My name is Jeff and I'm a pastor of a small, local, Christian fellowship

It's a wonderful thing to love your work; to know that when you do it you are doing something that you were born to do. I am so fortunate to be both. I don't say I am the best at what I do. God knows that are so many others who do it better. But I do feel fairly lucky to be called by such a good God to do work I can only do with his help, to be loved by a beautiful woman, and to have a workshop where I can work my craft. These musings of mine are part of that work.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

"Hey, buddy, do you need a lift?"

As I have relayed in an earlier post, this past fall I was on a running streak that, for me, was pretty epic. Between August 1 and December 15 I logged over 400 miles, averaging around 40 miles a week. My goal was two-fold: I wanted to log the most miles in a single year since I started recording my mileage in 2000 and I wanted to run the Tuscobia Ultra. But on a frigid Saturday morning during a 15-mile run (on December 15) I strained my hamstring enough to hobble me and make running the Tuscobia undoable. Despite the injury I still limped myself over the 1,300 mile threshhold for 2012. But since then the streak has ended, I've put on some weight and as I near the end of January I'm just hoping to cross the 50-mile mark for the month. Part of it is the injury, part of it is life-interrupting and part of it is...well, yeah, laziness.

This past week I ran on 3.5 on a morning that was -27 below with the wind chill but didn't run again until this morning. By comparison it was a balmy -9 below this morning but no wind. I decided to just do a quick 4 and felt pretty good. Part of recovery is rest and while I'm not logging the miles lately as fiercely as I was back in October and November, this morning I ran pretty much without noticing any leg pain whatsoever. And then my bubble was popped. I could hear a vehicle coming from behind me and slowing. I figured it was someone I knew who was going to drive by and wish me some encouragement. But it was someone I didn't know who rolled down his window and asked, "Hey, buddy, do you need a lift?" The first thing I thought was, "Do I look like I do? I mean, I'm in my wind suit on a Saturday morning on a quick four-mile jaunt. Does it look like I'm in distress? Or - God forbid - am I moving so slow it looks like I'm just a guy out for a brisk walk?" All these thoughts passed through my brain in milliseconds. What I spoke out was, "No, thanks. I'm good."


Not me but I've looked like this guy before
 I know he was just being neighborly. He was offering assistance to someone who looked to be in need but the comment and the gesture worked together to deflate my already depressed ego. Thanks, buddy. Maybe I deserve it. I've been at this running-thing long enough to know that you have good runs and bad ones, good weeks and crappy weeks, good seasons and other seasons. The main thing is to keep going, let go of the bad runs and put the shoes on tomorrow (or, for me, Monday morning) and get back out there. Even a bad day of running is preferable over being unable to run at all. Besides, the "bad runs" (and really, though I was slow today it was a beautiful morning to be out) make you appreciate the good ones all the more when they do come again. And they will come again.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Looking for a resurrection surprise

Now there was a man called Joseph, a member of the Jewish council. He was a good and just man, and had neither agreed with their plan nor voted for their decision. He came from the Jewish city of Arimathaea and was awaiting the kingdom of God. He went to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. He took it down and wrapped it in linen and placed it in a rock-hewn tomb which had not been used before.”

It was now the day of the preparation and the Sabbath was beginning to dawn, so the women who had accompanied Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph, noted the tomb and the position of the body, and then went home to prepare spices and perfumes. On the Sabbath they rested, in obedience to the commandment.” Luke 23:50-56, Phillips
The resurrection was not an anticipated event. Jesus receives the normal treatment a dead person received. He was definitely laid to rest, and the preparation of spices shows that the women expect him to remain there. The resurrection catches everyone by surprise.”

It is not unusual for God to be active in our midst and even to tell us about what he is doing, but we miss the point. We can get so locked into a routine of how things normally take place that we risk missing what God is doing out of the ordinary. A text like this reminds us to keep our eyes open and to look carefully for God's promises, which might show up in surprising ways.”
Luke: The NIV Application Commentary by Darrell L. Bock, (pp. 603-04)

At the beginning of Charles Dickens' classic, A Christmas Carol, Dickens makes a point that he wants us to unequivocally get: Marley is dead. In his words, “Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail...There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.” In the same way, Luke notes these observations about Joseph and the women in the concluding verses of chapter 23. If we don't get that those who were there were fully persuaded that Jesus is dead nothing wonderful can come of this story as well. We have to know that Joseph (and Nicodemus as John notes) carefully laid Jesus in the tomb and sealed it while from a short distance away the women were watching so they knew which crypt to return to when the Sabbath was over. Like Old Marley, Jesus is dead. All hope that God would somehow miraculously intervene is gone. It is, in their minds, very much the end.


