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, April 24, 2013

Ignorance really can be bliss

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.” Acts 4:10-12, The Message

Fred and Judith
I don't always listen very well. It's true. Ask my wife. Sometimes I only hear half a sentence and take action on that which I have heard (or thought I heard). While in Uganda recently, I missed something and not even because it was lost in translation. Rather, I didn't hear because I wasn't a part of that conversation and, I believe, providentially so. It happened like this: On our last day in Uganda, Troy and I were invited by friends Fred and Judith Kiwanuka of Divine Holistic Ministries to join them at a Women of Hope gathering in Njeru, a community on the other side of the Nile. Women of Hope (WOH) is a network of single moms living with HIV and with those affected by the same. They come from various communities and are made up of women of several faith-backgrounds who regularly come together for mutual support, encouragement and inspiration. Last year when I was in Uganda I met WOH's founder, Judith, and spent part of an afternoon listening and sharing with the WOH group near Wairaka.

What do you say to someone with a potentially fatal disease who became afflicted with this condition by no fault of their own (many get it from their husbands who have been unfaithful to them)? I don't like to go with pat answers so on the 15-20 minute car trip over to our gathering, I chatted with Fred, Judith's husband, while at the same time silently asked the Holy Spirit to give me a “word” to share with them. Meanwhile, Troy sat in the back seat with Judith conversing about WOH and this is the conversation I missed (simply because I was speaking with Fred in the front seat.) 

 We arrived at our meeting place which was an open yard underneath a large tree in what seemed to me to be a neighborhood in the seedier side of town. While some ladies were already there most trickled in during the first half hour or so during which time introductions were made and we were welcomed in traditional Ugandan style: with dancing and singing. Following this a number of the women shared testimonies (both Troy and I had translators but they spoke so softly and their skill was limited so the result was that we had no idea what was being said other than they were happy saying it!) And then I was given the floor. As I looked over the small crowd of women and a handful of children, some adorned in what we might call their “Sunday best” others in “Friday casual”, I saw 45 individuals whose lives had been changed irrevocably by the sinful acts of others looking intently at these two Americans, one of whom had only one good arm. I chose to use Acts 14:22 as a launching pad of sorts of the various thoughts that were presently rolling around in my head like a box of marbles loose on a Formica table - “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” It's the only record Luke gives us of the words that Paul and Barnabus shared with the various fellowships they had founded on their return to Antioch. “Anyone signing up for the kingdom of God has to go through plenty of hard times,” says The Message. Indeed.
This 10-year-old girl is living with HIV
I shared with them the story about Steve, a guy from our fellowship who last year was in a terrible motorcycle accident. On a beautiful Thursday early evening in May his Harley came wheel to face with a deer that had run out unexpectedly from the woods and in one moment his world was turned upside down. Nearly a year later Steve's physical wounds have healed and he has at long last been discharged from the hospital but many challenges are ahead of him, namely regaining the mental acuity to drive and operate heavy equipment. Steve and his wife, Kari, have been members at Refuge for years and Steve was serving as a deacon at the time of the accident. How could such a thing happen to a generous, hard-working, God-loving man? How could God allow such an accident? And yet, there it is: a disciple of Jesus has been laid up indefinitely due to whatever causes skittish deer to act as they do. But God has been faithful. His family is reasonably well for the wear. An independent landscaper by trade, he is the only bread-winner for his family and yet after going nearly an entire year without employment all their bills are paid due to the generosity of many, many people. While his future is uncertain he is counting on God to continue to be faithful to him and his family based on his history with God during the past year.

I shared other things related to his story – trivia I will share in another post – but then I turned the gathering over to Troy and asked him to share about the accident that caused him to lose his right arm. In 1994, near the end of the first crop of hay on his new land, Troy's life was also irrevocably turned upside down when in moment of inattention he got caught up in a piece of machinery that severed his right arm and his left and were it not for divine intervention he would have lost his head - and his life – as well. While initially the medical team were successful in reattaching both arms, ultimately the right arm had to be taken just below the elbow. Troy's journey toward recovery and healing was a long one and fraught with hardship but his gospel at that season of his life was: “God did not will for me to lose my arm but in it he has a will for me.” I personally believe that this mantra, forged in the fire of adversity of many different kinds, has made all the difference in his life. Troy shared as much and then turned the gathering back over to me.

Having prefaced our remarks with these testimonies I then shared the story from Acts 3 of the healing of the crippled beggar who sat at the gate Beautiful. He, too, had a hopeless condition. At the age of 38, he had never walked a day in his life. His legs were just an agglomeration of bones and tissue. And then his red letter day occurred. Peter and John, on their way to corporate prayer at the Temple, pass near him and this unnamed beggar holds out his hand in hopes of bagging a few benevolent coins. What happened next surprised him, the crowd and, no doubt, the apostles as well. Peter takes a look at the man and I can only presume that at that moment faith arose in his heart for suddenly he blurts out, “Silver and gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk” (Acts 3:6, NIV). And a miracle transpires: he takes the crippled man by the hand, yanks him to his feet and in an instant his deformed legs and bones become whole. Within minutes he is entering the Temple courts for the first time in his life leaping for joy the entire way. All because of the great name of Jesus – the only name under heaven by which men and women might be saved and healed.
At that moment, the natural progression of my speak was to ask for those who wanted prayer to come forward and be anointed with oil so I asked Judith if I could do that. As I recall, she looked at me quizzically, told me to wait a moment, spoke to the ladies in Luganda for a bit, and then looked at me and said, “Okay.” She extended the invitation to the group and almost all 45 of these ladies stood to their feet and approached Troy and I and for the next 15 minutes or so I anointed every forehead with the anointing oil I had brought along and boldly proclaimed the name of Jesus over each of them. Honestly, I didn't think I was doing anything too remarkable as I have done this many times before in various settings here at home. But when it was all over, our hosts were thrilled for unbeknownst to me half of the women in this group were Muslim. That was the part of the conversation I had missed on the way over. I had assumed that these were all Christian ladies who had come together to be encouraged in the Lord. I had no idea that it was a mixed crowd made up of followers of Allah who had willingly volunteered for a cross of frankincense oil to be smeared upon their forehead.

