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, December 24, 2014

Breaking into jail

No more let sins and sorrows grow
Nor thorns infest the ground
He comes to make
His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found
Far as the curse is found
Far as, far as the curse is found!”
Joy to the World by Isaac Watts

The other night about twenty folks from Refuge gathered in the sanctuary for what I hope will be an annual tradition. Lots of fellowships have Christmas cantatas and programs, cookie walks and caroling events. Our first ten years or so in Chetek the annual Christmas production here was a big deal until it just went away mostly because there was no one who felt inspired enough to run with it. But last year Troy felt compelled to try something different.

I've written copiously about Troy in previous posts, the former inmate at the Barron County Justice Center who likes to tell people that he wasn't looking for Jesus but Jesus found him. Over the last three and a half years we have watched the story of salvation slowly unfold in his life and in the life of his wife and son. On his fortieth birthday, Troy could boast that he had been in and out of correctional facilities twenty times in twenty years because of drug and alcohol abuse. But then Jesus found him and since 2011 he not only has been saved but also sober. In 2012, he began assisting me in the monthly services that I lead at the Justice Center proudly sporting what he likes to tell people is his “get out of jail free card.” His story has encouraged lots of the guys and gals there (as well as a whole bunch of us at Refuge.)

Last year he had an idea to gift every inmate at the JC a goodie-sack for Christmas and set about asking various businesses to donate to the cause whether by making a financial contribution or with gifts in kind (at any given time there are approximately 120 inmates incarcerated at the jail.) Our local grocery store donated cookies and candy canes. Another store contributed the paper sacks. A local coffee house put together some flavored coffees for the jailers working either on Christmas Eve or Day. And a lot of ladies from our fellowship made up home-made bars and cookies for not only the jailers and the Captain but also our local police. Along with the treats, within each sack we placed a Christmas card with a brief note of encouragement. Then on the Sunday before Christmas, we gathered at Refuge to put it all together. There were about 10 of us last year and it took us maybe an hour to accomplish the task.

On Christmas Eve, Troy and I went on our delivery run. In his days before he was a disciple of Jesus, there were times when Troy was required to frequent our local police station twice a day to test for his sobriety. The look on Capt Peterson's face as Troy handed him a tray of cookies on behalf of Refuge and with thanks for keeping us safe was memorable to say the least, a picture, among many, of what salvation looks like. Of course, our gifts were well received at the JC as well.

This year, Troy redoubled his efforts and found a few more businesses that were willing to donate to this campaign. He went to our local newspaper with an idea of wanting to gift each inmate with a bookmark that had one his favorite Bible verses on it - “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation...the old has gone, the new has come!” They designed it and printed up 120 beautiful bookmarks gratis. Captain Evenson, head jailer, even allowed us to include a sack of hot chocolate mix along with the usual items we place within the sacks.

Troy, Marie & Alex
It's been a challenging year for Troy. His 16-year-old son fathered a son of his own and because of the emotional instability of the child's mother he and Marie have become the legal guardians and defacto parents of little Izik until further notice. He lost his job in Rice Lake and then, because he threw out his back at another place of employment in Turtle Lake, walked before they could terminate him. He started working again this fall at a company in Chetek. But a few weeks ago, his wife, Marie, was hospitalized with a severe case of Bell's Palsy and so he's had to miss work to help care for her. But despite this avalanche of challenges, he's kept with the goody-sack project collecting the items promised by the local vendors.

The crew
This past Sunday night nearly twenty of us gathered in the sanctuary to assemble the sacks. Marie, despite having to use a walker of late, was also present to help lend a hand as was their son, Alex. Lots of joyous banter could be heard as the sacks and the trays were assembled assembly-line style. In maybe thirty-minutes 120 bags were filled. We then went into a time of prayer, praying not only for God's favor on each sack but also for the inmates and the staff at the Barron County Jail. We didn't sing the Hallelujah chorus or even hum a carol or two but this work we did and the spirit in which it was done, I'm certain was a pleasing thing in God's eyes. Its also a small but tangible token that they while incarcerated and separated from their life “out there,” God has definitely moved into each of our neighborhoods through Jesus the Son.

As Paul put it,
With God on our side like this, how can we lose? If God didn’t hesitate to put everything on the line for us, embracing our condition and exposing himself to the worst by sending his own Son, is there anything else he wouldn’t gladly and freely do for us?... Do you think anyone is going to be able to drive a wedge between us and Christ’s love for us? There is no way! Not trouble, not hard times, not hatred, not hunger, not homelessness, not bullying threats, not backstabbing, not even the worst sins listed in Scripture...None of this fazes us because Jesus loves us. I’m absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us. (Romans 8:31-32, 35, 37-39, The Message)

This afternoon Troy and I will go on our delivery run to the Chetek P.D. and the JC carrying the sacks and trays and a few other items. This outing is a song, too. Like Joy to the World come to life, we carry Christmas cookies and good news “far as the curse is found.”

