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, October 23, 2013

Calling it quits (why John Mark left)

From Paphos, Paul and his companions sailed to Perga in Pamphylia where John left them to return to Jerusalem.” Acts 13:13 (NIV)

Perga: Where things went south

The way this verse is translated in the NIV, the event seems so trivial that it begs the question why even mention it: “John left them to return to Jerusalem.” What's the big deal? Maybe that had been his plan all along? Maybe he could only accompany Paul and Barnabus for a certain length of time before he found it necessary to return home? But some time later when Paul suggests a follow-up trip to southern Galatia and Barnabus wants to bring John Mark along, Paul has a cow.

Barnabas wanted to take John along, the John nicknamed Mark. But Paul wouldn’t have him; he wasn’t about to take along a quitter who, as soon as the going got tough, had jumped ship on them in Pamphylia. Tempers flared, and they ended up going their separate ways...” (Acts 15:37-39 Msg)

Clearly, there is much more to that story than what Luke tells us. When I read it again, I become even more perplexed. At the time of John Mark's departure things really hadn't been going tough – things actually had been, for the most part, going their way. So why leave at all?

Once a thriving center of mission
Acts 13 is something of a embarkation point in Luke's second chronicle. For the first time in the history of the Church, a local fellowship is intentionally seeking to carry the gospel to “the ends of the earth.” That it had been God's plan all along for disciples of Christ to do just this thing seems clear to me. But as I have re-read the first twelve chapters of Acts this year I get the idea that when Jesus uttered those words we now refer to as “The Great Commission”, most of those he spoke to that day on the hill outside Jerusalem had only their fellow Jews in mind. It's easy to forget that the Church of Jesus which is primarily Gentile today began as a Jewish movement. Over the passage of time from the outpouring of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost (33 AD) to the persecution that broke out briefly under Herod Agrippa I (circa 44 AD), however, a paradigm shift was occurring: the idea that “the good news” was for everyone, whatever their lineage may be. The Jerusalem elders' response to Peter's story about the conversion of Cornelius and his household pretty much sums up the light-bulb moment that was transpiring among some Christians of that time, “So, then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18). I read that and snort,“Duh.” But for these first Christians, this was indeed news.

In any time, change is hard and the strongly conservative Church of Jerusalem had perhaps a harder time than most digesting this remarkable shift in plan. For a Jew's Jew all the world revolved around Jerusalem. In the Holy City God would set up his new, holy kingdom with Jesus as Messiah. The only time the first disciples seem to leave the city is when persecution broke out and they were afraid for their lives. But at Antioch, some 300 miles north of Jerusalem, there was something new in play. The make-up of the church there was much like the city, cosmopolitan and diverse. And the way Luke tells it, they were the first fellowship to get a hold of this new insight about the gospel being for everyone and became intent on doing something about it. Having discerned God's call and timing (see Acts 13:1-3), the leadership of the Church in Antioch commission Barnabus and Saul and in verse 4 they “step off the map”, as it were, and begin what commonly is referred to as “Paul's First Missionary Journey.” With them is Barnabus' younger cousin from Jerusalem, John Mark (v. 5), and perhaps some other unnamed guys simply because it was Paul's habit to take younger men along with him to assist him in the work. 

Making history: Paul and Barnabus' journey to Galatia

Their first stop was the large island of Cyprus out in the Mediterranean Sea. Why start there? Luke doesn't clue us in to their reasoning but maybe it was the simple fact that Barnabus was from there (Acts 4:36) and since it was his home he would already have a network of contacts for them to access. While the island was mostly Greek there were enough Jews living on Cyprus that Luke mentions they visited several synagogues while there. Just how long it took for their party to traverse the 90 miles between the port city of Salamis and the provincial capital in Paphos on the other side of the island Luke doesn't specify. But in every city where they stopped, their pattern was to attend the local synagogue on Sabbath day with the hope they would be given an opportunity to share (see 13:14, 46; 14:1; 16:13; 17:1, 10; 18:4, 19; 19:8; 28:17). During the weeks that followed, nothing happened to write home about – or if it did, Luke doesn't mention it. So I assume they had plenty of opportunity to share both formally and informally with many of their Jewish brethren. What effect the gospel had on those communities is not clear other than by the time they reach Paphos, the governor is eager to meet them. And then the first great “missionary” tale occurs.

