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, February 27, 2013

You were right, Lillie. It did lead to dancing.

He looks like he'd be down on dancing
Back in the early 90s, Snapple ran an ad campaign whose famous tag line followed the image of some old farmer taking a sip of the stuff and dead-panning, “It could lead to dancing.” It was a funny line and one month in our fellowship's newsletter I used it to promote some youth event I had planned. At that time, our congregation was a strange mixture of young families and, frankly, odd and eccentric elderly individuals. And Lillie certainly fell into that category.

Lillie was an 80-year-old woman of Swedish descent who in her youth, as she had shared with me on occasion, had spurned proposals of marriage from perspective beaus, for the honor of serving Jesus. She had served in Africa among other like-minded women at an orphanage in Liberia for nearly 20 years until sickness required her to leave that beloved place behind for good. Lillie, cut from a very, fierce bolt of Pentecostal fabric, didn't go for all things of modern culture and certainly did not watch TV (unless, say, Billy Graham was on.) So, when she got her copy of the newsletter and read it, as was her wont, from cover to cover, she was aghast to learn that of all things a dance had been planned at the Tabernacle. And she had a mind to say something about it. So she called the church office and finding that I was out, left a very long, rambling message on the answering machine. “To think I should live to see the day that dancing was going on in the church. What would Runar think?” (Runar was her brother-in-law and the founding pastor of our fellowship who died before his time in 1974.) I don't recall the rest of her message but it was clear that her blood was up.

I did contemplate calling her back to carefully explain that I had not, in fact, planned a dance but was using a phrase from popular culture that would resonate with the youth audience it was intended for but thought better of it. Just the thought of the effort it would take to make myself clear with her wore me out before I even started. But I'm sure I reassured her that a dance wasn't exactly what I had in mind.

I wonder what she would think of that assurance today were she still with us? Because on several occasions since we shed ourselves of our pews to make room for the chairs that now fill our sanctuary we have pushed them to the side for a dance. I think the first time we did this was on the occasion of our daughter, Emma's, 16th birthday. We had invited all kinds of folks – the Refuge family, and all the people in our daughter's life who were special to her – and we sat down for a dinner in the lower level at our worship facility. There were, perhaps, 50-60 people on hand to celebrate this momentous night when, following dinner, we made our way upstairs into the sanctuary to publicly affirm her as a woman, inviting all those gathered to join in this act of blessing. It was a very sweet night graced by, among others, her golf coach and several members of her team. After public affirmation and prayer, given the fact that dancing is such a passion in Emma's life, we pushed back the chairs and danced away celebrating her and God's goodness in her life. Joy was in the place.
She's our dancing queen

But perhaps the most egregious demonstration that we were no longer in Lillie's “Kansas” occurred a few weeks ago when Troy and Marie renewed their wedding vows. I've written a lot about Troy (a.k.a., “the good Troy”) over the last year or so. About how Jesus found him at the Barron County Justice Center back in March 2011, about his profession of faith later that summer and being sober at Christmas for the first-time ever that Christmas Eve. As I have shared before, Troy has been a gift to me and all of us at Refuge, not only as the brother that he is, but as a reminder that the gospel of Jesus Christ really is the power to transform a life. And here's yet another installment from his life.

Renee's work of art
A few months back, he called me one afternoon urgently needing to see me. Assuring me he wasn't in trouble, he hoofed it on over to the office and sat down and shared this with me: “I was drunk when I first proposed to Marie and I did it in a bar. I just want to start fresh. Do you think it would be okay if I asked her to marry me again?” I was touched by his sincerity to want to do right by the woman who had stood by him over all the years he had disappointed her by his drunken and offensive behavior and I simply replied, “I think that's a great idea.” “But I don't even know how to do that,” he said with the twinge of frustration in his voice. To wit, I asked him if he and Marie ever went out for dinner. Shaking his head “no” in response, I suggested that he take her out to a nice restaurant. “You'll think of something,” I assured him.

Troy went all out in this matter. He bought new rings for both of them. He took her out to Applebee's and excusing himself to use the bathroom, he slipped the rings to the waiter and asked him to deliver them to the nice lady in the booth. What happened next is pure Marie: she was both mad at him and elated at the same time. She was mad because she was crying in public now and elated that he was inspired to do such a thing. When they got home from their date he called me up, like a son calling his old man, to tell me how the night had gone. “It was great,” he shared. “But what did she say?” was my question to wit she yelled in the background like a teenage girl, “I said OF COURSE!”

