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.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Coming and going

As we enter Holy Week, Refuge is in a state of normal flux. People are literally coming and going. Yesterday – Saturday – Jim & Jessica flew off to Guatemala for a week long exploration of what the Lord may be calling them to do. I've known this couple for many years now and Jessica has had something of a homing beacon going off within her for ministry – specifically, cross-cultural ministry – during all that time. At different seasons of their lives they have hosted a Bible study in their home or oversaw the youth ministry at another fellowship they used to belong to but Jessica's passion for missions has never really dimmed. In fact, it was this passion that factored into their pursuit of adopting three Columbian triplets in 2011. While Jim has always been a supportive spouse, in recent years something has been stirring within him to the point that this week he and Jess travel together not just to visit their friend Anita who serves at an orphanage just opening up outside of Guatemala City but to essentially, “spy out the land.” We're all waiting to see what will come of this exploratory journey.

Soon to be living with a Guatemalan zip code?
Hope to be running down this road soon

They are not the only ones from Refuge who will be out of town this Easter. As I shared a few posts ago (see Back to Africa), a group from here will be traveling to Africa to reconnect with some friends we met their last year. Troy, Tina, Sheryl, Hanna, Hunter, Charis, Emma and myself will be flying out of Chicago tomorrow – Monday – afternoon on a long circuitous flight to Nairobi (where we hear it's spring there.) While there, we will be praying, sharing, visiting, walking (and as far as this muzungo is concerned, running), seeing the neighbors who live a couple of ponds apart from us.

Down but not out
About the time we will be heading for home, Duane & Lois will be returning for a six-week visit to the Philippines. Their original plan had been to return there sometime in February but then there was the accident. Last fall, while cutting down a tree in his backyard, Duane broke a couple of vertebrae in his neck and suffered nerve damage to his left eye when a large branch from that tree landed right on top of him. Several months later, his neck brace is off but his eye remains in a “cross-eyed” position. While the accident may have cramped Duane's style a bit, he has continued to do here what he normally does “over there” - father and mentor people. It's just that this time we have been the beneficiaries. But they miss their friends there and so they are going for a visit. Most exciting for Duane, he will be traveling up to Palanan to stay in his nipa hut in Dibunko, the Agta village where he has spent so much time over the last ten years or so. 

Who could blame him wanting to get back here?
He's had a lot of face time

Our son, Ed, has been home on spring break this past week but sadly, it has come to an end and so he will be returning to UW-Superior this evening. It has been wonderful having him around the house and having to maneuver around all the stuff that goes with him – books, movies, clothes and such. We've watched some movies together, gone out for dinner or ice cream a time or two, he got to connect with his siblings, a few of his friends, and his former boss (and an elder at our fellowship), Troy. It's been restful and renewing for him but later this afternoon he'll head back to school. The fact that he'll be home in less than two months makes leaving for him a little more easier.

Janet has had face time, too

Janet & Lynn have been in Texas the last few weeks visiting their son and daughter-in-law and being present for the birth of their second grandson. Through exchanged posts on facebook they have been enjoying themselves capitally but later this week they will have to say good-bye and head reluctantly for home. For how long is not clear to them. Perhaps they'll resettle in the Houston-metro area or perhaps they'll stay here for awhile. Time will tell.

Soon to be together again
Tara and Lyla are slated to fly out of Des Moines tomorrow to return to Colorado where Justin awaits them. Tara has been staying with her folks this last month or so due to complications that have arose with her pregnancy. While I'm sure she is eager to get back to her husband a heaviness is upon their family given the grave prognosis the doctor has given them regarding the little girl that continues to form within her.
Meanwhile Deborah remains at sea aboard the USS Mahan about half way through her five month deployment in the Mediterranean. At the same time, her husband, David, is moving to China for the next six months doing some business consulting. It's a separation they are not keen to prolong any longer than necessary but that is where his work is taking him.
Deborah's  home for the past few months
Comings and goings are the flow of our lives whether that going is down the street to school or across the ocean for a visit. Lord willing, we will all return to our places soon enough with stories to share of the things we saw and heard. And of course, we'll post the pictures on Facebook just as soon as we get back.

I lift up my eyes to the mountains—
    where does my help come from?
2 My help comes from the Lord,
    the Maker of heaven and earth.
3 He will not let your foot slip—
    he who watches over you will not slumber;
4 indeed, he who watches over Israel
    will neither slumber nor sleep.
5 The Lord watches over you—
    the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
6 the sun will not harm you by day,
    nor the moon by night.
7 The Lord will keep you from all harm—
    he will watch over your life;
8 the Lord will watch over your coming and going
    both now and forevermore.
Psalm 121, NIV

Friday, March 22, 2013

Unashamed and unafraid

But Peter and John spoke right back, 'Whether it’s right in God’s eyes to listen to you rather than to God, you decide. As for us, there’s no question—we can’t keep quiet about what we’ve seen and heard.'” Acts 4:19, The Message

