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.

Friday, November 30, 2012

After dinner conversation

On Thanksgiving Day my folks and my sister, Jenny, her husband, Dan and their little boy and my godson, Henry, gathered at our home, as they have for many Thanksgivings running, to celebrate the day. We enjoyed a wonderful dinner together that Linda had lovingly made and our conversation was peppered with laughter and lighthearted banter. And then it happened: after we had finished our meal unintentionally we took a left turn down the cul-de-sac of politics and the atmosphere in the room chilled a bit. Jenny and Dan live in the suburbs of Minneapolis and I would consider them politically liberal in their views on social issues. Linda and I, of course, live in rural northern Wisconsin and while I don't consider myself overly political I definitely am in the conservative camp (but unlike my father-in-law am not a FOX junkie; I actually get a lot of my news from NBC and NPR – go figure.)

As far as evangelical Christians are concerned one of the biggest issues in Minnesota that was decided on November 6 was that the proposed “marriage amendment” to the State constitution would define marriage as it has traditionally been defined (and, certainly how the Bible defines it) as the union between a man and a woman. If you voted “yes” you were saying you were in agreement with this position. If you voted “no” you professed a much more inclusive idea of marriage that covered same sex unions. Not surprisingly, the “nays” carried the day much to my sister and my brother-in-law's relief. As Jenny explained to me, she has many gay friends who feel like second-class citizens. Why shouldn't their union be recognized as legitimate by the state?

They steered clear of our conversation
Now both Jenny and Dan weren't gloating about the victory even though they were aware that what they consider progress my wife and I see as something quite different. And I certainly wasn't trying to change their opinion on the matter. As those conversations happen to flow, however, we were soon on to the national election and our voice levels and body language began to morph from comfortable and relaxed to tense and a sense of stepping delicately through a minefield. While I'm sure they wouldn't put it exactly this way they feel that the conservative element in our country is self-righteous, self-indulgent and frankly, should keep their opinions to themselves. To some degree they are correct. In our efforts to speak up for “conservative values” we often come off pretty indignant about a whole lot of things. For me, the only point I was trying to brook is that if the Election of 2012 reveals anything it demonstrates how divided a people we are becoming. Our whole system of government is based on the principle of compromise – give and take, budging here and there, seeking consensus where we can. But therein lies the rub: if we can't even have a conversation about the issue – for example, gay marriage – because one segment of the population considers such a union as immoral how can we reach a conclusion that most parties consider satisfactory? What do you do with someone like myself who considers marriage the sole purview of heterosexuals and cannot imagine a future where as a minister I will preside at the joining of two individuals practicing a homosexual lifestyle or risk being labeled as in-tolerant for refusing to do the same?

Personally, apart from sweeping societal changes on a religious level, I don't think the evangelical community is going to win this argument. Those who are persuaded that homosexuality is not a matter of choice but a matter of hard-wiring have the numbers and pretty much are the loudest voice in mainstream media. While I don't think a legitimate Christian response is to resort to demagoguery and hate speech against President Obama, the Democrats and the “liberal media”, how do you speak your convictions to a populace that has raised tolerance to a cardinal virtue on an issue like same-sex unions without being misunderstood and, ultimately, considered irrelevant?

Every time I have posted something on homosexuality in the past at this site (see The Sins of Sodom and You're Wrong President Obama) some friend in my Facebook circle has reacted negatively to what I've written. Either I have done a poor job of expressing my opinion (which is very possible) or their reaction is proof of what I'm trying to say in this post. It makes me wonder if what happened at our dinner table on Thanksgiving Day is a microscopic view of what is happening on a macro-level all across our country and I don't see it getting any better. My godson who is five years old will grow up in a community and culture where same sex unions will be viewed as normative – not alternative – and depending where you sit at the table will depend on whether you think that's progress or something far different. But for sure it will become one more thing that we shouldn't talk about when in polite company. 

Wednesday, November 28, 2012


For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.
   -  Jesus as found in Luke 19:10, NIV

She still wrangles horses but now she wrangles people, too
Yesterday morning at the weekly meeting of the Breakfast Club (the fellowship of local pastors and ministry leaders that meets weekly at Bob's Grill to have breakfast and pray for one another) we found out that Sunday was a good day for the Church of Jesus in our small town. Of course, if you ask me, any given Sunday regardless of the weather or whatever else may be going on is good day in the “House” (i.e., “the household of faith”). Norm shared that he baptized five individuals at his fellowship among them the biggest linemen on our high school football team. The Advent Christian Church is one of the oldest fellowships in our community but also one of the smallest and yet they witnessed five individuals confess faith in Jesus Christ and enter the cleansing waters of baptism. For Four Square-ers (The International Church of the Foursquare Gospel) “Sister Aimee” refers to their flamboyant and charismatic founder, Aimee Semple McPherson. But around here the only Sister Amy we know is a former, hard-drinking, foul-mouthed diminutive cowgirl who God radically saved several years ago. As a sinner she excelled in ungodliness but now as a beloved daughter of the Father she remains just as loud but now in hot pursuit of letting anyone who cares to listen her own amazing story of grace. And this past Sunday Norm baptized this hulking linemen with whom Amy had prayed with a while back. When a junior in high school and one of your local star athletes wants to get baptized, something special is at work.
I want to be like him when I'm 79
Wherever David goes he tells the Story
David shared of the development and deepening of his friendship with the couple who moved into their rental unit. Last summer, Paula's, David's wife, and a friend went walking by the home that is just down the road from their own. The wife was out on the porch apparently and a conversation ensued between her and Paula that resulted in her praying with this woman to receive Jesus. Later David made a point of getting better acquainted with her husband, Mike, and have struck up a burgeoning friendship. Sometime this fall they began attending Chetek Alliance Church, the fellowship where David serves as one of the elders. This morning David shared with us that Mike, who is a foreman in a large construction firm and presently working out east, called him the other night for some encouragement and prayer that he would now be a foreman that honors God as he oversees many a raucous worker. How cool is that? When he was inbetween projects, he just so happened to strike up a relationship with the Holmbecks and now that he is back in the saddle, as it were, he returns with a growing hunger in his heart to honor God with his life.