Like Troy, Jesus found the rest of us too!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Barhopping in Chetek

They told everyone they met what the angels had said about this child. All who heard [them] were impressed.” Luke 2:18, The Message

Frances smiled. “Behold!” she shouted. “I bring you tidings of Great Joy!” And because the words felt so right, Frances said them again. “Great Joy.” - Great Joy by Kate DiCamillo

This past Saturday night some friends of mine and I went barhopping in and around Chetek. We were making merry at the time of year that many do at and gathering with others who were doing the same. But unlike many of the patrons we met during our two and a half hour lark out on the town, we were not imbibing alcoholic spirits. Rather, we were caroling and dispensing the joy inspired by the Holy Spirit in each of us.

Most of the places had more class than this
A few of our number were from Refuge. A few from other fellowships. We even had a Norm amongst us just in case someone wanted to yell out his name Cheers-style. The plan was simple: to go forth into these places where some people in our city gather to socialize and – in a few cases, drown their sorrows - and sing the gospel to them. We may indeed live in a a post-Christian society but caroling is still an accepted and welcomed practice in December. And so many traditional carols are jam-packed with good evangelical theology. Joy to the World, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!, O Little Town of Bethlehem and, of course, Silent Night – solid gospel primers the lot of them.

We gathered at the House of Prayer in downtown Chetek for a time of prayer beforehand and then proceeded to walk to the five drinking establishments that are either across the street or around the corner from it. In each place as we would enter heads would turn and I would announce what we were here to do. With only one exception, the music would be turned off and then for the next five minutes or so we would sing. After a few songs, we would take requests. Again, with the exception of one tavern where Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer was requested, the patrons asked that we sing a favorite sacred carol. And then before we sang We Wish You A Merry Christmas and left for another tavern, one of our membership pronounced a prayer or blessing upon the patrons.

In one place, one of our guys felt led to offer a piece of gospel literature to a quiet man sitting at the bar nursing his beer. In another place, another of our membership prayed with a guy who began to weep as we sang Silent Night. We shook a lot of hands that night and, when I would see someone I knew, gave a few hugs as well. Again and again this rhythm was repeated of welcome, song, public blessing and benediction. We never intentionally identified ourselves with a particular fellowship other than to say we were from the House of Prayer.

We did not run into any antagonism. We never felt compelled to wipe the proverbial snow off our boots (while it was warm for December, it definitely was not sandal-weather.) What we encountered at the one tavern where it didn't occur to them to turn their music down I would characterize as indifference more than anything else. That it's the one place in town were the 20-somethings congregate may have something to do with that. And yet as we headed back to our vehicles (we were using wheels now), a guy who had stepped outside for a smoke sometime during our singing made a point of thanking us for stopping in.

It was a wonderful night of singing and blessing and acknowledging the rule and reign of Jesus “far as the curse is found.” When it was all over, we returned to the House of Prayer for a short time of debrief and closing prayer. One of the guys who had joined us confessed that he really had not wanted to come but his wife (also one of our company) had begged him to do so. Now that it was over was he so glad that he had. In fact, all of us testified of feeling a certain “buzz” that did not have its source in anything that is humanly distilled. It was joy. Great joy. The great joy of declaring to all the people we had met and encountered that night the things that God has revealed to us.  

Monday, December 15, 2014

Waiting on God to answer my prayer

Don’t fear, Zachariah. Your prayer has been heard. Elizabeth, your wife, will bear a son by you. You are to name him John. You’re going to leap like a gazelle for joy, and not only you—many will delight in his birth. He’ll achieve great stature with God.” Luke 1:14-15, The Message

I'm part of a study group made up of coaches from Chetek-Weyerhaeuser High School and Middle School that meets regularly for breakfast, discussion and prayer. The other morning, Tom, one of the group's defacto leaders, asked us this question in preface to a study of Luke 1: “Did you ever pray for something a long time that God answered in an unusual way?”

Zechariah certainly can say he did. By the time we meet him in the opening verses of Luke's Gospel we learn a couple of things about him: he's a Levite who can count Aaron, Israel's very first high priest, as one of his ancestors, he's a godly and upright individual and he's an old man married to an old woman who is barren. In those days to be barren was to be considered cursed by God and it may cause some tongues to wag that you had some skeletons in your closet that must have provoked God to be so displeased with you.

To be a Levite in ancient Palestine was no little thing. It meant that from time to time you served in Jerusalem at the great Temple carrying out the functions that only you and fellow Levites had performed time out of mind. It just so happened that one time when Zechariah and his division were on duty that by luck of the draw he was chosen to enter the Holy Place and pray in the room right outside where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. This was a huge honor, something that may only happen, if it did at all, once in a lifetime.

