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, June 26, 2013

One small touch

When the apostles in Jerusalem received the report that Samaria had accepted God’s Message, they sent Peter and John down to pray for them to receive the Holy Spirit. Up to this point they had only been baptized in the name of the Master Jesus; the Holy Spirit hadn’t yet fallen on them. Then the apostles laid their hands on them and they did receive the Holy Spirit.” Acts 8:14-17, The Message

Most people who read this passage of Scripture are drawn to it because what they think it has to say about their particular version of pneumatology (i.e., the study of the Holy Spirit and spiritual things); whether Luke is saying that Holy Spirit-infilling normally is a separate event following salvation or this was a solitary “out of the ordinary” kind of experience for a decidedly out-of the-ordinary event. (Whichever way you choose to answer that usually says more about your personal convictions about these things than it has to do with the story itself). But what gets my attention is the descriptive statement, “Then the apostles laid their hands on them...” In that small gesture, something of incredible significance is occurring right before our eyes but if we're not paying attention we'll totally miss its import.

Philip if he had lived in the "old" West
Like a lot of biblical writers, Luke is known for his economy of words. Case in point is his comment describing the after-effect of Philip's ministry in Samaria. Philip shows up practically out of breath from running away from Jerusalem where at the moment a young zealot by name of Saul is rounding up the Christians there following the death of Stephen. But instead of keeping a low profile, he gets up on a stump, preaches Jesus and is used by the Lord to heal many paralyzed individuals as well as exorcise demonic spirits from many others. And all Luke will say about these remarkable things is: “So there was great joy in that city” (v. 8). He clearly was not a 21st century writer who would have relayed this story in far more dramatic fashion.

When it happens in the Bible it's a big deal
In like manner, he relays what happens when Peter and John show up to confirm the rumors they had been hearing in Jerusalem that Samaria had received the word of God. Luke doesn't bother to bring us into the moment of what their follow-up entailed but I infer that it involved some conversations with Philip and at the very least, having a meal or two with these new Samaritan believers. Whatever they saw was confirmation enough that the rumors were true, that there were now Christ-followers in Samaria and so at Philip's urging they prayed for these new believers in Jesus to receive the Holy Spirit. And what happens next is a “whoa” moment in Scripture because in sacramental fashion, Peter and John, both law-abiding Jewish men lay their hands – probably for the first time - upon redneck, lowlife Samaritans. The moment is awe-ful, fateful and rather humorous all at the same time.

Most of us who have grown up in church or at least are familiar enough with our Bible, know enough to understand that Samaritans in Jesus' day were considered inbreds by the rest of the Jewish population of that region. Though once upon a time they had been part of the family, following the end of the Northern Kingdom in 722 BC much of the population had been deported. The current denizens of Samaria were the descendents of a mixed bag of people who had been planted there by later foreign kings to work the land. Ajith Fernando has this to say about the centuries old schism between the two groups:

"Dude, what are you doing?"
Animosity toward Jerusalem among the Samaritans had deep historical roots. They were refused a share in rebuilding the Jerusalem temple (see Ezra 3:7-4:5), so they erected a rival temple on their hill, Gerizim. The Judean ruler John Hyrancus destroyed this temple and conquered Samaria in the second century B.C. When the Romans conquered Palestine in 63 B.C. they liberated Samaria from Judean control. (Acts: The NIV Application Commentary, p.273)

That all adds up to a lot of bad blood. No wonder the woman at the well in John 4 is incredulous that Jesus, a Jew, would even bother to talk with her. No wonder, at another time James and John asked Jesus for permission to call hellfire down on a bunch of inhospitable Samaritans (Luke 9:53-54). And yet a year or so later here is the same John back in Samaritanland, along with Peter, ready to bless their ancient foe with the blessing of the Father that had been given to them. I wonder at the moment if he was amused by the irony of it all?

But in that gesture, that laying on of hands, Peter and John are declaring that these Samaritans are equals, members and participants in the new covenant with Jesus Christ. Whether or not they had the theology of it all worked out at that moment isn't clear but by laying their hands on them it can only mean that ultimately they will reach that conclusion. Of this particular episode in the history of the Church, John Stott says,

More radical than this
...the Samaritan schism had lasted for centuries. But now the Samaritans were being evangelized, and were responding to the gospel. It was a moment of significant advance, which was also fraught with great peril. What would happen now? Would the long-standing rift be perpetuated? The gospel had been welcomed by the Samaritans, but would the Samaritans be welcomed by the Jews? Or would there be separate factions of Jewish Christians and Samaritan Christians in the church of Jesus Christ? The idea may seem unthinkable in theory; in practice it might well have happened. There was a real 'danger...of their tearing Christ apart, or at least of forming a new and separate church for themselves' [quoting Calvin]. (The Bible Speaks Today: The Message of Acts, by John R.W. Stott, p. 157)

