquent speech but in my estimate him being there was the message that was exceedingly poignant. In that hour long service he took several more steps in what I like to refer to as “the Kingdom's great recycling plan.”

Praise God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! The Father is a merciful God, who always gives us comfort. He comforts us when we are in trouble, so that we can share that same comfort with others in trouble.”(2 Corinthians 1:3-4, CEV)

In the Kingdom nothing is wasted – no trial, no pain, no stupid decisions we make, no wrong path we carelessly take – when, after repenting of the same and giving our pain to Jesus, he “recycles” it turning it into another's gain. That afternoon, Troy made good on a promise he made to me while still an inmate at the JC and testified just by being there of God's wonderful, yes, amazing, grace.
The Sower is still sowing
Sitting in that audience were two individuals that I have had frequent conversations with this past year. Both are what the guards would call “lifers”, people who just can't beat it and come and go to the Justice Center or other places of incarceration. “Sally” had been introduced to Jesus by one of the guards several months ago and having known her for years, we have met regularly over the last five months or so. She has two kids – a high schooler and a grade-schooler, both of whom are living with her mom in Chetek. She was facing sentencing a few days from our Sunday worship gathering. “Mark” is an undiscipled believer in Jesus who is facing sentencing another week from now. I gave Mark the same counsel I had given Sally the last time I met with her: Whatever happens in that courtroom, can you trust that the Lord's leadership is perfect? Can you believe the words that Paul counseled other disciples who were enduring hardship, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28) and that nothing, absolutely nothing, separates us from his love and care (Rom 8:31-39)? Sally was sentenced to prison for seven years this past week. Sheree sent me an email telling me that she no longer wishes to see me – or anyone else for that matter. What will Mark do when things don't play the way he hopes they will a week or so from now? Will he see a prison sentence as not only discipline but as an assignment from heaven? Or will he leave his Bible behind when he is moved to Dodge Correctional? Time will tell just how much or little the grace of God is at work in him. At the moment, Sally seems to be playing the part of the “seed in the rocks” as if on cue.

Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots?” (Jeremiah 13:23) so quipped Jeremiah to his Judean audience citing an ancient proverbial saying to upbraid them for their hard-heartedness. The implication, of course, is that people cannot change who they are apart, of course, by the work of a sovereign God. This past Sunday Troy bore witness to the fact that every once in a while, the leopard can, indeed, change. After the gathering was over and the inmates had cleared the room, Sergeant Jim came up to us to thank us for coming and then turning to Troy he said, “You know, it's good to know that some stories turn out well after all.” Amen, Sergeant Jim. I heartily agree.
May he never need it