The day came. Zechariah dressed in the robes befitting of this honor entered the Holy Place to pray and while praying and going through the sacred liturgy the arch angel Gabriel appears. To say that he was deeply moved would be to engage in gross understatement. He's utterly terrified. And what does the angel say but that his prayer has been heard and will be answered. Incredible as it may seem, his aged wife, Elizabeth, long since her prime will bear a son but not just any son. She will bear the forerunner of Messiah, “the prophet of prophets” as my friend Tom refers to him. Talk about answered prayer!

Some of the gang in 2008. Some have since moved away and serve in other places now.
Like everybody else, I have prayers that I have prayed for a long time that have yet to be answered – people who are presently not walking with God to be converted or to return to the straight and narrow or our children's future spouses who (presumably) they have yet to meet. I've prayed for Chetek a long time, too. Every week at “the Breakfast Club” (the weekly gathering of pastors and ministry people who come together at Bob's Grill for breakfast and prayer) at least one of us has prayed, “Your kingdom come” for our city. And what in my heart does that look like to me? A vibrant, thriving faith-community who join together regularly for prayer, fellowship, teaching and witness; who are trusting enough of each other to share pulpits or worship corporately together; and who together exert an increasing kingdom influence on the citizenry of Chetek. When I pray for “revival” that's what I think – not just a “souped-up” church or “reved-up services” but a non-parochial faith community increasingly growing in a sincere love for the Lord and for one another.

Our corporate gathering with Chetek UMC last summer
It's not that we do not experience some of that now – for our part, a couple of times a year Refuge will shut down and join another fellowship for worship on a Sunday morning. Again, for my part, my pulpit is open to any of the guys (and Carrie from UMC) in our community pretty much at any time. But the Breakfast Club remains pretty much a group of evangelicals who are politically and culturally to the right of the spectrum. How much better it would be if some of our liturgical brethren like Pastor Guy from Chetek Lutheran (an evangelical himself), Father Jim from St. Boni or Pastor Carrie (a wonderfully Spirit-filled lady) could join us as well and once a week we all had breakfast together? I'm sure that out of this intimacy greater things would come for the place I call home. But pastors are busy. They have to take care of their flock, chair committee meetings, attend to the needs of their fellowship (and in Ty's case, who is the pastor of two congregations in two different communities, fellowships.) When you feel there's so much to do, it's difficult to assess that “wasting” an hour and a half at Bob's is worth the loss in productivity. For the task-oriented, it seems like just a whole lot of kibitzing.

When we had finished our study of Luke 1 Tom asked us this after he read “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar...the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert”(Luke 3:2):“How do you think Zechariah felt about God answering his prayer in the way he did?” Clearly, over the years he had been disappointed with God and his apparent deafness to this simple prayer of one of his servants. But during the nine months of his wife's pregnancy his perspective had radically changed provoking him, no doubt, to reassess what he had considered divine indifference. As in so many things there is always so much more that is going on than we can tell.

One of the coaches shared that Zechariah's story reminds him that even when his prayers are not being answered the way he thinks they should be, he has to give no room for doubt and simply believe that God is up to something. Indeed. When Gabriel had dropped the bombshell on Zechariah that aged Elizabeth is going to have a baby, the first words out of his mouth were characterized by disbelief: “Do you expect me to believe this? I’m an old man and my wife is an old woman” (v. 18). Clearly, Gabriel was not dealing with facts and the way things are. For such bold balking he is silenced for nine months to remind him that he should never bother to tell God about facts and the way things are. Can you imagine hearing the best news you could ever hear in your life and not being able to share it with anyone? No wonder on the day of his son's circumcision nine months and eight days later the song that bursts forth from him (1:68-79) is 39 weeks of awe gushing out of him like water breaching a dam.

Pastor Norm is part of the membership of The Breakfast Club – in fact, the founder of it – who has prayed for our community far longer than any of us. Over the years he's logged countless miles as he has walked and prayed for our city. He's coming up on his 82nd birthday. From time to time, he'll share with tears in his eyes one of his long unanswered prayers, “I want to see it. I keep asking God that before I die I will witness a move of God in our community.” I can get God not answering my prayer spiritual schlep as I often feel that I am. But Norm's? It seems so, I dunno, not right.

Pastor Norm, a man I consider a spiritual father in the Lord
Of course, we will continue to pray for God's kingdom to come to Chetek. As far as I know, it's a prayer that should be prayed and answered, for that matter. But until it is and until he answers it in the manner he desires to do it, I have to believe that God hears me - that God hears us!,  that he is good and because he's good therefore he must be up to something good. Or so Zechariah tells me.

"Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel;
   he came and set his people free.
He set the power of salvation in the center of our lives..."
- from the Benedictus (Luke 1:68-69, The Message)

Friday, December 5, 2014

Tell me the story again: A meditation on Mark 3:20 - 35

But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.” Luke 2:19, KJV

Most people who attend local fellowships I assume are already in the know of the particulars of the first Christmas story: virginal Mary great with child, the carpenter Joseph, the journey to Bethlehem already overwhelmed with people because of the Census, the manger, the star, the shepherds and the wise men who came from the east seeking the new born king. When I was a boy every December 1st and every December 24th I heard the story again read from our family Bible by my mom or dad by the light of our Advent candle to say nothing of the weekly gospel readings at church read during the Advent season. Yes, the Christmas story from Luke is as familiar to me as Rudolf, Frosty and C. Clement Moore's 'Twas the Night Before Christmas and Dicken's A Christmas Carol.

But because I know the story so well means its also possible for me to “forget” what it means or – God forbid! - not get what it means at all. Look at Mary. Is there anybody else in that story that is more close to it than her? She alone feels the wonder when Jesus first begins to move within her. She carries him to term and delivers him in the hay in the stable behind the inn. She nurses and nurturers this baby and watches him grow and develop, in time, into a man. But just because you're involved in the story and have a part to play in it doesn't mean you necessarily understand what is going on. Sometimes you can be as much in the dark as everyone else.

Fast forward thirty-some years. Mary's son is a full grown man now and has begun the work he was born to do. But that work, as she and everyone else soon finds out, is at the same time amazing and wonderful as it is perplexing and embarrassing. In Capernaum where he is living now he heals people. Those demonized by unclean spirits are set free. Crowds hound him day and night and, at times, threaten to trample him like groupies would a rock star today. At the same time his work and his words have a penchant for alienating him from the religious establishment. Some of the teachers of the law are so incensed and offended by what he is saying and doing that they are out for blood – his!

Back in Nazareth twenty-some miles away, Mary keeps on hearing stories passed on to her by those who saw him do such things as forgiving a paralyzed person's sins (and then healing him for good measure!) and taking up with such riff-raff like tax collectors and their ilk (see Mark 2-3). What is going on? But when she is told that he's so overwhelmed by all those who are looking for him to pray for them that he doesn't even have time to eat, she's heard enough. She calls Jesus' brothers together, grown men themselves now, and essentially tells them its time for an intervention. In fact, the Greek adverbial phrase that is translated “they went to take charge of him” (Mark 3:21) means essentially to drag him by force if he won't come of his own accord.

The way Mark tells it, two opposing forces in chapter 3 are on a collision course with him. On the one hand, Mary and her sons are coming down from Nazareth to hog-tie him if necessary and take him home because in their estimation his new-found fame had made him crazy (v. 21). At the same time Jewish theologians are coming down from Jerusalem to discredit the miracles he had performed by claiming he was able to do such amazing things only because he was in league with the devil (v. 22). Incredible. The people who should know him better – his family – and the people who should know the Scriptures better – the religious experts – strangely find themselves agreeing on this one point: he must be stopped and forcibly if necessary.

Say what?

Okay, I get why the theologians have got themselves all worked up in a lather. He's not just a boat-rocker proposing a renewal of the ancient tradition come down to them from Moses; he's come to do away with it altogether. And his star is rising with the people. But what's with Mary? Doesn't she recall the angel and everything he said to her? Doesn't she remember what the old man said to her that day she and Joseph presented their son at the Temple that their child was destined “for the fall and rising of many in Israel” (Luke 2:34, NKJV)? Could she have forgotten what those breathless shepherds racing in from the hills outside of Bethlehem told her that night about what the angel had said to them? If Mary, who is center stage in every creche I've ever seen, can't put two and two together, what hope is there for the rest of us who weren't even there?

When Jesus is informed that his mother and his brothers have just arrived in town and would like a word with him, he doesn't excuse himself from the crowd so that he can have some private moments with his family. Instead he uses their appearance as a teaching point. Looking around at all the people sitting around him he states rhetorically, “'Who do you think are my mother and brothers?...Right here, right in front of you—my mother and my brothers. Obedience is thicker than blood. The person who obeys God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.'” (Mark 3:33-35, The Message) Wow. How's that for a brush off? I can't imagine any mother not being offended.

Of course, Mary at that time is pretty much like everyone else in the story: clueless. When he speaks of destroying the temple, they think of Herod's impressive edifice reduced to rubble in Jerusalem. When he teaches on the kingdom of God they see a throne and a country with borders. He is speaking of things far greater. In time, she'll come to see him and the things he taught differently as will the rest of those who are in that circle that follow him about. As Augustine put it, "...Mary is more blessed in receiving the faith of Christ than in conceiving the flesh of Christ. For to the one who said, 'Blessed is the womb that bore you!' he himself answered: 'Blessed are they who hear the Word of God and keep it.'"  At that particular moment, however, even she's got a thing or two yet to learn about maybe the greatest story ever told; that God came near to us in Jesus and made it possible for us to see and hear him up close and personal. All the more reason for a rube like me to hear the story told again in hopes that it might continue to provoke me into the humility and obedience it demands.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Deliver us from the evil one. A reflection on the violence in Ferguson.