I'm sure at the time in the Jerusalem church there were some who longed for the old rift to be healed. I'm also sure there were others who would allow the Samaritans to come back in on a probationary status while pedigrees could be checked out. But here in one fell swoop it is the apostles' assessment that these distant “cousins” were in fact now “brothers and sisters in Christ” and should be respected and welcome as such. I wonder how quickly the Jerusalem Jewish “pure-breds” embraced their “mudblood” relations? Based on the previous conflict between the Hebrew Christians and the Hellenized Christians (see Acts 6), probably quickly in some places and not so quickly in others. So for Peter and John to act as such not only did it show spiritual insight but also demonstrate moral courage. Had they held back it very well could have meant, the development of a new and subtle schism in the Body as, to use Michael Green's words, “converts from the two sides of the 'Samaritan curtain' found Christ without finding each other.” Indeed.

One small step that changed everything
In 1969, when Neil Armstrong stepped upon the moon for the first time he uttered the now famous line, “That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” It wouldn't be too much of a stretch to say that when Peter and John laid their hands on these new believers, Samaritans the lot of them, it was one small touch for these men, one giant embrace for the Church universal – the first of many more embraces to come (see Acts 15). That kind of change would take generations to get into the milieu of Jewish disciples. Acceptance of Gentile believers would take even longer. But great shifts in perspective always begin such – a small seed, a small step, a small gesture made that in time results in great good. As Fernando puts it,

It is providential that through the ministry of leaders from the Jerusalem church the Samaritans received the Spirit. It helped maintain the unity of the early church...It helped [the new Samaritan Christians] begin their life as Christians with an attitude of warm love toward their traditional enemies. Perhaps somewhere in this process, they repented of their attitudes of animosity toward Jerusalem. For the Jerusalem Christians too, it was important that the authenticating sign of the conversion of the Samaritans took place when the apostles were there and through their mediation. Accepting Samaritans to their fold also involved some major attitude shifts on their part. Therefore, clear evidence that God was in these events was necessary. (Acts: The NIV Application Commentary, p. 273)

One thing is for sure, as they leave town everyone has undergone change. The Samaritans have been blessed with the Holy Spirit – a blessing, as it has already been pointed out, mediated by the Jewish apostles. But Peter and John leave changed as well for on their return journey to Jerusalem they stop in many a Samaritan village to share Jesus there (8:25). It's a brand new day for everyone, the first of many new days to come for all believers everywhere.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Jesus is not ju ju

ju·ju noun \jü-(ˌ)jü\

1 : a fetish, charm, or amulet of West African peoples
2 : the magic attributed to or associated with jujus
Source: Merriam-Webster Free Online Dictionary

Anyone who won’t shoulder his own cross and follow behind me can’t be my disciple.” Jesus as quoted in Luke 14:27, MSG

People who like to write about spiritual growth and formation like to quote guys like Bonhoeffer who once wrote, “When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die.” I've come across this wonderful little nugget now and again over the years in devotionals, commentaries and treatises of inspirational value. In eleven words Bonhoeffer captured the essence of what it means to be a follower of Jesus: He's the boss, I'm not; even though I like to be blessed, I choose to follow him even when it appears I am being cursed; Jesus isn't my co-pilot – he's the pilot period. And that means contrary to what I may have heard elsewhere, “just add Jesus” is not a formula for the blessed life. He is not a good luck charm or ju ju that we rub when the cards are down.

As a volunteer chaplain at the Barron County Justice Center, I have heard plenty of stories of woe and despair over the years. I try and listen with a discerning ear and be a voice of God in their personal turmoil. “In my distress I called to the LORD; I cried to my God for help (Psalm 18;6, NIV)” the psalmist prayed. I have prayed many a prayers with contrite prisoners and not a few times handed over my handkerchief to them that they may have something to wipe away their tears other than their shirt sleeve. But for some of them, when the storm passes as far as I can tell they return to life as they know it. There's a reason they call it “jailhouse religion” after all. 

I think of a woman who came to Christ at the JC a year or so ago. She was a “lifer” (as the guards refer to some of the inmates there) – someone who is doing life at the Justice Center six months at a time. She was from our town and we had known each other for several years. When she needed a gas voucher or help with her rent, she'd usually come around and share with me some hard-luck story from her life. Frankly, I often helped her for the sake of her young daughter who through no fault of her own was captive to her mom's whims and impulses. When she was locked up again, a guard had actually prayed with her to receive Christ and asked me to see her. As skeptical as I was that she was on the level, when I sat down with her in P.V. 2 I saw something in her eyes that persuaded me that something real had transpired; that this was perhaps a true spiritual conversion that had occurred. We met regularly for the next several months. Her revocation hearing was coming up and she was hoping the judge would sentence her to a center that specialized in the treatment of those struggling with addictions. Instead, he sentenced her to seven years in prison. We had met shortly before the hearing and I reminded her that no matter what went down in that courtroom, God loved her and was for her and if it was her lot to go to prison he would go there with her. While she agreed with me her voice lacked conviction. And when the judge threw what part of the book he could throw at her, she called it quits with this “Jesus experiment.” A day or so later I was informed by the Director of Inmate Services that she no longer wished to see me.