I pastor a congregation that is fairly young-ish. While we have 'em, there aren't a lot of gray-heads in our faith-community (well, strictly speaking, that's not true as a lot of us are becoming gray-er). I only say that not because we're biased against “old” people but to emphasize that we don't deal too regularly with death (unlike our Lutheran and Catholic friends in town who deal with it quite frequently.) As a rule we handle more weddings and infant dedications than funerals. Sure we know the Scripture that reminds us that “there is a time to be born and a time to die” but we usually deal with more screaming infants than groaning seniors. Death, by and large, is not too common for us.

Sure would be great to have them back
But lately, we have been touched by mortality and while we continue to pray for those afflicted with life-altering conditions, our prayers from our perspective have had little affect. Steve is a guy from our fellowship who last May while out on an early evening ride on his Harley east of town collided with a deer who had suddenly popped out of the trees. And no, he wasn't wearing a helmet. He was med-flighted to the Cities, his life was spared, his broken leg set and his road rash treated but the brain injury he received that day persists. And while he is aware enough that he was in an accident so much else that comes out of his mouth is not reality-oriented. He remains hospitalized at a facility that specializes in brain trauma. Who can say when the end of it will be? Will he recover completely? Will he be able to live a normal life again? Will he ever be able to safely return home?

These are real questions that all those around him are thinking about if not always asking out loud. Kari, his wife, remains remarkably strong although that is testimony to God's grace and people's prayers. Honestly, I can't say what's going on in his kids but based on my history with another family in our congregation whose dad experienced a life-altering accident when his boys were little, we may not know for awhile. So much is up in the air. But it feels like a death to me – death of hopes and dreams of a life now laid to rest like Jesus' cold body in the tomb.

Her life hangs in the balance
Just a little while ago, Debbie called tearfully asking for prayer again. Her new-born granddaughter, Sophie, who already has had more surgical procedures than any normal person should ever have in a lifetime in her brief few weeks of life, has been hospitalized at a major hospital downstate who specializes in the treatment of childhood trauma. Despite the best that medical technology can do for her and despite the earnest prayers of people all over, it appears she is losing her fight to live. Based on what Debbie's daughter has been posting on Facebook of late, it looks like death is approaching – and with it the end of a life that's hardly begun.

Pray!” the men and women of faith exhort us. “Believe!” And, of course, we are doing both – praying for Steve's and Sophie's resurrection to life, believing that God is able to do all things. But reality is that at the present time Steve isn't getting any better and Sophie...Sophie may not be with us much longer. I don't think I am being pessimistic. I think I'm just stating the obvious. Death is at work in both of these individuals.

But reading this passage this morning during my devotional time has put me in the place of those witnesses who either laid Jesus in his tomb or watched those who did. Those of us who know the rest of the story know that a glorious surprise awaits them all. But for the moment nothing could be further from their minds. Unlike Kari and Debbie, I'm not invested in these crises other than being one of the watchers; in this case, their pastor seeking to walk with them through this season of their lives. Despite evidence to the contrary, my heart tells me that God is at work in Steve and Sophie both. To use Bock's phrase, I'm trying to keep my eyes open to the potential of a resurrection surprise in both cases. The elders and I have called for a Service of Healing and Wholeness this Sunday evening showing our willingness to apply obedience to the command of Scripture: “Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord” (James 5:14, NIV). At the same time we're looking for the promise to be fulfilled: “And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up” (v. 15). The surprise, of course, is how God will choose to raise these and others in our fellowship in need of healing at the present time. In the mean time, like the women from Galilee, we return home to busy ourselves with praying and tending to other acts of love and devotion, waiting until it is the appropriate time to return to the tomb.

While reflecting on this passage that well-known sermon whose refrain is oft-quoted - “It's Friday but Sunday's coming” - has come to mind. It's a message about hope being greater than despair, of the serendipitous breaking into our lives like the sun on a cloudy day and. It reminds me that I don't have the whole picture but God does and so its best, in the end, to keep on trusting in his love and faithfulness.

