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, November 27, 2013

Life is good

The last time we were all together
You're the reason for every good thing, every heartbeat
Every day we get to breathe
You're the reason for anything that lasts, every second chance
Every laugh, life is so sweet
You're the reason for every good thing, every good thing
Every good thing, every good thing...”
from “Every Good Thing” by The Afters

Emma came home last night and by dinner time tonight Christine and Ed both will return from their respective schools. For the first time since the middle of August we'll all be together under the same roof. I can't wait. For those three it has been a wonderful season in their lives – forming new friendships and developing ones that had began before, enjoying new experiences, participating in new fellowships of believers to worship and do life together with, and, of course, attending classes and feeling their way forward into a future that is not yet discernible to them.

Even the 'stache looks cool
Ed had another wonderful season of Cross and was part of something a tad bit historic – for the first time in recent memory UW-Superior did not finish last in the WIAC but edged out UW-River Falls at the conference meet earlier this month to take 8th place. Being the smallest school in the entire University of Wisconsin system – only 2,700 kids! - that's something akin to the “Miracle on Ice.” To turn in his best performance yet in his young college career that day was only icing on the cake. He has found a faith family of believers at Duluth Gospel Tab just across the “high bridge” and continues to fellowship weekly with the believers who gather at Cru on the UW-S campus.

Liking the spot llight
Emma flew the nest on a hot sultry day in August and hasn't been home since. In true Emma-form, she dove into all things Bethel. She's in the Women's Choral and won a role in BU's production of Step on a Crack. It was her first “villain” role and believe me for a thespian that's big stuff (after 10 years of community theater, I finally got my first 'bad guy' role only this past summer). And of course, she was wonderful. Because of her lack of transportation, she has been bouncing between Bethel Christian Fellowship and Roseville Alliance depending on who's driving (her challenge is that she likes them both) but Vespers in Benson Great Hall is a must every Sunday night.

Inside Benson Great Hall - but Vespers doesn't look anything like this

Christine's faith-family
Life is grand
Since mid-September Christine has been a student at the Youth With A Mission Discipleship Training School near Madison. In a word, she loves it. As much as she enjoys the teaching, she has thoroughly enjoyed her classmates and bunk-mates. Nearly every day since she's been there she has posted new pictures on her Facebook page of so many of the life-moments she has been a part of while living at the campus there. Perhaps as equally important is that most Sundays she gets to worship with her grandparents and Uncle Tim and Aunt Cathy at City Church in Madison. And as a bonus she's been blessed to enjoy time with family and being a part of cousin Evan's and Uncle John's birthday parties. Life is good.

Some people think he's cute
And now the little birdies are flying in for a long Thanksgiving weekend home. I've been informed that part of our agenda will be going to Catching Fire together (someone in our family thinks Josh Hutcherson is eye candy – that would not be me.) Personally, beyond just having the house full again one of the highlights will be having Emma lead worship with Ed, the Brothers Westholm and Lynsee in support this Sunday morning. Just having them in the 'house (i.e., at Refuge) will be glorious in itself. Gosh, I'll say it again, life is good.

Parents raise their children to fly – to soar to the heights on providential thermals and to do the best they can when the winds are against them. It does my heart good to see them flying so well right now. I'm not forgetting Charlie. It's true he has been left behind but he carries on, goes to work, helps out at home and at Refuge and enjoys his shopping outings with his mom. This past summer he and I made it out to the Badlands and more importantly at long last made it to “the Four Heads” (a.k.a., Mt. Rushmore). Check that off his bucket list.
Cross it off the bucket list
All month I've been noticing how many of my friends in Facebook-world have posted fresh statuses nearly every day of things they are grateful for. And there are so many things to give thanks for, aren't there? I'm grateful for the gift of seeing my children grow and mature into the fine adults they are today. I'm grateful that they are eager to come home and spend some time with the folks and actually like and love each other. I'm grateful that twenty-seven and a half years and counting Linda still loves me even though the odds are not always in her favor for doing just this. I'm grateful for a faith-community that continues to pay my way so that I can work my craft and aspire to grow in our mutually held faith. But most importantly, I'm so grateful for God's ongoing love and work and care and provision for me through the seasons of my life. Yeah, just like the song says I'm grateful for every good thing. 


Monday, November 18, 2013

Famous last words

Peter making his plea
We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”
   - Peter at the first ecumenical council of the Church as recorded in Acts 15:11

On my book shelf in my office I have a little treatise that was gifted to me several years ago. Famous Last Words: Fond Farewells, Deathbed Diatribes and Exclamations upon Expiration is just what it says it is: an assorted collection of quips and quotes of those on the brink of eternity. Included are everything from angst-ridden cries to odd and eye-brow raising comments. Here's a few:

Well, folks, you'll soon see a baked Appel.” George Appel before being put to death by electric chair in
I bet he hears fine now
I shall hear in heaven!” Ludwig Van Beethoven, famous German composer who from the age of 31 on was afflicted by deafness
Or my favorite:
They couldn't hit an elephant at this dist-.” General John Sedgwick who during the Battle of the Wilderness, while everyone was diving for cover from Confederate sharpshooters, stood up and caught a bullet in the face.

Peter with a swashbuckling look
As “last words” go, Peter's impassioned speech before the Jerusalem council on the matter of Gentile admittance into the fellowship, is truly one for the ages. It could be argued that verse 11 of the fifteenth chapter is the pivot point of all that Luke has been trying to say in the Book of Acts: that the Church of Jesus is not specifically a Jewish one but a multinational family of believers bound together by common love and faith in the Lord Jesus. In one concise statement Peter captures the essence of what it means to be saved. He articulates the basic Christian belief that the Church has built all her teachings upon. Talk about “the rock” on which the Church is built (see Matthew 16:18)!

