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, December 14, 2012

Repeating the sounding joy

...Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat the sounding joy.” 
   “Joy to the World” by Isaac Watts

I'm normally a pretty upbeat guy encouraged for no reason in particular. Ask my wife, who isn't so naturally perky, and she can attest how annoyingly optimistic I can be. But not this week. On Saturday morning, during my long run, I strained my hamstring in my left leg and have been unable to run on it since. At first it just felt tight and I kept hoping I would work through it but fifteen miles later it was no less taut. By the afternoon when it was painful to sit down or get up from my desk I knew something more than lactic acid buildup was at work in my leg. And by Sunday morning when it felt no better I knew something was amiss in me. Despite the blizzard that blew in here Sunday afternoon dropping more than a foot of snow in our area, Monday morning I attempted to try out the leg on our snow-covered roads. I made it about 20 feet and realized I would not be able to just work through it, especially if I was having to run through small drifts of snow. So I stopped and walked back to the house. For the first time in months I would not be heading down the road for my early Monday morning run. In fact, I've had to rest this last week simply because to try and run would be certain to injure my leg worse. And that fact alone has got me discombobulated.

Somewhere in the general vicinity
Why? Well, to put it in perspective 2012 will go down in my book as my best running year yet in the 13 since my return to running. In April I crossed the 10,000 mile threshold and a week before Halloween I recorded my third 1,000 mile year since 2000. I am on pace to log nearly 1,400 miles before year's end. Since the beginning of Cross Country season I have lost 20 pounds, dropped one pants' size and have felt the difference in my daily runs. Honestly, at 50 I feel like I'm just hitting my stride and now...this. My plan has been to run the Tuscobia Ultra at the end of the month with hopes of recording a sub-8 hour 35-mile run. Missing a few days won't necessarily hinder me from doing that but missing much more could really screw my training up. And thinking about all this doesn't make it any better.

This is how I have felt on the inside
It's pretty simple: when I don't run, I don't feel right. My inward equilibrium is off and being sedentary makes me vulnerable to “crazy-think.” What I call “crazy-think” is the habit of reading erroneous messages in the happenstances of daily life. Someone doesn't return your “good-morning” in the hall and you take it personally. That's crazy-think. On Sunday I felt I did a poor job leading worship and preaching and read all kinds of things into people's body-language (mostly the glazed-over look that most preachers are accustomed to seeing as they do their work except this time it bothered me.) Only two high school students showed up for early morning breakfast and devotions on Wednesday morning – and one of them doesn't count because she lives at my house – and no kids were signed up to help lead the annual gathering at Knapp Haven, our local nursing home on Wednesday afternoon and suddenly this perky fella is feeling rather “loserish.” This is “crazy-think” but I think I can say that for ministers its a vocational liability from time to time.

How it has looked in years past
In Wisconsin, Wednesday was officially Aaron Rodgers Day. Wear #12 and win a Super Bowl and an MVP title to boot and I guess you deserve a day named after you. But on 12/12/12 I found a solution to pull me up from my emotional nose-dive I felt like I was rolling into. At lunch time I asked my 22-year-old autistic son, Charlie, if he would help me lead the gathering at Knapp (Linda has been sick lately and it would not be good to have her there coughing all over the residents.) He said “sure” and an hour later I returned to the house to pick him up. Our tradition is to serve pie and sing Christmas carols for the residents while they're enjoying their birthday dessert. And while we didn't have any kids to help us on account of school, I had plenty of help on hand from Refuge to cut the pie in slices and serve it while Charlie and I led the singing. There is something about singing carols for nearly 30 minutes straight that causes evil spirits whatever form they manifest to take flight. And to sing them to such an appreciative and accommodating audience warms your heart and makes the world seem right again. A slice of home-made apple pie afterward helps, too.

So at week's end my leg isn't much improved but I'm feeling myself again. Granted, I'd be better if I was heading out on my weekly long run tomorrow morning. But since that's not likely to happen I'll keep humming some bars of “Deck the Halls” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and reach for another slice of pie.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Strange music

Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” Luke 19:38, NIV

The day Jesus entered Jerusalem for the last time – the day that we call Palm Sunday – is a festive, exhilarating one for his followers. At long last (or, at least they thought) Messiah had come. To live to see the day where he entered the City of the Great King had to be a thrilling one indeed akin to how many African-Americans felt the night Barrack Obama was first elected President. But while the crowds are shouting their “Hosannas!” so loud that some of the local religious leaders demand Jesus put a stop to it, the man of the hour is not smiling and waving like a newly elected official. He is sobbing almost uncontrollably. His moment of triumph at last arrives and all he can do is weep?

All four Gospels record the people shouting portions of Psalm 118 that day, a messianic psalm declaring a blessing on God's chosen leader (to chant it was akin to thumbing their nose at Caesar.) But as Luke tells it, as he descends the Mount of Olives and approaches the city someone raises the cry, “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” The last time we read that in Luke's Gospel was the night that Jesus was born. It is what the angels sang to the shepherds in the fields that night, a song that has been put to a plethora of melodies ever since. But the only one in the crowd that day that would have known that little tidbit would have been his mother, Mary. By the time he rides into Jerusalem on a donkey at the beginning of one of the most important weeks of the Jewish calendar, Joseph is dead and those anonymous shepherds long returned to their reclusive life of tending their flocks. Only she is the repository of those incredible circumstances - angelic visitations and pronouncements, shepherds and seers prophetically speaking - surrounding her son's birth. And like any mother, she fiercely clutches these memories and gathers them up scrapbook-like keeping them poignantly alive within her.

Amid all the hoopla being raised at his arrival into Jerusalem that day did the song the angels sang at his nativity spring to mind and caught up in the moment she blurted out the tune she had not hummed to him since his childhood? Or was it a premonition of something far more dire unintentionally reminding him of the trial ahead of him a few days later? Luke tells us that Jesus wept that day outside of Jerusalem because despite three years of ministry among them the people missed the boat, as it were; they “didn't recognize and welcome God's personal visit” (Luke 19:44, Msg.) That seed of rejection would bear the bitter fruit of wanton slaughter and destruction by Roman general Titus and his soldiers within a generation. Which, that being the case, makes “peace in heaven and glory in the highest” a very odd anthem to sing at such an occasion. But I don't think Luke's intent here is satire. Rather, it is irony, the kind that John spoke of in the great prologue to his gospel - “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him” (John 1:11, NIV). He never looks like what we expect him to be but he's always what he is and, as John put it, “ all who receive him, to those who believe in his name, he gives the right to become children of God” (John 1:13, NIV) and that is something worth singing a Hallelujah Chorus or two. 

For many years now, our local paper, The Chetek Alert, runs a Christmas insert entitled 'Tis the Season. Among many other items they place within it, they ask local pastors to contribute a short devotional thought entitled "From the pulpit" (yeah, hardly original). This is my contribution for the 2012 edition of 'Tis the Season.