It was such a short time ago that in Caiaphas' own courtyard Peter had denied knowing Jesus at all. Now, in the broadest daylight, he courageously confesses that he cannot help himself. He must speak about all the things he has heard and seen. He will not refrain from speaking Jesus' name. How could he? Only Luke told us about Jesus' prayer for Peter, that he would turn and strengthen his brothers (22:31-32). Here Luke presents the wonderful answer to that prayer.” A Fragile Stone: The Emotional Life of Simon Peter by Michael Card, p. 144

This past week in my devotional Bible reading I have been walking through Acts 4. It is the continuing story of what had begun in Acts 3 – how on a certain day, at three o'clock in the afternoon when all good sons of Abraham made their way to the Temple to pray, Peter and John had come across a lame beggar whom everyone knew and in a matter of moments a miracle had occurred. When the beggar had reached out his hand in hopes of collecting a few coins from those entering the Temple to pray, Peter, led by the Holy Spirit had given him something of far greater worth – the name of Jesus – and by faith in that name the lame man “was made strong” and experienced a “complete healing” (Acts 3:16, NIV). At the conclusion of chapter 2, Luke had made an observational gloss about the atmosphere of the early Church, how “everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles.” (2:43). And then Luke offers the lame man's healing in chapter 3 as Exhibit A. As it was explained to me recently, it was customary for devout Jewish men to stand as they prayed. Here, for the first time in his life, this once-lame man bounded his into the Temple courtyards and was able to join in the corporate prayers of his countrymen. 

Understandably, a crowd gathers to see this amazing site and soon after the Temple police and a cadre of priests show up and see and hear Peter preaching away uninhibited by their presence and unashamed of his Lord who by one touch had demonstrated his power and kindness to a lame beggar. With a nod of the high priest's head, the captain of the guard marches Peter and John off to jail to cool their heels and be put on ice for the night. Perhaps the religious leaders are hoping a night in the hoosegow will put them in a properly contrite mood by the time they have to give an account for their words and actions the next day in court. Luke doesn't tell us now Peter and John spent the night but if you ask me, I think before he fell into a fitful sleep Peter reveled in the fact that unlike the last time he had been in the high priest's courtyard a few months before, this time he did not flinch. He did not cower when the priests and their entourage of handlers showed up aghast that he would dare testify about the man they thought they were through with. I think that night he and John both reminded themselves of the words the Lord had shared with they and their companions during the last week of his life:

...they will lay hands on you and persecute you. They will deliver you to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors,and all on account of my name. This will result in your being witnesses to them. But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict.” (Luke 21:12-15, NIV)

My guess is they lay down in their cell that night confident and curious - confident that the words would come and curious how their words would play out before the tribunal.

I love the juxtaposition Luke portrays between the sheer arrogance of the ruling religious elite and the humble and yet courageous demeanor of these two “unschooled” men who “had been with Jesus.” When they ask, “Who gave you the right to heal this man?” they are not prepared for what they are about to hear. Maybe they think sitting in their luxurious robes and sitting in their impressive chairs while scowling their disapproval at them, the duo will cave and apologize for causing a scene in the Temple courtyard. But no, Peter will not defend himself. On the contrary, he goes on the offensive calling them to account for their scheming and plotting that led to the murder of Jesus Christ.

By the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, the One you killed on a cross, the One God raised from the dead, by means of his name this man stands before you healthy and whole. Jesus is ‘the stone you masons threw out, which is now the cornerstone.’ Salvation comes no other way; no other name has been or will be given to us by which we can be saved, only this one.” (4:10-12, Msg)

What preacher wouldn't love to be able to claim to have spoken so if ever called upon the carpet? This is something epic, one humble and ordinary man standing before the “who's who” of Israel and laying at their feet their heinous crime, like Mr. Smith in climatic scene on the floor of the House of Representatives in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. And when he has spoken his peace, they are speechless. What can they say? Here is the former lame man healed and before them is the man who had pronounced the name of Jesus over him. They are taken from the court so that the members of the council can confer and determine sentencing but reality is there is no crime to charge them with. And nervous because of the mood of the people whom they fear will riot if they do not release these men, they determine to let them go.

A warning will suffice, they figure. Put a little fear into their bones. But when they warn them to never let them catch them again teaching in the name of Jesus, Peter does not flinch a wit: “Whether it’s right in God’s eyes to listen to you rather than to God, you decide. As for us, there’s no question—we can’t keep quiet about what we’ve seen and heard.” (4:20, Msg) And much to the crowd's and the church's great delight, they release Peter and John who exit the courtroom with their heads held high and no doubt smiling at the victory that the Lord had just accomplished through them. 
I want to be like Jefferson Smith, too...
Every disciple worth his salt hopes that when called upon they will be as fearless as Peter sounds in this passage. As I travel to Africa next week, I am not going off to Muslim lands nor to any places that I am aware of that are antagonistic to the gospel. Still I pray that if the opportunity arises and if called upon I will be as bold as these young lions and unashamed of my Lord who has done so much for me. I'm not likely to be called on the carpet like Peter and John any time soon whether there or here. However, while sitting next to someone on the plane or ministering to someone at the Jinja hospital I may be called upon to testify to the power and presence of the resurrected Lord who is able to heal and save like no other. May the Holy Spirit who filled Peter fill me! 
Me in my own resolve and strength
Me filled with the Holy Spirit