Peter's home in Capernaum?
Peter's journey to this moment was not a straight line, however. As Michael Card has pointed out in A Fragile Stone: The Emotional Life of Simon Peter recent archeological digs have uncovered the foundation of a large home attested to be Peter's eighty-four feet south of what was then the synagogue of Capernaum. “What kind of a person buys a house one door down from the synagogue?” asks Card. Indeed (assuming that it was his home.) He's an intimate inner-circle guy of the movement and pretty much is an eyewitness of almost every Jesus-story that is collected in the gospels.

After the Resurrection and before he returns to heaven, Jesus asks him to watch over the flock and take care of it. While there were no titles that distinguished him more superior than the remaining 10 apostles, you get the sense that they looked to him for leadership – and he gave it. It was his suggestion that they choose a replacement for Judas (Acts 1) and on the Day of Pentecost he is the one who articulates the message first that the Last Things have begun (Acts 2). For the first part of Acts, always his name is mentioned foremost – in the healing at the Gate Beautiful (Acts 3), in pronouncing judgment on Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5), and in the defense of their message before the Sanhedrin (Acts 4-5). For awhile he is larger than life – while Luke tells us the Lord was working wonders through the rest of the apostles (5:12), it's Peter's shadow that people want to fall on them (5:15). He is the paragon of all that a son of Abraham and a disciple of the Master Jesus should be.
Strong medicine
But in Acts 8, that image begins to be tarnished a bit. Through Philip, one of the original Seven Servers, God had opened up a door of ministry among the Samaritans of all people. Peter and John are delegated to go down and have a look-see to ascertain if this is on the level. They find that there are many Samaritans turning to Christ and in a strange irony it is his calloused hands that are laid upon them that they might receive the Holy Spirit as he once had (see One small touch) (Acts 8). But stranger than this are the events that play out and are recorded in Acts 10. While staying in the home of a tanner – an odd place to stay for a traveling holy man – he has a vision three times and while he's still wondering what it means there is a fateful knock at
Whaddya gonna do?
the door. By the next day he is preaching to a room full of Gentiles – and Roman ones at that. His message is one of the few sermons in Acts that are never finished. But unlike Stephen and Paul whose words are cut short due to the blood lust of a ravenous mob, the Holy Spirit preempts him as his hearers are caught up in the rapture of glossolalia. In response, good Law-abiding Jew he may be, he does what only seems logical according to the circumstances: he orders them to be baptized, Gentiles though they are. While he has some 'splaining to do before the Jerusalem council when they hear his story they accept the merits of it and make what sounds to my ears as a pretty “Duh”-statement:
“So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18). You think?

I know that's not fair to those first disciples. If all you've ever known is separation between those who are members of the Covenant and those who are not, it is not an easy thing to get that the rules were changing – and God was the One changing the rules! It makes me think that when Jesus spoke the words of the Great Commission the first time they heard that as Jewish men who were thinking only of the message being taken to the rest of their Jewish brethren throughout the world. The idea that God had a much bigger idea never even occurred to them.

After his miraculous prison break (Acts 12), he leaves Jerusalem to follow this strange path that the Lord had laid down for him. In his absence, the leadership of the Jerusalem church falls to James. As far as we know, he will return to the city only one more time to participate in the council where the matter concerning these new Gentile converts is determined. It is a gathering in which he will play a significant role. In the interim, he eventually ends up in Antioch a very cosmopolitan fellowship three hundred miles north of Jerusalem that has been integrating Gentile believers into their midst for quite some time and with relative ease. In fact, in time he will find himself enjoying table fellowship with quite of few of his Antiochian Gentile brethren – something that would be a scandal in Jerusalem.
St. Paul's Church in Antioch (today)
Getting dressed down in Antioch
But when certain “right-wingers” from the Jerusalem fellowship show up and begin to speak up about such liberal practices as actually sharing the Lord's Supper together with uncircumcised fellows, such is their persuasiveness that it causes him to waffle, to pull back from the otherwise collegial relations he was developing between him the Gentile believers in the Church. That's about the time when Paul and Barnabus get back from their year-long ministry trip in Galatia. When they had left the year before, they had left a harmonious fellowship that was much like the city they belonged to – ecumenical and diverse (see Acts 13:1-5). But they've come back to one that is now in disarray thanks to the folks from First Jerusalem. When Paul notices that even “the rock” is crumbling under the weight of such foolishness that those heavyweights from Jerusalem are throwing around, Peter earns a public dressing down (Galatians 2). Talk about awkward.

Which makes Peter's public defense of essentially Paul's “gospel” before the Jerusalem Council all the more amazing. I don't hear spite. I don't hear grudging acknowledgment of the truth of Paul's teaching. I hear a passionate plea to the very people he allowed to shame him into backpedaling in Antioch:

Getting it right this time
God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” (Acts 15:8-11)

This is his swan song, his famous last words. “With this speech Peter bows out of the book of Acts,” says Ajith Fernando. If you don't include the two letters he later pens, this the last time we hear from him in the narrative part of the New Testament. For the rest of his days he will be a man on the move, a missionary pastor going from place to place fulfilling what the Lord beside the Sea of Galilee had once asked him to do so many years before, feeding and caring for the flock of God.

Fernando makes this observation about Peter's actions that day:
Conflicts in the church today are often marred by a partisanship that reduces debate to the level of politicking. People take sides depending on their experiences. A person who has humiliated someone else must be opposed and humiliated in return. Though the issues discussed seem to be principles, deep down a hurt self is causing havoc in the church. How different Peter was! He refused to let the past humiliation in Antioch color his actions at the council. Instead, he spoke up on behalf of the cause of Paul and Barnabus even before they themselves spoke.” (The NIV Application Commentary on the Book of Acts, p. 428)

I think that's what we call a big man today, a “rock” on which the Church of Jesus continues to be built.
Thanks, Peter, for being a big man

Friday, November 15, 2013

Becoming part of the solution

Behold, I make all things new.”
Revelation 21:5, KJV

When someone becomes a Christian, he becomes a brand new person inside. He is not the same anymore. A new life has begun!”
2 Corinthians 5:17, LB

Troy Watson is now part of the solution. He used to be a part of the problem but no longer. I've written about my friend Troy before. He's the former frequent flier at the Barron County Justice Center who I met back in March of 2011 while he was incarcerated for his most recent bout of drunkenness. A few months later when he was released he began attending our fellowship's weekly worship gathering and a month or so later made a very public profession of faith in Christ (see Being born again on Sunday). It wasn't too much longer after that he was baptized and at the beginning of 2012 became a member of the Refuge faith community. He's been a part of us ever since.