Okay, not like this...but still
Acts 13:7-12 is a story that would play well to flannel-graphs. There sits Sergius Paulus, proconsul of Cyprus sitting on his throne, in my mind like some wizened old King Theoden in Meduseld. Before him is Saul (who will go by Paul from herein out), Barnabus and their companions giving the teaching they had been sharing all over the island. Next to Sergius Paulus, however, is Elymas, the Grima Wormtongue character of this tale seeking to dissuade the proconsul from listening to these travelers. And then it happens. Paul rises up like Gandalf the White in the Golden Hall and spares no words for the sorcerer seeking to keep this governor in darkness: “You bag of wind, you parody of a devil—why, you stay up nights inventing schemes to cheat people out of God. But now you’ve come up against God himself, and your game is up. You’re about to go blind—no sunlight for you for a good long stretch” (v. 10, Msg). (Tolkien-file that I am, if Paul had a staff it would just add to the drama and the coolness of the moment). Just like that, Elymas' power is broken, the governor believes and soon after they sail for southern Turkey to preach there. Upon landing, however, John Mark jumps ship on the expedition and returns home. Why? I would think after witnessing that power-encounter in Paphos, he would feel emboldened for the mission not lose heart with it? What gives?

Talk about a hat
Was he, as John Stott suggests, simply homesick, “...missing his mother, her spacious Jerusalem home, and the servants”? (The Message of Acts by John Stott, p. 221) Or did he not like the group dynamics that were happening within their traveling band? In Acts 13:1, Luke lists the prophets and teachers in the Church in Antioch and the name at the top of the list is Barnabus. The name at the bottom is Saul. Barnabus was not only physically older than Paul but spiritually older as well. In fact, Saul owed a lot to Barnabus. When he was new to the Jerusalem fellowship and no one would touch him because of his reputation, who was it that vouched for him? Barnabus (see Acts 9:27). After discerning that what the church of Antioch needed was a first-class teacher, who went down to Tarsus to persuade him to join him in the ministry there (see Acts 11:25-26)? Barnabus. When the Holy Spirit spoke to commission the two for the ministry journey they were presently on whose name was mentioned first (Acts 13:2)? Barnabus. Always is the man from Cyprus mentioned first...until after the events at Paphos. From therein out for the rest of the journey it will always be “Paul and Barnabus” or, even more telling, “Paul and his companions” (Acts 13:13). Again Stott raises the question, ...Did he resent the fact that the partnership of 'Barnabus and Saul' (2, 7) had become 'Paul and Barnabus' (13, 46, etc.), since Paul was now taking the lead and eclipsing his cousin?” (p. 221)

There's another factor to consider. John Mark comes from the Jerusalem church, a very conservative group in their own right – maybe one of the last churches to “get with the program.” What their traveling ministry team was doing had never been done before. They were, in a very real sense, making it up as they went. Was John Mark becoming increasingly uncomfortable with what he perceived were Paul's reckless preaching to Gentile audiences, sullying, as it were, the very message they were trying to articulate? “Did he, as a loyal member of Jerusalem's conservative Jewish church, disagree with Paul's bold policy of Gentile evangelism? Was it even he who, on his return to Jerusalem, provoked the Judaizers into opposing Paul (15:1ff)?” (p. 222)

Apparently how Mark wrote his gospel
Having landed at Perga the purpose had been to evangelize there but they don't instead moving quickly on to Pisidian Antioch a hundred miles north. Why? In Paul's letter to the Galatians he references this time that Luke glosses over: “You were well aware that the reason I ended up preaching to you was that I was physically broken, and so, prevented from continuing my journey, I was forced to stop with you. That is how I came to preach to you” (Galatians 4:13, Msg). So, if by the time the company had landed at Perga Paul had come down with a form of malaria as most commentators suggest, did John Mark think it was time to pull the plug on the mission and return to Antioch and regroup? Meanwhile, sick though he was, Paul was adamant on continuing the journey. Were there heated words shared? Did Barnabus try to settle his younger cousin down? Did Paul insult John Mark's manhood?