I find her story a good example of what shallowness of soul we disciples at times reveal when the poop hits the fan. Like Job in our despair we cry out, “Oh, that I had someone to hear me! I sign now my defense – let the Almighty answer me...” (31:35, NIV). You know the old saying, “Be careful for what you wish for because you may get it”? Well, he gets more than he bargains for as God shows up in the storm and takes him to task: “Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you and you shall answer me” (38:2-3, NIV). In my mind, I can't read that without imagining Elihu taking a few precautionary steps back from Job lest lightning strike him as well. For several chapters running, Jehovah lets Job have it:

Where were you when I created the earth?” (v. 4)

...who took charge of the ocean
    when it gushed forth like a baby from the womb?
(v. 8)

Can you find your way to where lightning is launched,
    or to the place from which the wind blows?”
(v. 24)

Can you catch the eye of the beautiful Pleiades sisters,
    or distract Orion from his hunt?
Can you get Venus to look your way,
    or get the Great Bear and her cubs to come out and play?”
(v. 31-32)
(all verses from The Message)

And on it goes like the sound of Luther's hammer as he pounds his theses to the Wittenburg Door the sum of it saying to Job – or anyone else who finds himself in Job's shoes – there's way more going on then we know or guess in the workings of this universe but at the heart of it is a God who is intimately involved in everything from mountain goats having their kids (39:1) and hawks making their lazy circles in the sky (39:26). If he knows the whereabouts of the wild donkey in the wide-open places (39:5) and the eagle in her rocky crag (39:28), he certainly sees you and me at our particular address of perturbation. Like Job, we, too, want our day in court so that all things may be explained to us. But that's the irony of his story: he's never given an answer for the reasons for his troubles. He never learns that his plight was all about a bet between Jehovah and Satan. It's like a Charlie Daniels' song come to life, but instead of the devil coming down to Georgia he'd come to the land of Uz and Jehovah had put all his chips on Job that in the end he would still be standing.

In recent months there have been individuals from our fellowship who have traveled through the valley of the shadow. Each has been touched by suffering and each has written eloquently about their observations there.

Justin & Tara
Justin used to be our youth leader at Refuge. In 2008, he and his wife, Tara, moved to Kansas City so that he could attend school at the International House of Prayer in Grandview. A few years ago Lyla came along and during the last year joy was added to joy when they moved to south-western Colorado and Tara conceived again. And then the first ultrasound revealed that there was something very wrong with Harper. After several tests their doctor concluded that she had a condition referred to as Trisomy 18 (see What is Trisomy 18?), a rare genetic disorder. Without going into a lot of details, the long and short of it is that T18 is a condition that is incompatible with life outside the womb. Most T18 babies die in utero or shortly after childbirth. But of course, God is God and as long as there is life there is hope. And so they prayed and set all their friends and family to praying. Who knows, we all agreed, perhaps God intends for Harper to live.

But she didn't live. A week or so ago, she died. Faced with such an overwhelming loss, these are the words they penned the day Harper died:
The ultrasound that we received yesterday morning revealed that our little Harper Rose went home to be with Jesus sometime on Monday afternoon or evening.  For those of us who believe in the name and work of Jesus we have a living hope that we will go to be with her when we pass from this age to the next.  Harper will forever be our daughter and we will live forever with her in the coming kingdom of God.  We do however mourn this temporary loss and are still going through the pain of saying goodbye.

Our little angel, Harper Rose, was born at around 10:30 am. She weighed 2 lb. and was 13 inches long. She had many of the characteristic traits of T18 including the cleft palate and elongated head, but she was beautiful. She looked like she would have had a gentle spirit. She had dainty little hands and feet and penetrating eyes. We had the opportunity to spend several hours with her small frame and see God's design in her. We had a wonderful team of photographers from "Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep" come and take pictures shortly after her birth. And our wonderful nurse Skyler helped us get moldings of her hands and feet.

We are so grateful for our little girl, and we're so grateful that she did not have to suffer but rather went straight from mommy's womb to Jesus' arms. We miss her, and would have loved to have her with us in this life, but we know her's is a far, far better existence then what we know here. 

