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.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Winter ain't for snowbirds

Well, it's been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon, my home town...” - Garrison Keillor

All of us who live north of the 45th parallel (or in close proximity of it) are living through the Winter of our Discontent. Like a relentless boxer in the ring, Ol' Man Winter has been landing body blows of snow, Antarctic-like temperatures and driving winds of epic proportions right in the rib cage. The great chorus “Uncle!” can be heard as people trudge out into the cold to dig out their car again and again. And again.

Despite adequate instruction from the city water department to keep a steady stream of water running at the house at all times, we did not heed the warning and a week or so ago awoke to find that we had no water in the house. The line from the street had frozen solid. Fortunately the guys were able to make it to the house later that afternoon. With the frost eight feet deep in the street, it took them nearly an hour to thaw out the line. While we waited together they politely reproved me for not heeding the warning. “It's all about ground temperature, not air temperature,” they reminded me as they wrapped up their gear and headed off to their next house call.

I should have listened better for after a couple of days of the faucet running and a slight warm-up outside, we decided that was enough of that. Linda and I took off on an overnight in Superior in order to attend Ed's track meet the next day. When I called home Saturday morning to check in, Charlie informed me that there was no water at the house. Again! And given that it was Saturday meant that the soonest the city guys could get there was sometime Monday.

During the next four days – as it turned out they didn't get their until Tuesday – I was given a very practical reminder just how much water even a small family uses on an average day what between flushing, bathing, shaving, dishwashing, clothes-washing and the like. Twice a day I was trucking 8 gallons of water from Refuge over to the house to fill the toilet tanks and have water for general bathing. On Monday night, we drove over to one of Linda's co-workers' home just so that the three of us could shower. (How glorious a hot shower feels after even just a couple of days without one!) I nearly hugged Tim, the city-guy, when he showed up at the house on Tuesday afternoon to thaw out our water line again. This time it took him an hour and a half.

Still open for business
When a wonderful mid-winter thaw descended on us, I borrowed a roof rake from a friend of mine and spent over an hour going around our house trying to pull down what snow I could. The hardest thing was just getting to the house. The snow banks along the street are about 5 feet high and the snow in the yard is thigh-deep. I managed to get some of the snow down (just in time for another foot or more to fall Thursday night).

And speaking of that snowfall on Thursday night, it was the worst combination of snow – it came down wet and heavy and then the temperature dropped freezing it to the driveway and sidewalks. I think between the bank where Linda works and I am employed to shovel their walk, our driveway, Refuge's walk and my neighbor's driveway late last night when she got stuck and came next door to ask for my help, I maybe shoveled for four hours altogether yesterday. It was like chiseling up loosely formed concrete while a strong Arctic wind blew in your face. My shoulders are feeling it today.

I stopped in at the office before heading up to the Justice Center yesterday morning only to discover that – egads! - we had no water at Refuge. In twenty-two winters here that has never happened. Once again I was on the phone with the city informing them of our dilemma. Given how crummy a day it was and that those guys had already been in their plows for a very long time, I had to make other arrangements for Sunday's service in case they didn't make it that day. Fortunately, they did show up a little after lunch. They were there for nearly two hours. They fixed it so the water will flow continuously and no considerate fool thinking to save the church money will be able to shut it off.

When I go to my homefeed on my Facebook page, I note how many of us are sick, sick, sick of winter. Some folks from Refuge had their hay barn collapse just the other day. A friend from town had not one but two pole sheds collapse. And I thought I heard that Chetek's annual Winterfest (scheduled to be held this weekend) because of, yes, winter. And it's only February 22 which means the snow and ice and cold are going to be here for awhile. Shoot, last year we went from Winter to Summer. No one really remembers if we had Spring or not.

My niece who is a sophomore at Northern Michigan in Marquette posted a picture of a sign which reads: “On the bright side have not seen a mosquito in weeks.” I guess that puts things in perspective. It's a statement that a mom might make. “Look at the bright side. At least, it's not hot out.” On the up-side, years from now all of us who have lived through this winter of the Polar Vortex 1, 2 and 3 we will have earned bragging rights. When our grandson or some other youngun' is complaining about the cold, we'll be able to say: “Cold? You think this is cold? This is nothing compared to the Winter of '14. Now that was winter.” And we'll probably sound just as annoying as the old guys who talk about that -60 below day in Cameron, Wisconsin back in the 70s do now.
Maybe you've seen this one?