And we're only at the beginning of Troy's story...
For my part, I shared with the guys that this past Sunday Troy preached at the Justice Center. I've lost track of how many posts I have mentioned him in now. Nineteen months ago, he was sitting in the JC for his fifth OWI and potentially looking at two years of prison. At 40 years old he had been in and out of 20 correctional facilities since he became an adult. But because his bunk mate invited him to church one Sunday, he went and nothing has been the same since. In nineteen months I have been fortunate to have a front row seat of witnessing God's Story being written in his own – from inmate to convert, from convert to disciple, from disciple to member of our small ministry team that heads up to the JC once a month to facilitate the service there. Saturday night Troy called me up and asked if I had thought of what I was going to share at the jail service the next day and if not could he share. I assured him that I hadn't thought that far ahead yet and was only too happy to let him tell his story. “I just feel like God's been prodding me all weekend long to share my story so if it's alright with you, I will.” He has no idea that pastors live for moments like these. I gave him the ABC's of sharing one's faith story (be Accurate, be Brief, be Christ-centered) and then prayed for him that God would help him organize his thoughts. For a long time there has only been one service on the Sunday we lead the gathering but as soon as I hung up the phone I knew there would be two. And, as it turned out, there was. After I led the gathering in a few songs, I turned it over to him so he could begin the telling of a great story. There he was standing in the same room where he had once heard me share my own story now telling how God's amazing grace had reached a guy like him. It wasn't surreal. Rather it was another reminder that the gospel really is how Paul once described it, “the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16, NIV).

Every week at the Breakfast Club after we've chatted and laughed away over breakfast, we always end our gathering with an extended time of prayer for any needs that may have been mentioned but mainly to see God's kingdom come to our community. Listening to the stories yesterday morning it was a reminder to us all that, just as Jesus said, His Father “is always at his work to this very day, and I, too am working” (John 5:17) seeking and saving those who have gone missing or have been lost. What's more, it was an encouragement (to me, at least) to keep asking the Father for laborers, to keep casting the seed, to simply keep on keeping on. We've experienced a few mercy "drops" but we're looking for the rain.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Beyond our wildest dreams

Turkey with all the fixins
God can do anything, you know—far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams! He does it not by pushing us around but by working within us, his Spirit deeply and gently within us.
Glory to God in the church!
Glory to God in the Messiah, in Jesus!
Glory down all the generations!
Glory through all millennia! Oh, yes!”
Ephesians 3:20-21, The Message

On the eve of Thanksgiving, I'm thinking once again of Refuge's annual Thanksgiving service, that I refer to as “Thanks-Bringing”, that was held a few weeks ago. I think it's one of my favorite services of the year. We arrange the chairs in a circle, we sing a song or two to settle us in but then the bringing of thanks officially commences. Our faith-stories become the order of the day.

Troy surrounded by his family
We may be what others refer to as a Pentecostal fellowship, but there's a lot of Lutheran in us. Usually when I open up the floor for sharing, we sit in Quaker silence until someone breaks. But not this year. This year, Troy got the ball rolling. I've written a lot about Troy in the last year – on his coming to Christ, on his being sober (for the first time in his life) at Christmas, of joining me in my monthly foray to the Justice Center. Troy stood up and gave thanks for the two families that God had given him – his own and the one he embraced and was, at the same time, adopted by – The Refuge. When Troy began coming to our fellowship he came alone. But these days on many Sundays he is joined by his wife, his son, one or both of his step daughters and a couple of his grandchildren. “This is like a great family reunion for me today.” For the most part, spiritually speaking his family is not on the same page with him – yet. But they follow him here clearly convinced that what is going on in him is far greater than some passing fad.

Josh stood up that day to share as well. Josh is a young man who grew up in our fellowship. His folks split up when he was just a kid but it's only recently that healing from that trauma is beginning to happen. He wanted to thank God for the freedom he was finding from the hurt from the past. Truly, “He makes all things new.” A little bit later he asked to share again. He wanted to publicly apologize to his step-mom, Tina, for how he had treated her when his dad and her had married ten years or so ago. He also wanted to publicly acknowledge how grateful he is to have a stepmother like her who loves him and is a source of spiritual counsel to him. It's difficult to put into words what happened next but I bet most folks can imagine.

Ben's world has been turned upside-down
Ben, a mason by trade with the build of a guy who lifts heavy bricks each day, tearfully stood to his feet and managed, through a rush of tears, to give thanks to God for being born again. A few months ago, at the invitation of a friend, he had attended a gathering at our local YWAM campus that featured John Peterson, the U.S. Gold medalist in wrestling in the 1972 Olympics (he actually does not live too far from here.) What John shared with Ben got him thinking and a week or so later he and his wife showed up at our weekly worship gathering. We met late one Tuesday night I assumed to respond to questions he had. But the long and short of it was that he wanted to give his life to Christ. What else could I do but pray with him to do just that? He and his wife, Tina, have been a part of us ever since. One of our deacons, Dennis, has wood-cutting ministry by which he organizes a lot of the guys from here to cut wood for those in need of it. Dennis invited Ben and after working the guys all day one of them quipped to me, “I don't know what game we're playing but we want Ben on our team.” Right now, the work of Jesus in Ben's heart pretty much makes him cry at the drop of a hat. He walks into the sanctuary and he can't turn off the tears whether he makes his way to the altar or not. But I take that as God's Spirit “pickling” him, removing years of callouses that had gripped his heart in hatred and anger. His story is still in the making.

