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, November 27, 2013

Life is good

The last time we were all together
You're the reason for every good thing, every heartbeat
Every day we get to breathe
You're the reason for anything that lasts, every second chance
Every laugh, life is so sweet
You're the reason for every good thing, every good thing
Every good thing, every good thing...”
from “Every Good Thing” by The Afters

Emma came home last night and by dinner time tonight Christine and Ed both will return from their respective schools. For the first time since the middle of August we'll all be together under the same roof. I can't wait. For those three it has been a wonderful season in their lives – forming new friendships and developing ones that had began before, enjoying new experiences, participating in new fellowships of believers to worship and do life together with, and, of course, attending classes and feeling their way forward into a future that is not yet discernible to them.

Even the 'stache looks cool
Ed had another wonderful season of Cross and was part of something a tad bit historic – for the first time in recent memory UW-Superior did not finish last in the WIAC but edged out UW-River Falls at the conference meet earlier this month to take 8th place. Being the smallest school in the entire University of Wisconsin system – only 2,700 kids! - that's something akin to the “Miracle on Ice.” To turn in his best performance yet in his young college career that day was only icing on the cake. He has found a faith family of believers at Duluth Gospel Tab just across the “high bridge” and continues to fellowship weekly with the believers who gather at Cru on the UW-S campus.

Liking the spot llight
Emma flew the nest on a hot sultry day in August and hasn't been home since. In true Emma-form, she dove into all things Bethel. She's in the Women's Choral and won a role in BU's production of Step on a Crack. It was her first “villain” role and believe me for a thespian that's big stuff (after 10 years of community theater, I finally got my first 'bad guy' role only this past summer). And of course, she was wonderful. Because of her lack of transportation, she has been bouncing between Bethel Christian Fellowship and Roseville Alliance depending on who's driving (her challenge is that she likes them both) but Vespers in Benson Great Hall is a must every Sunday night.

Inside Benson Great Hall - but Vespers doesn't look anything like this

Christine's faith-family
Life is grand
Since mid-September Christine has been a student at the Youth With A Mission Discipleship Training School near Madison. In a word, she loves it. As much as she enjoys the teaching, she has thoroughly enjoyed her classmates and bunk-mates. Nearly every day since she's been there she has posted new pictures on her Facebook page of so many of the life-moments she has been a part of while living at the campus there. Perhaps as equally important is that most Sundays she gets to worship with her grandparents and Uncle Tim and Aunt Cathy at City Church in Madison. And as a bonus she's been blessed to enjoy time with family and being a part of cousin Evan's and Uncle John's birthday parties. Life is good.

Some people think he's cute
And now the little birdies are flying in for a long Thanksgiving weekend home. I've been informed that part of our agenda will be going to Catching Fire together (someone in our family thinks Josh Hutcherson is eye candy – that would not be me.) Personally, beyond just having the house full again one of the highlights will be having Emma lead worship with Ed, the Brothers Westholm and Lynsee in support this Sunday morning. Just having them in the 'house (i.e., at Refuge) will be glorious in itself. Gosh, I'll say it again, life is good.

Parents raise their children to fly – to soar to the heights on providential thermals and to do the best they can when the winds are against them. It does my heart good to see them flying so well right now. I'm not forgetting Charlie. It's true he has been left behind but he carries on, goes to work, helps out at home and at Refuge and enjoys his shopping outings with his mom. This past summer he and I made it out to the Badlands and more importantly at long last made it to “the Four Heads” (a.k.a., Mt. Rushmore). Check that off his bucket list.
Cross it off the bucket list
All month I've been noticing how many of my friends in Facebook-world have posted fresh statuses nearly every day of things they are grateful for. And there are so many things to give thanks for, aren't there? I'm grateful for the gift of seeing my children grow and mature into the fine adults they are today. I'm grateful that they are eager to come home and spend some time with the folks and actually like and love each other. I'm grateful that twenty-seven and a half years and counting Linda still loves me even though the odds are not always in her favor for doing just this. I'm grateful for a faith-community that continues to pay my way so that I can work my craft and aspire to grow in our mutually held faith. But most importantly, I'm so grateful for God's ongoing love and work and care and provision for me through the seasons of my life. Yeah, just like the song says I'm grateful for every good thing. 


