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 23, 2015

A cup of good cheer...and then some

Oh, bring us a figgy pudding;
Oh, bring us a figgy pudding;
Oh, bring us a figgy pudding and a cup of good cheer.”



I didn't sleep too well last night and the reason is simple: I had a cup of coffee at 9 o'clock p.m. Last night was the annual holiday concert at Chetek-Weyerhaeuser High School which doubles often as a late December homecoming event. So many former alums come back to watch the performance and then jump in for Carol of the Bells and the grand finale, the Hallelujah Chorus, in which any member of the audience is welcome to come down and join the choir. Afterwards there is the afterglow during which former classmates reunite and share the tidings of the season. There are hugs all around.

It was her day all day long
Olivia was our daughter's, Emma, best bud in high school and it was her birthday yesterday. It was during the post-concert meet-and-greet that Amanda, Olivia's mom, began inviting a number of us over to their home to enjoy a piece of cake at an impromptu birthday gathering. A little later there we all were in their front room enjoying a delicious piece of wonderful topped with ice cream after singing several varieties of birthday songs to the belle of the ball herself. It was about that time that Scott, Olivia's dad, asked, “Pastor, would you like some coffee?” Given the hour, I hesitated for a moment but then acquiesced. I probably could have changed my order to, say, water had I done so in the next minute or two but once I heard the coffee perking in the kitchen it was too late to wave off the big mug of Joe that was soon placed in my hand.

























For the next hour or so we regaled each other with stories of trips we've made, places we've visited, and good memories of shared events in that meandering stream of conscience manner that conversations like that tend to flow. In our circle there were a sampling of middle school, high school and college students as well as parental units sharing and listening amicably with one another with a generous amount of laughter mixed in. It was like a gathering of old friends connecting again after a very long time.


I only had one cup of coffee but that was enough to ensure that by 2:30 or so I would doze in and out of consciousness until my alarm went off a few hours later. And it was during one of those waking moments that I had a thought: that delightful hour or so of conversation and sharing came with no electronic aids whatsoever – no tweeting, no home page feed, no texting. Had the power gone out we could have carried on without missing a beat as the room was already pleasingly lit with candles. And then I had another thought: we don't really need a special occasion to get together. Olivia's family and our family live but five blocks apart from each other. If we wanted to we could see each other far more often than we normally do.

None of us know any more what people did in the days before television and the Internet pretty much took over our households. But my guess is they did a lot more of what we did last night: sitting around a table enjoying homemade cake while sharing old stories and new with people they loved and cared about. The smart ones probably were like the smart ones last night choosing water and milk over the guy who chose coffee. But you know, there's one in every crowd.

Welcome Christmas, fah who rah-moose
Welcome Christmas, dah who dah-moose
Christmas day will always be
Just so long as we have we 

“Welcome Christmas” by Dr. Seuss




Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Nothing lost in translation: An Advent meditation

It is true that no one has ever seen God at any time. Yet the divine and only Son, who lives in the closest intimacy with the Father, has made him known.” John 1:18, PHILLIPS

Then Philip said to him, 'Show us the Father, Lord, and we shall be satisfied.'”

Have I been such a long time with you,” returned Jesus, “without your really knowing me, Philip? The man who has seen me has seen the Father.” John 13:8-9, PHILLIPS

A few weeks ago I subbed a few days at the middle school serving as the aide who travels around with a young Venezuelan boy who moved to our town in September. He speaks little English and I speak hardly any Spanish so his teacher suggested I download Google Translate to my phone. “It will be helpful,” is how she put it. So I did and as she was right. Frequently during those two days Justin and I were making ourselves clear to each other through that app on my phone. Two people from different parts of the globe being able to communicate through a little hand-held device. How cool is that?

On the Saturday following my subbing assignment we were in the Cities having breakfast with our daughter and her roommate who happens to be a Spanish major. I was estatic about finding Google Translate and was having fun speaking into my phone and hearing my words “magically” transformed into Spanish with a soothing Latin lilt (or firm Icelandic bark). That's when Katie, Emma's roommate, gently popped by bubble: as far as Spanish goes, she explained, the words may be correct but the grammar and syntax are frequently incorrect with a program like Google Translate. That must be why “Seniora”, our high school Spanish teacher and presumably every other Spanish teacher out there, strictly forbids their students from “cheating” by using it. I suppose just like everything else there are no shortcuts to mastering a language no matter the path you choose.