Sir William Ramsay has this to say about 0this incident:
Paul and his companions came to Perga with the view of evangelizing the next country on their route, a country similar in character to and closely connected in commerce and racial type with Cyrpus, Syria, and Cilicia. For some reason the plan was altered, and they passed rapidly over the Pamphylian lowlands and the Pisidian mountain lands to Antioch, postponing the evangelization of these districts till a later stage of their journey. They went to Antioch for some reason which concerned only that city, and did not contemplate as their object the evangelization of the province to which it belonged. John, however, refused to participate in the changed program, presumably because he disapproved of it. His refusal seems to have been felt as a personal slight by Paul, which suggests that the change of plan was in some way caused by Paul...It is plain that Paul at the moment felt deeply wounded. The journey which he felt to be absolutely necessary in the interests of future work, was treated by Mark as an abandonment of the work; and his sensitive nature would consider Mark's arguments, plausible as they were in some respects, as equivalent to a declaration of a lack of confidence” (St. Paul: The Traveler and Roman Citizen, pp. 86, 90).

Of course, all of this is conjecture – arguments from silence and except Luke's comment in Acts 15:38-39 he is positively mum on what exactly happened in Perga. In time, it all worked out. Paul went on doing what God had called him to do as did John Mark, even getting a shout-out by the apostle himself years later when in his final letter to Timothy he requests that he send John Mark so that he could be his “right-hand man” (2 Tim 4:11, Msg). Usually as I read the account of Paul and the rest of his contemporaries as Luke tells it, in my mind they stand head and shoulders above the rest of us poor schmucks who are in gospel work today. But somehow re-reading this story of the break-up of this ministry group reminds me that they were real guys living in real time and just like the rest of us trying to discern God's leading in their particular setting. Things happen. Communication breaks down. Feelings are wounded. Disagreements occur. And, at times, friendships are broken, in some cases irreparably. That these things shouldn't happen among “Spirit-filled” Christians is beside the point. That they do reminds me once again (as if I needed reminding) that “we carry this precious Message around in the unadorned clay pots of our ordinary lives. That’s to prevent anyone from confusing God’s incomparable power with us” (2 Corinthians 4:7, Msg).

Twenty-five years after the release of Elisabeth Elliot's Through Gates of Splendor, which tells the story of the her husband Jim and his friends' attempt to make contact with the fierce Waodani tribe of Ecuador and their subsequent martyrdom in 1956, her book was re-released with an additional chapter that, among other things, included her reflections on the criticisms that had arisen during the passing years since their death.

The [Waodani] story, at the time of the death of the men, later when I lived with the Indians themselves, and during all the years since as I have recounted it and reflected on it in the light of my own subsequent experience, has pointed to one thing: God is God. If He is God, He is worthy of my worship and my service. I will find rest nowhere but in His will, and that will is infinitely, immeasurably, unspeakably beyond my largest notions of what He is up to.”

This is the context in which the story must be understood – as one incident in human history, an incident in certain ways and to certain people important, but only an incident. God is the God of human history, and He is at work continuously, mysteriously, accomplishing His eternal purpose in us, through us, for us, and in spite of us...we are sinners. And we are buffoons…It is not the level of our spirituality that we can depend on. It is God and nothing less than God, for the work is God’s and the call is God’s and everything is summoned by Him and to His purposes, the whole scene, the whole mess, the whole package – our bravery and our cowardice, our love and our selfishness, our strengths and our weaknesses. The God who could take a murderer like Moses and an adulterer like David and a traitor like Peter and make of them strong servants of His is a God who can also redeem savage Indians, using as the instruments of His peace a conglomeration of sinners who sometimes look like heroes and sometimes like villains, for ‘we are no better than pots of earthenware to contain this treasure [the revelation of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ], and this proves that such transcendent power does not come from us, but is God’s alone.’ (2 Cor 4:7, NEB)” (p. 268, 273)

Whether John Mark left because he was mad, afraid, disheartened or dismayed, ultimately, is neither here nor there. The work went on. The Word went forth. Disciples were made and the Church's influence increased in spite of the human beings who were responsible for making that happen.