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Back to Africa

A week from today I'll be in Africa again. A year ago, two teams from our fellowship traveled to Africa because we had been invited and because we felt led to go. One team led by Troy, an elder at our fellowship, traveled to Kenya and stayed with a pastor and his wife who minister in one of the slums of Nairobi. The other team led by Randy, another elder of our fellowship, traveled to Uganda and ministered in Kampala, Jinja and several other communities. I was part of the Ugandan team and as I look back on that 12-day trip to the “Pearl of Africa” my biggest joy was meeting the people we did and my biggest fear was that we would not return. It is not that we wouldn't want to; it would be matters of time and money as it always seems to be. So, I'm thrilled to be going back.

John at our home in 2008
Our foray into Africa really began in the summer of 2008 when I received a call from a friend of mine who pastors in Minneapolis. He relayed to me that he had a Ugandan pastor staying at his cabin about twenty minutes outside of Chetek and wondered if he could come and stay with us. Hailing from the noisy, bustling city of Kampala that is never at rest, he found the quietness of a cabin in the woods of northern Wisconsin downright terrifying. And this is how I became acquainted with John. He stayed the weekend with us, preached at the weekly worship gathering and that evening our mutual friend from the Twin Cities picked him up and drove him to his next ministry assignment. A couple of families in our fellowship began to support the ministry to orphans that John's fellowship was involved in at the time but I did not hear from him again.

John at Refuge in 2011
In January 2011 the closest thing we have to a missions “committee” met to plan our spring missions “event”. They informed me that the Lord had laid Africa on their heart and that whatever we did it had to be about Africa. So, we began to make plans and a logical thought that emerged from that planning was that we needed to have a man from Africa present at our African missions event. Some phone calls were made and emails sent all of which came to naught. In the mean time, the other plans for the weekend – ethnic dinner and prayer gathering – continued to be made. Our event was slated to begin on a Friday night in late April. On the Monday morning before, I received a call. It was my friend from Uganda, John. “Hello, Pastor Jeff. I am in Chicago and I am looking for accommodations.” The association our fellowship belongs to hosts an annual convention and that year it was held in Chicago. Like a lot of Africans, John had flown in early in hopes of having opportunity to share his ministry with interested fellowships. Of course we were interested – and, providentially, in need - and so that is how a man from Africa happened to end up at our missions event that was focused on, specifically, the countries around the horn of Africa, Uganda among them. As part of his opening remarks on Sunday morning at the worship gathering, in his rich Ugandan accent, he invited us all to “go to Africa and serve the Lord!”

Bishop Success of Nigeria
Our missions event was, from our perspective, a success. Not only was it well attended but the three main components – dinner, prayer and message – came together better than expected. On Monday morning, I took John to Eau Claire to catch the Greyhound and send him on his way with the hope that sometime in the near future I would come and visit him. But something greater than we knew was in process. Two weeks later I received a call from another friend of mine in the Twin Cities area informing me that he had a pastor from Nigeria who was looking for a venue to share his ministry. And that is how another African man found Refuge. A month later, I received a call from a pastor in Duluth who informed me that he had a pastor from Liberia who was wondering if he could share at our weekly gathering. So in three successive months, three men of Africa had stood in our sanctuary, prayed in their local dialect and extended the same invitation for some of us to go and visit them in theirs.

Me at Namutumba
In 2012, two teams did just that and on Sunday, March 18, 2012, I finally stood in Pastor John's pulpit and returned the favor of preaching at their worship gathering just as he had done so twice before in ours. Of course, there was far more to our trip than just that. We met so many other wonderful people both of Ugandan – Pastor John and Sylvia, Pastor Deason of Gospel Messengers Church in Kampala, Charles and Susan of YWAM, Judith of Divine Holistic Ministries, Susan, Godfrey, Nixon, Kirabo, and high school students Rhodah and Ronald – and American – the students of the Discipleship Training School at YWAM-Hopeland (especially Rebecca and Jessica) and Katie Davis of Amazima – descent. With any missions journey, it is very easy to get caught up in the logistical and financial side of things to the point that having gone you never go again. But one of the purposes of the journey, other than the Lord's leading to make the trip in the first place, is to connect with people and build relationships. Impoverished as so much of Africa is, their knee-jerk reaction to the presence of Americans is often the money we might bring with us (that certainly isn't true of all Africans.) But that's not why we went. We went to find and make a few friends and we were fortunate enough to find some.

Steve and Jan have lived in Africa a long time
Strengthening those friendships is why we're now going back. Every relationship requires regular deposits and while social media allows a person like myself to remain connected with any number of people around the globe there's really nothing quite like being there. We fly out of Chicago on Monday and will spend the first half of our trip in Kenya. Pastor Evanson Gitu is the pastor of Calvary Chapel in Ongata Ronga as well as the overseer of Imani Yako (see Imani Yako). We will stay with he and his family during our stay there. Of course, I have a friend from St. Paul – Steve Rasmussen of the Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology – who has lived there for many years and I hope that it works out that I can go and see him.