Renee made about 50 of these
Plans were set in motion. Some of our wonderful women of our fellowship got on board. They were going to do this up big. Renee decorated the sanctuary and newly remodeled lower level. Melissa cooked up a wonderful meal. Troy, a man of many talents, baked an exquisite cake. But Troy and Marie wanted more: they wanted music. So they turned to the most musical people they know, the young adults of The Focus, the youth fellowship that gathers in our sanctuary every Wednesday night. They asked our daughter, Emma, to handle the music for the ceremony and they asked Kayla (the main worship leader for Focus) if she could organize an hour's worth of music which would follow the meal. Both girls were on it and, as it we would find out, went above and beyond the call of duty to make sure Troy & Marie's day was remarkably special.

A few days before the ceremony, Kayla wanted clarification just what it was that Troy & Marie were expecting. I assured her that I was fairly certain that they would be “background music” while they cut the cake or while people mingled and visited. But when I checked in with Troy to make sure that's what he was thinking he clarified what they were asking the kids to do: he wanted them to be the band for the dance that was to follow dinner. When I gently reminded him that these kids know only worship music and couldn't even play the “Hokey-Pokey” even if they could track down the music, he said, “That's great. That's exactly what we want. Whatever they pick it will be great.” When I shared that with Kayla the next night she seemed to experience a few heart palpitations but after my assurances that it'll be good no matter what they picked, she put together her worship set. 

The day of the renewal of their wedding vows went better than planned. The sanctuary and lower level were beautiful with a canopy of young birch trees that had come from Randy & Renee's property gracing the altar and three more stationed in the lower hall. The ceremony was brief but touching. Troy and Marie even made up new vows to share with each other. Unbeknownst to me, my daughter, frustrated in her attempt to find the right song for the unity candle ceremony, decided to write her own, a tribute that was not lost on the couple. The meal was wonderful, made lovingly by Melissa. And then it was time to move upstairs for the dance. Kayla and crew began their worship set. Most of their guests had left already but their immediate family and the elders of our fellowship remained. And somewhere during that set, Marie began to dance with her son, Alex, a freshman in high school. And following that, with her husband. I think that's when it happened. Troy and Marie's loving embrace inspired one of our elders, Troy (a.k.a., the “bad” Troy), to ask his wife, Tina, to dance with him. And then Linda and I took the floor followed by Jon and Melissa. Lillie's prophesy was coming true – It had led to dancing after all. 

Their first dance happened in church
Their first dance happened in church as well

The presence of the Lord was thick. I didn't learn until later that both Troys – “good” and “bad” - had never before danced with their wives before but there with yet another demonstration of how powerful the grace of God really is right before them, it would have been nigh unto a sin not to join in the...yes...the frivolity. Here was more proof that, just like the Scriptures say, “he makes all things new” (Rev 21:5). Come to think of it, Lillie spent nearly two decades in Africa and nobody can celebrate like them. Certainly in her time there she must have saw many a couple bind themselves together in holy matrimony. I wouldn't even be surprised to learn there was a bit of booty shaken around (certainly not hers but among the Africans) at those gatherings. I'm really not worried about it. One day perhaps Lillie and I will have a good laugh over it. But what I really witnessed on the sanctuary dance floor that night – and was a willing partner in it – was nothing less than an act of worship and thanksgiving performed for the One who is able to save to the uttermost.
The smiles say it all

                                                 One of the songs the Focus sang that night


Monday, February 18, 2013

For the love of Margaret

This girl can preach and pray
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.” 1 John 3:16, NIV

Last week at Focus (the youth fellowship that meets at Refuge on Wednesday nights), Sarah shared a message God had laid on her heart from 1 John 3. Sarah is an eighth-grader whose dad pastors Chetek Alliance Church here in town and the Holy Spirit moves mightily in her. While her entire text arose from 1 John 3:11-24, the thing that spoke to me most in her speak is her statement: “real love is sacrifice.” About a month ago, another youth fellowship in our area (AMP, made up of Jesus-loving kids like Sarah and a few others from Focus), sponsored a lock-in at YWAM-Northwoods just outside of town. Lots of kids from school showed up to, among other things, be challenged by a Christian rapper who is a member of the International House of Prayer faith-community in Kansas City. The following Wednesday at Focus the kids who had gone to the lock-in were justifiably jazzed as they shared about all the fun they had had and all of their fellow-classmates who had made professions of faith at that event. Curiously, however, not one of the “newbies” were at group that night (nor, after some discussion, to the best of our collective knowledge at any other youth group in town.) Somehow the thought of establishing a connection with one of these kids didn't naturally come to mind unless it was the assumption that someone else would see to that. Sarah, who had been there that night but is home-schooled, had something to say about this.