It’s Friday
Jesus is praying
Peter’s a sleeping
Judas is betraying
But Sunday’s comin’


It’s Friday
Pilate’s struggling
The council is conspiring
The crowd is vilifying
They don’t even know
That Sunday’s comin’


It’s Friday
The disciples are running
Like sheep without a shepherd
Mary’s crying
Peter is denying
But they don’t know
That Sunday’s a comin’


It’s Friday
The Romans beat my Jesus
They robe him in scarlet
They crown him with thorns
But they don’t know
That Sunday’s comin’


It’s Friday
See Jesus walking to Calvary
His blood dripping
His body stumbling
And his spirit’s burdened
But you see, it’s only Friday
Sunday’s comin’


It’s Friday
The world’s winning
People are sinning
And evil’s grinning


It’s Friday
The soldiers nail my Savior’s hands
To the cross
They nail my Savior’s feet
To the cross
And then they raise him up
Next to criminals


It’s Friday
But let me tell you something
Sunday’s comin’


It’s Friday
The disciples are questioning
What has happened to their King
And the Pharisees are celebrating
That their scheming
Has been achieved
But they don’t know
It’s only Friday
Sunday’s comin’


It’s Friday
He’s hanging on the cross
Feeling forsaken by his Father
Left alone and dying
Can nobody save him?
Ooooh
It’s Friday
But Sunday’s comin’


It’s Friday
The earth trembles
The sky grows dark
My King yields his spirit


It’s Friday
Hope is lost
Death has won
Sin has conquered
and Satan’s just a laughin’


It’s Friday
Jesus is buried
A soldier stands guard
And a rock is rolled into place


But it’s Friday
It is only Friday
Sunday is a comin’!

S. M. Lockbridge

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Following Jesus

The more I drive over to the Justice Center, the more I ask myself (and anyone who happens to be within earshot), “What does it mean to be a Christian?” I was discipled in an environment that laid a lot of emphases in praying a certain prayer in order to be “saved.” But the reality is that a lot of people have prayed that prayer – and often on more than one occasion but they lead lives that do not always reflect that a life-changing transaction has taken place. True, only God knows the motives of the human heart and no one is perfect. But as Paul pointed out, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old is gone and the new is come” (2 Corinthians 5). So what does it mean when someone says they have prayed that “prayer” but the new life promised to those “in Christ” seems to drag behind?

Recently I read a book handed to me by a friend that he had found personally challenging. The Jesus Mission by Steven K. Scott. It's a book designed for someone looking for answers or for someone who is dissatisfied with their present walk with Christ (i.e., they are dissatisfied in that they are asking themselves, "Is this all there is?). As Scott sees it, Jesus came to earth to accomplish 27 separate missions (and did so) and assigns each and every one of us four of our own. The first being, To become more intimate with God.

Writes Scott,
What would happen if, instead of inviting people to pray a prayer to receive Christ, we invited them to become followers of Jesus Christ? After all, that was how Jesus called His first disciples. He did not ask two fishermen named Peter and Andrew or a tax collector named Matthew or countless others to recite a prayer. He invited them to follow Him. Those who accepted His invitation did so at great personal cost.” (p. 107)

Of course, it works...but what does it mean?
Who can argue with that? As I reflect on the Gospels never in any of his teaching sessions does Jesus wrap the gathering up asking everyone to bow their head, close their eyes and raise their hand if they are interested in becoming one of his disciples. No, he was far more direct and he wasn't afraid of making someone feel uncomfortable when he did so. He extended the invitation personally and in at least a few cases, when the person balked, he didn't say, “That's okay. Perhaps another time.” Rather, he scolded them. To the guy who asked for time to go home and accomplish the days of mourning for his father, Jesus replied, “First things first. Your business is life, not death. And life is urgent: Announce God’s kingdom!” (Luke 9:60, Msg) In my mind how I imagine conversations like these went down is that as he traveled about Galilee preaching and teaching some were far more intrigued than others (based on the principles found in the Parable of the Sower). Their interest was piqued or they found themselves moved at what he was saying about the Kingdom of God. And then, as they pondered the things they had just heard, he would pounce cat-like: “Follow me.”