One thing more: you have to be here in order to say that you survived the Winter of 2014. If you went to Florida, Texas or Mexico to escape the cold – even if it was for just a week at a time-share or were on a ministry-trip loving on orphans – it doesn't count. You know who you are. Like my sister who posted this tale of woe on her Facebook page the other day:

I intended to leave my house at 6am to get to work for my first patient at 7am. First, I couldn't get the back door open cause it was frozen shut. So, I had to get Dan up. He was able to do that. Then with my hands full, I trudge out to the garage. Can't get my key into the garage door because the lock is frozen. So, I go back in and get Dan back out. Several tries with the lighter and it finally worked. Finally left at 6:20. It is an ice rink out there.

As you can tell we don't take it out much
Now, there's a story whose author deserves a hug, right? Except I happen to know that a week or so before this she and her hubby and son were sunning themselves in 85 degree heat for a week straight somewhere in Mexico. That's what you get for skipping town mid-Winter, Sis. Or how 'bout this text I got just the other day before the heavy snow came from a friend vacationing in the Houston-area:


Heard snow is coming ur way again so we are headed out for snowcones to feel the north's pain. 77 and partly cloudy [here].

The fact that she's from up here doesn't give her a free pass to come back and say she was with me in spirit during this cold stretch just because her tongue turned red from the snow cone she enjoyed. We who have never left, who have been here through driving winds, horrific snow and bitter cold, we keep track. We know who has been here and who has slipped out the back door and got away to far warmer climes when the sledding got tough. Be careful who you tell your “survival” tale to at Bob's. You never know who may be listening and who may ruin your perfectly legitimate snowstorm-story with a, “Yeah, but didn't you go to Mexico for a week that winter, too?” robbing you of whatever bragging rights you thought you were otherwise entitled to.
We'll leave the tap open this time

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

A brush with death on the mountain

None the worse for wear
I wonder what sort of a tale we've fallen into?” Sam to Frodo in The Two Towers

This past Sunday night a bunch of us from Refuge and Chetek UMC rode up to Christie Mountain for a couple of hours of some serious snow tubing. During one of the runs, seven of us joined our tubes together and were careening down the hill at what felt like Mach 1 speed when someone noticed James, my friend Austin's first-grade son, was standing at the bottom of our run smiling and waving at us. Our first reaction was to laugh and then almost in the same breath we started screaming at him to get out of the way before he became Christie's version of road kill. At the last second he did. At the end of the run while we were laughing at that close encounter of the snow-kind, his eighth-grade sister, Mary, quipped, “Well, at least we now have a story to tell.”

Later in the warming house, Austin and I were visiting over a cup of Joe. Right now we both have daughters who are on the outreach phase of their respective Discipleship Training Schools so made famous by the international para-church ministry Youth With A Mission (YWAM). Austin's 18-year old daughter, Rachel, is in South Africa near Capetown and our 25-year old daughter, Christine, is in northern Thailand. Both will graduate from the five-month spiritually intensive school in March. And then? Christine's plan is to remain in the Madison-area, get a job at a day care there and work and save up for her next great adventure. For Rachel, Austin's not sure what his daughter is thinking. Maybe stay in the YWAM-world (there are a plethora of various schools they offer all over the globe), maybe go back to work or pursue a degree. It's pretty much up for grabs.
Ain't it grand?
Rachel's the smiling Mexican on the left

James the Magnificent
That conversation – and Mary's quip about “a story to tell” - got me thinking of my own journey when I was Rachel's age. I was 18 and didn't have a clue where I was headed. My grades had been good enough in high school to be accepted at UW-Madison but from Day 1 I felt lost on the sprawling campus of 45,000+ students. Of course, the first two years of any university's undergraduate program is all about getting your generals out of the way but somehow I had it in my head that I had to know what my major was then and now. But I was clue-less and so now I like to tell people that my three semesters at UW-Madison I majored in wandering. And I got the grades to prove it. At most schools if you succeed academically you get a computer generated letter from the Dean that essentially says, “Good job. Keep up the good work.” In three semesters at UW-Madison, however, I made the other Dean's list. So poor were my grades that I got to meet her twice. Yeah, it's not a good thing. 