She's that kind of girl
After reading 1 John 3:16 (“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers” NIV) she made the statement I quoted her making in the paragraph above: “Love is sacrifice.” She then went on to share from her own life that when we position ourselves to obey his command to love others and we walk across the hall and attempt to establish a connection with someone we normally wouldn't talk to, the love of God will fill our hearts and our love for this person will grow from “a size of a germ to the size of Jupiter.” What a wonderful turn of a phrase.

Sarah is one of those kids who is all in – there is no guile or hidden agenda in her. What you see is what you get. Her love for Jesus she wears on her sleeve (and on her blouse and pants, too.) Troy, one of our elders who helps oversee Focus, likes to challenge us to live “out loud.” Sarah needs no coaching in this department. She assumes that if you profess love for Jesus than you are earnestly seeking to live loudly for him. And when she prays or shares a testimony at group it is good to gently remind her that others would like a chance to share as well. She's that kind of kid. But how right she is. And as she shared her story it made me think again of a story that I've been a part of reaching all the way back to high school days. It's a story I've shared at Focus before. It's the story about Margaret.

I rarely look for new material
Margaret was a girl I went to school with and how I remember it is that she usually sat by herself in the cafeteria in the morning before class began and she always looked forlorn. Now, maybe she wasn't a morning person. Maybe she wasn't fully awake yet but as I would come around the bend from E-Wing and pass through the lunch room buzzing with conversation I would notice her sitting sadly by herself. We must have already known each other from class because I took to stopping at her table and sat across from her and did the only thing I knew to do: I would tell her a joke (and, of course, it was a stupid one; they were the only ones I knew.) While none of my material was gut-slapping funny I usually got her to smile and after that I would feel like my mission was accomplished and I would move on to whatever was my next stop. At least, this is how I remember it.

In any case, after high school, I didn't see nor hear from Margaret again (how did we all stay in touch before the invention of email, the internet and social media?) Five years went by and in the summer of 1985 our fifth year reunion was held. Linda and I had recently become engaged and I was excited to introduce her to my former classmates. I don't remember where it was held but I do remember one thing that happened that night. Sometime during the evening a fairly attractive woman emerged out of the crowd and nearly tackled me with a bear hug (and if memory is correct, Linda was standing right next to me with a very curious look on her face.) For the record, I was just as surprised as she was. “It's me,” she said. “Margaret.” I didn't recognize her. After high school apparently she had joined the army and lost a lot of weight. But the biggest shock I got that night was what she told me next: “You told me a joke every day our senior year and you always made me feel special. Thanks for that.” That was it. I don't remember the rest of our conversation. It probably was the stuff typical of reuions – catching up and filling in. She was in the army and I was heading into my final year of Bible college. After that night, I didn't see her again until my ordination day ten years later. this is the kind of stuff I tell

By October 1995, I had been serving as the pastor of Chetek Full Gospel (now Refuge) for four years and my pastor felt it was time that I was ordained. So we were back in Madison at Lake City Church (now City Church), the fellowship we were both from. It was a fairly large fellowship, perhaps at the time over a thousand attendees, and the late service was full as it usually was. Following the gathering I was on the main floor of the sanctuary receiving lots of “atta-boys” and congratulations from family, friends and a plethora of well-wishers. And then I noticed someone in the far left balcony waving and pointing toward me and gesturing that I was to stay put and not move. It was a woman flanked by (I assumed) her husband and a few kids and she was leading them to the staircase that led down into the sanctuary. It was Margaret. Since the last time we had met she had gotten married and had a few kids. She also had come to know Jesus and had begun to attend LCC. And this is how she introduced me to her husband: “This guy – he told me a joke every morning before school and always made me feel so special.”