Over the last two and a half years he has donated his skills to the remodeling project in the lower level of our facility, has participated in one Alpha course and hosted another in his home. In perhaps one of the most significant events at our fellowship this year, he and his wife, Marie, renewed their wedding vows in February (see You were right, Lillie. It did lead to dancing.). And right up there with that event was what happened in the summer of 2012 when he earned his “get-out-of-jail” free card and became a volunteer at the Barron County Justice Center – the very place where he once cooled his heels in the orange jumpsuit that is regulation clothing there (see Sometimes the leopard can). Since that time he has been my right hand man at the JC. Where once he was timid to say more than his name, he now does much of the talking during the sharing time at the monthly services we lead there. In fact, this past summer he began taking an on-line Bible school class. His goal is to ultimately become certified so that he can go to the jail as a chaplain and not just as my helper. My goal is that one day he become the leader of our outreach to the JC and that I go along as his helper.

Troy's baptism - Summer 2011
Troy's story, totally authored and illustrated by the living God, has caused me to believe in the gospel again. Paul wrote, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes...” (Rom 1:16). In Troy, I see ongoing proof of the veracity of that statement. Our fellowship continues to witness the ongoing fulfillment of this verse as Troy's salvation is playing out in real time.

Troy & Marie's re-wedding day
Troy's story is such an inspiration to me.” I heard that twice today by two different inmates at the JC. The first time was this morning. *Bill is on his way out of the Justice Center. He's on what they call “short time.” He's just about served his sentence. He's gained Huber privileges and that means he's back to work. I ran him to Rice Lake this morning to get some issues squared with the Social Security administration. On the way back to the JC as we were sharing back and forth Bill expressed how Troy's story is such an inspiration to him that by the grace of God he can make it, too. And then this afternoon, while back at the Justice Center and sitting in Professional Visitation #2 and getting acquainted with an inmate named *Freddo whom I had never met before, I heard it again: “Troy's story is such an inspiration to me.” Freddo is a guy who was never raised in church and like Troy has dealt with repeated bouts of alcoholism much of his life. According to him, this time he's lost everything including the woman who is the mother of his three children. He's only been locked up for about two months but one day at the jail recently he asked for a Bible and began to read bits and parts of it. “I've now given my life to God and I want to know how I can rebuild it.” During our conversation that followed that statement he made the assertion that the last time we led the worship gatherings in October how inspired he was by Troy. “If he made it maybe I can too.” 
Priceless: Troy at his son's baptism this past summer
I know whenever Troy gets around to reading this it will encourage him – to be called out twice in the same day by guys who are presently sitting where he used to sit is high praise. But then he will be quick to deflect attention to where it needs to be – to the One who can save to the uttermost. In October, Tom Stamman was with us for another one of his prophetic gatherings. During the evening he called Troy out of the crowd. Even though Tom ministers at our fellowship twice a year, it was Troy's first experience with him. This is what he said as he prayed over Troy: “You used to be part of what's wrong with this country. You used to be part of the problem but now you're part of the solution.” Amen to that. Right now, Troy's ambition is to organize a venture to hand out goodie-bags at the JC this Christmas that will include not only something sweet but also personal care products, things that are in high demand there. This, too, is the fruit of salvation and living proof that God is more than able to make all things new.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Getting stoned in Lystra

Humanity is fickle. They may dress for a morning coronation and never feel the need to change clothes to attend an execution in the afternoon. So Triumphal Sundays and Good Fridays always fit comfortably into the same April week.” Calvin Miller in The Singer

...Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned...”
Paul, apostle of Jesus Christ as recorded in 2 Corinthians 11:25

"Welcome to Lystra"
The day Paul was stoned in Lystra had begun prodigiously: a man born lame was healed in a demonstrative manner that provoked the locals to want to actually offer he and Barnabus a sacrifice. By day's end the same group was out for blood and managed to extract a pint or more of it from Paul. If ever there was an illustration for how fickle a crowd can be this has to be it (unless, of course, we compare it to the one in Jerusalem that shouted “Hosanna!” on Sunday and “Crucify!” on Friday several years before).

The day of the stoning, he and Barnabus had been in the area for awhile experimenting with an entirely new approach to sharing the gospel. Previously to this point, the normative manner had been to share in the synagogue among their Jewish brethren and the assorted God-fearers assembled there. But in Lystra they began making their appeal directly to the Gentile population, something by today's standards would be referred to as “out-of-the-box.” Though a Roman colony, Lystra was off the beaten path a bit, some 20 miles south of Iconium where the traveling missionaries had had to make an expedient withdrawal some weeks before due to the unrest that their presence was causing there. By coming to Lystra by way of the Via Sebaste they were not only setting up shop in a different town; it was an altogether different political district as well controlled by another magistrate. Hopefully things would go better in “the sticks” than they had "downtown."

Things started out so well...
But that's not how it played out. On an otherwise normal day half way through a message Paul had been sharing with some of the locals, the Lord had healed a lame man. After that, pandemonium broke out. The word spread like wildfire. Everybody knew of this man and the fact that he had never taken a step in his life. But now he was walking around as if he had always done so. The crowd was delirious with wonder. While usually they would have addressed the visitors in Greek, the lingua franca of the realm, in their excitement they were exclaiming things in their local dialect which neither Paul nor Barnabus nor any of their party could understand. Of course, they knew as well as anyone what awe Jesus created whenever he passed by. But when the local priest of Zeus led out the sacred bulls to offer them a sacrifice only then did they put two and two together. Someone interpreted for them what the crowd had been shouting for awhile - “The gods have come down among us!” - and that they considered Barnabus the incarnation of Zeus and Paul Hermes, Zeus' spokesman. Good Jews that they were, I can imagine the terror they felt as they worked feverishly to dissuade the crowd from carrying out the ritual.