How we get from Kenya to Uganda is a plan that has yet to be worked out but we will be staying where we stayed last year at the YWAM-Hopeland campus outside of Jinja. From there Charis hopes to see her former roommate from her DTS – Susan – who lives literally right around the corner, Sheryl hopes to connect with an American woman who ministers in that neck of the woods, I hope to see Judith and Fred and the high school student I befriended last year – Ronald – and we all hope to pay Katie Davis and the folks of Amazima a visit for good measure. I know it's not a statement of faith but I'm gonna keep my fingers crossed.
                                         Amazima is a place I hope to get back to someday

I have a memory. It must have been '96 or '97 and it was a Friday. It was warm and on a lark, we packed up the van and drove up to Amnicon Falls State Park a little less than two hours from here. The Amnicon River flows through this small but beautiful park. It's a popular place during the summer months as lots of people like to swim in the hole underneath the big falls. What's more, it's usually like swimming in bath water. We sat atop the little falls - about 35 yards downstream from the “big” falls – all afternoon long as the kids enjoyed climbing all over the rocks and played in the gently flowing water. When it was time to get out, we changed and drove up Highway 2 to Port Wing and found a restaurant where we enjoyed a hearty fish fry. When we drove home that night we basked in the afterglow of a wonderful day spent together as a family.
Amnicon Falls (the big falls)
But the challenge with wonderful moments comes when you try and recapture them as we did – with a lot of pushing on my part – the following year. But there were different variables in play. Whereas the year before it had been dry, this year we had had a very wet spring. Consequently the usually placid Amnicon River was moving pretty fast and the water level was up. What's more, the year before it had been an unusually hot day so to sit in the warmish waters as they flowed past you had been positively refreshing. The day we chose to return to Amnicon was gray and overcast and the water just a little bit on the chilly side. But I was insistent. “It'll be fine,” I told Linda even though her maternal instincts were nearing alarm status. Even I could see that it would not do to sit atop the little falls so we chose to walk up stream and dabble at the edges of the river, outside of the current. But we had little children who had us outnumbered 4 to 2 and I had Emma in my arms. And just like that Ed got caught in the current. It's one of those slow-motion like memories that I can still recall how suddenly he was being dragged from us toward the little falls his eyes wide in fear with Linda, tripping over the myriad of basalt that peppers the bottom of the Amnicon, in hot pursuit. While he was caught with plenty of yards to spare from the top of the “little” falls our pleasant afternoon was abruptly over. The kids were scared and Linda was more than peeved that I had not heeded her gut feeling about getting into the water. This is the risk one takes when you try and recapture a wonderful memory – like a siren it may lure onto the rocks of disappointment and cost bodily harm to yourself or someone you love! So, having gone to Africa last year and enjoyed myself so capitally my biggest concern is resist the urge to repeat or replay that journey this year. There may be people we do not get to see and things we do not get to do but it'll be okay. This is this year's trip and the Lord has a different purpose for it – and for me – altogether. My challenge is to stay in step with him and see where he leads me. 
It was a great day the first time around...

Monday, March 18, 2013

St. Patrick's Day South-of-the-Border-style

Yesterday was St. Patrick's Day and as advertized a few posts ago (see Synergistic Swirl) our South-of-the-Border-style of celebrating it went on as planned. In fact, it flowed way better than I expected it given the variables involved: two fellowships of different ethnic backgrounds from two different communities coming together for the very first time and being led in worship by a man who was unknown to everyone except the family who had invited him to come and lead us. I expected a natural awkwardness and an understandable tentativeness simply due to the fact that all parties involved were, for the most part, strangers to one another. But not so. We danced together like partners who had been together for many a round of the Juarabe Tapatio (otherwise known as the Mexican Hat dance.)

David did not dress like this
I had spoke by phone with Monica on Saturday afternoon and asked if their friends who would be leading us in worship (David and Leah) would care to come in on that day to set up and get acclimated instead of having to rush things come Sunday morning. But she assured me that David (pronounced DA-VEED) would be their early the next day. I, of course, heard that as an American of European descent. If our service begins at 10 a.m., “early” - to me – is, at the very latest, 9 a.m. But David is not an American of European extract but one of Mexican lineage. 9 a.m. came and went as did 9:15 and 9:30. By that time, some of our own people were in the building most of them downstairs helping Renee in the kitchen. At 9:40 a.m., Austin walked into the building with Leah and jokingly reminded me that this was a South-of-the-border-style party after all. And yet within five minutes, David had joined his wife and they were tuning up while at the same time handing me their flash drive with the songs in English and Spanish upon them. By 9:50, many of the folks from the Hispanic Wesleyan Church began to enter the building and fill up the whole north side of the sanctuary (because it was the side closest to Rice Lake?) Dr. Ayling and his wife, Anna, arrived and after a quick greeting handed me his flash drive and then it occurred to me I had no one to run boards. Fortunately our daughter, Emma, is a quick study and within a few minutes had David and Leah set to go. It was, unbelievably, 9:59, and all the major players and many of the people who were going to be there from either fellowship were present and accounted for. (As it turned out, if there was anyone who was on “Mexico” time it was half of us from Refuge who slowly arrived between 9:50 and 10:40.)