I'm a big fan of social media (specifically, facebook). I think it's one of many ways of staying connected and/or getting reconnected with friends from the different eras of our lives. And I love that little search engine box because ever so once in awhile I'll think of someone from days gone by and type in their name and see if I get any hits. That's how I found Margaret again. I think it was in 2008 (but it could have been after this) when I searched her name and up she came. And so I messaged her wondering how she was and how life had been treating her. According to her in the follow-up message she sent to me, my note had come at just the right time. Between 1995 when I had seen her last and the day my message arrived, life had taken some downturns for her. Her marriage had ended, she had some issues with her kids and she was struggling to hold on to her faith in God. She no longer attended LCC but had returned to the Catholic church she had been raised in and found comfort there. But on the day my message arrived electronically she had been (or so she told me) praying for a sign that God was with her. While I don't recall her relaying she was suicidal my note had apparently come in the nick of time.
Now, I find this funny

When I share that story from time to time I usually say, “All I did was tell a joke.” And it's true (amazing mileage those stupid jokes from the 70s has got!; if only I could remember a single one I'd pass them on to my son, Ed, who is a master of the sharing of the stupid joke himself.) But what I really did was I saw Margaret. We do not fully realize that in high school how much the sun rises and sets on ourselves, how we're feeling, and how we are being perceived by others. We are, at that moment in our life, profoundly self-centered. And it is the nature of that mindset to stay within our trajectory that we follow through a normal high school day – locker, class, the people we hobnob with, eat lunch and practice with. They are in our glide path and unless they careen out of orbit into ours, we don't usually notice those other “satellites” occupying the same space as ourselves. But for some reason I saw Margaret that day, slowed down to notice her and then continued to notice her throughout the remaining months in high school. I'm profoundly grateful that I did.
Yes, this is a little edgy...

Last spring, a girl from our middle school committed suicide. On Friday, she had gone home happy (or so everyone thought) and by Sunday night cyberspace was full of the news: she had shot herself while staying at her grandparents' house. In the emotional week that followed, I shared "the Margaret story" at Focus reminding the kids of their need as disciples of Christ to “see” their fellow classmates and not assume that someone else is checking in with that person. I would say the same goes for these kids from the lock-in recently who professed faith in Christ. It may not be their job to “disciple” them but it is their responsibility to attempt befriending them if only to welcome them into the family. I realize that this is asking a lot but as Sarah reminded us all the other night at Focus, love really is sacrifice. And for most kids still in high school, that sacrifice amounts to eating at another lunch table from time to time or risking a little awkwardness when leaving their normal glide path to attempt to establish relationship. I don't really know any good jokes any more but I do know a guy who can get you some. Who knows how much mileage you may get out of them?

Note: Margaret, as a friend of mine on Facebook. I don't know if you'll see this or not or even care to read it but just in case you do I want you to know that the story I told within this post are the events as I remember them. I have not consciously tried to embellish them. However, memory being subjective and fickle as it is, you may recall certain events differently. I want you to know that if you see the need you are free to send me corrections to set the record straight. Either way I think you and I are in agreement that like Sarah says referencing the love of Christ Jesus, “real love is sacrifice.” 

Postscript late Monday night: Margaret not only saw this post but read it and was good enough to send some comments my way. I'll include one I think would be appropriate to share publicly:
 "As I read the story again. I could have been anyone. Yes, you did stop by my table every morning. You have affected my life by just doing that small thing like telling a joke to lift a spirit. That one little thing is like the old saying of a ripple on the water. You are one of my ripples, and I love you for that. 

Once again, thank you again for kind words and if needed, keep using my story, hopefully it will encourage another to just stop by someones table in the morning to tell a joke. This weekend the 'family' will be getting together. I am going to print this story. Not as 'my' story of the low parts in my life, but to show others that it really is the least thing you can do by offering a joke or something of yourself. You just never know what the other person is doing or thinking and may just need you."

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Waiting and waiting: A meditation on Acts 1

They all joined together constantly in prayer...” Acts 1:14, NIV

A week ago, having finished reading the Gospel of Luke, I naturally picked up Acts to read as my devotional selection for the rest of 2013. The two, of course, were always meant to be a companion set (indeed, I think they were at the beginning until someone decided the gospels would be better off standing alone and thus ensuring that Luke Part 2 [er, Acts] would be seen by some folks as just so much church history and trivia). In any case, a week later I remain in chapter 1. Now a lot of that has to do with the way I do my personal Bible reading. I can't just read and reflect. I like to be accompanied by others. So for my reading of Acts I have invited Eugene H. Peterson (via The Message), whoever is the voice behind my NIV Commentary software, and three others: John Stott (The Bible Speaks Today: The Message of Acts), I. Howard Marshall (Acts: Tyndale New Testament Commentaries) and Ajith Fernando (Acts: The NIV Application Commentary) to join me. All have already contributed to some insights I have gleaned from that first chapter (to the tune of some thirty-seven pages of notes, comments and quotes). But there's another reason I'm still in chapter 1: I'm trying to wait.