I think of Christine who's five-month gig at YWAM has re-cultivated her joy in Jesus and with life. She graduated from high school in 2007 and apart from a month-long stay in South Korea in 2008 since that time has worked in day care. She lived with a girlfriend down the street from us for about a year between 2011 and 2012 but then the girlfriend got married and the new husband moved in and Christine had to move home. She's been itching to spread her wings ever since. Upon her completion of her DTS, she has plans and part of that plan includes keeping Chetek in the rear-view mirror as much as possible. It isn't that she hates it here. It's just that right now as far as she knows her life is out there and she's got to find it.

These girls look like they're game for anything
Jim and Jessica are a couple from our fellowship who are on something of their own pursuit of finding life far from here. Last fall, after a lot of prayer and consideration, they checked out of life as they found it here – a beautiful home in the country, good-paying jobs they enjoyed and a very active family life that revolved around their five children – and metaphorically jumped from the plane otherwise known as the American Dream into Guatemala to pursue the kernel of a ministry dream there. A friend of theirs from our area had moved to the environs of Guatemala City a few years ago to begin an orphanage and Jim and Jessica felt inspired and led to help her in that endeavor. At the moment, however, the orphanage remains mired in governmental red tape so just like their friend they have sought to bloom where they've landed. They found a safe place to live, a good Christian school nearby for their kids to attend and a faith-family to join and be a part of. At the same time, like the four Penvensie kids exploring Professor Kirke's castle, they have felt at times that they have been feeling their way through the wardrobe into Narnia which in their case looks a lot like Guatemala. It's quite a story they've fallen into.

This is what Jessica posted on her Facebook page just the other day:
Had a friend say to me today, “Your story is like reading a good book! I can hardly wait to see what the next chapter holds.” To which I can only say in prayer, “Okay, Lord! You are the Author, work in us and write the story of our life with You.”

No matter how long their journey in Guatemala lasts be it this school year (the length of their original commitment) or something far longer is too soon to say but one thing's for sure: like Mary said after nearly plowing into her little brother at the bottom of Christie Mountain, at least they'll have a story to tell when it's over.

She's quite a story-teller
Our youngest daughter, Emma, left for college last fall in pursuit of a degree in theater from Bethel University in St. Paul. Now that she's made it to the Cities (that is, the Twin Cities), I just don't see her ever looking back to our tiny hamlet of Chetek except to check in with the old folks here. The world and her dreams, after all, are also out there and won't be found just by walking across the long bridge on the north side of town. She was the Salutatorian of her graduating class last spring and on Graduation Day she challenged her classmates and the rest of us in attendance that day with this bit of sound advice: “In the story of our lives that each of us are writing make sure it's a story worth telling.” I couldn't agree more. In fact, with the yarn that each of our kids is busily spinning I'm like Jessica's friend anxious to discover just where all this is taking us.

Our caravan of snow tubes missed James by a second or two the other night. If he had been paying attention he might have gone home and told his mom he nearly died out "on the mountain" and that he saw his 7-year old life flash before his eyes. But I'm pretty sure he's totally oblivious to the fact that had he remained where he was standing a moment or more longer he would have gained altitude and this little anecdote would have ended differently. Instead we all had a good laugh, picked ourselves up and drug our tubes over to the lift for another go at the hill with James leading the way. Those are the kinds of stories that moms like to read about – you know, good times had by all. But Austin looked at me and said under his breath, “Was it wrong of me that for a moment I kinda wanted to hit him just to see how far he'd fly?” Nah, sounds like a dad to me. 
"Remember, James: don't tell Mom about this. Let's keep this between you and me."

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Slimed on Wednesday

“He slimed me.” Dr. Peter Venkman in Ghostbusters (1984)

“There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors, and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.” C.S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters

It felt as yucky as this looks
Last Wednesday morning I was “slimed.” It had been an otherwise normal morning. I had gotten up when I usually do, checked my Facebook page and puttered around on the internet as I am wont to do most mornings. After getting cleaned up and having my usual bowl of oatmeal, I brushed my teeth and kissed my wife good-bye. And this is what happened next: as I opened my laundry room door to make my way to our back door I was suddenly inundated with a barrage of pessimistic thoughts. It literally felt like I was stepping out into a hail storm of negativity.

There are 365 ¼ days in a given year and on all but maybe one or two of them things from my perspective are rainbows and unicorns. Last Wednesday morning I didn't get up on the wrong side of the bed. As I have already said, it had been an otherwise normal morning. But the ugliness that washed over me by walking into my laundry room felt like it had been nothing but that door that had been keeping back the toxic waters I now was wading through.