A minute before we began, I quickly explained to David the general order of things and then our worship gathering began and flowed as if we had been doing this thing together every Sunday for years. David is an anointed worship leader who led us skillfully and yet with great subtlety (to me, the sign of a good worship leader is one who does not draw attention to himself whatsoever; simply by his playing and leading your attention drifts naturally where it is supposed to be.) Whether the song was in Spanish or in English, a spirit of worship resided in the place. I purposefully allowed the greeting time to go long. Not only were there approximately 150 people in the place that customarily has only 50 in it on any given Sunday but also to encourage both groups to try and mingle a bit. Since everyone was out of sorts to some degree it actually had a quite festive feel of things (which is appropriate for a fiesta.)

Leah with three of their four children

We also had some friends from Chetek Alliance Church on hand since by the end of this week a small team from their fellowship as well as a couple from ours will be heading to Guatemala over spring break to visit Anita at the Destiny of Hope Orphanage in Villa Nueva. So following our time of worship and prayer, we called everyone heading to Central America to come forward and spent some time praying over them.

Dr. Ayling
Dr. Ayling, the pastor of the Hispanic Wesleyan Church, is a native Chilean but you would think he was from Europe given his distinctive Anglo complexion and hair. And, once upon a time, his relatives were from there but they had long immigrated to Chile a few generations before he was even born so he is Chilean through and through. He was delightful to listen to as he shared in English and then would pause and translate the same into Spanish. By choice, he did not preach (“as I am hungry for tacos”) but he reminded us that a multi-ethnic gathering such as ours was the normal flavor of a kingdom event according to the Scriptures. Citing Galatians, he reminded us what the Apostle Paul said of this thing called “church”,

You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (3:26-28, NIV)


...pues todos sois hijos de Dios mediante la fe en Cristo Jesús. Porque todos los que fuisteis bautizados en Cristo, de Cristo os habéis revestido. No hay judío ni griego; no hay esclavo ni libre; no hay hombre ni mujer; porque todos sois uno en Cristo Jesús.” (3:26-28, La Biblia de las Américas)

And, of course, before he was finished he had prayed for us in Spanish as we insist every person of foreign descent do so in our place. I don't know what he was saying but I do know he petitioned God for us with mucho gusto to wit we all said “Amen!”

When the gathering was over, I know the ladies in the basement were heartily nervous fretting how all of us were going to be seated in the lower level and would their be enough to feed this small mob. But no worries. It was a Jesus-gathering after all and whenever he is host, the food never runs out and everyone always has enough. The lower level was packed to capacity but everyone found a place to sit and enjoyed a good meal together and we even had left-overs. While it's true the folks from HWC sat with themselves and the rest of sat with ourselves, that wasn't a matter of prejudice but natural affinity of people who out of habit sitting with those they are most comfortable with. I, however, sat with Louis and met a new friend and fortunately for me his English is way better than my Spanish. I hope I have cause to meet with him again.

My new friend, Louis

At the end of the day as people began to leave, Lindsey, the coordinator for Hispanic ministries at Red Cedar Community Church, approached me and shared with me what a blessing this gathering had been. “The Hispanic people do not usually feel welcome in Barron County so when a church goes out of their way to be hospitable it is huge blessing. So thank you.” If you ask me, the blessing was all ours.

We've been invited to join them some Sunday in Rice Lake and it was be wrong to not accept the invitation. Perhaps by Cinco de Mayo? But instead of tacos next time perhaps we sit down to a meal of corned beef and hash?

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

On Sunday I was in church all day long

Sunday I was in church all day long. When I was an intern at what is now City Church in Madison, Wisconsin back in the mid 1980s, that was easy to do on a Sunday at a fellowship that large. There were two services in the morning and then a service at night. That left the afternoon to have some lunch and nap a little or spend some time with my then girlfriend (now wife) or, if duty called, be present at some pastoral function. But by the time I became a pastor here in Chetek, the evening service – as it has in most places these days – had gone away. In the twenty-some years I have served as pastor here in Chetek, we have used that time slot periodically for Bible study, a weekly youth gathering, a service of healing or other special services. Much to Linda’s delight, after all these years I no longer feel the compunction to fill up every night of the week with some ministerial function. But not this past Sunday. On Sunday, as I noted at the beginning of this reflection, I was in church all day long.

The day started early as it has every Sunday morning since my first year here. Even when I don’t have to preach (like this past Sunday) I like to be at our facility by 4:30ish to journal, pray, open my Bible, and generally prepare my heart for the morning ahead. I like the quiet of the building and the idea that I will be uninterrupted for the next four hours. On account of daylight savings time, I had overslept and didn’t get to our facility until sometime after five. What’s more, I spent more time on Facebook than I normally do. But given that I didn’t have to preach I was relaxed as I walked around the sanctuary praying for our gathering and the other worship meetings that would be happening in our city that day.