My companions on the journey:
Peterson: Got a postcard from him once

Stott: A lot of people like to quote him

Marshall: I wonder what the "I" stands for?

Fernando: Smart but his stuff walks

As I think of those forty days following the Resurrection, I wonder if they ever got used to his coming and going? I mean, it wasn't like he hung around the club house all day and they just lounged around with him. There was, I think, an intensity about the times they were together whether just as the Eleven or as the greater cadre of followers who had stuck with him. First, he had to convince them that he was really alive. Nothing would come of their later efforts to bear witness if they were not themselves already fully persuaded that he was corporeally, flesh-and-blood really alive. And the second thing he was doing was continuing to teach on his favorite subject – the kingdom of God. It's clear from their question about the kingdom of Israel being restored to her former Davidic glory (v. 6) that their definition of the kingdom and his are very different at this juncture. It would take awhile before his broad, expansive paradigm would replace their very narrow, parochial one.

And then one day he leads the Eleven three-quarters of a mile outside Jerusalem, up the slopes of the Mount of Olives. Do any of them suspect that this is the last time they will be together? Do any of them have a premonition that he was leaving them – or at least how we would define the phrase – for good? According to Fernando, it was a Thursday (counting forty days back to Passover.) Somewhere on the side of that hill, some of them press him with the question of when does Israel get restored to wit he responds:

You don’t get to know the time. Timing is the Father’s business. What you’ll get is the Holy Spirit. And when the Holy Spirit comes on you, you will be able to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, all over Judea and Samaria, even to the ends of the world.” (vv. 7-8, Msg)

In earlier conversations with him he had warned them to not even think of leaving Jerusalem until “the gift my Father promised” arrives (v. 4). What that is they cannot at this moment comprehend. It has something to do with immersion, however, for baptizö is the word that he employs to describe what will happen to them shortly. And then without so much as a good-bye or farewell hugs, he leaves them, taken up into a glory cloud. If any of those guys ever see him again in physical form none of them recorded that moment for posterity. It is, in some way for them, the end. With encouragement from the two angels who appear to them suddenly (maybe the same two who greet the women at the tomb?), they walk back down the hill, into Jerusalem and to the place where they will begin their vigil.

And this is where I'm parked. I'm curious to know what that looked like. I mean, what did they do for those ten days? In reflecting upon the post-resurrection encounter of the disciples on the road to Emmaus when Jesus gave them an overview of the Old Testament scriptures that all pointed to himself, Michael Card says,

Then Luke commits his most grievous error, and I'm not sure I will ever be able to forgive him for it, at least this side of heaven. Luke reports in verse 27 that Jesus explained everything concerning himself in the Old Testament. What was Luke possibly thinking? The greatest Bible lesson of all time, and yet we have not a single word! (Luke: The Gospel of Amazement by Michael Card, p. 263)

How they do it in KC
Well now here's my beef with Luke: one of the greatest prayer meetings of all time is happening and the only thing he can say about it is the gloss: “They all joined together constantly in prayer...” (v. 14). I want to know: what did they do? What did that look like? I mean, for we 21st Century saints who just the very idea of reserving one hour for prayer sounds like we're doing something incredibly noble, the act of going ten days straight in prayer is, for this saint, overwhelming.