Monday, November 18, 2013

Famous last words

Peter making his plea
We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”
   - Peter at the first ecumenical council of the Church as recorded in Acts 15:11

On my book shelf in my office I have a little treatise that was gifted to me several years ago. Famous Last Words: Fond Farewells, Deathbed Diatribes and Exclamations upon Expiration is just what it says it is: an assorted collection of quips and quotes of those on the brink of eternity. Included are everything from angst-ridden cries to odd and eye-brow raising comments. Here's a few:

Well, folks, you'll soon see a baked Appel.” George Appel before being put to death by electric chair in
I bet he hears fine now
I shall hear in heaven!” Ludwig Van Beethoven, famous German composer who from the age of 31 on was afflicted by deafness
Or my favorite:
They couldn't hit an elephant at this dist-.” General John Sedgwick who during the Battle of the Wilderness, while everyone was diving for cover from Confederate sharpshooters, stood up and caught a bullet in the face.

Peter with a swashbuckling look
As “last words” go, Peter's impassioned speech before the Jerusalem council on the matter of Gentile admittance into the fellowship, is truly one for the ages. It could be argued that verse 11 of the fifteenth chapter is the pivot point of all that Luke has been trying to say in the Book of Acts: that the Church of Jesus is not specifically a Jewish one but a multinational family of believers bound together by common love and faith in the Lord Jesus. In one concise statement Peter captures the essence of what it means to be saved. He articulates the basic Christian belief that the Church has built all her teachings upon. Talk about “the rock” on which the Church is built (see Matthew 16:18)!

Peter's home in Capernaum?
Peter's journey to this moment was not a straight line, however. As Michael Card has pointed out in A Fragile Stone: The Emotional Life of Simon Peter recent archeological digs have uncovered the foundation of a large home attested to be Peter's eighty-four feet south of what was then the synagogue of Capernaum. “What kind of a person buys a house one door down from the synagogue?” asks Card. Indeed (assuming that it was his home.) He's an intimate inner-circle guy of the movement and pretty much is an eyewitness of almost every Jesus-story that is collected in the gospels.

After the Resurrection and before he returns to heaven, Jesus asks him to watch over the flock and take care of it. While there were no titles that distinguished him more superior than the remaining 10 apostles, you get the sense that they looked to him for leadership – and he gave it. It was his suggestion that they choose a replacement for Judas (Acts 1) and on the Day of Pentecost he is the one who articulates the message first that the Last Things have begun (Acts 2). For the first part of Acts, always his name is mentioned foremost – in the healing at the Gate Beautiful (Acts 3), in pronouncing judgment on Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5), and in the defense of their message before the Sanhedrin (Acts 4-5). For awhile he is larger than life – while Luke tells us the Lord was working wonders through the rest of the apostles (5:12), it's Peter's shadow that people want to fall on them (5:15). He is the paragon of all that a son of Abraham and a disciple of the Master Jesus should be.
Strong medicine
But in Acts 8, that image begins to be tarnished a bit. Through Philip, one of the original Seven Servers, God had opened up a door of ministry among the Samaritans of all people. Peter and John are delegated to go down and have a look-see to ascertain if this is on the level. They find that there are many Samaritans turning to Christ and in a strange irony it is his calloused hands that are laid upon them that they might receive the Holy Spirit as he once had (see One small touch) (Acts 8). But stranger than this are the events that play out and are recorded in Acts 10. While staying in the home of a tanner – an odd place to stay for a traveling holy man – he has a vision three times and while he's still wondering what it means there is a fateful knock at
Whaddya gonna do?
the door. By the next day he is preaching to a room full of Gentiles – and Roman ones at that. His message is one of the few sermons in Acts that are never finished. But unlike Stephen and Paul whose words are cut short due to the blood lust of a ravenous mob, the Holy Spirit preempts him as his hearers are caught up in the rapture of glossolalia. In response, good Law-abiding Jew he may be, he does what only seems logical according to the circumstances: he orders them to be baptized, Gentiles though they are. While he has some 'splaining to do before the Jerusalem council when they hear his story they accept the merits of it and make what sounds to my ears as a pretty “Duh”-statement:
“So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18). You think?