And that's about the time that things began to go south for the duo. Sometime during their appeal to the crowd some of the very people who had run them out of Iconium a few weeks before showed up and began to harangue the mob with their own tales of these traveling salesmen. If they're not gods, they argued, they must be something worse – imposters or workers of the dark arts. Soon after the stones began to fly. 

From a "How to" manual

There is no "modern" way to kill someone this way

Arguably the world's oldest form of execution, death by stoning was – and still is - a horrible way to go. While the Bible never describes how exactly a sentence was carried out, Rabbinic lore is rife with stories of individuals being tossed off a cliff or buried up to their waist and then pelted to death with rocks, tiles and cobbles that were the flotsam of the neighborhood in the ancient world. The idea was to kill the person but in as slow a way as possible. It was more torture than execution. It is easy enough to find stories on the internet of stonings that still occur in certain parts of the Middle East where sharia law is practiced today. I can't imagine that the way its done today is all that different on how sentence was carried out in Bible times. When Luke reports rather benignly that at the stoning of Stephen, “Saul was there, giving approval to his death” (8:1), he's really saying that he egged on the mob that murdered a good man for preaching Jesus and enjoyed the sight of his public lynching. I wonder if in that moment that Paul was tied up and saw the blood lust in the eyes of the crowd that began to pick up rocks from the ground if he had a flashback of that day when he had stood where they were now.

If he said anything to them as they carried out the sentence, Luke does not record it. John Stott opines that maybe he prayed Stephen's prayer as they pelted him insensible. The fact that they did not do anything to Barnabus tells me that someone whisked him away to safety before the pot boiled over. Or maybe they just couldn't bring themselves to harm the grand old man. In any case, when it was over they unceremoniously dragged Paul outside the city gates like yesterday's garbage. I try and put myself in the shoes of Paul's new disciples who had hung low until the wave of fury had subsided. There lay Paul out in the field, his body bloodied and broken maybe in a hundred places for preaching such scandalous doctrines. They timidly gather round to look upon the man who had spoken of a freedom they had never contemplated before. And then incredibly his eyes open and in a little while he is helped to his feet. “...he got up and went back into the city” (v. 20) is maybe one of the most remarkable understatements of the whole story. It's wondrous enough that he survives the ordeal but then to actually reenter the lion's den seems foolhardy and nigh unto suicidal. Why tempt fate? But its just for the night, just so his wounds can be tended to and he can rest a bit before moving on down the road to Derbe.

After his body healed, what other wounds did he carry with him the rest of his days? Ajith Fernando says this,
In my study of this verse [i.e., v. 19b; cf 2 Cor 11:25] I consider the psychological factor behind (though avoiding psychologizing) by meditating on what it must have meant to be treated in this way. What must Paul have felt as he was being stoned? The results of my meditation were shocking. We usually hurry through this passage to look for some devotional or theological application. But in order to enter into the spirit of Acts, it may help us to sense what the early Christians went through, for that will give a key to how the gospel went out in its first few decades. When a person is stoned until he becomes unconscious and is then dragged out of the city, perhaps deeper than the physical pain is the mental anguish and the pain of utter humiliation. (The NIV Application Commentary of Acts, p. 399)

Former Pharisee that he was, how did he swallow the fact that he had done nothing deserving of such treatment as prescribed in the Law and the Prophets such as breaking the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36), being a medium (Leviticus 20:27) or blasphemy (Leviticus 24:10-16, 23). Perhaps he rejoiced for suffering for the Name. Perhaps, just perhaps, he saw his experience as penance for his part in the death of Stephen. 

Ultimately, he carried on as did the gospel. Despite how things went down, the ministry in Lystra was not a bust after all. In fact, he left behind the beginning of a fellowship of believers who had been given a vivid first-hand demonstration of what was required of a disciple of Jesus Christ. A few years later, when back in town to follow-up on the fledgling church, he finds the individual who, in time, will become his right hand man in gospel work. Timothy is the grandson of a woman named Lois who maybe was one of the first ones to believe in Lystra and who had perhaps ministered care to him following his brutal treatment by the mob?

Years later, as he languished in a Roman dudgeon, he reminded Timothy of the cost of faithfulness:

You...have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions and sufferings that happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra–which persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me. Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted... (2 Tim 3:10-12, NIV).

The day after the stoning he was back on the road
By comparison to Paul, I live a soft life. I don't know what it means yet to suffer for Jesus. I have not been the victim of torture. I have yet to be shouted down at a worship gathering or run out of town. If our fellowship suffers from lack of money right now it's the same all over. It's not the economy so much as misplaced and misguided priorities by those of us who call ourselves Christians. Or the fact that we're a small fellowship made of people living in a socioeconomically depressed area. So when disciples seem fewer and therefore offerings lower I'm brought back to the counsel that Paul gave the first believers in Lystra upon his return to that city several weeks after the stoning: “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (14:22). The fact that it's in quotation marks tells me that this is a quote verbatim spoken with authority by someone who knew exactly what that meant. It is a reminder to me that faithfulness at all times and in all seasons despite the way the wind is blowing is required of a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Calling it quits (why John Mark left)

From Paphos, Paul and his companions sailed to Perga in Pamphylia where John left them to return to Jerusalem.” Acts 13:13 (NIV)

Perga: Where things went south

The way this verse is translated in the NIV, the event seems so trivial that it begs the question why even mention it: “John left them to return to Jerusalem.” What's the big deal? Maybe that had been his plan all along? Maybe he could only accompany Paul and Barnabus for a certain length of time before he found it necessary to return home? But some time later when Paul suggests a follow-up trip to southern Galatia and Barnabus wants to bring John Mark along, Paul has a cow.