For her part, his wife shared with me a few weeks ago that when Ben first told her that he was born again, quietly she just assumed that this was just another phase that he would pass through and move on. But she's living with a different man, now, she told me and frankly she realized that though she had been raised in an evangelical tradition had walked away from God a long time ago. While not as emotional as her husband, she, too, is turning to the Lord who loves her. When she finally got to her feet to share she first asked for the kleenix box that kept making the rounds of the sanctuary as one after another stood to give thanks for God's goodness in their life.

"...perplexed but not in despair..."
Kari, whose husband Steve was in a horrible motorcycle accident back in May, stood up as well and for the next fifteen minutes regaled us with story after story of God's faithfulness to her, her husband and her children. While Steve remains hospitalized in a facility that specializes in head trauma, she has evidence and then some that God is at work and has taken care of her family. Steve was an independent landscaper, the sole income for their household and yet, because of God's faithfulness and the generosity of God's people, at this point all their obligations are met, the family is reasonably healthy and Steve is improving (in fact, a friend of hers who just returned from seeing Steve and Kari reported that Steve had shared that, in his opinion, the accident “had to happen...otherwise I would not know God like I do now”.) In my estimate, that testimony is worth the price of admission to this season of their lives.

Choosing to trust
There were other stories we heard that day. Dolores, an Ojibwa woman who lives on the Lac Coutre Oreilles Reservation a little over an hour from here and is a member of the ministry we've supported since they began back in the early 90s, was with us despite the difficulty of being so. Her cousin had died the night before, choking, she said, on his own vomit. But then in her quiet way she said, “I was thinking of staying home but then I made a choice to be with you all as a way of saying I put my trust in the Lord.” LeAnne, who had lost her own brother a year ago in a tragic swimming accident out on the Chippewa River, stood to share how God had taken her through a vale of tears but that she could rightfully say that He had sustained her and now she was on the other side of it (in a very touching moment she went and knelt before Dolores and prayed for her.)

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” (Romans 8:28, NIV). Again and again, through every story, we heard this same refrain – God is working something of eternal value out of the messes of our lives. When we had run out of things to say, we shared communion as families together, fathers or heads of families coming to the center table and grabbing some bread as well as some cups with grape juice and then praying and sharing together. It is fitting to do just this in communion (as in the faith stories we had all just heard) we are reminded that Christ's brokenness results in our wholeness and his death results not just in life but life to the uttermost. 

 After this part of our worship gathering is completed, everyone but designated volunteers are asked to step out of the sanctuary while food that has been cooking downstairs is brought up and tables are set up for all of us to sit around and partake of turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, squash, stuffing, the whole 9 yards. It's like Moses and the elders sitting down to a sumptuous banquet on the mountain in the presence of the Lord (see Exodus 24). On the mount, Moses and his associates saw God. But in my opinion on this day we, too, have seen the Lord and experienced a shadow of his glory in the words of those who have shared their story with us. It provokes new wonder in my heart for the One who is able to do “exceeding, abundantly above all that we ask or think” (Eph 3:20, KJV).

Monday, November 19, 2012

In the thick of it

And so this is good-bye. You’re not going to see me again, nor I you, you whom I have gone among for so long proclaiming the news of God’s inaugurated kingdom. I’ve done my best for you, given you my all, held back nothing of God’s will for you.”

Now it’s up to you. Be on your toes—both for yourselves and your congregation of sheep. The Holy Spirit has put you in charge of these people—God’s people they are—to guard and protect them. God himself thought they were worth dying for.”

I know that as soon as I’m gone, vicious wolves are going to show up and rip into this flock, men from your very own ranks twisting words so as to seduce disciples into following them instead of Jesus. So stay awake and keep up your guard. Remember those three years I kept at it with you, never letting up, pouring my heart out with you, one after another.”

Now I’m turning you over to God, our marvelous God whose gracious Word can make you into what he wants you to be and give you everything you could possibly need in this community of holy friends.”
Paul's last words to the Ephesian elders as recorded in Acts 20:25-32, The Message

We weren't that empty
There were only 39 people at our weekly worship gathering yesterday morning and yet I feel fine today. In fact, I feel very encouraged to tell the truth. I pastor a small fellowship in a small community in northern Wisconsin. So, having only a couple of handfuls together for a worship service is not an unusual experience. While typically we average around 50-60 a Sunday this past weekend was the deer-rifle season opener and in a congregation made up of several hunting families that spells “excused absence.” Even our son home from college was out in the woods with his uncles and grandfather.

Given that I had to lead worship, facilitate the gathering and preach made it a work day indeed (I love doing any but having to do all in the same setting is not what I would call preferable.) The day before while I was out in my deer stand I got a text from one of the kids from Focus away at college wondering if I wanted help on Sunday morning leading worship. He's a fairly musical kid who has taught himself to play guitar and the thought of having one more instrument to bolster our small worship team of a mother-daughter combo and myself was inviting to me so I texted him back, “sure!” So at 9 a.m., an hour before our gathering normally begins, Monica and Rachel got behind their mics for sound checks while Derek and I tuned up our guitars (he on his electric while I on my Fender acoustic.) I got a little grief from Derek and Rachel (19 and 18 respectively) for picking not one but (heaven forbid) two hymns (Blessed Assurance and Great is Thy Faithfulness) but they were otherwise good sports about it and for the next 45 minutes we warmed up the sanctuary as we went through the worship set I had pulled together on Friday afternoon.

