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 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.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The gospel for nice people

Later Jesus and his disciples were at home having supper with a collection of disreputable guests. Unlikely as it seems, more than a few of them had become followers. The religion scholars and Pharisees saw him keeping this kind of company and lit into his disciples: “What kind of example is this, acting cozy with the riffraff?”

Jesus, overhearing, shot back, “Who needs a doctor: the healthy or the sick? I’m here inviting the sin-sick, not the spiritually-fit.” Mark 2:15-17, The Message

Since 2004, I have been a volunteer chaplain at the Barron County Justice Center. What that means is that for the past decade I have ministered at “the JC” most fourth Sundays of every month in the weekly worship services provided to the inmates there and then met with dozens of them in one-on-ones during the week. For the past year and a half, I have led a six-week study for men entitled “Courageous Living” (based on the movie Courageous) every quarter there as well. I've been to court numerous times on behalf of several inmates and met and prayed with some of the important people in their life.

I've spent a lot of time here
I got into it very simply: I volunteered. Late in 2003 as construction-phase of the new $22-million dollar Justice Center was nearing its completion then Director of Inmate Services, Sheree Carr was making the rounds to local ministerials essentially asking if anyone wanted to help provide for the spiritual care of the inmates once the place was up and running. Without even thinking about it, I said, “Sure.” Sheree took my contact info and sometime in 2004 when the church services began at the JC, I was assigned the fourth Sunday. It's been “our” day ever since.

Recently, a pastor-friend from Africa who was visiting us asked me, “And what has the fruit been?” It's a fair question to ask given that between weekly trips to the JC to either meet with inmates or lead a class, I've spent significant time there over the past decade. I wish I could have told him that “many” had been converted and “many more” had repented but frankly, I'm not good at lying. Ten years later I don't know how best to answer that.

I've met and prayed with dozens of inmates during the last ten years. I've shared the Scriptures, preached the Word, challenged, exhorted, and offered my handkerchief not a few times. Every time I lead a service (there used to be two large services, now there are three smaller ones) I give this standard invitation: “When you get out of here and if you're local, if you don't have a fellowship that you are already apart of, I invite you to check us out. We may not be your cup of tea but you're going to need people and its a place to start.” Over the years, some have taken up our offer and tried a Sunday or two but most do not stay for long. Except Scott, who was a part of us for maybe two years, but has since given up on “organized religion.” And Sean, who is now incarcerated again. And Troy.

His story has been a blessing to be a part of
I've written lots of posts about Troy. Over twenty years he was locked up in jail or in prison twenty times. And then there came that Sunday when his cell mate encouraged him to sign-up for church because it beat just laying on his bunk. I felt compelled to share my story that day and the result was that for the next three months, Troy and I had weekly conversations about spiritual matters. When he was released at the end of May, he was at Refuge the following Sunday and has pretty much been there ever since. Over the past three years, he made a public confession of Christ, got baptized, renewed his wedding vows with his wife, dedicated his grandson to the Lord, and has essentially become my right-hand guy in the ministry at the Justice Center. As the current Director of Inmate Services, Sandi Kodesh, a veteran correctional officer herself for 17 years told me just last week, “I would have never seen that coming.” Why, of course, because Troy's story is really a God-story.

So, I told my African brother, “Well, I've preached the Word, prayed with many, visited them while they were incarcerated and invited all of them to our weekly worship gathering.” “So, you are planting seeds,” was his reply. Yes – lots of them. Admittedly, I wish I could point to more fruit after ten years of sowing and watering.
Jesus came to set captives free. How can we do any less?
Sean is a guy who I met inside. Like Troy before him, we began a conversation during his last stint in the county jail. Unlike Troy, he had made a profession of faith years ago but had fallen off the wagon and returned to a life of abuse. After his release in May in 2013, he too began worshiping with us regularly. But everyone's journey is unique and his has been characterized by a lot more ups and downs. A year ago in January, I asked him to share his faith-story on Sunday morning. It was well-told and well-received and gave credit to where it belonged. But within the month, some things in his personal life surfaced and all this past winter and into spring he vacillated between faith and unbelief. Things were looking up for him in the summer but then he began to use again. By August he was picked up not only for using but with the intent of moving the stuff. I want to believe that real repentance is going on within him right now but truthfully, I just don't know. But God knows and he's still part of us so I see him regularly during which times we pray and read the Word together.