Barnabas wanted to take John along, the John nicknamed Mark. But Paul wouldn’t have him; he wasn’t about to take along a quitter who, as soon as the going got tough, had jumped ship on them in Pamphylia. Tempers flared, and they ended up going their separate ways...” (Acts 15:37-39 Msg)

Clearly, there is much more to that story than what Luke tells us. When I read it again, I become even more perplexed. At the time of John Mark's departure things really hadn't been going tough – things actually had been, for the most part, going their way. So why leave at all?

Once a thriving center of mission
Acts 13 is something of a embarkation point in Luke's second chronicle. For the first time in the history of the Church, a local fellowship is intentionally seeking to carry the gospel to “the ends of the earth.” That it had been God's plan all along for disciples of Christ to do just this thing seems clear to me. But as I have re-read the first twelve chapters of Acts this year I get the idea that when Jesus uttered those words we now refer to as “The Great Commission”, most of those he spoke to that day on the hill outside Jerusalem had only their fellow Jews in mind. It's easy to forget that the Church of Jesus which is primarily Gentile today began as a Jewish movement. Over the passage of time from the outpouring of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost (33 AD) to the persecution that broke out briefly under Herod Agrippa I (circa 44 AD), however, a paradigm shift was occurring: the idea that “the good news” was for everyone, whatever their lineage may be. The Jerusalem elders' response to Peter's story about the conversion of Cornelius and his household pretty much sums up the light-bulb moment that was transpiring among some Christians of that time, “So, then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18). I read that and snort,“Duh.” But for these first Christians, this was indeed news.

In any time, change is hard and the strongly conservative Church of Jerusalem had perhaps a harder time than most digesting this remarkable shift in plan. For a Jew's Jew all the world revolved around Jerusalem. In the Holy City God would set up his new, holy kingdom with Jesus as Messiah. The only time the first disciples seem to leave the city is when persecution broke out and they were afraid for their lives. But at Antioch, some 300 miles north of Jerusalem, there was something new in play. The make-up of the church there was much like the city, cosmopolitan and diverse. And the way Luke tells it, they were the first fellowship to get a hold of this new insight about the gospel being for everyone and became intent on doing something about it. Having discerned God's call and timing (see Acts 13:1-3), the leadership of the Church in Antioch commission Barnabus and Saul and in verse 4 they “step off the map”, as it were, and begin what commonly is referred to as “Paul's First Missionary Journey.” With them is Barnabus' younger cousin from Jerusalem, John Mark (v. 5), and perhaps some other unnamed guys simply because it was Paul's habit to take younger men along with him to assist him in the work. 

Making history: Paul and Barnabus' journey to Galatia

Their first stop was the large island of Cyprus out in the Mediterranean Sea. Why start there? Luke doesn't clue us in to their reasoning but maybe it was the simple fact that Barnabus was from there (Acts 4:36) and since it was his home he would already have a network of contacts for them to access. While the island was mostly Greek there were enough Jews living on Cyprus that Luke mentions they visited several synagogues while there. Just how long it took for their party to traverse the 90 miles between the port city of Salamis and the provincial capital in Paphos on the other side of the island Luke doesn't specify. But in every city where they stopped, their pattern was to attend the local synagogue on Sabbath day with the hope they would be given an opportunity to share (see 13:14, 46; 14:1; 16:13; 17:1, 10; 18:4, 19; 19:8; 28:17). During the weeks that followed, nothing happened to write home about – or if it did, Luke doesn't mention it. So I assume they had plenty of opportunity to share both formally and informally with many of their Jewish brethren. What effect the gospel had on those communities is not clear other than by the time they reach Paphos, the governor is eager to meet them. And then the first great “missionary” tale occurs.

Okay, not like this...but still
Acts 13:7-12 is a story that would play well to flannel-graphs. There sits Sergius Paulus, proconsul of Cyprus sitting on his throne, in my mind like some wizened old King Theoden in Meduseld. Before him is Saul (who will go by Paul from herein out), Barnabus and their companions giving the teaching they had been sharing all over the island. Next to Sergius Paulus, however, is Elymas, the Grima Wormtongue character of this tale seeking to dissuade the proconsul from listening to these travelers. And then it happens. Paul rises up like Gandalf the White in the Golden Hall and spares no words for the sorcerer seeking to keep this governor in darkness: “You bag of wind, you parody of a devil—why, you stay up nights inventing schemes to cheat people out of God. But now you’ve come up against God himself, and your game is up. You’re about to go blind—no sunlight for you for a good long stretch” (v. 10, Msg). (Tolkien-file that I am, if Paul had a staff it would just add to the drama and the coolness of the moment). Just like that, Elymas' power is broken, the governor believes and soon after they sail for southern Turkey to preach there. Upon landing, however, John Mark jumps ship on the expedition and returns home. Why? I would think after witnessing that power-encounter in Paphos, he would feel emboldened for the mission not lose heart with it? What gives?