While theologically speaking we could say that those who accepted his invitation settled the fate of their eternal soul, at the moment it was their here-and-now life that changed radically. To be a follower of this rabbi was to sign on to a life that required you to sell out completely. No half measures were allowed nor tolerated.

In Matthew's account of the sending out of the Twelve, Jesus puts it to them this way:
Don’t think I’ve come to make life cozy. I’ve come to cut—make a sharp knife-cut between son and father, daughter and mother, bride and mother-in-law—cut through these cozy domestic arrangements and free you for God. Well-meaning family members can be your worst enemies. If you prefer father or mother over me, you don’t deserve me. If you prefer son or daughter over me, you don’t deserve me.

If you don’t go all the way with me, through thick and thin, you don’t deserve me. If your first concern is to look after yourself, you’ll never find yourself. But if you forget about yourself and look to me, you’ll find both yourself and me.” (Matthew 10:34-39, Msg) 

Of this charge, Scott says,
So you might ask, “How could such a life be glorious and joy producing?” Here is how. First, when you realize you have no rights, you lose your expectations. Self-directed expectations and an entitlement mentality are the enemies of happiness. They make it impossible to be grateful, and gratefulness is the source of happiness. At the same time, when you have no rights or expectations, you are grateful for everything that God provides. Also, by dying to self and to your rights, you enter into a bond of intimacy with our Savior that provides joy that is not dependent on other people or circumstances. The “streams of living water” begin to flow from your innermost being, as Jesus promised in John 7:38. (p. 110)

It's an exchange, Jesus says. In laying down my life, surrendering to his leadership and rule, I find a freedom that the life I'm living now does not have now nor can ever have. At different times during my walk with God since becoming one of his disciples in 1980, I have wrestled either with a sense of entitlement (i.e., that God somehow owes me something because I said “yes” to him or signed on to be one of his under-shepherds) or dissatisfaction at the outcome of my career choice (i.e., small church and corresponding small income.) But in saner moments I recognize that these attitudes reflect just how much 'world' remains in me, indirectly bargaining with the Almighty to let me off easy, to give me eternal life as well as all the trappings that make one a success in this life. I'm glad he doesn't give me what I sometimes crave, recognition and prestige, fame and fortune. Instead, he gives me bread that satisfies – hearth and home, kith and kin, faith and fellowship – and it is enough.

Now I am the one making the appeals to follow Jesus whether it's to the Justice Center crowd or kids at the mid-week youth gathering or folks at Refuge. A long time ago I gave up giving the pitch – the “bow-your-head, close-your-eyes, no-one-looking-around” command followed by “the-raise-your-hand-if-you-want-to-become-a-Christian” one. Primarily it's a matter of logistics. When you're speaking to the same folks week in and week out you pretty much know who's in and who's not. But there's an evangelist who visits our place every six months who does this and every time there are those who follow suit, raise their hand and pray the corporate prayer we are all instructed to pray. To him, he takes it as he sees it – people who are getting saved. But to me, it's only an indicator that the waters are being stirred and perhaps this is the night that this person does decide to lay down his life-agenda before the Lord who calls him to do just this.

Last Wednesday night we heard a teaching at Focus, the youth gathering held at Refuge every Wednesday night, that was presented at the Onething Conference in Kansas City this past December by Misty Edwards. It was a message based on Matthew 11:28-30 and as she aptly put it, the invitation to throw off the heavy yoke we find upon ourselves does not mean an invitation to go unyoked. We will be yoked to someone but his yoke is supremely easier than any others we may otherwise choose. It made me think of Bob Dylan's classic song during his Christian phase,

Bobby is so right...I wish he had stayed the course
Might be a rock'n' roll adict prancing on the stage
Might have money and drugs at your commands, women in a cage
You may be a business man or some high degree thief
They may call you Doctor or they may call you Chief.

But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You're gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.