I know that's not fair to those first disciples. If all you've ever known is separation between those who are members of the Covenant and those who are not, it is not an easy thing to get that the rules were changing – and God was the One changing the rules! It makes me think that when Jesus spoke the words of the Great Commission the first time they heard that as Jewish men who were thinking only of the message being taken to the rest of their Jewish brethren throughout the world. The idea that God had a much bigger idea never even occurred to them.

After his miraculous prison break (Acts 12), he leaves Jerusalem to follow this strange path that the Lord had laid down for him. In his absence, the leadership of the Jerusalem church falls to James. As far as we know, he will return to the city only one more time to participate in the council where the matter concerning these new Gentile converts is determined. It is a gathering in which he will play a significant role. In the interim, he eventually ends up in Antioch a very cosmopolitan fellowship three hundred miles north of Jerusalem that has been integrating Gentile believers into their midst for quite some time and with relative ease. In fact, in time he will find himself enjoying table fellowship with quite of few of his Antiochian Gentile brethren – something that would be a scandal in Jerusalem.
St. Paul's Church in Antioch (today)
Getting dressed down in Antioch
But when certain “right-wingers” from the Jerusalem fellowship show up and begin to speak up about such liberal practices as actually sharing the Lord's Supper together with uncircumcised fellows, such is their persuasiveness that it causes him to waffle, to pull back from the otherwise collegial relations he was developing between him the Gentile believers in the Church. That's about the time when Paul and Barnabus get back from their year-long ministry trip in Galatia. When they had left the year before, they had left a harmonious fellowship that was much like the city they belonged to – ecumenical and diverse (see Acts 13:1-5). But they've come back to one that is now in disarray thanks to the folks from First Jerusalem. When Paul notices that even “the rock” is crumbling under the weight of such foolishness that those heavyweights from Jerusalem are throwing around, Peter earns a public dressing down (Galatians 2). Talk about awkward.

Which makes Peter's public defense of essentially Paul's “gospel” before the Jerusalem Council all the more amazing. I don't hear spite. I don't hear grudging acknowledgment of the truth of Paul's teaching. I hear a passionate plea to the very people he allowed to shame him into backpedaling in Antioch:

Getting it right this time
God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” (Acts 15:8-11)

This is his swan song, his famous last words. “With this speech Peter bows out of the book of Acts,” says Ajith Fernando. If you don't include the two letters he later pens, this the last time we hear from him in the narrative part of the New Testament. For the rest of his days he will be a man on the move, a missionary pastor going from place to place fulfilling what the Lord beside the Sea of Galilee had once asked him to do so many years before, feeding and caring for the flock of God.

Fernando makes this observation about Peter's actions that day:
Conflicts in the church today are often marred by a partisanship that reduces debate to the level of politicking. People take sides depending on their experiences. A person who has humiliated someone else must be opposed and humiliated in return. Though the issues discussed seem to be principles, deep down a hurt self is causing havoc in the church. How different Peter was! He refused to let the past humiliation in Antioch color his actions at the council. Instead, he spoke up on behalf of the cause of Paul and Barnabus even before they themselves spoke.” (The NIV Application Commentary on the Book of Acts, p. 428)

I think that's what we call a big man today, a “rock” on which the Church of Jesus continues to be built.
Thanks, Peter, for being a big man