Talk about a hat
Was he, as John Stott suggests, simply homesick, “...missing his mother, her spacious Jerusalem home, and the servants”? (The Message of Acts by John Stott, p. 221) Or did he not like the group dynamics that were happening within their traveling band? In Acts 13:1, Luke lists the prophets and teachers in the Church in Antioch and the name at the top of the list is Barnabus. The name at the bottom is Saul. Barnabus was not only physically older than Paul but spiritually older as well. In fact, Saul owed a lot to Barnabus. When he was new to the Jerusalem fellowship and no one would touch him because of his reputation, who was it that vouched for him? Barnabus (see Acts 9:27). After discerning that what the church of Antioch needed was a first-class teacher, who went down to Tarsus to persuade him to join him in the ministry there (see Acts 11:25-26)? Barnabus. When the Holy Spirit spoke to commission the two for the ministry journey they were presently on whose name was mentioned first (Acts 13:2)? Barnabus. Always is the man from Cyprus mentioned first...until after the events at Paphos. From therein out for the rest of the journey it will always be “Paul and Barnabus” or, even more telling, “Paul and his companions” (Acts 13:13). Again Stott raises the question, ...Did he resent the fact that the partnership of 'Barnabus and Saul' (2, 7) had become 'Paul and Barnabus' (13, 46, etc.), since Paul was now taking the lead and eclipsing his cousin?” (p. 221)

There's another factor to consider. John Mark comes from the Jerusalem church, a very conservative group in their own right – maybe one of the last churches to “get with the program.” What their traveling ministry team was doing had never been done before. They were, in a very real sense, making it up as they went. Was John Mark becoming increasingly uncomfortable with what he perceived were Paul's reckless preaching to Gentile audiences, sullying, as it were, the very message they were trying to articulate? “Did he, as a loyal member of Jerusalem's conservative Jewish church, disagree with Paul's bold policy of Gentile evangelism? Was it even he who, on his return to Jerusalem, provoked the Judaizers into opposing Paul (15:1ff)?” (p. 222)

Apparently how Mark wrote his gospel
Having landed at Perga the purpose had been to evangelize there but they don't instead moving quickly on to Pisidian Antioch a hundred miles north. Why? In Paul's letter to the Galatians he references this time that Luke glosses over: “You were well aware that the reason I ended up preaching to you was that I was physically broken, and so, prevented from continuing my journey, I was forced to stop with you. That is how I came to preach to you” (Galatians 4:13, Msg). So, if by the time the company had landed at Perga Paul had come down with a form of malaria as most commentators suggest, did John Mark think it was time to pull the plug on the mission and return to Antioch and regroup? Meanwhile, sick though he was, Paul was adamant on continuing the journey. Were there heated words shared? Did Barnabus try to settle his younger cousin down? Did Paul insult John Mark's manhood?

Sir William Ramsay has this to say about 0this incident:
Paul and his companions came to Perga with the view of evangelizing the next country on their route, a country similar in character to and closely connected in commerce and racial type with Cyrpus, Syria, and Cilicia. For some reason the plan was altered, and they passed rapidly over the Pamphylian lowlands and the Pisidian mountain lands to Antioch, postponing the evangelization of these districts till a later stage of their journey. They went to Antioch for some reason which concerned only that city, and did not contemplate as their object the evangelization of the province to which it belonged. John, however, refused to participate in the changed program, presumably because he disapproved of it. His refusal seems to have been felt as a personal slight by Paul, which suggests that the change of plan was in some way caused by Paul...It is plain that Paul at the moment felt deeply wounded. The journey which he felt to be absolutely necessary in the interests of future work, was treated by Mark as an abandonment of the work; and his sensitive nature would consider Mark's arguments, plausible as they were in some respects, as equivalent to a declaration of a lack of confidence” (St. Paul: The Traveler and Roman Citizen, pp. 86, 90).

Of course, all of this is conjecture – arguments from silence and except Luke's comment in Acts 15:38-39 he is positively mum on what exactly happened in Perga. In time, it all worked out. Paul went on doing what God had called him to do as did John Mark, even getting a shout-out by the apostle himself years later when in his final letter to Timothy he requests that he send John Mark so that he could be his “right-hand man” (2 Tim 4:11, Msg). Usually as I read the account of Paul and the rest of his contemporaries as Luke tells it, in my mind they stand head and shoulders above the rest of us poor schmucks who are in gospel work today. But somehow re-reading this story of the break-up of this ministry group reminds me that they were real guys living in real time and just like the rest of us trying to discern God's leading in their particular setting. Things happen. Communication breaks down. Feelings are wounded. Disagreements occur. And, at times, friendships are broken, in some cases irreparably. That these things shouldn't happen among “Spirit-filled” Christians is beside the point. That they do reminds me once again (as if I needed reminding) that “we carry this precious Message around in the unadorned clay pots of our ordinary lives. That’s to prevent anyone from confusing God’s incomparable power with us” (2 Corinthians 4:7, Msg).

Twenty-five years after the release of Elisabeth Elliot's Through Gates of Splendor, which tells the story of the her husband Jim and his friends' attempt to make contact with the fierce Waodani tribe of Ecuador and their subsequent martyrdom in 1956, her book was re-released with an additional chapter that, among other things, included her reflections on the criticisms that had arisen during the passing years since their death.

The [Waodani] story, at the time of the death of the men, later when I lived with the Indians themselves, and during all the years since as I have recounted it and reflected on it in the light of my own subsequent experience, has pointed to one thing: God is God. If He is God, He is worthy of my worship and my service. I will find rest nowhere but in His will, and that will is infinitely, immeasurably, unspeakably beyond my largest notions of what He is up to.”

This is the context in which the story must be understood – as one incident in human history, an incident in certain ways and to certain people important, but only an incident. God is the God of human history, and He is at work continuously, mysteriously, accomplishing His eternal purpose in us, through us, for us, and in spite of us...we are sinners. And we are buffoons…It is not the level of our spirituality that we can depend on. It is God and nothing less than God, for the work is God’s and the call is God’s and everything is summoned by Him and to His purposes, the whole scene, the whole mess, the whole package – our bravery and our cowardice, our love and our selfishness, our strengths and our weaknesses. The God who could take a murderer like Moses and an adulterer like David and a traitor like Peter and make of them strong servants of His is a God who can also redeem savage Indians, using as the instruments of His peace a conglomeration of sinners who sometimes look like heroes and sometimes like villains, for ‘we are no better than pots of earthenware to contain this treasure [the revelation of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ], and this proves that such transcendent power does not come from us, but is God’s alone.’ (2 Cor 4:7, NEB)” (p. 268, 273)

Whether John Mark left because he was mad, afraid, disheartened or dismayed, ultimately, is neither here nor there. The work went on. The Word went forth. Disciples were made and the Church's influence increased in spite of the human beings who were responsible for making that happen.