Of the passage in Matthew 11 Scott says,
Here, Jesus invites us to come alongside Him and to bind ourselves to Him rather than following behind. When two oxen were hitched or yolked together, one served in the dominant role and would carry the bulk of the load, while the other would balance the load. Here the Lord tells us that when we are yoked to Him, He will do the heavy work while we walk with Him. As we walk alongside Him, He will accomplish His work through us. He becomes our partner, to empower us to do that which would otherwise be impossible for us to do! (p. 111)

As all of us who have been at this for any length of time already know this is easier said than done. For me, there's just too much of my own ideas still rolling about in me, or a tendency to want to shoulder the bulk of the load instead of just doing my part of the work. A little less than two years ago, I met a guy at the JC who eventually I had the honor to pray with to receive Jesus. I've written several posts about him since. This Saturday night we're beginning a Bible study in his home with his wife, Marie, and a few other folks from their neighborhood that I'm entitling “Following Jesus: What it means to be a disciple of Jesus.” I'm sincerely hoping that not only will we enjoy fellowshipping together at Troy & Marie's home but we will also be sincerely challenged to examine our lives to see if, indeed, we are really following him or just thinking we are because we go to church every Sunday. 
 



Remembering my Zucchini Running Club days

While we are shuffling through this streak of Arctic air that has settled upon our area – and, indeed, all across the Midwest – by necessity I am spending more time indoors than out. While I have forbidden my son, Charlie, from taking his two-mile morning walk, I, on the other hand, have continued to run just not so long nor so far. Yesterday, when it was -27 below with the windchill, I did 3.5 miles. As I took a deep breath and ran out the door, I roused myself to the task with this thought: "I'm the guy with Running the Antarctica Marathon on my 'bucket-list' so what's my excuse for staying indoors?" Afterward when I came in the back in and looked at my reflection in the window of the basement door it appeared that I was working on my ZZ Top-look such was the frost beard that had accumulated during that 30 minute run. This morning was a tad warmer – only -25 below – but I chose to busy myself with some other task than running (yes, I wimped out.) Tomorrow when the mercury reaches above zero I'll be back out there but even when I do I'll still be thinking of warmer days and better runs.

This post is something of a reverie, a remembrance of another time when I was a lot sleeker and faster than I am today.

Jillian would have a fit
When I was in high school back in the waning years of the twentieth century, I went out for Cross Country simply because I believed it would make me a better wrestler. What I found, however, was a sport I fell in love with. Wrestling is a long season and for those like myself who were always having to cut weight, it became marathon-like in its length. The night before a match, I fasted just to ensure I would make weigh-in. But the night before a CC race, a few buddies and I would walk over to the donut shop down the street from our high school and “carbo-load” as we referred to it. Eating pastries may not be a conventional pre-race activity but for those of us wrestlers running cross country it was nigh onto mandatory. As October wore on we all knew the lean months were coming fast.

Coach Tom today
I was only average running-wise. As I recall, my best race ever was 17:35 for 3 miles (a 5:51 pace or 18:10 5K equivalent). I usually was vying for those coveted final slots on the seven-man Varsity team. But by my senior year my real strength was comic relief. Coach Sisulak was a very good coach but he was a math teacher and he fit the part - lean and nerdy-looking in his dark-rimmed glasses. While I never had a class with him, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that he actually did carry a slide-ruler in his left-hand shirt pocket. He wasn't a gregarious, “atta-boy” kind of coach. He was more serious and sober-minded but we wanted to run for him (actually, we wanted to win for him.) So, I made it one of my goals to get him to crack a smile or, better yet, laugh now and then. It was challenging (and yet a few of my teammates and I were successful from time to time.)

Now this is cool...
Anyone who has ever been on a Cross Country team anywhere in America knows this: when it comes to fall sports, football rules. Even if your team sucks with an 0-8 record, come year book time several pages of the annual will be taken up by the football team. However, the guys and girls Cross Country teams may merit only one page each. Your CC team may be conference champs and qualify for the State meet perennially, but it is only Cross Country (or so, I presume, the year book committee people must feel.) Going into our junior season, a few of the guys and myself set to change all that. Coach S was a quirky guy who, when he spoke, liked to laud the virtue of zucchini. He grew a lot of it. And that's how the Zucchini Running Club got its start. We embraced that vegetable as our real mascot (as opposed to the Lancer who was the official one), had t-shirts made up and even buttons that we wore proudly. We put up placards all over school with nonsensical sayings like, “The Zucchini is coming” or “Beware the Zucchini”. It was an ad hoc advertizing campaign whose sole purpose was to raise awareness that our school of 2000 students actually had a Cross Country team (and record-wise were a whole lot better than our grid iron locker room fellows). I don't recall if it was that year or our senior year but at the Homecoming game after the band did their thing, we did ours. Five members of our squad – our ace, John, the Mitchell brothers, Dan-O and myself - ran “Indian”-style around the track carrying a very large, very long zucchini. It was – or so I'd like to believe – a real crowd-pleaser. Vindication came our senior year when in the Statesman we were granted two pages under the auspices of the Zucchini Running Club (not LaFollette Cross Country). (The Madison LaFollette running teams of today probably don't have any problem with visibility given how successful that program has become.)