Friday, November 15, 2013

Becoming part of the solution

Behold, I make all things new.”
Revelation 21:5, KJV

When someone becomes a Christian, he becomes a brand new person inside. He is not the same anymore. A new life has begun!”
2 Corinthians 5:17, LB

Troy Watson is now part of the solution. He used to be a part of the problem but no longer. I've written about my friend Troy before. He's the former frequent flier at the Barron County Justice Center who I met back in March of 2011 while he was incarcerated for his most recent bout of drunkenness. A few months later when he was released he began attending our fellowship's weekly worship gathering and a month or so later made a very public profession of faith in Christ (see Being born again on Sunday). It wasn't too much longer after that he was baptized and at the beginning of 2012 became a member of the Refuge faith community. He's been a part of us ever since.

Over the last two and a half years he has donated his skills to the remodeling project in the lower level of our facility, has participated in one Alpha course and hosted another in his home. In perhaps one of the most significant events at our fellowship this year, he and his wife, Marie, renewed their wedding vows in February (see You were right, Lillie. It did lead to dancing.). And right up there with that event was what happened in the summer of 2012 when he earned his “get-out-of-jail” free card and became a volunteer at the Barron County Justice Center – the very place where he once cooled his heels in the orange jumpsuit that is regulation clothing there (see Sometimes the leopard can). Since that time he has been my right hand man at the JC. Where once he was timid to say more than his name, he now does much of the talking during the sharing time at the monthly services we lead there. In fact, this past summer he began taking an on-line Bible school class. His goal is to ultimately become certified so that he can go to the jail as a chaplain and not just as my helper. My goal is that one day he become the leader of our outreach to the JC and that I go along as his helper.

Troy's baptism - Summer 2011
Troy's story, totally authored and illustrated by the living God, has caused me to believe in the gospel again. Paul wrote, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes...” (Rom 1:16). In Troy, I see ongoing proof of the veracity of that statement. Our fellowship continues to witness the ongoing fulfillment of this verse as Troy's salvation is playing out in real time.

Troy & Marie's re-wedding day
Troy's story is such an inspiration to me.” I heard that twice today by two different inmates at the JC. The first time was this morning. *Bill is on his way out of the Justice Center. He's on what they call “short time.” He's just about served his sentence. He's gained Huber privileges and that means he's back to work. I ran him to Rice Lake this morning to get some issues squared with the Social Security administration. On the way back to the JC as we were sharing back and forth Bill expressed how Troy's story is such an inspiration to him that by the grace of God he can make it, too. And then this afternoon, while back at the Justice Center and sitting in Professional Visitation #2 and getting acquainted with an inmate named *Freddo whom I had never met before, I heard it again: “Troy's story is such an inspiration to me.” Freddo is a guy who was never raised in church and like Troy has dealt with repeated bouts of alcoholism much of his life. According to him, this time he's lost everything including the woman who is the mother of his three children. He's only been locked up for about two months but one day at the jail recently he asked for a Bible and began to read bits and parts of it. “I've now given my life to God and I want to know how I can rebuild it.” During our conversation that followed that statement he made the assertion that the last time we led the worship gatherings in October how inspired he was by Troy. “If he made it maybe I can too.” 
Priceless: Troy at his son's baptism this past summer
I know whenever Troy gets around to reading this it will encourage him – to be called out twice in the same day by guys who are presently sitting where he used to sit is high praise. But then he will be quick to deflect attention to where it needs to be – to the One who can save to the uttermost. In October, Tom Stamman was with us for another one of his prophetic gatherings. During the evening he called Troy out of the crowd. Even though Tom ministers at our fellowship twice a year, it was Troy's first experience with him. This is what he said as he prayed over Troy: “You used to be part of what's wrong with this country. You used to be part of the problem but now you're part of the solution.” Amen to that. Right now, Troy's ambition is to organize a venture to hand out goodie-bags at the JC this Christmas that will include not only something sweet but also personal care products, things that are in high demand there. This, too, is the fruit of salvation and living proof that God is more than able to make all things new.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Getting stoned in Lystra