Monday, October 14, 2013

This is my story

 ...that the vision [of Jesus on the Damascus road] was real, Saul could never doubt. It was the most real event in his life, it changed his whole career, it has altered the course of all history and affected the entire world. The full comprehension of this great and marvelous event is fundamental in the Christian life. The more one ponders over it and the better one understands it, the more real is one grasp of the true nature of religion and of the true relation between God and humanity. Sir William Ramsay in St Paul: The Traveler and Roman Citizen 

As far as I see it, the single-most important conversation of my life so far happened in a kitchen in a home located on Madison's Cottage Grove Road, just a few miles east from where my parents live today. It was a Friday night in the spring of my senior year in high school just a month or so from graduation. A girl from my homeroom and I had gone out on a friendly date of dinner and a movie and as I was dropping her off she invited me in to meet her folks. In a few moments I was sitting at a small kitchen table in their modest home on Madison's east side getting acquainted with Barb and Bill McIntosh. At the time, Barb was an engineer for Oscar Mayer and Bill a commercial plumber. Their family had moved to Madison from Iowa the summer before and I immediately warmed to their friendly, laid-back manner. Bill nursed a cup of coffee as we spoke together.

Bill and me from 1980 or 1981

I tell this story a lot but looking back from a vantage point of (now) thirty-three years I don't really remember all the things we talked about during that hour long conversation but I'm sure much of it was simply them getting acquainted with me. Somewhere along the way I had shared that I was the president of my youth group and was very much excited about that. I think it was about then that Bill asked me the first of two questions that night that forced me to look into the mirror. The first happened rather innocuously, in stride with my description of my involvement in my church: "Jeff, if you were to die tonight would you go to heaven?" (When I tell this story I always have to stress that this question was in the flow of our discussion that night, that Bill did not suddenly jump me attempting to sell me salvation.) I thought about it for a moment and replied, "Yes. Yes I would." 

But it was his second question that sent my world reeling. As a follow-up to my answer of believing I was heaven-bound, he asked, "Jeff, if you were to die tonight and you were to stand before the gates of heaven and God asked you, 'Why should I let you in?', how would you answer?" That caught me up short. I started trying out responses like a man grasping for straws - "I go to church", "I try and be a good person", "I'm president of my youth group" but all the while it felt like I was treading water just trying to stay afloat. All these years later I still remember that feeling as if I had talked with Bill last night. None of the answers I offered satisfied me. None seemed adequate enough to such an important question. 

I honestly don't remember how our conversation ended. I don't remember any "come-to-Jesus" wrap up point. I don't even remember saying good-night to their beautiful daughter. All I remember is that while driving home I was struck with a realization that up until that moment I thought I knew God. But I had just met a man who knew Him and recognized that I only knew about Him. So, I prayed a prayer like this, "God, I want to know You like that man knows You." That was it. A week or so later I prayed what used to be referred to as "the sinner's prayer" that was printed in a gospel tract Bill's daughter had given me to read. And while that moment was real to me, too, in retrospect my journey with Jesus had already begun in that one sentence prayer I had offered on my drive home the Friday before.

Of Paul's vision of Jesus outside of Damascus, Sir Ramsay says this: "It was the most real event in his life, it changed his whole career, it has altered the course of history and affected the entire world." Apart from comparing myself to the Apostle Paul, in some ways I feel the same way about my conversation with Bill. What happened in that home on Cottage Grove Road on a Friday night late in April in 1980 in some ways changed the world - certainly it changed mine. I'll leave it to others to draw their own conclusions of how my life has influenced theirs but for certain my life went on a different trajectory from that moment on. A few years later I enrolled in Bible college feeling God's call on my life. And now I have just completed 22 years of pastoral ministry in Chetek (see Further along the trail). Certainly there have been other conversations along the way that have also been life-changing - like, the first one I had with the young woman who in time became my wife of 27 and a half years - but none as significant as my talk with Barb and Bill. I know they would never say it themselves but their hospitality extended to a 17-year-old boy changed my life and the lives of those I have come in contact since that time. If I wasn't a person of faith, I'd say I was lucky to meet them. But I know better - as do they.

So fortunate to meet these two

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Further along the trail

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”

Henry David Thoreau, Walden: Or, Life in the Woods

A week ago Tuesday marked the 22nd anniversary of the beginning of our ministry in Chetek and to celebrate the day I drove to the Taylor County woods northeast of Rib Lake and hiked along the Ice Age Trail for the afternoon. I was in sore need of alone time and went there deliberately in hopes of hearing a "word" from God. For the past six years, the fall has become a busy time for me as I have juggled my responsibilities of both pastor and coach of Chetek-Weyerhaeuser High School's Cross Country team. A lot of times at this turn of the year it feels like I pastor just to pay my way as CC coach and this fall has been no exception. So, on Monday night I cancelled next day's practice and on Tuesday morning I drove the two hours over to eastern Taylor County.

The way we were in the fall of 1991
It was a glorious day to be out on the IAT. With temperatures heading to the mid-70s and the leaves at or near peak, the hike promised to be invigorating to all the senses. More importantly, I needed the solitude of the trail and for God to speak to me. I didn't want the day to pass without the attempt to mark it with prayer and reflection. And so as I shouldered my day pack and headed down the path I began with a simple prayer, "Father, do you have anything you want to say to me?"

As I passed under the green canopy of hardwoods mottled with gold and red, I reflected on.twenty-two years of ministry: the first days, Ultra high frequency (Uhf), learning to preach, when we were CFGT, Focus, becoming Refuge, ministry at the Justice Center and other happenings along the way. For all of it I find myself so grateful to be here, to be given an opportunity to "work out my salvation with fear and trembling", to work my craft and grow and develop as a disciple of Jesus Christ. Every pastor needs people to care for and nurture, every preacher needs a congregation to listen to him and I've been fortunate over the past two decades or so to be given that. 