"Second service" was at  CUMC
I didn’t have to preach because we were going to join Chetek United Methodist Church at their 11 o’clock Praise Service to witness four men take “the Resolution” made popular by the movie Courageous. During the month of February three guys from CUMC and one from Refuge had met on four successive Monday nights working through the materials that the church that produced the film created to spur men on be the fathers and husbands that God calls us all to be. Sunday was “graduation” day and when Mike from CUMC, the de facto leader of the group, asked if we pick a Sunday other than the 10th so that they could be present for Jim’s oath at Refuge, I had suggested that it would just be easier for us to come to them. And so that was the impetus of our joint worship gathering. We would convene at our regular time (10 a.m.), take care of our announcements, offering and spend a brief time in worship and prayer and then we would pause and drive the six or seven blocks over to CUMC and resume our worship there. Despite my pleading for everyone to go the distance and not bug out early, we did lose 3-4 families when we dismissed our gathering but the majority of our crew were on hand to witness the bold commitments and participate in this significant event.

Pastor Carrie brought the Word
There was a special presence of the Lord in the house. I chalk that up to the fact that like any good Father he likes it when his kids come together with a common purpose and in his name. Some of their worship selection was from the 20th Century but the joy was palpable. Pastor Carrie’s children’s sermon was simple and direct (and, as if on cue, little Kenny from Refuge made some cute, spontaneous observation that Art Linkletter would have been proud of) and then she preached extemporaneously from 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 (NRSV):

16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. 17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Carrie could not know that one of the discussion points we had at our weekly Alpha! gathering the night before had addressed this very issue. A few from Alpha! were present and wrestling with shame over past sins. One had purposely stayed home feeling so dejected at some foible he had committed recently that they were persuaded they had disqualified themselves from our fellowship. And then Pastor Carrie called the four men up, Mike gave a little background on the ministry and his desire to see another course begin following Easter and then she and I led these four men in “the resolution.”

I DO solemnly resolve before God to take full responsibility for myself, my wife, and my children.
I WILL love them, protect them, serve them, and teach them the Word of God as the spiritual leader of my home.
I WILL be faithful to my wife, to love and honor her, and be willing to lay down my life for her as Jesus Christ did for me.
I WILL bless my children and teach them to love God with all of their hearts, all of their minds, and all of their strength.
And on we went, back and forth, through all twelve resolutions to which all four men promised in unison, “I will.” When it was done we thanked God with a clap offering and then entered into a wonderful time of prayer at which popcorn-style people – CUMC and Refuge alike – asked for prayer or offered it for another or gave thanks for what God had done or shared an encouraging word to someone who had shared a heartfelt prayer need. It was another example of what “church” is supposed to be.

Just a girl from here serving "there"
My third stop of the day came after the worship gathering. Our friends at Chetek Alliance Church had planned a soup-supper fund raiser for the three individuals from their fellowship that will be heading to Guatemala during spring break to serve at Destino de Esperanza (Destiny of Hope) orphanage where Anita, a recently “retired” woman from their fellowship, has committed herself to serving Jesus there. So, a couple of families from Refuge and some from CUMC drove over to Alliance and enjoyed fellowshipping together over either homemade chicken noodle soup or Joy’s chili. Even though there were perhaps only 25 people on hand, our banter was so loud it seemed like a lot more were there.

It's more than a place
Linda and Charlie caught a ride home with Christine and one of the girls heading to Guatemala promised to get Emma home so I drove from Chetek Alliance over to Barron to attend a board meeting of The Well, the ministry to the Somali refugees who live in and around the county seat, and my fourth stop of the day. During our meeting, as I looked again around the circle, I thanked God for the diversity of our governing board – two from Barron Foursquare, one from First Baptist Church of Barron, one from Chetek Alliance, Wade, who worships at Cumberland Baptist, and myself. On that day we added a new member to our team – Wade’s former classmate, Kue, a man of Hmong descent who sometime ago moved, as Wade and Jessica had done six years ago, from southern California to the Midwest. He is a member of the Hmong Menomonie Alliance Church and plans to drive up here from time to time for fellowship and to help in the ministry here. North, south, east, west – we had come together in our common desire to see the gospel penetrate this unreached people group living in our midst. It wasn't a worship gathering per se. It wasn't even a prayer meeting. It was purposeful conversation and an exercise in decision-making for the benefit of the Somali and the gospel workers who serve them.

Our gathering looks something like this
Following the gathering, I drove back home and laid down for a bit. My day in “church” wasn't over yet as Troy and Marie had invited Linda and I over to dinner. Troy & Marie are the hosts of our present Alpha! Course and every Saturday night 10-11 people crowd into their front room to break bread, worship, study the life of Jesus and pray for one another. Troy & Marie live in the trailer park on the “other side of the tracks” and ever since the Baptists vacated it to move into their new facility over ten years ago there has been no gospel presence in their neighborhood. Until now. While their home does not have a cross over it, it definitely has been serving as a house-church of some kind for the last two months. We were invited over for dinner as Troy's brother-in-law had some questions he needed answered. A month ago when he and his wife were in attendance when Troy and Marie had renewed their wedding vows, something I had said in my brief message had got him thinking. They have not been active at the fellowship they had affiliated with for a couple of years. So after dinner we spent some time sharing what “church” is all about and our need to connect regularly with a local expression of it in order to encourage us in the way of salvation. I was not pitching Refuge – I was stressing that he and his family needed to find a place and then put roots down.