By the time we were through practicing there were perhaps 15 people in the building and by 10 a.m. that number had grown only by 2 or 3. It was “go” time. But just like most Sundays, it's the music that draws them in. By the end of the first medley of songs, 10 or more folks had wandered in and two of them guests, a father and his young son. By the time we returned to worship following our meet-and-greet/offering/announcement-time eight more had straggled in. And early into our main worship set the rest showed up. But the response to worship was real. People entered in sincerely and devoutly. When I “opened up the altar” - the time in our gathering when we invite people to come forward, kneel and receive prayer from the body – it was like a flood-gate. Young and old alike made their way – here was a young man that I know is earnestly seeking God's direction for his life; here was a guy fresh out of the Justice Center (and who had brought his three juvenile sons to worship with him); here was an older missionary presently on furlough who a few weeks before had been hospitalized for a severe concussion and broken vertebrae in his neck while cutting a tree down behind his home; here was a local massage therapist at something of a crossroads in his life; here was an middle-aged woman facing surgery soon. All across the altar they knelt before the Lord. For a little while I was concerned there would not be enough ministry team members on hand to pray for each individual (usually, our trained prayer ministers will pray for one individual and then return to their seat.) Fortunately they recognized that we were shorthanded and a few of them were more animated than usual as they moved about the altar praying for those gathered there.

For corporate intercession our practice is to have a floor mic where designated “pray-ers” go to pray for the various needs listed on the prayer insert in the bulletin while the musicians on the worship team continue to quietly play. But due to the intimate size of our gathering, I just encouraged everyone to sit down and anyone who felt so inclined to lead out in prayer. “We can sit in 'Quaker-silence' if you prefer – even though that's not preferable to me,” is what I told them (frankly, when we practice an “open mic” format for Pentecostals we're a pretty sorry lot; no one seems too eager to pray out loud.) But not yesterday. Yesterday for nearly 15 minutes various individuals sat where they were and prayed for various needs and individuals most which were listed in the bulletin while some were not. From my perspective it didn't feel like an exercise in corporate disciple (i.e., this is the time in our gathering when we pray for our needs, etc.) but true corporate intercession agreeing together for God's kingdom to come and His will to be accomplished in each and every matter that was brought before Him.

It's more of a postcard than a letter
Recently I have been leading a short series entitled “Postcards from the Edge” on the “one-pagers” of the New Testament – 2 and 3 John, Philemon and Jude. I began Jude yesterday and my text was 1:1 (yes, only one verse and it took all of the time I usually take to preach which is usually about 45 minutes.) I loved preaching it and it seemed to have some “thickness” to it or have what an earlier generation of Pentecostal preachers referred to as “the anointing” (although admittedly that is entirely subjective conclusion.) When the gathering closed and I said my last “Amen” only a few left. Most remained to visit, to pray with one another, to comfort and encourage one another. You could say that the long and short of it was we had “church” yesterday.

While I was leading worship I had a random thought about our fellowship. Some of our members have grown stagnant and need reviving. They are, in my opinion, marching in place or plodding through the motions of being a disciple. Some of our members have drifted away not running headlong into a worldly lifestyle but slowly succumbing to the weight of carnality that permeates our North American atmosphere. Some seem to be at a flash point where they could go either way – embracing the call of Jesus or artfully dodging it. And some are genuinely growing in their love and devotion to Jesus and it is telling. Some are going forward. Some are falling backward, good and bad going hand in hand in the life of probably any local fellowship of believers. When I open my Bible I read,

A farmer went out to sow his seed. Some of it fell on the road; it was tramped down and the birds ate it. Other seed fell in the gravel; it sprouted, but withered because it didn’t have good roots. Other seed fell in the weeds; the weeds grew with it and strangled it. Other seed fell in rich earth and produced a bumper crop...”

...The seed is the Word of God. The seeds on the road are those who hear the Word, but no sooner do they hear it than the Devil snatches it from them so they won’t believe and be saved.”

The seeds in the gravel are those who hear with enthusiasm, but the enthusiasm doesn't go very deep. It’s only another fad, and the moment there’s trouble it’s gone.”

And the seed that fell in the weeds—well, these are the ones who hear, but then the seed is crowded out and nothing comes of it as they go about their lives worrying about tomorrow, making money, and having fun.”

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 in Luke 8:4-8; 11-15. The Message)
I’ve known drudgery and hard labor, many a long and lonely night without sleep, many a missed meal, blasted by the cold, naked to the weather.”

And that’s not the half of it, when you throw in the daily pressures and anxieties of all the churches. When someone gets to the end of his rope, I feel the desperation in my bones. When someone is duped into sin, an angry fire burns in my gut.” (Paul in 2 Corinthians 11:27-29, The Message)
I’m passing this work on to you...The prophetic word that was directed to you prepared us for this. All those prayers are coming together now so you will do this well, fearless in your struggle, keeping a firm grip on your faith and on yourself. After all, this is a fight we’re in.”