He climbed a mountain and invited those he wanted with him. They climbed together. He settled on twelve, and designated them apostles. The plan was that they would be with him, and he would send them out to proclaim the Word and give them authority to banish demons. Mark 3:13-14

Like a whole lot of other people lately, I have been following the story out of Ferguson, MO. To be honest, prior to this past weekend I was aware of the trouble there but really hadn't paid much attention to it. After all, St. Louis is a long way from Chetek and in Barron County, the place I call home, we don't have the same kind of problems that the citizens of St. Louis county do – or, at least, some of them do. It was the looting and the outbreak of violence following the release of the grand jury's findings that got my attention. Since then, my emotions have run the gamut between moral outrage to grief to, yes, embarrassment, that this kind of thing can still happen in America. Okay, that probably sounds terribly naive but there it is: in a country ruled by law how is it that a small minority of our citizenry feel they have the right to go on a rampage to express their outrage at what they feel is a miscarriage of justice?

It's just wrong.

Yesterday in my personal devotions I read Mark 3:13-19. After nearly getting crushed to death by the crowd at the shore of the sea by the crowd (3:9-12), Jesus draws away to some remote part of the country to officially identify those who will be his “sent” ones. Their job will be to be schooled by him and (later) go out and proclaim the news about the Kingdom and deal authoritatively with demons and devils. Mark's Gospel has a lot to say about Jesus' encounter with the powers of darkness. In every case of conflict, he wins hands down: in the desert he is tempted by Satan (Mark 1), he drives out evil spirits (Mark 1 and 3) and never allows them to speak. Here on the mountaintop he confers the same authority he has over the devil and his minions unto his apostles.

Donald English is one of the guys I have referenced in my personal study of Mark. While Ferguson was waking up from a night of mayhem and violence, I read this in his comments on Mark 3:13-19:

We are prone to apply 'casting out of spirits' individually. There is much however, both in Paul's widening picture (Eph 6:12 for example, and Col 2:15), and in our observation of world history, to show the reality of the demonic in groups and institutions, in systems and hierarchies. At [the] very least it explains how groups of humans made in the image of God can behave as destructively towards others as they sometimes do. It also helps us to understand the relentlessness of the wiles and pressures of evil in the world. Exorcism, in this context, is not just about individual spiritual liberation therefore. It is about setting the world of institutions and structures free also, from injustice, cruelty and neglect; from extortion, corruption and greed, from the lesser gods of profit at all cost, and beating down the rest whatever it takes. The charismatics and radicals are nearer to one another than they think when they get down to the action – and they need one another too. It is tragic to see, in parts of the world, strong pentecostal churches largely supporting governments wielding demonic power, while the congregations practice individual exorcism regularly. It is equally sad to see Christians struggling in politics, and other public areas of life who are largely ignorant of the Spirit's power to heal. (The Bible Speaks Today: The Message of Mark by Donald English. © 1992 IVP.pp. 85-86)

As I watched the video footage of people running into a Ferguson store to take part in the looting or of others setting police and other vehicles on fire, it makes me believe that in this outbreak of violence there is way more going on than just a bunch of thugs seizing an opportunity to engage in vandalism and destruction. It is also a spirit – or spirits – at work, “coming upon” the crowd like sharks at a feeding frenzy. During our local news, a history professor of color who teaches at UW-Eau Claire and who was in L.A. during the Rodney King riots questioned why the decision was made to announce the findings of the grand jury after it was dark. I agree: bad things happen under cover of darkness. Why, indeed?

At the moment when the national media is on the scene, nothing can be done about the violence but contain it. People have worked themselves up into a lather – or have cooperated with a host of unclean spirits who have influenced people to behave in such a way – and the cameras are rolling. If a cop shoots at an unarmed civilian who is menacing, all bets are off. You may, indeed, have a war on your hands. But after the klieg lights go off what then? When dawn breaks what can be done in the aftermath?

Again, I don't live in Ferguson nor anywhere near there. I don't think I could with any authority tell them what they should do next. But if there are disciples of Jesus Christ there – and certainly there are – you can bet they are at work at prayer, in helping with clean-up, in seeking to bring reconciliation, ministering both to the good guys and the bad regardless of their race or creed. That's what disciples of Jesus are to be about. God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God” (Matthew 5:9, NLT). No doubt they know that and are doing their best to do just that while “all hell” seems to be breaking out.