Monday, October 14, 2013

This is my story

 ...that the vision [of Jesus on the Damascus road] was real, Saul could never doubt. It was the most real event in his life, it changed his whole career, it has altered the course of all history and affected the entire world. The full comprehension of this great and marvelous event is fundamental in the Christian life. The more one ponders over it and the better one understands it, the more real is one grasp of the true nature of religion and of the true relation between God and humanity. Sir William Ramsay in St Paul: The Traveler and Roman Citizen 

As far as I see it, the single-most important conversation of my life so far happened in a kitchen in a home located on Madison's Cottage Grove Road, just a few miles east from where my parents live today. It was a Friday night in the spring of my senior year in high school just a month or so from graduation. A girl from my homeroom and I had gone out on a friendly date of dinner and a movie and as I was dropping her off she invited me in to meet her folks. In a few moments I was sitting at a small kitchen table in their modest home on Madison's east side getting acquainted with Barb and Bill McIntosh. At the time, Barb was an engineer for Oscar Mayer and Bill a commercial plumber. Their family had moved to Madison from Iowa the summer before and I immediately warmed to their friendly, laid-back manner. Bill nursed a cup of coffee as we spoke together.

Bill and me from 1980 or 1981

I tell this story a lot but looking back from a vantage point of (now) thirty-three years I don't really remember all the things we talked about during that hour long conversation but I'm sure much of it was simply them getting acquainted with me. Somewhere along the way I had shared that I was the president of my youth group and was very much excited about that. I think it was about then that Bill asked me the first of two questions that night that forced me to look into the mirror. The first happened rather innocuously, in stride with my description of my involvement in my church: "Jeff, if you were to die tonight would you go to heaven?" (When I tell this story I always have to stress that this question was in the flow of our discussion that night, that Bill did not suddenly jump me attempting to sell me salvation.) I thought about it for a moment and replied, "Yes. Yes I would." 

But it was his second question that sent my world reeling. As a follow-up to my answer of believing I was heaven-bound, he asked, "Jeff, if you were to die tonight and you were to stand before the gates of heaven and God asked you, 'Why should I let you in?', how would you answer?" That caught me up short. I started trying out responses like a man grasping for straws - "I go to church", "I try and be a good person", "I'm president of my youth group" but all the while it felt like I was treading water just trying to stay afloat. All these years later I still remember that feeling as if I had talked with Bill last night. None of the answers I offered satisfied me. None seemed adequate enough to such an important question. 

I honestly don't remember how our conversation ended. I don't remember any "come-to-Jesus" wrap up point. I don't even remember saying good-night to their beautiful daughter. All I remember is that while driving home I was struck with a realization that up until that moment I thought I knew God. But I had just met a man who knew Him and recognized that I only knew about Him. So, I prayed a prayer like this, "God, I want to know You like that man knows You." That was it. A week or so later I prayed what used to be referred to as "the sinner's prayer" that was printed in a gospel tract Bill's daughter had given me to read. And while that moment was real to me, too, in retrospect my journey with Jesus had already begun in that one sentence prayer I had offered on my drive home the Friday before.

Of Paul's vision of Jesus outside of Damascus, Sir Ramsay says this: "It was the most real event in his life, it changed his whole career, it has altered the course of history and affected the entire world." Apart from comparing myself to the Apostle Paul, in some ways I feel the same way about my conversation with Bill. What happened in that home on Cottage Grove Road on a Friday night late in April in 1980 in some ways changed the world - certainly it changed mine. I'll leave it to others to draw their own conclusions of how my life has influenced theirs but for certain my life went on a different trajectory from that moment on. A few years later I enrolled in Bible college feeling God's call on my life. And now I have just completed 22 years of pastoral ministry in Chetek (see Further along the trail). Certainly there have been other conversations along the way that have also been life-changing - like, the first one I had with the young woman who in time became my wife of 27 and a half years - but none as significant as my talk with Barb and Bill. I know they would never say it themselves but their hospitality extended to a 17-year-old boy changed my life and the lives of those I have come in contact since that time. If I wasn't a person of faith, I'd say I was lucky to meet them. But I know better - as do they.