Our girls' squad was coached by Coach Heime (well, Jim Stevens was his name but for some reason all the girls called him by the Spanish-equivalent of his Christian name.) Jim was a devout follower of Christ who prayed with his girls regularly – not just before a race like I pray with my kids but frequently before practice was over. When we would travel to races we would ride the bus together, however, Coaches S & S would not allow our squads to mingle with each other. For one meet, the boys would have the back of the bus and for the next the girls would. And it was a code they strictly enforced. The season that my girlfriend was on the team, I made it my endeavor to sneak back to sit with her even if it meant crawling under the seats. It was all in good fun and I knew I would eventually be caught but the challenge lay in seeing how many miles would pass before Coach Sisulak discovered that the seating arrangement had been altered.

I looked nothing like this guy back then
I have this distinct memory: Following our return from a Saturday meet, five of us ran to the guys' shower, threw off our shirts, socks and shoes, got ourselves wet, grabbed a towel and wrapped it around our shorts so that it appeared that we had nothing on but our birthday suits. While Coach Stevens and the girls' team were still on the bus having a post-race talk, we ran out into the parking lot and said – in unison, mind you,
Rooty-toot-toot
Rooty-toot-toot
We are the boys from the Institute
We do not smoke
We do not chew
And we don't go out with the girls who do – YU-HOO!

And at that moment, to their great chagrin, we whipped off our towels. Yeah, somehow I can't even imagine a scene like that playing out even at our local elementary school today. But that's the kind of team we were – silly, nonconventional and yes, a tad nerdy. But those three seasons of LaFollette Cross Country left their mark on me indelibly. In fact, I love the sport so much that a few years ago when they were taking applications for the position of head coach at our local high school, I applied for it. I have been blessed to coach both our boys' and girls' teams for Chetek-Weyerhaeuser High School for the past five seasons now. Back in high school days, I began my association with CC as a means to an end, to help me on my quest to become a state championship wrestler. In retrospect, that white race line I began to follow back in the fall of 1977 led me on a serendipitous detour to a far greater prize. And I have Coach Sisulak and my fellow members of the Zucchini Running Club to thank for that.
Somehow knowing that this race is out there makes me want to run this some day


Saturday, January 5, 2013

Another afternoon at the JC










Red: You're gonna fit right in. Everyone in here is innocent, you know that? Heywood, what you in here for?
Heywood: Didn't do it. Lawyer f*%* me. 
***
Andy: Maybe it's time for you to switch careers.
Tommy: Huh?
Andy: What I mean is, you don't seem to be a very good thief, maybe you should try something else.
Tommy: Yeah, well, what the h*** do you know about it Capone? What are you in for?
Andy: Me? My lawyer f*%* me. Everybody's innocent in here. Didn't you know that?
 from The Shawshank Redemption 

Lately I've been going to the Justice Center (JC) on Friday afternoons. I sign in, buzz central control and announce who I am. They open the door and usually announce over the intercom which room I'll be using. Yesterday I was assigned Private Visitation 1 (P.V. 1), an approximately 5' by 5' room that has enough space for a table and two chairs. This serves as both confessional booth and pulpit, a place for them to tell their story and for me to share how I feel the Scriptures apply to what they have told me. In the years I have been serving as a volunteer chaplain at the JC, I've heard lots of tales, plenty of admissions of wrong-doing but with caveats of how there is more to their case than what the D.A. is saying. Yesterday was no different.