Precious in his sight
I read these words four days before our youngest graduated from high school. Whatever stress I was experiencing due to graduation and party preparations paled in significance to what Justin and Tara were experiencing as they were preparing to say good-bye to their youngest for the last time. And yet their words reveal a depth that is deeper than whatever chorus they like to sing when they gather at their local fellowship. They speak of the certainty that this reality – that we can see, and hear and touch – is but a shadow of the greater reality that is about us.

Or consider Pam. She and her husband, Dave, are members of our fellowship who live and serve on the La Coutre Oreilles Indian Reservation near Hayward, Wis. Late last year Pam was diagnosed with breast cancer. She chose to have a mastectomy and then undergo months of chemo. During that time she regularly posted at her CaringBridge site and I found that she speaks with an eloquence that is far louder than her actual, quiet voice. A few weeks before her last treatment and her doctor pronouncing her with a clean bill of health she wrote:

I am writing this at the dining room table watching a whirlwind of snow blowing around our windows, even while the icicles on the eaves drip steadily as they melt. Blowing snow and dripping icicles seem to contradict each other. Spring is here. You can feel it in the heat of the sun, but winter lingers on.

This contradiction reminds me of a conversation I had with my daughter, Jaynee, not long after we started chemo. We were sitting at the dining room table (obviously a popular spot in our house) after lunch chatting, and I reminded her how merciful God had been to us. Her response, “Yeah, getting cancer is merciful,” in her most sarcastic 13-year-old voice. I reminded her that the cancer was caught early. That we had a good prognosis. Her response, “It would be more merciful not to have cancer at all.”

That makes perfect logical sense to the world. God allowing me to have a potentially deadly disease does not seem the most merciful choice. But God teaches us not to judge things with the eyes of the world--to look beyond the logic. It’s not an easy lesson to learn. Most of us respond with fear, rejection, dismay to any source of pain, suffering or uncertainty. In the natural part of us, we can’t always see God doing a good thing. Maybe we don’t even want to see God use suffering to produce a good thing. It seems wrong somehow that the God we love and who loves us allows us to suffer when he can reach down and stop it in a heartbeat. Looking back in my journal from the early chemo days, I find a lot of honestly desperate pleas to God for life and reassurance. Now, one sentence that I wrote stands out to me, “The testing is hard; the product is the Lord’s.”

Oswald Chambers writes, “However much we know God, the great lesson to learn is that any moment, he may break in ... all of a sudden God meets life.” 

And how do we respond when “God breaks in.” I guess the only way that makes sense to me is to say, “God, I don’t know why, but I do know you. And I can trust you--for today and for tomorrow and for eternity really.” That doesn’t me I don’t struggle with fears about the future. I wish I could be a shining Christian example and say, “God, your will be done.” But honestly, I am more like, “God, don’t let this cancer come back, and I sure hope that’s your will!” 

How I have found God’s blessing in having cancer:

I evaluate the world differently. I am more merciful and less judgmental of others. I am more patient with the weaknesses of others as I walk in my own weakness.

I have learned to count my days and hours. “Teach us to realize the brevity of life, so that we may grow in wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12) I have become more discerning in my pursuits and activities. 

 Sin has become less attractive. I have gone through a deep time of repentance. I want to be in right relationship with Jesus. I see sin for what it really is--an attachment to this world that hinders our journey to the next.

I want other people to understand that there is no guarantee for tomorrow. I want them to be ready. I want them to sense the urgency, and put away the hinderances to their faith. I have a heart to reach out to others in a new way. I don’t want them to wake up one day with cancer or some other deadly disease and not be ready.

I am close to God in new, deeper ways, as I lean on him daily and trust him for my life. Cancer is like a wave. It leaves some people on the shore and carries others into the sea. But God, who controls the waves literally, is in control of the outcome. 

Had someone like myself, who has never experienced a sickness like hers, wrote those things my words would sound cruel or insensitive at best. But Pam can speak them with integrity because she has walked that path. She has been there and knows, like Job, that there is always more going on than we guess.

Dean Merrill, former editor of Christianity Today, once made what I think is an eloquent assessment of this world and its general screwed-upness, “This is not the Garden of Eden. It's not even next door.” To that conclusion Bible scholar Ajith Fernando adds,
God is powerfully at work both when the sun shines brightly and when the dark clouds loom over us.

We must, therefore, develop a theology of the fullness of the Spirit in the darkness. Such a teaching is not easy to grasp in this sensual, hedonistic world, which is afraid of suffering and does so much to avoid it. Yet the Bible tells us to anticipate suffering rather than avoid it. If we have a theology of the fullness of the Spirit in the darkness, we will eagerly seek the blessings we know God will give us through the darkness (Acts: The NIV Application Commentary, p. 266). 

So when bad things happen to good and godly people even though a cross dangled from their rear-view mirror in their car it's not a sign that God has somehow abandoned them. At the very least it means it's par for the course.