But as Katie was kindly setting me straight I had a thought: Google Translate may not perfectly bridge the communication gap between two cultures but Jesus perfectly does. Jesus translates the Father's heart and nothing is lost in translation.


The way John tells it, the night before his death Jesus spent a long time with his closest followers sharing with them his “last lecture.” Somewhere in the middle of it, Philip timidly raises his hand and makes a request: “Show us the Father and that will be enough” to wit Jesus replies, a bit incredulously, “What? Do you still not get it? [Okay, that's my paraphrase] The man who has seen me has seen the Father.”

It's a pretty audacious statement for anyone to make unless you can stand by those words. So what do we learn about the holy, invisible and mighty God by reviewing the life of Jesus?

We learn what breaks his heart, for starters. He hates it when the strong pick on the weak or use their power to lord it over those who are powerless whether they are women, the infirm or the poor. He really hates it when religious people who should know better do nothing to alleviate the sorrow or the spiritual poverty of others. After all, we never read of Jesus running sinners out of town but at least on one occasion he made a whip and wasn't afraid to use it when part of the Temple was egregiously being used in an irreverent fashion.

We learn that while he has no favorites he cares especially for the poor in spirit, the humble of heart, the outcast, the sick and the unclean. Jesus wasn't afraid to touch the leper. He sent demons packing out of oppressed people. He made blind men see again and lame men walk – no, leap! - once more. He restored a dead son to his grief-stricken widowed mother and a dead daughter to her heart-broken parents. But Jesus wasn't throwing around healing virtue like some light saber toting heavenly Jedi just because he could; he did so, he said, because he saw his Father doing the same (John 5:19).

We learn that God took the initiative in saving us. We were so lost. Never in a million years could we have fixed what was broken. We are the lost sheep, the lost coin, the wayward son, the traveler waylaid by bandits, dead Lazarus laying stone cold in his tomb. We are all of them – and more! God took the initiative in sorting out this horrible mess we landed in when our original parents chose to ignore the ban on the fruit of the tree. He sent us his Son, Jesus, to pay the ransom for our sin, to find that which was lost, to resurrect that which was dead. To save us.

Ultimately, we learn that God loves us. Jesus said as much in the first Bible verse that so many of us committed to memory when we were children: “For God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that every one who believes in him shall not be lost, but should have eternal life. You must understand that God has not sent his Son into the world to pass sentence upon it, but to save it—through him” (John 3:16, 17, PHILLIPS).

Of course, these things are but bullet points on what is most definitely a far longer list but all that to underscore my original thought: with Jesus nothing is lost in translation. He speaks fluidly the wisdom of heaven and conveys perfectly the Father's heart for us all.


I still have Google Translate on my phone. Why not? If I'm out for dinner with my family there's more than one way to pass the time while we wait for our order to be filled. And Icelandic sounds so very, very cool.


Monday, December 14, 2015

The Season of Immanuel

All right then, the Lord himself will give you the sign. Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God is with us’).” Isaiah 7:14, NLT





A few weeks ago I was in court for a guy I know. On Thanksgiving night he and his wife got into an argument that for the briefest of seconds turned physical. It was, however, the proverbial tip of a greater iceberg that has been growing for years. The next day she filed a complaint with the police and later that day they came to his work and arrested him. He spent that weekend in the county jail and on the Monday following Thanksgiving he was released on a signature bond.

“Released” is a relative expression. On account of the number of bond hearings they had on that Monday morning, he didn't exit the jail until nearly dinner time late that afternoon with the stipulation that he have no contact with his wife and their infant child until these legal matters are cleared up early in the new year. But the worst moment for him came when he arrived at his now empty house to find an angry letter from his wife with her house key laying on top of it. Gone was their bed. Gone were her clothes. Gone were their baby's things. Gone was their cat. All these absences evidence of a greater loss, of what once were the trappings of a happy family.