It was a busy afternoon in that I saw five inmates, a few of them for the first time. And with the exception of one, every one I met let me know in no uncertain terms that they have been screwed over by the system. I don't know enough of their story to know if their contention is true or not. The life of an addict is so much about subterfuge – lie and spin, telling tales in order to gain sympathy or favor with the very people who now control their destiny. For some of them, they've told their story so long and so convincingly that they now believe it themselves. One former inmate that I am still in contact with informed me last fall that he had cancer and that his doctor had informed him that the cancer was too far along to do anything about it. His story was so persuasive that he had all of us who were trying to help him convinced that before Christmas we would be laying him to rest. And then one day last November – poof – he was transported to a half-way house in Chippewa Falls that catered to the mentally ill. Come to find out his illness was all a mirage, a figment of his imagination. Whether he had concocted this story so he could get access to a morphine drip or because he simply believed that he really had cancer I really don't know. The fact is he really believed the diagnosis he was sharing with everyone – and still does as I have remained in contact with him since moving from our area. So, when I hear a sad story – and I heard a very sad one, yesterday – I have to rein in my knee-jerk reaction to simply feel sorry for them.

That's not to say that I don't feel empathy with them. I do. Most of the inmates at the JC have been assigned a public defender (p.d.) who already has a large caseload and who may see their client 5-10 minutes before they walk into the courtroom. It's not that the p.d. is not qualified. As far as I can tell it's simply about numbers – how can they do justice to all the cases they have to represent? My guess is if any of the five I saw yesterday were wealthy people they would benefit from higher-end legal representation. But none of them are. They are poor and so they must take the legal counsel that fits their budget.

But I have to remind myself as I sit across the little table from them why am I here. I'm not their lawyer. I'm not their judge or jury. I'm not the author of their presentencing investigation (p.s.i.) whose recommendations usually influence the judge's ruling. At this moment in time I'm their pastor, listening sympathetically to them while at the same time praying that the Holy Spirit help me be his voice at this moment. I want to direct them to look up, to direct their focus to God and his ability to work in even the most screwed up of situations. Just like the inmates of Stephen King's fictional Shawshank prison who profess they are the victims of circumstance, fate and the capricious whims of the justice system, I feel it is my job at that moment in time to hear them out, read the Scriptures with them and pray with them. One First Nations guy I met with has been found guilty by a jury of his peers of sexually assaulting a woman. He is adamant that it was the equivalent of a kangaroo trial, a farce of due justice, that his accuser has made the entire story up. He's facing long-time at a state correctional facility the length of his stay he will find out on Monday at his sentencing hearing. He's scared. He's angry. He feels lost and questions out loud if life is even worth living any more. All I know to do is turn to the pages of the Gospels and remind him that he and Jesus have a lot in common – both were innocent, both were found guilty in a mockery of a trial, both were dealt with mercilessly. Jesus' reaction was to put his trust in the Father and to forgive those who were intent on dealing him such great harm. I read to him the opening words of Psalm 22 -

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning?”

- the very words he uttered on the cross while he was dying. I think more painful to him than the physical torture the soldiers doled out to him was that moment when the Father turned his back on his One and Only beloved Son. Jesus, who never knew the absence of the Father's company,  now feels totally bereft as God turns his back on him. “Go to Jesus, Aaron* (*not his real name)...he knows what its like to be abandoned, to be betrayed, to be defenseless before the judge.” I remind him that while we may not understand all the twists and turns our journey in life takes God is greater than these things and those of us who put our trust in him find that there is always life on the other side of suffering.

Do my words help? Does my reading of Romans 12:17-21 to another brother I met with that afternoon with the gentle admonishment to pray for the D.A. with whom he is so angry with for what he believes is a total miscarriage of justice help as well? I really don't know. I have to remind myself, however, that it is the Holy Spirit who does the heavy lifting when it comes to persuading men of their need for Jesus and the truth about themselves. My role is to be there and affirm them as people loved and cared for by God regardless of how sincere or deceitful they may actually be.

I think that's why I'm good for the JC. I'm na├»ve – yes, maybe even gullible – but I also choose to believe the best about people regardless of their reputation or their rap sheet. They may be pulling the wool over my eyes but what of it? Then, I guess, they play me for a fool. My pride is not wounded about such a thing. Eventually, the truth about people's intentions regarding Christ come out in the wash anyway. In time they'll either turn to a new scam or, just maybe, they'll begin looking for a new way to live their life. For their sake, and the sake of their children, I can only hope they do.