There are some, you know, who by relaxing their grip and thinking anything goes have made a thorough mess of their faith. Hymenaeus and Alexander are two of them. I let them wander off to Satan to be taught a lesson or two about not blaspheming.” (Paul in 1 Timothy 1:18-20, The Message)
It’s crucial that we keep a firm grip on what we’ve heard so that we don’t drift off.” (The author of Hebrews in Hebrews 2:1, The Message)

What I glean from all of this is that my experience as the pastor of The Refuge in Chetek, Wisconsin isn't too at odds of what greater and wiser pastors dealt with in the first years of the Church. There were disciples made who later flamed out. Others wandered off. Others abandoned ship when opposition came. But then there were others who firmly took the baton in their hands and ran with it. I suppose it will always be so until He comes. So that's why I'm encouraged today. We may be metaphorically off the beaten path as people chart those things but in reality we are in the thick of it, doing what we can to make disciples of Jesus who will remain faithful under pressure and resist the gravitational force of this present darkness. In my experience, there seem to be more losses than wins but ultimately it's God who makes the seed grow. My task, among others, is to keep chucking seed as copiously as I can, and contending for the faith "that was once and for all entrusted to the saints" (Jude 1:3, NIV). God helping me, I plan to.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

After you've read it

So was I speaking and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when, lo! I heard from a neighbouring house a voice, as of boy or girl, I know not, chanting, and oft repeating. ‘Take up and read; Take up and read.’ [’Tolle, lege! Tolle, lege!’] Instantly, my countenance altered, I began to think most intently whether children were wont in any kind of play to sing such words: nor could I remember ever to have heard the like. So checking the torrent of my tears, I arose; interpreting it to be no other than a command from God to open the book, and read the first chapter I should find… - St. Augustine (Aurelius Augustine, The Confessions of St. Augustine, translated by Edward Pusey. Vol. VII, Part 1. The Harvard Classics. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909–14;, 2001., Book Eight, Chapter 12, Paragraphs 27-28.)
What is this obsession people have with books? They put them in their houses like they're trophies. What do you need it for after you read it?” - Jerry Seinfeld in “The Ex-Girlfriend” (Season 2)

No Martin would think to be without a copy
As anybody who knows me can testify, I'm a bit obsessive about books. Ever since I could read, I have been collecting them (although admittedly most of the books I cut my teeth on, as it were, remain in my mother's possession.) My personal collection has grown and been culled many times over since high school although some volumes have remained insoluble like granite over the decades of my life: The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion and all things Tolkien; The Chronicles of Narnia and The Space Trilogy both by Lewis. Since becoming a pastor my collection actually has grown to four different locations – the office and the nook under the staircase at home and my office and, at the present moment, a makeshift storage room in the basement at our worship facility. They are divided into my personal favorites (office at home), my “second favorites” as well as children's books I read at Roselawn Elementary (the nook under the staircase), all things I need pastorally from sermon prep to spiritual renewal (my office) and “also good to have” books that presently are in the storage room because I have no more shelves to house them on (I also have about 30 volumes presently stacked on the floor of my office that are also homeless).
Near the Bible on our bookshelf
I'm not what you would call obsessively neat but every few months the accumulation of the various detritus of my craft reaches the breaking point and then I become focused on culling the herd, as it were. “I need to downsize my library” I tell myself as I stare at tomes I have not touched since placing them on their current shelf years ago when a carpenter who attended our fellowship at that time built them. But as I go to reach for them I find myself suddenly reluctant to part company with them. While admittedly some I have never read – and based on my current interests am not likely ever to read them – still the thought that I might need their counsel at some undisclosed later time freezes me in the act. And suddenly the process becomes a bit overwhelming and I decide to hold off for another day.

Yesterday, I thought of my son, Ed, who aspires to be a pastor himself one day. As a freshman in college, that time is several years in the future ahead of him but speaking as someone who has logged 21 years of pastoral ministry to date as I thought of him I asked myself, “What books would I recommend to Ed starting out in his ministry? What are some of the “must have” resources it would be wise to have only an arm length's away from him? Here's a partial list. It doesn't claim to be definitive. Let's face it, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and that includes the books one reads. (Actually, this may be personal therapy getting me ripe for a cathartic swipe of my shelves):

Dear Ed:

Now you are a pastor. It's not that I'm surprised that you ended up there. I think we've known for quite some time that God has gifted you with ability to do what you have set out to do. But still, that foreknowledge doesn't halve the pride your mom and I have in you saying yes to the Lord's call on your life.

If you haven't already, you're gonna get a lot of stuff in the mail of resources that every pastor “has” to have. Based on my experience, they are not as many as you will come across or will be asked to purchase over the course of your career. Solomon was right: Of making many books there is no end,” (Ecclesiastes 12:12, NIV) and all these years later he's still right. As someone who probably has spent thousands of dollars on collecting books (although since websites like and came to be, I get them a whole lot cheaper now), I'd like to give you my two cents worth of what you really need. If you're like me, you probably will have to find some of this out on your own but in an attempt to save you some cash here's my short list of books that have helped me grow in my craft:
  1. The Bible
    Except I have my name embossed on it
    Well, duh, right? You need a good Bible (lately I've enjoyed my NASB/The Message Parallel Bible – go figure) to read devotionally, preach, teach, the whole nine yards. With a tool like, you really don't need a copy of each kind of translation. Just scroll down to the version you're interested in and in most cases, voilǎ, your favorite verse in the translation of your preference appears.

  2. Good Bible software for your computer
    For my 10th anniversary of serving as pastor at Refuge, your grandparents got me the NIV Study Bible software. Not only can you use the concordance in various versions, it has a running commentary with helpful notes. I use this nearly EVERY DAY.
When it comes to reference materials, really, you just need to have Google and access to high speed internet (if you find yourself at Grandma and Grandpa Martin's home, you better hope you have wi/fi because they're still on dial-up; how do they do it?) But a few books on my shelf that I like having there are:

  1. The IVP Atlas of Bible History
    I like Ray Vander Laan
    It has lots of cool pictures and maps but nothing you couldn't find on-line. In fact, for good insight into many of the events of Scripture I have found Ray Vander Laan's website, Follow the Rabbi ( very helpful.