He sat on the floor in abject despondency while I sat with him. Like everybody who's ever been in his shoes knows at that moment among other things you simply cannot seem to comprehend how it could have ever come to this. And with the court ordering no contact until the hearing later in January there is no way to know if this is only a temporary separation or a lead up to something far more permanent. At this time the pall that hangs over that empty house is enough to dampen whatever hope might be conjured up in a soul “hoping for the best, bracing for the worst.”

There were no words I had for him that night. I just sat with him doing my best to mourn with him. Like him, I remember happier days for them their wedding day included. There was a lot of celebrating that warm summer day and plenty of dancing. It's a memory that now only adds to his sorrow, a dirge that drowns out the sound of the merriment we made that afternoon.


The best I could come up with at the moment was to remind him that we were now in the season of Immanuel (as Advent had begun just the day before). When Jesus was born in Bethlehem it was not under the best conditions; rather, it was under the worst. Mary and Joseph were far from home and the press of people driven there on account of the Census made it impossible to get adequate lodgings. A stable behind the hostel would have to do. The cloud of suspicion that hung over the details of Mary's pregnancy made them loathe to return home. By the time the magi showed up perhaps a year or two later, they were no longer living in the stable but residing in Bethlehem making do however they could by Joseph's skill as a journeyman carpenter. The wise men's appearance unwittingly sets in motion the events that lead up to the holy family's hasty departure to Egypt to escape the clutches of ruthless Herod. But their circumstances of finding lodging in crowded David's town, of the serendipitous visit of both shepherds and kings, and the dream that got them out of Dodge before Herod's soldiers could do their worst point to a greater truth: God was with them. Yes, the baby they cared for was God in flesh and bones but clearly God was also in the midst of their fear and uncertainty and their trouble and perplexity.

It worked out. They got away. Herod died and with it his malevolent paranoia. Eventually they came back home to Nazareth where this story had all began and quietly went about raising their family. The fact that with the exception of one episode when he was 12 years old we know very little of Jesus' life prior to his baptism by John is proof that they were successful at that.

God is with us. Right now not at some future, better time. Right now in the midst of our mess, our sin, our trouble, our fear and doubt. Immanuel has come and remains and by his Spirit is at work moving in the midst of the circumstances of our lives to accomplish God's purposes. My friend hopes for reconciliation. He hopes that one day his wife's house key will once again be on her key ring. He hopes that before his baby is old enough to know better they will all be living under one roof once again. But there are no guarantees. That iceberg most likely runs deeper than he guesses. His wife's hardened heart may not thaw his prayers notwithstanding. Still, for all that he has done to contribute to the court-enforced silence that is now between them God is with him whether he feels his presence or not. What matters is that as he waits for any or all of these things to come to pass that he wait in hope certain that God sees, that he hears and is at work to bring about good in his life as well as in the life of his wife and child in due time.

God, I’m not trying to rule the roost,
    I don’t want to be king of the mountain.
I haven’t meddled where I have no business
    or fantasized grandiose plans.
I’ve kept my feet on the ground,
    I’ve cultivated a quiet heart.
Like a baby content in its mother’s arms,
    my soul is a baby content.
Wait, Israel, for God. Wait with hope.
    Hope now; hope always!

Psalm 131:1-3, The Message (MSG)

Monday, December 7, 2015

Cartwheeling in the sanctuary: What the love of God can make us do

If you’re going to blow a horn, blow a trumpet for God.” - the Apostle Paul paraphrasing the prophet Jeremiah in 1 Corinthians 1

Yesterday was a great day in the house of God at the corner of Leonard and 8th in Chetek, Wisconsin for all the usual reasons. For starters, the people of God came together as they normally do most Sundays of the calendar year (from time to time we have been known to “shut down” and worship elsewhere) in our mutual love for the Lord Jesus and for one another. We were led in worship capably. The altar was full and members of the Body ministered lovingly toward one another. The message was or at least I'm inclined to believe life-giving. When we dispersed into prayer circles (random groups of 4-6 people who simply pray for one another or for other needs), there seemed to be far more praying than sharing. And then Greg, a massage therapist and member of our fellowship, presided over communion and led us to the table. For all these reasons – and many others – I love being a part of this fellowship and grateful that for the last twenty-four years they have continued to extend the call to me to serve as their pastor.