But my mug is a lot more cooler
When I go to spend my “alone” time with the Father, I usually take my mug of coffee flavored with Irish Creme, my journal, a book I'm currently reading for devotional purposes, and – later when sitting at my desk – my Bible. These days, when I actually turn to prayer I usually walk around the sanctuary, praying in English and, ultimately, in tongues. As it has since the beginning days of my ministry in Chetek, the journal serves as something of a confessor recording for anyone with the gift of interpretation my mood, thoughts and state of mind on that day in particular. The devotional book may “speak” to me – or not (Last year I read through Richard Foster's Spiritual Classics and for the most part found it dry as toast; currently I'm reading Wheaton professor John H. Walton's The Lost World of Genesis One and am finding my spiritual taste buds for the re-reading of Genesis 1 strongly activated. I think I started this practice years ago when I was still intent on reading through the Bible every year and wasn't paying attention that I was glossing over more than musing upon the Scriptures.) And then I “go to” pray, peripatetic pray-er that I am, pacing around and around the sanctuary offering my requests and petitions to the Father for my wife, my children, the folks of my fellowship, the things that are before me or whatever other burden is on my heart at the moment. Like I shared in an early post (see Burn), I continue to make a practice of praying in tongues at least 15 minutes a day. And then I sit at my desk with my open Bible and read the next passage in Acts. This whole exercise put together may consume a few hours provided the phone doesn't ring or people don't stop in for a visit. But those first disciples of Jesus sequestered themselves in a room without soft worship music playing quietly in the background, without coffee or lattes to get the heart pumping, without a tablet or a laptop, without even access to a Bible. So...what did they do with all that time? How did they keep from dozing off to sleep? How did they keep from engaging in chatter with the friends they more than likely sat next to? Where did these people go when nature called? What did they do for meals? Did they pray in shifts? Did they pray in unison? They obviously didn't pray in tongues (when I run out of things to pray for that's always good fill.) What did it sound like? Lots of murmuring? Lots of quiet (well, at least as much as 120 people can be quiet without sneezing, coughing and making other bodily noises)? What? Luke, who wasn't there, won't say other than “they prayed a lot.” Thanks.

Every time I'm in KC this place is always hopping
In recent years we have had some of the folks from here relocate to Kansas City to become a part of the International House of Prayer (IHOP-KC), a vibrant faith community whose committed themselves to night and day prayer until Jesus returns. Part of the requirement for all students and staff is that they must log 24 hours a week in the prayer room. One of the girls told me a little while after moving there that her first four-hour shift in the prayer room was daunting: “After praying for everything that was on my heart to pray for or what I thought I should be praying for, only ten minutes had passed. And now I had three hours and fifty minutes to go before my 'shift' was over. I thought to myself, 'What do I do now?'” Exactly. Now, having been to the prayer room before and knowing the lay-out of the place, I know I could make it okay through a two-hour shift with my Bible, journal and water bottle (coffee is not allowed in the prayer room). I'd write-some, read-some, walk-some and pray-some (and, probably use the facilities once or twice in that 2-hour shift-some as well). But when Troy, one of our elders, tells me that whenever he goes to KC he spends “hours” in the prayer room (as in lots and lots of them) all I can feel is admiration because I do not have the same spiritual stamina as he in this department. After two hours, I usually have to step outside for fresh air or mosey next door to the Higher Grounds coffee shop for a chocolate mocha everything. He chalks it up to God's gifting and wiring him as an intercessor (and I would concur). But I also know that when our former youth leader was on staff there and we would stay at his home I would not always go to the prayer room. One afternoon, while Justin was working, and Tara and Linda went shopping, I actually went geocaching and had a wonderful time of discovery and exploration (see Geocaching in Grandview, MO 64030). Which is to say my spiritual appetite is not what it probably should be.

Luke tells us 120 fit into that room – he doesn't tell us whether the arrangement was comfortable or not. I'm thinking it wasn't – 120 men and women, with no AC in a second story room in Jerusalem in the springtime? By comparison, our sanctuary can hold maybe 110 northern Europeans but that's pressing your luck (one time we actually squeezed 160 teens and their leaders into our sanctuary for an area youth event in the spring and it was a little warm-ish and a lot illegal fire code-wise.) So, I'm brought back to wondering aloud how did they do that?

Replacement apostle
At the end of his gospel he also reports that those first disciples “stayed continually at the temple praising God” (24:53). So, perhaps some of the time was broken up by taking a short walk over to the temple to engage in regularly scheduled times of corporate prayer as was the Jewish custom. That certainly would break up a morning for me. But eventually they returned to that little room, squeezed in and prayed some more. Stott points out that the word “together” (as in they joined together constantly in prayer) “translates homothymadon, a favorite of Luke's, which he uses ten times and which occurs only once elsewhere in the New Testament. It could mean simply that the disciples met in the same place, or were doing the same thing, namely praying. But it later describes both united prayer (4:24) and a united decision (15:25), so that the 'togetherness' implied seems to go beyond mere assembly and activity to agreement about what they were praying for (The Message of Acts, p. 53). I have never before been much interested in the choosing of Matthias as Judas' replacement apostle but Marshall reminds me that of all the things that he could have recorded about those ten days preceding Pentecost, he chose to write of this event alone and so it may “be regarded as of particular importance in his eyes.” (Acts: Tyndale New Testament Commentary, p. 67.) Point taken. So, at the very least they were engaging in dialogue at different times because while the choosing of the 12th guy is almost a non-event to us it was very important to them.