So fortunate to meet these two

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Further along the trail

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”

Henry David Thoreau, Walden: Or, Life in the Woods

A week ago Tuesday marked the 22nd anniversary of the beginning of our ministry in Chetek and to celebrate the day I drove to the Taylor County woods northeast of Rib Lake and hiked along the Ice Age Trail for the afternoon. I was in sore need of alone time and went there deliberately in hopes of hearing a "word" from God. For the past six years, the fall has become a busy time for me as I have juggled my responsibilities of both pastor and coach of Chetek-Weyerhaeuser High School's Cross Country team. A lot of times at this turn of the year it feels like I pastor just to pay my way as CC coach and this fall has been no exception. So, on Monday night I cancelled next day's practice and on Tuesday morning I drove the two hours over to eastern Taylor County.

The way we were in the fall of 1991
It was a glorious day to be out on the IAT. With temperatures heading to the mid-70s and the leaves at or near peak, the hike promised to be invigorating to all the senses. More importantly, I needed the solitude of the trail and for God to speak to me. I didn't want the day to pass without the attempt to mark it with prayer and reflection. And so as I shouldered my day pack and headed down the path I began with a simple prayer, "Father, do you have anything you want to say to me?"

As I passed under the green canopy of hardwoods mottled with gold and red, I reflected on.twenty-two years of ministry: the first days, Ultra high frequency (Uhf), learning to preach, when we were CFGT, Focus, becoming Refuge, ministry at the Justice Center and other happenings along the way. For all of it I find myself so grateful to be here, to be given an opportunity to "work out my salvation with fear and trembling", to work my craft and grow and develop as a disciple of Jesus Christ. Every pastor needs people to care for and nurture, every preacher needs a congregation to listen to him and I've been fortunate over the past two decades or so to be given that. 

Along the hike there were moments when my train of thought would detour and I would start to reflect on my deficiencies, inadequacies and mistakes I've made over that span of time. Clearly, other men - and for that matter, other women - could have done it better than me. But at those times I had to forcibly interrupt that flow of disparaging reflection and get myself back to gratitude. Certainly God didn't bring me to the woods to tell me that I sucked.

Before we moved to Chetek, we were living in southern Wisconsin for a season where we hoped to plant a church in a community there. I was 26 years old and Linda and I had just become parents a few months before when we moved to town. It was a two-year experiment of blood, sweat and tears that ultimately led to disappointment. In the fall of 1990 we moved into my in-laws' cabin north of Madison in what we believed at the time to be only a temporary arrangement. But that's not how it played out. In fact, it was the beginning of maybe the darkest ten months in my life - at least thus far. Since 1982 it had been my ambition and perceived calling to be a pastor. Over the next eight years I had attended and graduated from Bible college, completed my internship at the large congregation that had nurtured me, and, after getting married, returned to school for more education. Along the way I had helped a couple of my friends plant fellowships of their own and picked up preaching gigs now and then. But by the fall of 1990 I was no closer to "breaking in" to ministry than I had ever been. During that fall of 1990 and winter of 1991 I interviewed at a couple of fellowships to no avail and then things dried up. No one was looking and no one was interested in taking on a guy with little or no experience.

I was working full-time nights and in retrospect that contributed to the darkness of that season in my life. I was tired all the time and that weariness made me vulnerable to a thought that was planted like a bad seed in my mind: that somehow or other I had "missed" my calling, that all those teachers at the Bible college I had attended and all the pastors who had encouraged me to pursue ministry along the way had, in fact, lied to me, had only said those things just to profit from the tuition money that they got off a chump like me. That's not a logical sequence of thought nor is it fair to those who were my instructors but eight years into my quest to be a pastor I was no closer to getting there. Some days it was just easier to dwell on the disappointment I was feeling at the way my life was unfolding. We lived an hour from where I worked and when you're tired that's a long time to try and fight off dark thoughts like these. But to have to do that twice a day was just wearing me down. I recall one drive to work being so angry that I just banged away at the steering wheel while I cried bitter tears to a God whom I felt had forgotten where and who I was and who had better things to do than listen to me beg Him for an opportunity to serve Him anywhere.