                           A few pics from yesterday's gathering















Jim and Jessica
But what made yesterday's gathering special to me is something that actually happened spontaneously during, of all things, the sharing of announcements because it was during that time that one of our thirty-something guys cartwheeled – twice. Here's the story. Jim and Jessica are a couple in our fellowship whom the Lord has graced with a couple of boys one of whom is in college and the other in high school. A number of years ago, however, Jim and Jessica chose to adopt a set of preschool triplets from Columbia and immediately their small family essentially doubled in one day. Two years ago, Jim and Jessica created a bit of stir when they made the decision to leave their good life in the north woods and move their family of seven to Guatemala sensing the Lord's leading to help establish an orphanage there. This past spring they returned to life in this neck of the wood having stayed long enough to see the project through to its completion. They expressed the desire to adopt again but this time domestically at “some point in the future.” As it turned out, that vague point on the timeline suddenly became crystal clear and this past Fall Liam became a Hanson.

Their family earlier this year











Enter Liam











As anybody knows who has been down that road, as great a thing as adoption is, it's not for the faint of heart both emotionally and financially. Not only does a family have to make room at the table and in their lives they also have to pony up and pay, in their case, $12,000 in matriculation and “handling” fees (my words not theirs). That's no chump change and given that they recently returned to the US and Jessica cannot work outside the home right now, the weight of that 12K is substantial.

The aftermath of Katrina
Of their own accord, a number of young girls in our fellowship who are mostly elementary students (with one Middle School exception) decided they needed to help. This past weekend they got together at one of their homes and busily made a number of craft and food items to sell in the entryway of our facility this past Sunday. Their generosity made me think of how in 2005, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a bunch of 5th graders from our neighborhood, our daughter, Emma, among them, galvanized them to action. Keep in mind, the media was reporting the need for billions with a “b” in aid for New Orleans alone let alone the rest of the Gulf states affected by Katrina's wrath. A guy like me heard that little factoid and was immediately deflated from even contributing a widow's mite to the kettle. Not our daughter, Emma, and her girlfriends. They heard a call to action.

Okay,  this is some of them - minus the clown make-up
They put their heads together and came up with a plan: they would sell lemonade, they picked whatever apples were left on our tree in the backyard and would sell them, they all went to their bedrooms to look over their things and pooled whatever fifth graders are willing to part with (and their parents allow) for a greater cause, they drew pictures and colored them and the  coup de grâce, they would do cartwheels, if so asked, for a quarter a piece. At the time my thought was, “Aw, isn't that sweet.” But these girls were determined. They did not see their efforts as nothing, a little service project to wile away the hours of their last week of summer vacation deserving of a pat on the head. There were real people involved on the other end of this and they felt compelled to do something to help them. And did. Remarkably, this small posse of fifth graders, raised over $200 at their little lemonade-garage-apple-picture-and-cartwheel-for-a-quarter sale. A woman who was a part of our fellowship at the time was so moved by these “little” kids doing such a great thing she matched whatever they raised and a short time later over $400 was sent to my cousin whose relief agency was one of the many NGOs involved in bringing relief to that part of the world at that time. That's $400 more than I or our fellowship sent.

Emma always had a project she was taking on

Now, back to the story. Yesterday, during announcement time, I asked Emily, the ringleader of this little gang, to come up and explain to everyone what they were doing and why they were doing it. Of course, Emily is a sweet girl but more importantly she and her girlfriends are lovers of Jesus and wanted to help Jim and Jessica with their situation. When she went back to man her table, I shared extemporaneously about how their act reminded me of what Emma and her neighborhood gang did back in '05, including the bit about cartwheels, and that's when the magic came.