Putting this altogether then, these men and women of Galilee, far from home and the distractions that home would have brought them, have holed themselves up in Jerusalem, to engage in long bouts of personal prayer interspersed with corporate prayer and worship, fellowship and dialogue. Maybe like David's cave of Adullam (see 1 Samuel 22), a new community was in gestation – (yes, an upper womb) – being knit secretly together before being birthed as “the church” in dramatic fashion a few days later.
It's hard for me to wait

In over twenty years of ministry I think I can say with some authority that we – that is, the folks who gather at the fellowship where I serve as pastor – don't do prayer “together” very well. And we claim to be Pentecostals, too! Oh, I can get a few stalwarts together for prayer (the elders of our fellowship are exemplary in this regard) but rarely more than a few others will embrace the need that we, who excel at doing, need, from time to time, retreat and wait again for a fresh immersion of the Holy Spirit. While I'm still miffed at Luke for failing to describe just how they were going about all that praying, I recognize my need to copy them, to wait, to draw away, to go stair-crazy bored in a room somewhere until he comes and pours on me afresh so that with his fire I may bear witness in all places just as I have been commanded to do. 

I'm not sure if this is what David was thinking about when he composed Psalm 40 but I include it here as my prayer to start waiting afresh on the Father:
  1 I waited and waited and waited for God.
    At last he looked; finally he listened...

Blessed are you who give yourselves over to God,
    turn your backs on the world’s “sure thing,”
    ignore what the world worships;
The world’s a huge stockpile
    of God-wonders and God-thoughts.
Nothing and no one
    comes close to you!
I start talking about you, telling what I know,
    and quickly run out of words.
Neither numbers nor words
    account for you.

Doing something for you, bringing something to you—
    that’s not what you’re after.
Being religious, acting pious—
    that’s not what you’re asking for.
You’ve opened my ears
    so I can listen.
7-8 So I answered, “I’m coming.
    I read in your letter what you wrote about me,
And I’m coming to the party
    you’re throwing for me.”
That’s when God’s Word entered my life,
    became part of my very being. 
Psalm 40:1, 5-8, The Message

Friday, February 1, 2013

In Theophilus' shoes

He then led them out of the city over to Bethany. Raising his hands he blessed them, and while blessing them, took his leave, being carried up to heaven.”

And they were on their knees, worshiping him. They returned to Jerusalem bursting with joy. They spent all their time in the Temple praising God. Yes.” Luke 24:50-53, The Message

Now that their minds are open, he leads them out to Bethany and pronounces one last berakah. While it is still ringing in their ears, they notice that Jesus is ascending, being “carried up.” He is going away but he is not going away. With the coming of the Spirit, he will be closer, more present, than any of them would have imagined. He will be as close as their new understanding of the Word. That blessing – those final words – were, in a sense, the first words they had ever truly heard. Luke: The Gospel of Amazement by Michael Card, p. 266

The man knows how to tell a story
Thirteen months ago today I began a devotional study of The Gospel of Luke. I didn't do it for a sermon series (although I did get a couple of messages out of it). I didn't do it because I was planning to teach a class on it (although I certainly would be in a better position to do that today than I was a little over a year ago.) I did it because I was hungry to read the Jesus-story again. In 2010 I had spent the year in Matthew. The following year I had only planned to meditate on the Abraham-story before returning to, say, Mark's gospel but ended up parking myself among the Patriarchs for the rest of 2011. But last January I was eager to learn of Jesus again so this time I turned to Luke's version (see "This book will change your life.") This morning, I finally came to the end of it – well, at least the first part of the greater Jesus story that concludes at 24:53. What took me so long?