Humanity is fickle. They may dress for a morning coronation and never feel the need to change clothes to attend an execution in the afternoon. So Triumphal Sundays and Good Fridays always fit comfortably into the same April week.” Calvin Miller in The Singer

...Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned...”
Paul, apostle of Jesus Christ as recorded in 2 Corinthians 11:25

"Welcome to Lystra"
The day Paul was stoned in Lystra had begun prodigiously: a man born lame was healed in a demonstrative manner that provoked the locals to want to actually offer he and Barnabus a sacrifice. By day's end the same group was out for blood and managed to extract a pint or more of it from Paul. If ever there was an illustration for how fickle a crowd can be this has to be it (unless, of course, we compare it to the one in Jerusalem that shouted “Hosanna!” on Sunday and “Crucify!” on Friday several years before).

The day of the stoning, he and Barnabus had been in the area for awhile experimenting with an entirely new approach to sharing the gospel. Previously to this point, the normative manner had been to share in the synagogue among their Jewish brethren and the assorted God-fearers assembled there. But in Lystra they began making their appeal directly to the Gentile population, something by today's standards would be referred to as “out-of-the-box.” Though a Roman colony, Lystra was off the beaten path a bit, some 20 miles south of Iconium where the traveling missionaries had had to make an expedient withdrawal some weeks before due to the unrest that their presence was causing there. By coming to Lystra by way of the Via Sebaste they were not only setting up shop in a different town; it was an altogether different political district as well controlled by another magistrate. Hopefully things would go better in “the sticks” than they had "downtown."

Things started out so well...
But that's not how it played out. On an otherwise normal day half way through a message Paul had been sharing with some of the locals, the Lord had healed a lame man. After that, pandemonium broke out. The word spread like wildfire. Everybody knew of this man and the fact that he had never taken a step in his life. But now he was walking around as if he had always done so. The crowd was delirious with wonder. While usually they would have addressed the visitors in Greek, the lingua franca of the realm, in their excitement they were exclaiming things in their local dialect which neither Paul nor Barnabus nor any of their party could understand. Of course, they knew as well as anyone what awe Jesus created whenever he passed by. But when the local priest of Zeus led out the sacred bulls to offer them a sacrifice only then did they put two and two together. Someone interpreted for them what the crowd had been shouting for awhile - “The gods have come down among us!” - and that they considered Barnabus the incarnation of Zeus and Paul Hermes, Zeus' spokesman. Good Jews that they were, I can imagine the terror they felt as they worked feverishly to dissuade the crowd from carrying out the ritual.

And that's about the time that things began to go south for the duo. Sometime during their appeal to the crowd some of the very people who had run them out of Iconium a few weeks before showed up and began to harangue the mob with their own tales of these traveling salesmen. If they're not gods, they argued, they must be something worse – imposters or workers of the dark arts. Soon after the stones began to fly. 

From a "How to" manual

There is no "modern" way to kill someone this way

Arguably the world's oldest form of execution, death by stoning was – and still is - a horrible way to go. While the Bible never describes how exactly a sentence was carried out, Rabbinic lore is rife with stories of individuals being tossed off a cliff or buried up to their waist and then pelted to death with rocks, tiles and cobbles that were the flotsam of the neighborhood in the ancient world. The idea was to kill the person but in as slow a way as possible. It was more torture than execution. It is easy enough to find stories on the internet of stonings that still occur in certain parts of the Middle East where sharia law is practiced today. I can't imagine that the way its done today is all that different on how sentence was carried out in Bible times. When Luke reports rather benignly that at the stoning of Stephen, “Saul was there, giving approval to his death” (8:1), he's really saying that he egged on the mob that murdered a good man for preaching Jesus and enjoyed the sight of his public lynching. I wonder if in that moment that Paul was tied up and saw the blood lust in the eyes of the crowd that began to pick up rocks from the ground if he had a flashback of that day when he had stood where they were now.