Kale with daughter, Lara
Kale is a guy in our fellowship who everyone knows for his sense of humor. I've known him since Middle School days when he went by the moniker of “Bubba.” Now he's 32, happily married and father of three. Apparently that little quip about Emma doing cartwheels for hurricane relief was too juicy to leave alone and quite spontaneously he announced that he, too, would be willing to cartwheel for the Hansons but instead of a quarter he would charge $5. Whether he intended for it to happen or not, the bait was set and just like that Austin, who was sitting a few rows behind Kale, dug into his pocket and proudly held up a $5 bill. I had thoroughly lost control of the gathering for the time being. To his wife's chagrin, Kale couldn't resist the dare and with a lot of fanfare he began to stretch and prepare himself for his obligatory cartwheel.


They've since added one more girl to their nest




Almost as happy as those guys
I think I will remember forever the amazing juxtaposition between the cheers and catcalls of the congregation egging him on and his wife's look of fear that having recently goofed up his knee by some stunt at the office he was now going to break his neck. But there are some dares worth attempting and just like that before all of us he performed a perfect cartwheel made all the more amazing by the fact he is a man who must be at least 250 pounds. The hoots and hollers that followed were (almost) as joyous as the ones Aaron Rogers and the Packers celebrated last Thursday night following the “Miracle in Motown”. But there's more. Having heard Kale's announcement about his willingness to risk life and limb Lois, a grandma among us, hurriedly began rifling through her purse in search of a fin and totally missed his first cartwheel. At which point, this beloved saint got out of her seat and ran up to Kale and begged him to do it again for another $5. How could he say no? And once again he performed a perfect cartwheel to the loud acclamation and huzzahs of the congregation.

Now here are some world-changers
Those elementary students raised $130 yesterday for Liam's adoption fees. And with Kale's help, Jim & Jessica took home ten dollars shy of $150. Not bad for a bunch of kids (Kale included). It's not the first time someone's cartwheeled in our service. In my early years, a young girl who had severely broke her arm in the spring chose to cartwheel down the center aisle of the sanctuary (when we used to have one) that fall at the beginning of our worship gathering rejoicing that God had healed her arm completely. That was a good day, too. I'm just wowed to be part of this group and how they continue to demonstrate through the way they choose to conduct their lives that they are disciples of Jesus Christ doing their best to glorify him. 



                                     Kale's first cartwheel


            Kale's second cartwheel because Lois missed it


Friday, December 4, 2015

Waiting and watching: An Advent meditation on Psalm 130

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I put my hope.” Psalm 130:5

I've done a lot of waiting in my life. Who hasn't? In fifty-three years of living, I've waited for the fish to bite or a deer to walk in the vicinity of my stand on far too many occasions. I've waited anxiously for Santa or my birthday to come. I've waited in lines, in lobbies and in traffic too. I've waited for summer vacation, graduation and wedding day. I've waited for a call to a congregation. I've waited for some babies to be born. Yeah, I've put in my time. And whether it's sitting for hours in the cold woods or in slow moving traffic with all the windows down on a hot day, waiting seems like such a great waste of time. Like Seuss calls it in his renowned Oh! The Places You'll Go! the “Waiting Place” is – or certainly feels - like a very useless place indeed. There, as he puts it, people are just waiting

Waiting for a train to go or a bus to come, or a plane to go or the mail to come, or the rain to go or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow or waiting around for a Yes or No or waiting for their hair to grow. Everyone is just waiting.



Waiting for the fish to bite or waiting for wind to fly a kite or waiting around for Friday night or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake or a pot to boil, or a Better Break or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants or a wig with curls, or Another Chance. Everyone is just waiting.

As Seuss' story continues he exhorts his listener to move on to better things. “NO! That's not for you!” But of course, as everyone knows, no matter where you're from or who you know in your life you will be forced to wait from time to time whether you like it or not. But instead of being stuck in traffic you may find yourself at the bedside of your parent who no longer knows who you are while you keep vigil and wait for them to die. Or instead of standing in what seems a never-ending check-out line at Wal-Mart, inexplicably you are holding the hand of your child whose body is slowly succumbing to the cancer within. I know a few people waiting for a “Better Break” or “Another Chance”. You probably do too. Clearly some kinds of waiting consume far more than just precious minutes from our day.