At the time I was working as the night supervisor of about 40 employees of a large nursing facility that oversaw the personal care of 300 disabled adults and children. I was grateful for the job in that it paid the bills but it obviously wasn't what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. One night on my rounds, I had a conversation with Dale, one of the crew I oversaw. He had been a pastor but had decided to leave pulpit ministry and open a Christian book-store in the town where this nursing facility was. Knowing my aspirations for ministry from time to time he would ask how the pursuit was going. That night I must have opened up the vault a bit more than usual for Dale gently admonished me, reminding me that the Lord knew where I was and if he had need of me He would come looking for me. Whether he knew it or not, his words were light and the curative to the darkness that was infecting my soul.

That season of feeling lost eventually ended and in time the Lord did have an assignment for me. And now look where I'm at all these years later. I've been blessed to pastor the same fellowship for over two decades in a small community that I now consider home and have experienced the joys and (at times) the sorrow that goes with the territory. As a good friend of mine once said to me: "You have a wife and kids who love you, a house of  your own and a church to work out your calling. What more could you ask for?" (I guess "a cabin in the woods" is out of the question?)

My hike along the Ice Age Trail lasted all afternoon. I had no "burning bush" moment, no Elijah-in-the-cave-beneath-Mt.-Horeb-still-small-voice incident. But something did happen that gave me something to chew on. The IAT is a 1,000-mile trail that snakes through Wisconsin over all kinds of terrain and accesses many kinds of trails - ski, ATV, road and foot-travel only paths - along the way. Having hiked about an eighth of it, I can tell you that in some parts if you've seen a mile of it you've seen it all - kames and kettles, ice-walled lake plains and, especially, eskers. Every 100 feet or so, a yellow blaze attached to a tree or post reminds you that you're heading the right way. For myself, after awhile a certain monotony can set in as I  hike mile after mile after mile. Because the trail runs along all kinds of other trails, it's easier than one would guess to get lost, to miss a turn and be still in the woods but not on the path. On that Tuesday afternoon it happened to me twice. The first time, I had proceeded a couple of hundred feet before recognizing that I had not seen a yellow blaze in awhile. I backtracked only to discover that while I was looking to my left I had missed a blaze with an arrow that was pointing right. The second time I noticed I was going in the wrong direction I actually was walking a section wide enough for cars to pass in opposite directions. Somehow it didn't feel right. And so I walked back down the hill to where the previous marker was and slowly turned clockwise until I noticed a little yellow blaze that had been partially covered by yellow leaves with an arrow pointing north.

The juxtaposition of the wide lane and the narrow path was serendipitous, a Biblical lesson come to life. It made me think of Jesus' words:
 “Don’t look for shortcuts to God. The market is flooded with surefire, easygoing formulas for a successful life that can be practiced in your spare time. Don’t fall for that stuff, even though crowds of people do. The way to life—to God!—is vigorous and requires total attention." (Matthew 7:13-14, Msg)
The lesson I took to heart was that in this journey with Jesus vigilance is required. I can never get to a place in ministry when I say, in so many words, "I got this figured out. A little preaching, a little prayer meeting, a little board meeting, some visitation and public appearances is the sure-fire equation for job security."  In the monotony of living my daily, pedestrian life I can both lose my way - and my soul. Lord, spare me from both ends! The goal of my ministry is not just to notch years of consecutive service in one place and thus win a prize but to be found faithful and - with a wave to Thoreau - to be found doing so deliberately, sucking the marrow out of the life I have been given whether it amounts to a hill of beans or something a little bigger. Either way, I pray to stay vigilant as I hike the trail he has laid down for me.

Further along the trail