Along the hike there were moments when my train of thought would detour and I would start to reflect on my deficiencies, inadequacies and mistakes I've made over that span of time. Clearly, other men - and for that matter, other women - could have done it better than me. But at those times I had to forcibly interrupt that flow of disparaging reflection and get myself back to gratitude. Certainly God didn't bring me to the woods to tell me that I sucked.

Before we moved to Chetek, we were living in southern Wisconsin for a season where we hoped to plant a church in a community there. I was 26 years old and Linda and I had just become parents a few months before when we moved to town. It was a two-year experiment of blood, sweat and tears that ultimately led to disappointment. In the fall of 1990 we moved into my in-laws' cabin north of Madison in what we believed at the time to be only a temporary arrangement. But that's not how it played out. In fact, it was the beginning of maybe the darkest ten months in my life - at least thus far. Since 1982 it had been my ambition and perceived calling to be a pastor. Over the next eight years I had attended and graduated from Bible college, completed my internship at the large congregation that had nurtured me, and, after getting married, returned to school for more education. Along the way I had helped a couple of my friends plant fellowships of their own and picked up preaching gigs now and then. But by the fall of 1990 I was no closer to "breaking in" to ministry than I had ever been. During that fall of 1990 and winter of 1991 I interviewed at a couple of fellowships to no avail and then things dried up. No one was looking and no one was interested in taking on a guy with little or no experience.

I was working full-time nights and in retrospect that contributed to the darkness of that season in my life. I was tired all the time and that weariness made me vulnerable to a thought that was planted like a bad seed in my mind: that somehow or other I had "missed" my calling, that all those teachers at the Bible college I had attended and all the pastors who had encouraged me to pursue ministry along the way had, in fact, lied to me, had only said those things just to profit from the tuition money that they got off a chump like me. That's not a logical sequence of thought nor is it fair to those who were my instructors but eight years into my quest to be a pastor I was no closer to getting there. Some days it was just easier to dwell on the disappointment I was feeling at the way my life was unfolding. We lived an hour from where I worked and when you're tired that's a long time to try and fight off dark thoughts like these. But to have to do that twice a day was just wearing me down. I recall one drive to work being so angry that I just banged away at the steering wheel while I cried bitter tears to a God whom I felt had forgotten where and who I was and who had better things to do than listen to me beg Him for an opportunity to serve Him anywhere.

At the time I was working as the night supervisor of about 40 employees of a large nursing facility that oversaw the personal care of 300 disabled adults and children. I was grateful for the job in that it paid the bills but it obviously wasn't what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. One night on my rounds, I had a conversation with Dale, one of the crew I oversaw. He had been a pastor but had decided to leave pulpit ministry and open a Christian book-store in the town where this nursing facility was. Knowing my aspirations for ministry from time to time he would ask how the pursuit was going. That night I must have opened up the vault a bit more than usual for Dale gently admonished me, reminding me that the Lord knew where I was and if he had need of me He would come looking for me. Whether he knew it or not, his words were light and the curative to the darkness that was infecting my soul.

That season of feeling lost eventually ended and in time the Lord did have an assignment for me. And now look where I'm at all these years later. I've been blessed to pastor the same fellowship for over two decades in a small community that I now consider home and have experienced the joys and (at times) the sorrow that goes with the territory. As a good friend of mine once said to me: "You have a wife and kids who love you, a house of  your own and a church to work out your calling. What more could you ask for?" (I guess "a cabin in the woods" is out of the question?)

My hike along the Ice Age Trail lasted all afternoon. I had no "burning bush" moment, no Elijah-in-the-cave-beneath-Mt.-Horeb-still-small-voice incident. But something did happen that gave me something to chew on. The IAT is a 1,000-mile trail that snakes through Wisconsin over all kinds of terrain and accesses many kinds of trails - ski, ATV, road and foot-travel only paths - along the way. Having hiked about an eighth of it, I can tell you that in some parts if you've seen a mile of it you've seen it all - kames and kettles, ice-walled lake plains and, especially, eskers. Every 100 feet or so, a yellow blaze attached to a tree or post reminds you that you're heading the right way. For myself, after awhile a certain monotony can set in as I  hike mile after mile after mile. Because the trail runs along all kinds of other trails, it's easier than one would guess to get lost, to miss a turn and be still in the woods but not on the path. On that Tuesday afternoon it happened to me twice. The first time, I had proceeded a couple of hundred feet before recognizing that I had not seen a yellow blaze in awhile. I backtracked only to discover that while I was looking to my left I had missed a blaze with an arrow that was pointing right. The second time I noticed I was going in the wrong direction I actually was walking a section wide enough for cars to pass in opposite directions. Somehow it didn't feel right. And so I walked back down the hill to where the previous marker was and slowly turned clockwise until I noticed a little yellow blaze that had been partially covered by yellow leaves with an arrow pointing north.

The juxtaposition of the wide lane and the narrow path was serendipitous, a Biblical lesson come to life. It made me think of Jesus' words:
 “Don’t look for shortcuts to God. The market is flooded with surefire, easygoing formulas for a successful life that can be practiced in your spare time. Don’t fall for that stuff, even though crowds of people do. The way to life—to God!—is vigorous and requires total attention." (Matthew 7:13-14, Msg)
The lesson I took to heart was that in this journey with Jesus vigilance is required. I can never get to a place in ministry when I say, in so many words, "I got this figured out. A little preaching, a little prayer meeting, a little board meeting, some visitation and public appearances is the sure-fire equation for job security."  In the monotony of living my daily, pedestrian life I can both lose my way - and my soul. Lord, spare me from both ends! The goal of my ministry is not just to notch years of consecutive service in one place and thus win a prize but to be found faithful and - with a wave to Thoreau - to be found doing so deliberately, sucking the marrow out of the life I have been given whether it amounts to a hill of beans or something a little bigger. Either way, I pray to stay vigilant as I hike the trail he has laid down for me.

Further along the trail