  2. The Book of God, Jesus: A Novel and Paul: A Novel all by Walter Wangerin, Jr
    The man is a story-teller perhaps better for the soul than Keillor. I like Garrison but some of his cynicism leaks out into his stories at times. But as a pastor Wangerin ministers to me personally. He takes you into a moment in Scripture and fills it out so that you can hear sounds and smell the aroma of the place you find yourself in. You met him when you were a boy and frankly, he was impressed with you.
    A couple other of his works that I love are The Book of the Dun Cow, Ragman and Other Cries of Faith, and Miz Lil & the Chronicles of Grace, a somewhat autobiographical account of his first pastorate.

  3. Except mine are far more worn
    The Singer, The Song and The Finale by Calvin Miller
    I love the tale of the Gospels, Acts and Revelation that Miller spins in this three volumes of prose and poetry. In fact, every Christmas Eve at our candlelight service I read Chapter 7 from The Singer which starts out
    In the beginning was
    the song of love
    Alone in empty nothingness
    and space
    It sang itself through
    vaulted halls above
    Reached gently out to
    touch the Father's face.”
    The fact that the copies that I own are the original editions illustrated by Chicago artist, Joe DeValasco makes them even more special (all the later editions are illustrated by artists not of his talent in my opinion).
  4. A Long Obedience in the Same Direction and Run with the Horses both by Eugene H. Peterson.
    Eugene is the man. The first time I read Long Obedience I was a freshman at Bible college. His insights on life taken from his meditations on the Psalms of Ascents spoke deeply to me. I think I've come back to that book many a time. And Horses solidified Jeremiah as one of my personal heroes in Scripture. Any guy who can stay on message for 23 years despite congregational deafness and resistance deserves a salute. 
    I'm grateful to Peterson's perspective (in fact, somewhere I have a postcard I received from him after I had sent him a letter of thanks for how he mentored me vicariously) but also for introducing me to many other authors I would most likely never have heard of chief among them being Wendell Berry. Wendell Berry is a farmer in Kentucky but also a philosopher and a social critic. He writes a lot about a world that has disappeared – rural America where relationships were key. I think it was Peterson's reading of Berry that help me to understand what a “parish” really is. 
  5. Love, Acceptance and Forgiveness by Jerry Cook
    This little book changed my view on pastoral ministry drastically. It's what ever person needs and deserves. I think of all the books I've quoted over the years, I wouldn't be surprised I've quoted from this one more than all the others. Reading his book (and hearing him in person when he came a couple of times to Duluth Gospel Tab) literally changed my life. 

  6. Biographies and Histories.
    Granted, you and I are history buffs but all of church history is really the Story of God being worked out in individual lives. In recent years I have found that I have a growing interest in biographies of those who have walked ahead of me either as pastors or ministry leaders in various locations. I just got done with Elisabeth Elliot's fine biography on Amy Carmichael, A Chance to Die, and while it doesn't make me want to sell all I have and move to far off India she does force me to ask myself why not? 

  7. Lots of books on healing, deliverance, the Holy Spirit and more
    He has some very good things to say
    I remember my pastor, Warren Heckman, saying something that in time I have come to personally believe as well. “Everyone has a system of 'doing' it – how to pray for healing, how to deliver someone from demonic spirits, how to be filled with the Holy Spirit and so forth. One guy believes you have to do it one way. Another in a different manner. No one, it seems has a corner on the market.” He's right. Because now that I've collected volumes on such things and read them, I am persuaded that while God still is in the healing business it is, ultimately, a mystery why some are “cured” and some are not. I prefer Wimber's approach who once quipped, “When we didn't pray for the sick to recover, no one got better. Once we started praying for the sick, some got better.” Exactly. Having a wide view of things keeps you open to how God may want to work in a particular situation. 
  8. Ditto when it comes to prayer. Lots of people write about prayer and will continue to write on the subject. Everyone has their favorites. Actually, of all the ones I've read on the matter The Beauty of Spiritual Language (Jack Hayford) and When the Spirit Comes with Power (John White) probably have spoken the most to me but more than likely because of the place I was when they spoke to me.

I have found that over twenty years of ministry my books that tend to be more philosophical and theological have moved up the bookshelf while the books that speak to everyday life have moved down. But that's because I'm a pastor. People don't care about the historical background of a certain text. They want to know how it walks. Quoting them a guy with a lot of letters after his name doesn't do them a whole lot of good I have found. Keep the main things the main things and maybe pass on The Complete Works of Francis Schaeffer. He wrote lots of great stuff but what I've read hasn't really helped me in my craft.

As I think about this list, that leaves a lot of books that I probably should move out of my office and donate to Goodwill. But who would buy them there? The going rate of used books is fairly dismal. But I can't stand the thought of throwing them out or – heaven forbid – burning them. So for the time being they will continue to take up space on my shelves and my floor. I guess Jerry Seinfeld was right about most books you'll read – you'll find you won't reference it or need it ever again. What's a bibliphile to do?

Now here's the funny thing: I've already placed dibs on some of the books in your grandparents' bookshelves when they decide to clean house. I'm particularly interested in some of the classics, especially The Journals of Lewis and Clark that I read in high school. Where will I put them? Who knows? Maybe when your sisters move out I can size up their room for an upstairs library but I'm pretty sure your mother is going to draw the line and not allow it. So, when all is said and done, I guess I haven't been much help. Other than, as e-books become more and more popular you'll have less boxes to pack when you move on to your next call.

Love always, Dad.”