When we came home that night, I was a little tired. Not only because of the hour we had lost that day due to daylight savings time but also because I had been on the go since early that morning. But it had been a good day doing good work - the best kind of work I know to do, worshiping and praying and breaking bread and joining together with different members of the body of Christ in our area all for the sake of the One who makes us one in Him. Because after all, church is not a place at all - it is a living, breathing community of faith and wherever a handfull of disciples gather in His name church is in service.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Synergistic Swirl

syn·er·gy [sin-er-jee]
1. the interaction of elements that when combined produce a total effect that is greater than the sum of the individual elements, contributions, etc.; synergism.

Related Quotations
 “Synergy is the creation of a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.“
 —Ray French, Charlotte Rayner, Gary Rees, Sally Rumbles, et al., Organizational Behaviour (2008)

I first heard about the concept of synergy through my pastor at some ministerial function in the early 90s. While I don't recall him using the phrase “creative partnerships” he did cite the principal in Scripture from (of all places!) Leviticus that speaks of the many benefits of obedience to the Law among them being, “Five of you will chase a hundred, and a hundred of you will chase ten thousand, and your enemies will fall by the sword before you” (Lev 26:8). His idea being that we can do far more together. Honestly, I don't recall his teaching having a lot of impact on me – until I experienced it firsthand here at Refuge about five or six years ago.

Don't worry. It's grape juice.
I think it was during my second year of ministry in Chetek that we had our first Thanksgiving Eve Service. Growing up Lutheran, our church always joined with another local Lutheran fellowship for a service of thanksgiving and praise on the night before Thanksgiving. It always had something of a “homecoming” kinda-feel to it because several former members of our youth group away at college would show up at it. The service usually included the standard elements of any Lutheran service – liturgy, Word and table. And, of course, focused on giving thanks. Now that I was a part of a Pentecostal fellowship, how appropriate would it be (I reasoned) to have a gathering of our own. Those first years, our service would include some worship choruses and a hymn or two and seasonally appropriate Scripture readings but instead of preaching we would open it up for testimonies. Some years people would give thanks “popcorn-style” and other years, especially when the attendance was fairly low, everyone would take a turn. The gathering would conclude with communion together. But unlike the standard little thimble-size cup full of grape juice and small piece of cracker (the usual Pentecostal approach to the Lord's Supper), I would bake up two loaves of bread and we would pass the loaves to one another, tearing off large chunks of fresh-baked bread while imbibing regular glass-fulls of grape juice as we remembered his Passion and love for each of us. (I think my kids liked this gathering if for only that reason.)

Most years our attendance was fairly small (15-25) and the usual suspects would give thanks (i.e., the people who were quick to speak up at the Sunday worship gathering when given the chance.) That it was small was because I refused to embrace a cultural reality here – deer hunting. At that time, perhaps all the men of our fellowship hunted and maybe half the women. Since the deer rifle season in Wisconsin usually falls during the week of Thanksgiving, some of the guys are often away at deer camp or after a late afternoon in a tree stand were snoozing in their lazy boy at home. The idea of putting some decent clothes on and coming to a worship gathering where they may feel the pressure to share something extemporaneously was not the kinda carrot needed to get them out of their recliner. But refusing to concede defeat, I just continued to hold the gathering year-in and year-out for the dozen or so people who would show up often frustrated afterward that we as a fellowship were somehow missing the boat on what should be a significant worship event.
The first Thanks-Bringing at Refuge
And then Melissa approached me with an idea: what if we moved the gathering to a Sunday morning before deer hunting begins (and the mania that a lot of the guys get caught up around here) and conclude with a Thanksgiving dinner – turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy and all the fixings? It was, in retrospect, a synergistic moment. We would come together on a Sunday morning, forgo with our usual liturgy of worship choruses, prayer and Word, and open up the floor for testimony. Our spoken thanksgivings would become both praise and message. And then, when that had run its course, we would pause, set up the tables in the sanctuary and sit down and eat as a community of faith, like Moses and the elders did eating in the presence of the Lord (see Exodus 24:9). This is how the annual “Thanks-Bringing” event began – a joining of my desire to see people come together and hear of the works of God in each other's lives and a desire of Melissa's to see people sit together as a community of faith. Today it is, I think if you asked people, one of the most favorite worship gatherings of the year. In fact, the last few years you could almost call the gathering evangelistic as frequently there are guests on hand outside the Refuge family and the greater family of faith who hear the wonderful works of God from the lips of his people. And, as intended, they leave with a practical application of Psalm 34:8 - “Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the man who takes refuge in him”(NIV) in their mind and in their bellies.
ThanksBringing '10