David is a guy I met inside as well. We met weekly for months on end and then he signed up for Courageous Living. Of his own accord, he stood to take “the Resolution” which the movie made famous (in evangelical circles, at least), he was made a trustee at the jail (basically the highest level of trust you can enjoy at the JC) and then, at long last, was granted Huber privileges. He got out on a Saturday. He visited us that Sunday but I was on vacation. He decided then he would skip church but one of the guys from Refuge encouraged him to stop in the next day as I would be back in the office. Within the next 24 hours he got himself high, stole a vehicle, led police on a chase and resisted arrest. The judge threw the book at him and he is currently serving eight years down state.

When I had returned from my vacation and heard that David had paid me a visit, I went up to the JC to get his forwarding address. That's when Sandi informed me what had happened. He had been out a little more than a day and managed to pretty much flush everything he had accomplished over the past eight months. As I walked back to my car, there is no other way to say it – I was pissed off. All that time visiting and praying with him had come to naught. Nada. Zilch. And in my heart I asked God, “Is the gospel only for nice people?” When I think of the make-up of Refuge, almost all of us (with the exception of Troy) are ex-something – ex-Catholics, ex-Lutherans (a lot of them), a few ex-Baptists, even. Our stories are similar: We were raised in a traditional setting, went to Sunday School, got confirmed but our hearts were stone cold. And then we met Jesus and were filled with his Spirit and nothing in the world could compel us to go back to the deadness we escaped from.

I do not mean to imply that everyone who chooses to worship in a traditional or liturgical fellowship is by definition “dead”; certainly there are a plethora of “dead” Pentecostals to be found scattered here and there among us. I just want to make a point that the majority of Refuge is made up of people who, before Jesus, didn't have the kind of bad habits that land you in the pokey. It's not that we didn't need saving – oh, we certainly did – it's just that the raw material the Lord had to work with had not already been corrupted by the kind of damage drugs and alcohol will do to the human soul. That brings me back to my lament in the parking lot of the JC - “Is the gospel, after all, only for nice people who just need a little cleaning up? Or is it, as Paul boasted it was, “God’s powerful plan to rescue everyone who trusts him” (Rom 1:16, Msg)?

But the first question of healing is "do you want to get well?"
At Levi's “going-out-of-business” banquet, Jesus serves as host entertaining Levi and a lot of the disreputable characters who were in his circle. Wining (yes, Jesus did drink wine as did pretty much everyone else in that neck of the woods at that time) and dining with this bunch created quite a buzz in Capernaum. A rabbi who was making headlines everywhere now suddenly is creating controversy by having dinner with the riffraff or so the local Pharisaic contingent claimed. In response, Jesus zings them with a truism he lifted right out of rabbinic teaching - “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17, NIV).

I have terrible news, Mr. Larson. You have cancer and you have Alzheimer's.”

Well, Doctor, at least I don't have cancer.”

I got that out of Garrison Keillor's Pretty Good Joke Book and while it may be in bad taste I think it applies to this story aptly because who are the truly sick people in this story? Is it, as we usually think, the “sinners”, those not fully accepted by the religious folks of Capernaum or is it the “back-to-the-Bible” crowd whose scruples have been offended by Jesus for befriending such spiritual losers? Whatever else Jesus is implying it is definitely not that the Pharisees do not need “healing” because they are whole already. They, in fact, are the sickest people in town for not recognizing their condition. Augustine, in a letter to a fellow-bishop in the Fourth Century, refers to these particular Pharisees as suffering, in effect, from delirium, crazy with pride (Letter 157 to Hilarius), and totally unable to discern that their spiritual condition was direly terminal.

Of course the gospel works. What the guys in A.A. say about the program, I say about the gospel: it works if you work it. But the problem is too many of us are suffering from a spiritual dementia that keeps us from grasping how needy we really are, nice people sore in need of the grace of God to save us from the cancer in our soul.