The copy my folks' have is way cooler

Admittedly, there are a lot of books that I haven't mentioned that I'm not ready to part with. But one thing I'm not going to do is what some retiring pastor did to me. He showed up at Refuge one day and bequeathed to me boxes of books he no longer used. I know he meant well but I'm pretty sure coming to me saved him a trip to Goodwill in Rice Lake.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Choosing earth over heaven

One day one of the local officials asked him, 'Good Teacher, what must I do to deserve eternal life?'
Jesus said, 'Why are you calling me good? No one is good—only God. You know the commandments, don’t you? No illicit sex, no killing, no stealing, no lying, honor your father and mother.'
He said, 'I’ve kept them all for as long as I can remember.'
When Jesus heard that, he said, 'Then there’s only one thing left to do: Sell everything you own and give it away to the poor. You will have riches in heaven. Then come, follow me.'
This was the last thing the official expected to hear. He was very rich and became terribly sad. He was holding on tight to a lot of things and not about to let them go.” Luke 18:18-25, The Message
Few biblical figures are as tragic as this young rich man as he walks away from Jesus' invitation. But other factors, such as achievement, pride, and family, can also reside in the place that should be reserved for God. Anything that excessively anchors us to the earth rather than freeing us as commissioned representatives from God indicates a breakdown in the discipleship process. What is really frightening is how easy it is for all of us to choose earth over heaven.” Darrell Bock, Luke: The NIV Application Commentary, p. 470

The man's got a lot of dough
Every time I read his story, I think of this young man (well, only Matthew tells us that he was young – see Matthew 19:16-30) and ask, “Who is he?” Does he represent the “rich and famous”? The Donald Trumps of that world? A guy whose yearly income towers over the GNP of some small country in Africa? Or, is he someone closer to home? In Luke's account, all that we are told is that he was “a man of great wealth” (v. 23). But that's a relative statement. Compared to what? Donald Trump certainly is a man of “great wealth” but in comparison to say, Bill Gates, what he has is merely pocket change. I would guess that my annual income would put me slightly above the poverty line for this neck of the woods but in comparison to many of my friends in Africa, I live high on the hog. So depending on your point of view you are either swimming in it or just scraping by (although even at a net worth of 3.1 billion dollars, Donald Trump is enjoying himself regally in his luxurious wealth pool.) Matthew's and Mark's account of the same incident are almost identical – in every case, the young man goes away downhearted because the price of what Jesus has quoted for the kingdom of heaven is, from his perspective, way too steep.

I live in a modest home, drive used (and, thankfully, paid for) vehicles, and wear Wal-Mart variety clothes. The most expensive shoes I own are the ones I currently wear for running. My closet is chock full of clothing. I have footwear for all kinds of seasons (a must for living in northern Wisconsin.) By Barron County standards people would say I do “okay” for the kind of profession I am in. And I would agree. I'm not living in the tall cotton but I'm not on skid row either. Still, this encounter bothers me because I think it's meant to. It forces me to ask myself what I am holding on to and how I would respond if the Lord asked me to do the same. To me, the question is not “could I do it?” but “would I?” Would I turn my back on my comfortable lifestyle here in the Midwest in response to the Lord's invitation to move into a far more impoverished neighborhood for the sake of the gospel? I really can't say because the question, after all, is at this moment hypothetical.

This fall, for our family reading time before school each day, we have been reading Kisses from Katie, the autobiographical account of Katie Davis' move from a wealthy suburb of Nashville to a poor neighborhood in Uganda. A young woman from money, she turned her back on it all for the sake of God's call on her life to serve and love children in this impoverished country in Africa. She was 18 when she arrived and now at 23 she is still there and the foster mother of 13 Ugandan children. Her story is fairly remarkable made more so to me by my opportunity to meet her this past March when I was in Uganda. The other night at the dinner table, our 17-year old daughter asked me, “Do you ever find yourself getting mad at yourself for all the things you own?” Lately, Emma has been looking at her bursting closet and the assorted jewelry that has accumulated on her desk and finding herself getting angry. “Why should I have so much while so many others have little or nothing at all?” It is a contradiction that any person who has ever traveled outside the U.S. and frequented economically deprived areas faces. Why was I born in suburban America insulated from the pain and suffering that much of the world experiences on a daily basis? And why does a kid named Ronald have to drop out of secondary (high) school because his family cannot afford his tuition? It's all very disconcerting.

I told Emma that I don't get mad at myself. I find that having been to places like Uganda, the Philippines, and Mexico that I am much more grateful for the simple conveniences of indoor plumbing and clean drinking water that I have access to whenever I have the need. But I also tell her the accumulating affect of having been to those places has been to force me to rethink what are my lifestyle priorities here. Do I really need to purchase another book for my library? While a certain piece of equipment for my hunting forays would be nice, is it necessary? Admittedly, these are very small steps but meeting people like Katie and Ronald and many others living in comparatively spartan conditions has motivated me to hesitate before I just buy things because I can.

Says Katie:
She really is remarkable
...I quit my life...and for good this time. 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)

Honestly, I'm not there yet. I still dream of a patch of woods in Douglas County to retire to. I find myself thinking about a deck out back and a porch out front – and some landscaping to boot. Were these projects somehow to be completed, I know they would be replaced with other yet unconceived ideas. It is the way things are. I pray to hold such dreams loosely and not sell out to them so that when an opportunity arises – and it will arise – to invest in kingdom matters in Uganda or elsewhere I will be able to do something instead of being so strapped that I can do nothing. Jesus reminds me in this story that the unnamed “poor” are real people some of whom I've already met. 