The people of Israel were waiting too. They were waiting for Better Days. They were an occupied people – something that you and I know nothing about. As much as we like to complain about the Government and those who run it at least its our government and there's always the chance in the next election cycle To Do Something About It. But they were subjects of a pagan emperor who had placed a sadistically ambitious king over to rule over some of Caesar's most unruly subjects. The fact that Herod wasn't even Jewish certainly added to their mutual feeling of acrimony. Far more than waiting they were longing for Way Better Days.

In those days three times a year Jewish men were required to appear in Jerusalem to worship at the Temple for the great feasts of Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles. Following the principle that there was safety in numbers, they would make their journey to David's City in great caravans of pilgrims. Tradition has it that as they made their way they would sing pilgrim songs among them those found in our Bibles today and referred to as the Psalms of ascents (Psalm 120-134). Built atop an old mountain to travel to Israel's most holy city you were always going “up.” Two thirds through that section of the psalter is Psalm 130, a song about waiting that begins with an anguished cry, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord; O Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy” (vv. 1-2).

“Help, GOD – the bottom has fallen out of my life!” is how one version translates verse 1. I'm a volunteer chaplain at the Barron County Justice Center and frequently when someone gets locked up they begin praying from the hole they find themselves in. It's often called “jailhouse religion”, a “come-to-Jesus” condition that people frequently get over once the worst is over. I'm sure its a close cousin of what soldiers call “foxhole religion”. When things are going to hell, “HELP!” is one of those ABC kind of prayers that people almost instinctively begin to pray. And the good news is that despite whatever track record we may have, despite our bad behavior that may have led us to end up in a boatload of trouble, God hears. “If you, GOD, kept records on wrongdoings, who would stand a chance? As it turns out, forgiveness is your habit, and that's why you're worshiped” (vv. 3-4). In other words, even if I've really messed up I'm still clear to use the “red phone” to heaven and I'm guaranteed there will be no busy signal when I do. “Call to me and I will answer you” (Jer 33:3) is a promise we can take to the bank.

But as everyone knows that there often long, sometimes painful delays, between our prayer and the answer to it. Out of our anguish we begin to pray for our prodigal son to come home even as he seems hellbent on running the opposite way. We pray for our spouse to turn-around, to return to their marital covenant, to wake-up and smell the coffee while at the same time they seem tone deaf to the voice of the Spirit. In the same way, the people of God were crying for deliverance, for Messiah to come and rescue them from Rome's oppression. Like the good folk of Narnia under the boot of the White Witch who had caused everything to “be always winter and never Christmas”, they were longing for spring. “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I put my hope. My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning” (vv. 5-6).


That was a prayer maybe a thousand or more years in the making that they looked to God to answer far more than the guards standing post on their city's walls looked for the sunrise to appear. Finally God answered that prayer albeit not in the way they expected him to. They were asking for an über warrior-prince in the fashion of King David of old to deal with the Roman problem. Instead he sent them a baby born in a stable to a poor couple from Galilee, a decidedly anti-climatic response to a nation's cry for help. Never mind it was just what the doctor ordered, it was the Deliverer that they really needed not the one they asked for. In hindsight, present day disciples of Jesus know it was the better deal but at the time it was incredibly discombobulating to the lot of them.

We're no longer waiting for Jesus to come and be born in the manger. It's a wonderful story that bears repeating at least once a year, of how God stepped into our world, bridging the gap that separated us from him and provided deliverance from our sin. It speaks of God's love and his character. Now we're waiting for him to come again, to heal this world of its sickness, of its cruelty and its hate. Every time we hear of another mass shooting, of a child abused or abandoned by their parent, of a woman sold into the sex trade, or of innocent lives snuffed out by natural or man-made disaster, our hearts convulse with another prayer of waiting found in the second to last verse of the Bible: “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22:20, NASB).


As we travel “up” in our journey in life, while we wait for the Lord to come (again), we are reminded by those ancient travelers of the same road to put our hope in the Lord “for with the Lord is unfailing love and with him is full redemption. He himself will redeem Israel from all their sins” (vv. 7-8). So “the waiting place” that seems such a waste of time and energy becomes a place where hope is nurtured and trust is fashioned. And its things like that – hope and faith as well as love - that makes life worth living and strengthens our confidence that when he comes again he'll bring a better world with him.

Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!




Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Safaa and me: A foreign exchange story

Safaa and me
In fifty-three years of living, I haven't met many Muslims. I grew up in an all white suburb of Milwaukee densely populated with Jews and Gentiles. I went to an all white high school in Madison and except for the three semesters I attended UW-Madison, the bulk of my collegiate years were spent in the Chicago-area where the majority of my classmates were Caucasian. And for the last twenty-four years I have worked and lived in a county in northern Wisconsin that is made up primarily of people of European descent. In other words the trajectory of my life to this point has pretty much insulated me from even the opportunity of meeting any followers of Mohammed.

Nasser and I
That being said, I have become acquainted with a few. There is Abduhali, a Somali refugee living in neighboring Barron, that for a few Christmases running our paths inexplicably crossed. There is Nasser, a young Muslim man from Qatar studying abroad in the US, who several years ago spent his Thanksgiving break as a guest in our home. But most recently I have come to know Safaa, a lovely young woman from Morocco living in Chetek this school year as a foreign exchange student. She decided to join the Cross Country team I coach and I'd like to think that decision has been fortuitous for her and for the rest of our team as well, myself included.


In the eight seasons I have coached Cross we've had a handful of foreign exchange students who have tried our sport: two from Germany, one from Ecuador, and one from Russia. To my knowledge, none of them were people of faith or if they were they kept that matter to themselves. But when I learned that a young Muslim woman would be joining our team I confess I was a tad nervous. After all, I'm a pastor by trade and most of the kids know and refer to me as “Pastor Jeff” rather than “Coach.” While I don't ever use practice time to conduct Bible study for many years I have made it a habit to pray with my kids before they race (I don't ask if I can; I just do it on the principle that's its far easier to ask forgiveness than permission). No one has ever objected to this practice (yet) but when I learned a Muslim would be joining our team I was more than a little curious if this peculiar habit of mine would be challenged. And finally, how would this Muslim girl from North Africa fit into a team made up of several Christians most of whom have never ventured far outside northern Wisconsin.

Safaa arrived at the end of August and a day or two later, Sarah, one of our team's co-captains and a Christian, and I sat down with Safaa and her host parents, also Christians, at their kitchen table to get acquainted. It was mostly chit-chat, that kind of cautious dance we do in these parts when we're just breaking the ice and beginning to appraise the stranger who we've just met. But at the end of that 30-minute conversation I learned a few things about Safaa. For starters, she chose to pass on her senior year in Morocco so that she could study abroad here. When she returns to Morocco next year she will have to repeat her final year of high school there. Secondly, she was chosen by her host parents and not the other way round. Meaning, this girl from a large city in the Kingdom of Morocco was selected by a young couple who live in our small town to be their house guest for the 2015-16 school year and she agreed to come. Finally, given that Morocco is essentially 99% Muslim and Chetek made up predominantly of people who have some connection to the Christian faith, albeit a generation or two ago, the reality is Safaa was meeting her first Christians and most of us were meeting our first Muslim. Whoever else she was, she was daring – even for a sixteen year old! The potential for misunderstanding and offense was very real but we all agreed then and there that at the end of the day we were all about to experience a wonderful meeting of hearts and minds.

Red-White-and-Blue Day














And that's exactly what happened. Safaa was warmly embraced by our Cross team and her first month of transitioning to life in the U.S. was made so much easier because of the connections she made there. (Honestly, I don't think any of my kids were worried about her devotion to Islam. They were more wanting to know if she was fast.) For the first several weeks, Safaa practiced wearing her hijab and no matter the weather was always in leggings. This was quite the contrast with the rest of our team who on warm days wear the bare minimum like every American girl does – shorts, sports bra and a thin shirt to cover it. Later she chose to set aside the hijab but otherwise held on to her modest standards. The kids took to her right away and her warm, sweet spirit. On “Red-White-and-Blue” day, she wore a chic blue hijab to go with her white blouse and matching red pants. On “game days”, our weekly team bonding activity, she was in the thick of it playing hard for whatever team she was a part of. And on race days she ran strongly. “Safaa is BAE” (code for Beyond All Else) is how one of the guys on our team described her.