I'm glad I didn't know that little tidbit. I would have screwed that moment up otherwise. Me being me I would have been over-thinking the moment too much, trying to figure out how to express Jesus in a culturally sensitive way. Clearly God had other plans and had chosen to use an ignorant preacher from northern Wisconsin to bless these women in the name of Jesus. Told in a different setting, this story could make me sound bold and daring but I know better. It was, as it were, an accident, a serendipitous reminder that God is, well, God and can use anyone he chooses to accomplish his purpose whether they know what they're doing or not. 
Update: I recently was chatting on-line with Judith who shared the following with me: Hi Pastor Jeff,
Blessings and Love to you, one women you prayed too, she now healed and ok. she told me to tell you that. No pain any more. love Judith
. This is all the more reason to thank God how he uses us in spite of ourselves.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Returning to my old routine

“Well, I'm back.”
  - Sam to Rosie and Elanor upon his return from the Grey Havens in The Return of the King

A week ago Thursday night, Emma and I walked in the back door of our home on Fifth Street at the conclusion of our 12-day trip to Africa and back. It was a wonderful brief adventure full of stories a few of which I will attempt to share in another post or two. Since returning from Africa, I really haven't had a lot of time to relax. In fact, if anything a case could be made that those twelve days that I was out of my regular routine was a vacation as opposed to a “ministry trip”. Our phones didn't work (due to not having the correct SIM cards), we had very limited access to the internet and obviously, we weren't in “Kansas” any more. So, most mornings I would arise, enjoy a simple East African breakfast of boiled eggs, bananas, bread and hot tea, and head out into whatever we had planned for that day. At night, I would journal, sit up and share with members of our team or read my Bible under cover of mosquito netting. It was a very simple routine that we took to fairly easily. But since returning all of us have been in a hurry to “catch up” on our lives.

The Day Away was worth getting home for
It began during the six-hour trip back from Chicago. In our absence, life here had gone on without commercial interruption. All of us seemed to be on the phone during the trip home touching base and getting brought up to speed on things that had transpired while we were away. For me, that meant learning of a couple in our fellowship who had experienced another miscarriage. Another family had experienced something of a blow-up. On the other hand, the plans for the Holy Spirit-day for the current Alpha course were all in place so that all I needed to do was show up Saturday morning with my guitar ready to lead worship. As for Emma and I, we both intentionally laid low on Friday catching up on our sleep and staying close to home. For the first time in years I went grocery shopping with Linda before heading off to my first official day of track practice. But by the next day, the “vacation” was over – the “Day Away” on Saturday, the Sunday worship gathering, the monthly Board of Deacons meeting on Monday night, visiting with a couple from our fellowship who had just returned from their own ministry trip to Guatemala on Tuesday night, Tom Stamman on Wednesday night, a community meeting to hear from two of the candidates who have applied for the District Superintendent position for our school district last night – yeah, the party's over. I'm definitely back.

She's got the lead in this
For Emma, she's been running herself between catching up on school work, getting ready for solo ensemble, attending play practice and dance lessons, going to forensic practice and the like. In fact, every time I see her she seems a little flush in the face as if she has literally been running from appointment to appointment. But when I ask her how's she doing her standard reply is, “wonderful.” As much as she liked being in Africa, she thoroughly enjoys the life she leads. And that's a good thing.

Now that's a Kenyan road
A couple from our fellowship purchased my airline ticket as a loan so I have returned from Africa owing about $1,000. Sunday afternoon, Roselawn called and asked if I could sub the next day. How could I say no? And then on Monday, they asked if I could sub the next day and Thursday as well. I took those assignments as well. So my first full day back in the office wasn't until Wednesday. As much as a blessing as it was to “go to Africa” a second time, creature of habit that I am it sure is nice to get back to my “old routine.” But things here aren't “same-o, same-o.” On the contrary, there is much work to be done and not just busy-work either. By the grace of God, lives are in process here and I live with the sense that some of the work I do has eternal merit. I like traveling to encourage brothers and sisters in the Lord in other places and hope to do much more of it in the future. But in the mean time it's good to be home, to sit in my chair in my office as I compose these lines and pace in our sanctuary as I pray for my family and congregation. Being in the friendly confines again doesn't breed contempt but rather a profound sense of gratefulness that of all the places there are to serve in the world I get to serve here.

Sure hope to get back sooner than later