Saturday, November 10, 2012

On the Art of Making Friends in Africa

"The Wall" at Refuge
At the fellowship I serve as pastor, the leadership is committed to fulfilling what we believe our calling to be relationally connected to the Church of Jesus Christ around the world in our shared purpose of making disciples. Given that our town is predominantly white, I find it an oxymoron that our last name is “International.” But at the present time, we know people who are serving in the Philippines, in New Zealand, in China, in Liberia, Nigeria, Egypt, Uganda, Kenya, Guatemala, among Somali refugees in our own county, and among First Nations people living on the Lac Coutre Oreilles Reservation about an hour north of here. As I related a few posts back (Culture Shock and Awe), everyone I have just referenced has shared on more than one occasion at the weekly worship gathering of our fellowship and while they do not all receive regular financial support from us, they are prayed for with regularity. What's more, in recent years small teams from here have gone to a few of these individuals to visit and encourage them in their work there.

Last year, the small group in charge of planning our annual missions event felt led to focus on Africa.
This was curious to me for at the time we only knew a handful of individuals serving there and they were little more than acquaintances. But we set our course and in time, a connection with a pastor in Uganda who had shared at Refuge a few years before was renewed quite serendipitously and that spring a man from Africa was standing in our sanctuary inviting us, “to come to Africa and serve the Lord.” That unusual experience was repeated twice again that spring – once by a man from Nigeria and once by a man from Liberia ("GO TO AFRICA!"). Clearly, the Lord was calling us to go there.

Eventually, two small teams from here went “over there” earlier this year. One team, led by one of our elders, went to Kenya because of a prior relationship with the sister of a pastor serving there. The team that I was a part of, led by another of our elders, went to Uganda a few weeks later. We went in search of friends. And we found and met many. In fact, my “friend” stat on Facebook went up dramatically because of that field trip to the Pearl of Africa.

Dolores (LCO) and Linda have become friends
But developing friends via social media alone involves a learning curve of sorts. We didn't go over there with bags of money or with the overt intention to start throwing our financial weight around. But we were immediately aware that many of our new African acquaintances misread our intentions. Thinking we were there to find some worthy project to get behind, we became the belles at the ball being feted by one consort or another. Now most didn't lay it on too thick but in one instance where we were escorted all around a certain rural district from one project to another we became very uncomfortable when it was clear the group leader wanted to elicit a financial commitment from us. It's not a healthy way to build a friendship.

Because I am a pastor, I was given the floor at nearly every stop to preach. I'm not uncomfortable in speaking off the cuff. My ministry at the Justice Center has taught me to do so with ease. But what made it awkward at times is when we would be gently pressed to make certain promises of financial commitment and this we could not – nor would not – do.

I don't want to give the wrong impression. It wasn't all of them. And even those who button-holed us are clearly doing good work with very limited means. But they obviously viewed us as cash cows simply because we are Americans and milking time was here.

Pastor John
Since returning from Uganda, I have remained in contact via Facebook chat with several of my new friends. And in fact, both of the pastors of the fellowships we shared at while we were there just last month shared at Refuge. But here's where it gets awkward. Some of my new friends have not even tried to be coy about the matter and asked if we would help them financially. In the last few months, I've been asked to help pay for tuition, for medicine, and to help alleviate a financial downturn in a person's life. None know or guess that at times I am chatting with a few of them at the same time and each is asking that I help with their particular need. I replied to one Ugandan teen's friend request and every day I was bombarded for a plea to send money so she could go to school. It got to be where I had to ignore her chats until she gave up on me. Last month, I asked a friend of mine who has been serving in East Africa for fifteen years how best to respond to these requests for aid. He shared with me that in Africa where there is a much more sense of community people share with one another more readily than they do in the States. It makes me think how different our worlds are: one of my friends on this side of the world is a very wealthy individual but I would never even think to ask him for money for fear how it would affect our friendship; but what if part of what we would call a lack of social grace is really an expression of recognition that we are, after all, friends and friends share with friends?

Pastor Moses
The two Ugandan pastors that shared at Refuge each spoke of looking for “partners” for the different projects they have begun whose focus is to help alleviate the plight of orphans – and in Uganda there are so many orphans! But when I think of the word “partner” I think of two people who are in relationship and are working together toward a common goal. What I think they mean is they are looking for “investors”, people who will make a one-time or an ongoing investment to help those who are fatherless. It's not that what they are doing is not support-worthy. It's not that I think they will misappropriate the funds for selfish purposes. It's the fact that I do not want to begin a kingdom venture motivated by guilt alone. For several years our family, for a minimal amount, has supported an orphan in Guatemala. For our commitment for doing so, we received a grainy black-and-white photograph with the kid's name on it and nothing since. I write that check without so much of a thought and I trust it is going to what the ministry says it uses my funds for. But honestly, my concern for him has not grown since Day 1. Sitting at my office desk, I can't even think of his name. Somehow this does not seem right to me.

I guess I've taken the stance of Peter and John on their way to the Temple to pray. A lame beggar reaches out to them as was his daily custom. Maybe they saw that guy hundreds of times since setting up shop in Jerusalem. But that day, Peter looked at him and said,

I don’t have a nickel to my name, but what I do have, I give you: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk!” He grabbed him by the right hand and pulled him up. In an instant his feet and ankles became firm. He jumped to his feet and walked. (Acts 3:6-8, The Message)

When the student in his final year at secondary school asks me for help paying for his tuition, I pray with him and tell him to trust God to meet his needs. When our tour guide from the day we went boating on the Nile asks me to send money to his foundation dedicated to helping orphans, I pray with him that God will provide the funds he is seeking. When my friend John is asking me again for a contribution for the new primary school his fellowship has begun, I go to prayer with him. I'm not trying to give them the brush-off. I'm not trying to hide behind religious rigamarole risking a rebuke from James (see James 2:14-18) . It may be the day will come when we will be sending regular donations their way but not because we are feeling guilty about living in the abundance of America. Rather because the love of God compels us to do just this. Right now, we're building friendships and those take time to build. We don't want to be their source or sugar daddy. We just want to be their friends.