When I would pray with the girls before they raced, she would respectively participate. I would have totally excused her if she had expressed feeling uncomfortable with this practice but she never did and I never heard from her host Mom or Dad that it was an issue with her. She was very gracious at the beginning of the season when I failed to inform one of our hosts of the many team dinners we enjoy together that Safaa could only eat halal beef. Very soon parents caught on and made arrangements so that either there was a non-meat sauce for our spaghetti or an alternative dish with chicken in it.

During the last week of the season, Safaa shared a presentation about her country with our team that covered everything from where she was from to what her favorite foods are to what guys and gals wear in Morocco. But most enjoyable to the kids was seeing their names written in Arabic and then having to guess which name was theirs as well as listening to her speak her native tongue. Our hoped for learning experience at the beginning of the season had turned into exactly that: two worlds had met and walked away better for it.

A week or so after the season had concluded, Safaa sent me a letter that was extremely thoughtful and kind. It's the kind of letter a coach hangs on to so that he can pull it out later to read again and again. Within it she wrote this,

The best moments of my exchange year so far were spent with you and the team (the Swain Day, the Friday games, Team Dinners, The presentation...). I'm really going to miss all of this. I already do, but it's OK since those memories always draw a smile on my face when I look back at them.

The fact that this is the sum of her experience with the team I coach makes me very grateful.

Sharing at Refuge
This past Sunday, Safaa came to Refuge and made a similar presentation to our congregation. As far as I'm aware she is the first Muslim to ever attend a worship gathering at The Refuge International. She was articulate and unlike the speak she gave the team at school, she shared more extensively about Islam, her love for Allah and how at sixteen she has now read the Quran five times through. For my part, I thought it was good to hear a Muslim, a young one albeit, explain her faith to us rather than a listen to a Christian explain what Muslims believe. As it turned out, we had a few other nations represented there that morning: Semi is a native Fijian who married a girl from Arkansas and he and his family are presently living at the YWAM campus near town; Loren is a Canadian who married one of our own, a sweet girl from Sand Creek, and together they now serve in New Zealand with YWAM; and David, a native Kiwi who has moved his family to neighboring New Auburn for the next several months to serve his former teacher, Duane, a member of our fellowship. Toward the end of the gathering, I shared extemporaneously from Matthew 5 addressing, among other things, how in this election cycle where so much talk seems to be about how to build a wall to keep “the bad guys out” is so contrary to Jesus' call to build bridges. “Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called sons (and daughters) of God” (5:9).

Frankly, on the surface, it doesn't appear to be a practical foreign policy. People are liable to get hurt that way. But in my mind, the only way to overcome so much animosity and suspicion and hatred between our two civilizations (i.e., Western and Muslim) is for some of us to go there and stay a long time and for some of them to come here and stay a long time. Like a foreign exchange program only designed for adults and families. Maybe out of that mutual experience of being put out of our comfort zones will we have a better understanding of how the other sees their world. It's not the end, of course. But it might be the start of something. I don't expect a call from the State Department any time soon.

Toward the end of my message I asked Safaa if she would be willing to come back up and stand with me. Like everyone else, she is troubled by the hateful and destructive deeds that have been done in the name of an ideology, namely radical Islam which she is persuaded is not Islam at all. I assured her that I was in no way trying to do anything coercive or deceptive. I just wondered aloud if a Christian and a Muslim could pray together for peace and then I asked Semi (Fiji), Loren (Canada) and David (New Zealand) to join us in that prayer. There we stood together as citizens of the world asking Father God to bring peace, not peace negotiated at the end of a gun nor decided by the use of a smart bomb but through the One who brings peace, who came and dwelt among us and reconciled the world to God and now has committed to us the same message of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:19, NIV).





We didn't solve a thing that morning with regards to how to deal with illegal immigrants or Syrian refugees or radical Islam. We just talked in a friendly matter like two neighbors leaning amicably over their backyard fence, sharing about life, faith and the course of our lives. It's just a step but not an inconsequential one. For my part, I'm better for the meeting and I'd like to think she is too.