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.