Biblical scholar David Garland puts it this way:
The apostles are not simply given authority, but authority to do good – to drive out demons. This does not mean that we need to have exorcism services in our churches or to train ministers for this task (although I have many missionary acquaintances who have said that it would have been useful for them to have been better prepared to meet this phenomenon on the mission field). What it does mean is that the church should do more than just talk about the power of God; it should be a community that exhibits some evidence of the power.

In other words, the church should be a community that does more than just confess his name, which is no more than what the demons do. The church is not to sit on the sidelines, watching the world go by and doing nothing more than offering people a different religious option for salvation. The church has the task of standing up and confronting evil in the arena of life. Jesus sends his disciples out to tackle evil that is larger than personal evil and to deliver people from whatever enslaves them. (The NIV Application Commentary: Mark by David E. Garland. © 1996, Zondervan. p. 144)

A war on terror whether foreign or domestic will never be won at the point of a gun or because of the precision of a smart bomb. It comes down to real people working in real neighborhoods over a long time contending with real need as well as dark powers stirred up and agitated because of hatred and bitterness. There is a need for all kinds of expertise in bringing real peace to that community and to all communities – good and just policing, just and sound jurisprudence and servants of Christ filled with the Spirit of God working for peace and justice. What may be Ferguson's darkest hour may turn out to be the Church of Jesus in Ferguson's greatest moment. Those of us who don't live there should pray for just that thing.

...forgive us our sins,
    as we have forgiven those who sin against us.
And don’t let us yield to temptation,
    but rescue us from the evil one...”
Matthew 6:12-13, NLT

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Reading the scroll together

[Justin Martyr] tells how the compositions of the prophets were read in the weekly meetings of Christians along with the memoirs of the apostles; the memoirs of the apostles indicated the lines along which the prophets' words were to be understood. (The Canon of Scripture by F.F. Bruce)

• “After this letter has been read to you, make sure it gets read also in Laodicea. And get the letter that went to Laodicea and have it read to you.” Colossians 4:16

Best-seller at Refuge
This past fall, a reading group began at Refuge. Like other fellowships, we have done book studies before (Radical by David Platt and Waking the Dead by John Eldridge are two that come to mind). And in the 90s and early 2000s I regularly led Bible studies either in our home or at another's usually employing the use of a guide to help (there's lots of good stuff put out by Intervarsity, Serendipity or Zondervan.) But this reading group is quite unlike any I have ever been a part of in my twenty-three years of ministry. A group of us are gathering together weekly to read the Bible. Period. After reading it then we talk about what we have just read. That's it.

While the 5-8 people who have chosen to join this group on a regular basis would defer to me as the group's leader I don't think that would be an accurate description of my role unless they mean I'm the guy who opens the room, turns on the lights and puts the coffee on. I think it would be better to refer to me as the group's “facilitator” simply because that's what I do – I get us going around 7-ish and wrap things up as the clock reaches 9. The format is simple: we read a chapter of Scripture and then reflect and make observations about what we have just read. When we feel we have exhausted the discussion we read the next chapter.

For the first couple of months, we chose the Gospel of Mark to plow through, usually covering two chapters a week. I love listening to the observations that different people make and the questions they raise as we worked our way through Mark: how frequently devils and demons are mentioned, for instance, and Jesus' teaching on end-things summed up in Mark 13. On the final week of Mark we covered chapter 16 alone, had an interesting discussion on the text note in most modern translations that reads, “The earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses do not have Mark 16:9-20” (NIV) and concluded with a time of worship. Over the eight Wednesdays we read through Mark we went down some “bunny trails” now and again and diverted a bit from the text but it was always related to what we had just read or things we had always considered true that we were now perplexed about because it didn't jive with what we had just read. Of course, along the way we laughed together, shared our heart with one another and before we left had opportunity to pray for one another.

We have a little more to go on than this
It makes me think of the first Christians. There were no Gospel publishing houses. Like their Jewish forebears, the Bible as we know it today did not exist for them. They were just trying to figure it out this new movement they were a part of. They would write to Paul, for example, about faith-matters and he, in turn, would reply with answers to many of their questions. Or John would hear of trouble in a certain locale with some leaders behaving badly or teaching erroneous things. He would write a letter of correction and warning but always couched in terms of love and affection. For their part, a letter would arrive and in the next gathering of the Church in that community it would be read, discussed and, no doubt in some cases, the author's conclusions debated. For many of the New Testament letters it probably took more than one Lord's day to get through a single circular. When they were done with it they passed it on to another community via a merchant heading in that direction while they would discuss other writings at hand, the Old Testament Scriptures among them.

I'm certain there are a lot of things we probably missed in our personal study of Mark, things that no doubt a study guide prepared by a learned individual could have enlightened us on. But in return we heard each other's thoughts about certain parts of Mark's story that we may have missed if we had stuck to a “canned” curriculum. What's more, we have become more intimate with one another simply because the format we have chosen encourages people to share their opinion without the fear that may have the “wrong” answer.