It takes me all of two minutes to drive to Refuge and during that short drive the storm was relentless. What was I suddenly overwhelmed with? Well, our Annual Gathering was a few days away and I knew on that evening I would officially be receiving a pay cut. Offerings are such they can no longer afford to pay me the salary that I have been receiving for years. At the same time, I suddenly thought about pastor-friends of mine whose ministries are thriving and growing. It wasn't too far of a walk, then, to succumb to the accusations of mediocrity and failure that were flung at me relentlessly. A more spiritual man would have shouted “Be gone from me in Jesus' Name!” Instead, I gasped out, “Lord, help! I need a word to shake off these nasty darts of ugliness that continue to pelt me mercilessly.”
Mighty warrior I was not

Hanging around this bunch is good medicine
I spend a good chunk of Wednesday mornings at Roselawn Elementary across the street where I read to five different classes. I'm something of a rock-star there. I've been reading to children since my own now 20-something kids were in kindergarten so my reputation among teachers and their students precedes me. As usual, in most classes I was mobbed with hugs and cheers as I showed up at their classroom to read to them.

I had lunch at Bob's Grill with one of the guys from Refuge. We talked about life and marriage and things of that nature and at the end of our conversation without provocation he said, “You know, you're a great pastor and I really appreciate you and your ministry here.”

She even knows where Narnia is
Later that afternoon our daughter, Emma, needed a ride home from Bethel for her J-term break. Over dinner and during the nearly two-hour ride back home we talked about life and the cosmos, school and the future. It was wonderful and I was grateful for all that face-time with her.

And that night at our youth gathering, Charis felt led to have us meditatively read aloud Psalm 139.

Oh yes, you shaped me first inside, then out;
    you formed me in my mother’s womb.
I thank you, High God—you’re breathtaking!
    Body and soul, I am marvelously made!
    I worship in adoration—what a creation!
You know me inside and out,
    you know every bone in my body;
You know exactly how I was made, bit by bit,
    how I was sculpted from nothing into something.
Like an open book, you watched me grow from conception to birth;
    all the stages of my life were spread out before you,
The days of my life all prepared

    before I’d even lived one day.”

Your thoughts—how rare, how beautiful!
    God, I’ll never comprehend them!
I couldn’t even begin to count them—
    any more than I could count the sand of the sea.”
Psalm 139:13-18, The Message

Slowly and steadily throughout the day God had brought relief to my harassed soul. By day's end, I was officially encouraged. In fact, the next day it was as if had never happened. And Friday night at the Annual Gathering even though they did in fact approve to lower my annual salary, I did not feel rejected or demoted. They can only give me what they take in. They can't conjure dollars out of good intentions.

I'm not someone who likes to talk a lot about spiritual warfare. Of course, I believe it happens but I just don't like giving the devil too much credit. If my car breaks down is it really an attack of the evil one or could it be my penchant for not maintaining my vehicles very well? Our mutual adversary is not everywhere. Sure, he has lots of minions who have pernicious assignments to carry out but as the Apostle John pointed out, “You have already won a victory over those people, because the Spirit who lives in you is greater than the spirit who lives in the world” (1 John 4:4, NLT). But a day like last Wednesday reminds me that while the devil doesn't hide behind every bush, he does hide behind a few of them and every once in awhile tries to pick our pocket as he did mine. Gratefully, God brought a steady flow of affirmation throughout the day that helped me keep my head up until the flood waters receded.
Our adversary may not be everywhere but he is in some places
One of the men who worships with us left the Justice Center last summer. This past fall was one of progress for him in his life on many different levels. On the first Sunday in January he shared his story at the weekly worship gathering. Ever since then, things have gone south. Troubles at work, troubles with his neighbors, troubles all around. He's been discouraged for the last couple of weeks and spiritually speaking sounds like he's on the ropes. It was someone else who suggested that there might be a connection between the public sharing of his faith-story and the litany of woes he has been experiencing of late. Given my recent bout with spiritual harassment, I'm inclined to agree. And why not – here's an individual who struggles with addiction trying to make positive yardage in his life while all the while “the defense” seems to be crowding “8 men in the box.” Coincidence? Or the shady dealings of a determined foe who loves nothing more than to deflate our confidence in the Lord who loves us and calls us to persevere?