If he said anything to them as they carried out the sentence, Luke does not record it. John Stott opines that maybe he prayed Stephen's prayer as they pelted him insensible. The fact that they did not do anything to Barnabus tells me that someone whisked him away to safety before the pot boiled over. Or maybe they just couldn't bring themselves to harm the grand old man. In any case, when it was over they unceremoniously dragged Paul outside the city gates like yesterday's garbage. I try and put myself in the shoes of Paul's new disciples who had hung low until the wave of fury had subsided. There lay Paul out in the field, his body bloodied and broken maybe in a hundred places for preaching such scandalous doctrines. They timidly gather round to look upon the man who had spoken of a freedom they had never contemplated before. And then incredibly his eyes open and in a little while he is helped to his feet. “...he got up and went back into the city” (v. 20) is maybe one of the most remarkable understatements of the whole story. It's wondrous enough that he survives the ordeal but then to actually reenter the lion's den seems foolhardy and nigh unto suicidal. Why tempt fate? But its just for the night, just so his wounds can be tended to and he can rest a bit before moving on down the road to Derbe.

After his body healed, what other wounds did he carry with him the rest of his days? Ajith Fernando says this,
In my study of this verse [i.e., v. 19b; cf 2 Cor 11:25] I consider the psychological factor behind (though avoiding psychologizing) by meditating on what it must have meant to be treated in this way. What must Paul have felt as he was being stoned? The results of my meditation were shocking. We usually hurry through this passage to look for some devotional or theological application. But in order to enter into the spirit of Acts, it may help us to sense what the early Christians went through, for that will give a key to how the gospel went out in its first few decades. When a person is stoned until he becomes unconscious and is then dragged out of the city, perhaps deeper than the physical pain is the mental anguish and the pain of utter humiliation. (The NIV Application Commentary of Acts, p. 399)

Former Pharisee that he was, how did he swallow the fact that he had done nothing deserving of such treatment as prescribed in the Law and the Prophets such as breaking the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36), being a medium (Leviticus 20:27) or blasphemy (Leviticus 24:10-16, 23). Perhaps he rejoiced for suffering for the Name. Perhaps, just perhaps, he saw his experience as penance for his part in the death of Stephen. 

Ultimately, he carried on as did the gospel. Despite how things went down, the ministry in Lystra was not a bust after all. In fact, he left behind the beginning of a fellowship of believers who had been given a vivid first-hand demonstration of what was required of a disciple of Jesus Christ. A few years later, when back in town to follow-up on the fledgling church, he finds the individual who, in time, will become his right hand man in gospel work. Timothy is the grandson of a woman named Lois who maybe was one of the first ones to believe in Lystra and who had perhaps ministered care to him following his brutal treatment by the mob?

Years later, as he languished in a Roman dudgeon, he reminded Timothy of the cost of faithfulness:

You...have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions and sufferings that happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra–which persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me. Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted... (2 Tim 3:10-12, NIV).

The day after the stoning he was back on the road
By comparison to Paul, I live a soft life. I don't know what it means yet to suffer for Jesus. I have not been the victim of torture. I have yet to be shouted down at a worship gathering or run out of town. If our fellowship suffers from lack of money right now it's the same all over. It's not the economy so much as misplaced and misguided priorities by those of us who call ourselves Christians. Or the fact that we're a small fellowship made of people living in a socioeconomically depressed area. So when disciples seem fewer and therefore offerings lower I'm brought back to the counsel that Paul gave the first believers in Lystra upon his return to that city several weeks after the stoning: “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (14:22). The fact that it's in quotation marks tells me that this is a quote verbatim spoken with authority by someone who knew exactly what that meant. It is a reminder to me that faithfulness at all times and in all seasons despite the way the wind is blowing is required of a disciple of Jesus Christ.