Following our conclusion of Mark, given that it was early November we chose to read through the Petrine letters figuring we could easily get through eight chapters before Christmas. But two weeks ago we spent the entire evening in 1 Peter 3 and enjoyed a spirited and lively discussion about men and women and roles and calling. When part of your group has been nurtured in the faith in either a Baptist or Wisconsin Lutheran tradition, the potential for sparks to fly is very real. Last week, we never got past 1 Peter 4 as the conversation centered around the role of suffering in the Christian life. Peter wrote to a group of people who were experiencing trouble because of their profession of faith:

Since Jesus went through everything you’re going through and more, learn to think like him. Think of your sufferings as a weaning from that old sinful habit of always expecting to get your own way. Then you’ll be able to live out your days free to pursue what God wants instead of being tyrannized by what you want.” (1 Peter 4:1-2, Msg)

Reading this sentence (and others in 1 Peter 4), someone new to the group sincerely wanted to know if you ever had the right to defend yourself in case a bad guy was coming for your family. That led to yet another spirited conversation that ran the table between villagers in Northern Syria defending themselves with automatic weapons to fight off ISIS thugs to dealing with a potential intruder in your home. Does “turning the other cheek” really work or is Peter telling us to take it on the chin if need be? At the end of the night, no one's position changed but the discussion had been life-giving and provoking. Those who disagreed with one another did not leave in a huff. It wasn't that kind of discussion anyway. Rather, we all realized that each of us have difficult people in our lives that requires a response befitting a disciple of the one who willingly laid down his life for all of us. That led to a time of prayer that each of us would respond in our particular situation in a way that would be pleasing to God.

I'm sure I'm overstating it but I think what I'm describing is what some call “spiritual formation” - the growth in “the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3). All of us believe a lot of things about life, about money, about politics, about entertainment and what “good” Christians should and should not do. We come by these opinions honestly – parents, friends, blogs, sermons, things that Christian celebrities and spokespeople say – and assume that they must be so because they are not illegal nor cause harm to another or because someone we respect says them. But the Word of God is to be our final authority, not what others say it says. I realize that apart from “No murder” (the sixth commandment), “No adultery” (the seventh) and other so-called black-and-white statements in the Bible, a lot of interpretations on more “grayer” matters can be lifted out of our study of the Scripture. But when we read with the company of others who desire to hear from God, it allows my preconceived ideas to be tested and proved or found to be erroneous and needing to be repented of.

An O.M.G. moment
Which is how this exercise got started. This past fall I began preaching a series from 1 Kings 22. The young King Josiah orders that Solomon's great Temple be refurbished and restored after years of disrepair. While the crews are working away they make a discovery of a scroll. The high priest opens it carefully only to be shocked at what they have found – it is the lost book of the Law. It is sent to the king and he orders it to be read. Not too many sentences in he rips his robe in a ceremonial and cultural way of saying O.M.G. In short, they have found the Bible (okay, it was only the Deuteronomy scroll, but still.) As the words of the revelation of God are read Josiah is only too aware how far he and his people have fallen, how far the nation is out of plumb. Shortly after the reading, Josiah receives word from the prophetess that indeed judgment is coming just as God had promised to the generation that first heard the words hundreds of years before. So we read to be reminded lest we forget, to learn from one another, to be challenged in our thinking, and repent when God's Spirit calls us to do just this.  

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Stories worth telling

What's the thing you like most about being a pastor?”

Last night while I was doing a study in the Gospel of Mark, Linda randomly asked me this question. We hadn't been talking shop and I hadn't come home with any complaints. She was just laying on the couch attending to her Kindle and I was sitting at our dining room table attending to my lap top. Being in mid-flow of a thought I asked if I could get back to her on that. She said okay and went back to what she was doing and I went back to what I was doing. When I had a place where I could pause, I sat down in the recliner next to the couch and quipped, “I guess its something to do.” That got a little chuckle out of her. But fortified with a mug of hot chocolate in hand I began to itemize and arrange my thoughts.

Every pastor I know never got into the ministry because they thought the pay would be good (it's an old line in pastoral circles to say, “The pay's not great but the benefits are out of this world.”) In the twenty-three years I have served as pastor in Chetek, only once have I ever been asked to present at the high school's job fair – and then I think out of the curiosity-value alone. No, the people who end up behind the pulpits of churches across America certainly have different stories how they got there but their initial motivation, as far as I know, is the same: they want to make a difference. Yes, they are complying with what they feel is God's call on their life but they see the need and they discern by all kinds of means that they may be part of the solution to that need.

The way we were 1991
When I was a young man and starting out in the ministry, I thought I was what Chetek needed and I was in a hurry to prove my point. I did all kinds of things in the name of ministry – preach, teach, lead a small group, lead a weekly Bible study at a low income housing complex, begin and lead a community youth ministry to name a few things - and the thing is had a lot of fun doing them. But experience and age has taught me that young pastors tend to do such things because they have the zeal and the energy to do them and they sincerely believe that their efforts will lead to something good, something of substance and of eternal value.