A good read
For starters, I clearly didn't read my Bible for devotional purposes every day. Oh, I referenced it for my work regularly enough – teachings and sermons and the like - but opening it and musing on a passage simply to let Him speak to me, not as much. And secondly, as part of my devotional reading I also read it in The Message version (my NIV Bible remains the book I use the most both personally and professionally) and then referenced four different commentaries regularly along the way:
  1. The NIV Study Bible that I have downloaded to my office computer.
  2. The Message of Luke (The Bible Speaks Today) by Michael Wilcock
  3. Luke: The Gospel of Amazement (Biblical Imagination Series) by Michael Card
  4. Luke (The NIV Application Commentary) by Darrell L. Bock
He helped me see things
So on the days I would engage the Scriptures in this manner this is what I would do: I would open up my Bible, open up the Word file for 2012, read the passage and then stream-of-consciousness-like meditate upon what I had just read. I would reflect upon things that struck me about the text, about reactions of the different characters to Jesus or how he was speaking to me. Again, these weren't necessarily for publication (however, some – including this post today – did end up getting posted after some editorial work.) Following my usual paragraph-long reflection, I would open up The Message version of the same text on and cut and post it into my Word file. Frequently, just reading it another version would generate some more thoughts on the passage. Then I would open up the NIV Study Bible and clip and post that into my file (primarily because the print is so small in the software I use). Following reflecting on the notations by the unnamed editor, I would in turn read Wilcock's, Card's and Bock's assessment about the same text. If I read a quote that I liked, I would mark it with a yellow stickie note and return to it later to copy into my Word file. So, it became a fairly lengthy exercise but it was for me (not for anyone else) and I enjoyed the pedestrian pace that this routine forced me to take. (My “Meditations in the Word” file for 2012 is 386 pages long and the file I have begun for 2013 that covers just Luke 22:31-24:53 is 50 pages long!) And how I appreciated their insight – I like Wilcock's ability to see the great themes unfolding in Luke's gospel, Card's skill as a writer to take me into a moment and Bock's extensive knowledge of language and all things syntax. So, yeah, it took a while to get to the end of it.

I try and put myself - as Luke intends, I think – into Theophilus' place. I received the gospel by post by someone who makes the claim that upon reading the story (or in my case, re-reading it) I can “know beyond the shadow of a doubt the reliability of what [I have been] taught. Luke 1:4 Msg. “Read this, dude, and take it to heart. 'Cause it's true.” And now having read the story, recorded over 400 pages of thoughts and quotations that may never see the light of day again, now what? Other than eagerly wanting to read the sequel what has this re-reading of Luke's version of the Jesus-story done in me?
It's either this image or lots of a rapper named Theophilus

If I follow Card's lead, I know what is supposed to happen: I am to be full of awe at everything I have read. A story that begins in the temple where a priest is so amazed by the things he is told that he cannot utter the expected blessing ends in the same place with a group of disciples eager to share the blessing of all that they have seen and heard. I also am to be full of expectation for the promised “dunamis” so that I may share the things I have gleaned by this meditation on Jesus. And both of these emotions tonight are present in me – I have a fresh awe of Him and a new desire to share what I have learned through my association with Him. Last week alone I must have shared and/or preached from Luke 23-24 half a dozen times in different settings – in PV 1 at the Justice Center, at our Annual Celebration and at the worship gatherings again at the JC on Sunday. But more importantly, reading his story again provokes in me a greater desire to know him better and continue to follow him just as if I were part of that group he blessed outside of Bethany as he ascended into heaven. So at the end of my reading of Luke is a prayer that he would clothe me again with power so like them I may be fearless in my witness of the risen Savior.

It's good enough reason to pick up Luke Part 2 that begins in Acts 1.

With keen insight...Luke ends his first volume where he began it: God's people praising him in his temple. For 'the temple' means...the place where God meets man. The Gospel began there, at the heart of the old Jewish faith, for if in those days God and man were ever to come together, that was the place where the meeting would be – in the religion of the ancient Israelites: 'to them belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises' [Rom 9:4]. What has been achieved in the course of the gospel story is that a new way has been opened by which man and God can be reunited. There is a new temple. So it is in the temple that Luke not only begins but also ends his Gospel (24:53); the important thing now, however, is not the old building, which is doomed to destruction, but the community of Jesus' people gathered there. Henceforth it is they who 'are God's temple', and among them God is to be met with. For them, and for them alone, life is a meaningful thing, God's word is a living reality, and the proclamation of the good news is a consuming passion. They know the Savior, and they want the world to know him too. (The Message of Luke by Michael Wilcock, pp. 214-15)