Now another synergistic front is swirling. It all began at a nurture gathering a month or so ago. LeAnne shared at the monthly gathering of the leadership team of Refuge that she felt we needed to do something fun together. A few years ago, after Dennis and Vickie lost their 21-year old daughter, Denise, to cancer we discovered that the best way to embrace them during their time of grieving was to hold a card party in the basement of our facility. Dennis and his family love to play cards and so Justin, our former youth leader here, organized a night of cards and board games (what Mrs. Mattson would have had to say about that!) It was, frankly, a lot of fun and LeAnne was of the opinion we needed to do something on that order of things. Now Renee, who doesn't like to play cards or board games at all, picked up on that and shared with everyone that she, in fact, thought we should do a fiesta night. Monica, the one and only full-blooded Hispanic in our fellowship, had agreed to help her put this together and so the wheels began to churn. But when calendars were shared and given the numerous activities a lot of our kids are in, our fiesta was nearly put on siesta for lack of a free night much to Renee's dismay. And then I had an idea: what if we did it like Thanks-Bringing? Come together on a Sunday morning, worship together and pray for God's work in, say, Mexico and then enjoy a taco feed afterward?

(With English subtitles)
But the swirl began to spin faster. For several years running now, whenever someone of foreign extraction has been with us, I have asked them to pray for us in their native tongue, as a way of lacing the atmosphere with the sounds of the nations (see Culture Shock and Awe). When Renee mentioned wanting to do a fiesta night, it occurred to me that we need to expand our sensory experience and plan ethnic dinners from time to time so we also have the smell and taste of the nations in our olfactory glands and on our pallet. At the same time, LeAnne has on occasion mentioned another faith community that she was a part of in the past that, from time to time, encouraged worship in a different language (not tongues). Here, too, would be another way to get the nations in our heart. And then it happened – the synergistic swirl of the Spirit that takes all these various components and mixes them together resulting in an event that is far greater than any one of the individual parts could have brought about by themselves. Monica thought of bilingual friends of hers who live in a community about an hour north of here and suggested she call them to see if they could come and lead us in worship on the Sunday of our fiesta. And then I thought if we're going to have worship in Spanish and English, wouldn't it be neat if we had someone who could preach in Spanish and English?

Dr. Ayling is our kinda people
I thought of my friend, Todd, on staff at Red Cedar Community Church in Rice Lake about 16 miles north of here. I knew they had begun an outreach to the Hispanic community in that area so I called him to see if he could help me. He directed me to Dr. Steven Ayling, the pastor of the Hispanic Wesleyan Church (HWC) that Red Cedar launched a few years ago. I spoke to him by phone and knew immediately he was not from around here. I was calling really to find out how the ministry was going, to learn how we might pray for him and ask him for any suggestions for our fiesta. After a few minutes he announced, “I must come see you.” I assured him that I would be happy to come and see him but he was adamant – he wanted to come and meet me (besides, he said, that would give his wife and he a reason to visit the Chetek Bakery, a favorite stop of theirs). And so this past Monday afternoon, Troy (one of our elders) and I met with Dr. Ayling and his wife, Anna (who speaks no English whatsoever). They are native Chileans and have served at HWC for the last year or so. At that meeting he shared with us that while the Hispanic population in Barron County grows significantly during the growing season due to the influx of migrants who work at the giant Seneca operation in the western part of our county, at any given time there are, perhaps, 850 people of Hispanic descent who live year-round in Barron County many of whom speak no English whatsoever. The need is real and yet unnoticeable to people of Anglo orientation simply because they do not all congregate together in a neighborhood but spread out here and there. In any case, I rehearsed to Dr. Ayling our plans for our fiesta feed and then asked if he would be available to come and share with us that morning. He not only readily agreed; he informed me that he had already spoken to their group and they would be happy to join us on that day. I had just been hoping to score a bilingual speaker for our gathering. Now, perhaps 25 of them would be coming with him. Clearly – and gratefully – God has far greater vision than we do.

Even the rednecks among us might try this
So, what started out as a night of fun for the Refuge family with a taco feed included has swirled into a worship gathering of kingdom proportions – two fellowships unfamiliar with each other of two different national origins coming together under one roof to celebrate our mutual Lord and Savior in our unique tongues followed by a meal together prepared by all parties involved. It will be awkward. It will be confusing (at times). The house will be fuller than we're used to seeing it. People will sit in the places that we usually place ourselves. And it won't be “church” as we know it. But it is another step – and a synergistic one, at that – in fulfilling John's great vision of the vast multitude “that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb...” (Rev 7:9, NIV) crying out the praises of our God. As Monica would put it, “Gloria a dios! 'Venga tu reino. Hágase tu voluntad, así en la tierra como en el cielo!'” (Matthew 6:10, La Biblia de las Américas). And given that it will be St. Patrick's Day as well, a citation from the Gaelic version of Mark's Gospel is in order: “Is thuirt e riutha: Falbhaibh feadh an t-saoghail gu leir, agus searmonaichibh an soisgeul dhan h-uile creutair. Esan a chreideas `sa bhaistear, sabhailear e: ach esan nach creid, theid a dhiteadh.” (Mark 16:15-16, see