Now that I've been swinging away at it for over two decades, I can't say with any real conviction if I'm making a difference except that I still hope to. I don't believe I've been wasting my time. I think I've made a contribution to the public welfare. I think I've done some good work. I still find energy and joy in working out my salvation in this small town in northwestern Wisconsin. But as to “making a difference” well, I guess in the end, that's for others to say. And really, as Paul once said of his own ministry, “eventually there is going to be an inspection...[and it] will be thorough and rigorous.” (1 Corinthians 3) so it behooves me to build well and obey what the Father leads me to do. Or else...yeah, there'll be some 'splaining to do.

Of course, that doesn't answer the question - “What's the thing I like most about being a pastor?” (Linda was too kind to say it last night but I think it would be fair to say she would tell anyone who would ask her that it's hard for me to give a short answer to any question when a longer answer is available.) So, here it is in a single sentence: I like stories.

I love a good story. I read stories to my children as they were growing up. I still read stories to the children of Roselawn Elementary long since our own children walked its halls. Linda loves it when I read a story to her. The truth is each of our lives is a story in the process of being written in our own hand and yet also influenced and shaped by God's Spirit. My calling as pastor of Refuge allows me to be a part of several faith-stories in the making. I'm certainly not the central character. Really, I'm more of a bit player who's been given a front-row seat of watching God form salvation in the lives of those in my spiritual care.

"Bubba" today
I think of a 12-year-old kid named “Bubba” who showed up at a scavenger hunt at youth group one fall night “back-in-the-day.” Since the mid-90s I have watched this boy grow up to be a man and become a disciple of Christ, a worship leader, and a husband to a wonderful woman who has graced him with two beautiful daughters. Given where he's from now that's a story.

Troy, Marie & grandson Izzk
I think of last Christmas Eve when Troy and I walked into Chetek's cop shop. For years, Troy had frequented that place twice daily to blow into a certain machine that would gauge how well he was maintaining his sobriety. But on that day he and I came bearing gifts of home-made Christmas cookies to the chief and those who work for him as a way of saying thank you for serving. The look on Chief Peterson's face said it all. Now that's a story considering it was Troy's idea in the first place.

Awesome stories told here
Or what about the (now) one-armed farmer who lost an arm but gained a Kingdom perspective that has since taken him to Asia, Africa and, in time, will take him most certainly to other places as well? Or his wife who has recently decided to turn her back on twenty or more years at the bank just so she could work alongside her husband at their thriving farm? You'll have to take my word that that is definitely a remarkable story.

There are so many others. I have sometimes planted, more often than not watered and cultivated and every once in a while been there for harvest – great stories of God's amazing grace and I get to see it all unfold in real time while I play my bit-part the best I can.

Certainly one of the blessings of being in a single place for a long time is to be able to see God's hand at work in shaping lives through the thick and the thin and all the seasons in between. I get to see young kids that I baptize grow up to become adults, marry and become parents themselves. Of course, when you are here a long time there is also opportunity to see young kids who once were in Sunday School or youth group grow up only to slide away from their Christian mooring and sail out onto seas that take them far from the place they once seemed firmly rooted in both spiritually and culturally. At times like that I have to console myself that I am not the main player in their story and neither has it concluded yet. I don't start anything nor will I end it. I'm just their pastor for a certain time in their life until they move on to other places, other pastors, other churches or, in some cases, no church or pastor whatsoever.

I'm just grateful to be a part of it and that's what I like best about pastoring. Just this morning I got a call from a guy who had gone through an Alpha course I led two years ago. The course had been good for him but after it was over he gradually faded out of the life of our fellowship. He was offended but not at any of us. His beef was with God and why certain prayers of his had gone unanswered. This past Sunday out of the blue he showed up at worship. He called this morning to tell me how sorry he felt for being so consumed with his own problems and allowing his anger to get the better of him. It was just great to hear his voice and hear the sound of the fresh wind of the Spirit of God blowing in his heart. That's the stuff I love about being pastor.

Our daughter, Emma, was the salutatorian of her graduating class in the Spring of 2013. She closed her commencement speech this way: “As we leave this place, in the story of our life that we each are writing let's make sure its a story worth telling.” When she read it to me the first time she was laying on the same couch that Linda was laying on last night and I was sitting in the same recliner. That moment took my breath away and made me weep tears of gratitude for being blessed with such a child. To have been given three others just as wonderful is a story that lacks my ability to tell it with the appropriate wonder that it deserves. But it's true – each of our lives is a story being written to a good end we hope and pray. And for reasons that make sense to the Father alone, I get to be here to read a number of them.