My name is Jeff and I'm a pastor of a small, local, Christian fellowship

It's a wonderful thing to love your work; to know that when you do it you are doing something that you were born to do. I am so fortunate to be both. I don't say I am the best at what I do. God knows that are so many others who do it better. But I do feel fairly lucky to be called by such a good God to do work I can only do with his help, to be loved by a beautiful woman, and to have a workshop where I can work my craft. These musings of mine are part of that work.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Are legal and right always the same thing?

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;
And somewhere men are laughing,and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville – mighty Casey has struck out.”
“Casey at the Bat” by Ernest L. Thayer, 1888

The court invalidates the marriage laws of more than half the states and orders the transformation of a social institution that has formed the basis of human society for millennia, for the Kalahari Bushmen and the Han Chinese, the Carthaginians and the Aztecs. Just who do we think we are?”
Chief Justice John Roberts in his dissenting opinion of the Supreme Court's ruling that the Constitution guarantees a right to same-sex marriage (New York Times, June 26, 2015)

Disclaimer: If you read any farther than this sentence remember that this blog of mine, that I'm sure is read regularly by my mother and my wife and irregularly by few others contains, as stated in the header, “the musings and mutterings of a minister at times captivated by the mystery of the faith.” These are my eclectic thoughts about all things that I care to comment on. I don't pretend to speak for all Christians or the fellowship I serve or even those I have coffee with regularly. If you happen to read this post and are offended by it, save your outrage for me alone. Don't lump all evangelicals together and write us all off as “haters” simply because I fail to articulate my thoughts in an effective or meaningful way. Pastor Martin

So, it's happened again. The Supreme Court – and really, only 5 people on that court – has changed the lives of 320 million Americans by ruling that whatever else the Constitution may or may not say it guarantees the right of same sex couples to get married. It doesn't matter if your state has certain laws on the books that prevent such unions, the clerk of courts is now authorized to issue a wedding license to gay couples just like every one else.

Obviously there are a lot of people – gay and straight – who are happy, no elated about this decision. It's only fair, right? Why shouldn't gay folk be permitted to enter into legally recognized unions like heterosexual couples? They're people too. But in Mudville – well, at least this corner of this street in Mudville – let's just say I won't be adding a rainbow hue to my profile picture on Facebook anytime soon.

Here's a couple things that I'm musing about today about yesterday:

• In the morning, one of the leading news stories was naturally the pending decision of the Supreme Court. Every time the news media runs a story on this issue of gay marriage invariably they air pictures of gay couples kissing in some court house at the conclusion of their wedding. Honestly, as a straight man, that moment usually weirds me out. Yesterday I looked up from my lap top to watch that segment and, as expected, they showed a gay couple – this time two women – concluding their wedding with a kiss. I went back to whatever I was working on and a minute or two later it occurred to me that I hadn't been bothered by that sight at all. It looked normal. Of course couples kiss after they get married.

I make my bread and butter by preaching the Bible, of articulating what it says to the people who have made The Refuge International their fellowship. This means I read it a lot and quote it literally every Sunday of the calendar year. And yet yesterday while watching the news I didn't even blink an eye when one woman kissed another in a display of nuptial happiness. I think that's what they call desensitization. And if I guy like me who reads the Bible a whole lot can be desensitized about a matter like this, what about the guy who rarely cracks the Scripture or hears only snippets of it on Christian radio but watches a lot of TV?

• Our son, a senior at UW-Superior, called me in the late afternoon asking me to pray for him. “I am distressed about this Supreme Court ruling” is what he said. Apparently he had been out to lunch with some friends when in walked another friend who is gay and as his companions expressed how happy they were for him because of the Supreme Court's decision, it became a decidedly awkward moment. How can you feign happiness for someone when all you really feel is grief? And why didn't I feel the same? Why didn't I drive around yesterday with a belly full of anguish of another benchmark passed on the road to national perdition?

Maybe because I'm not surprised. It's only my opinion but socially speaking evangelicals aren't really changing the morays of the way people live. They may be coming to our seeker-sensitive services, jam to our music and appreciate our Lord's message of love, acceptance and forgiveness but they may still cohabit with their partner and do stuff that might make some of us other, more traditional folks blush. So of course a culture that embraces tolerance (which is a good thing) but at the same time is increasingly ignorant of the Scriptures (which is bad) eventually reaches the point we are at today. It's inevitable. And it's another indicator that we have moved into a post-Christian society.

In 1962 the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for public schools to make children pray an official school prayer. I'm okay with that. Over the last four years I've subbed enough at our local elementary school to observe how inattentive kids are when they are asked to stand each morning to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Imagine if on top of that they were also asked to pray a prayer? Regardless of how well written a lot of kids would mutter their way through this obligatory entreaty without so much as a thought of what was going on (sort of like the Pledge today).

But just because it's unconstitutional for a public school employee to lead their class in prayer doesn't mean that there isn't prayer in schools going on. There is. Every time lunch is served certainly there are some kids somewhere who silently bow their heads in thanks. There's nothing illegal about that. At the same time public schools by and large have a rule that allows students to gather together outside of class to read the Bible or pray together. It's called the Bill of Rights and so long as they don't make a nuisance of themselves, it's totally acceptable.

So now let the marrying begin – or resume as in 13 states same-sex marriages were already legal. So be it. There are other things in our country that are legal as well but that does not make them right. For my part, I will continue to teach those in my care what the Scriptures have to say about marriage – that it is a sacred union between a man and a woman. Of all other arrangements – relations between two men or between two women – it refers to as “unnatural” and “sinful” (see Romans 1:26-31). But of course it's not acceptable these days to talk about sin unless it's about your own. Otherwise, mind your own beeswax.

This post is not intended to change anyone's mind about the matter. First of all, I don't think I have a large following and my words probably will go unnoticed in the flak of commentary that already peppers the internet. Second of all, there is no argument that is ever won on social media. Just lots of venting, posturing, finger-pointing and “in-your-facing” and I have no stomach for that sort of thing. No, I'm just trying to articulate a response to this judicial act without coming off sounding as a self-righteous, ignorant redneck. But I suppose that's impossible. People will believe what they will. Maybe the best apologetic these days to an ever increasing secularism is to love well and live righteously even if it means I look more and more like an Amish guy coming into town on his horse and buggy.

Monday, June 22, 2015

In praise of latex balloons and painting rocks

As there are no little people in God’s sight, so there are no little places. To be wholly committed to God in the place where God wants him—this is the creature glorified.” Francis Schaeffer

Another Vacation Bible School for Chetek's one and only “multi-church” VBS is now in the books. It was touch and go there for a bit whether or not Outback Rock would happen but the creek didn't rise at Poowan Springs and the Lord came through. We passed Wallaby Wash and got to the outback with all the help we needed and a small passel of 19 kids to minister to. Every participating fellowship was represented in one way or another either through the staff that served or in the ideas behind the various activities that occurred between Friday night and Saturday noon.
G'day mates!

One word that characterizes this edition of VBS is “simple” - hot dogs and lemonade for our Friday night dinner, recorded worship music to jam to, bean bags, latex balloons and uncooked pasta noodles for the games we played, pieces of slate that were painted during crafts, teaching moments on Pastor Norm's deck or in the “grotto” in his basement, and vanilla ice cream cones at the conclusion of our time together late Saturday morning. In a day and age when kids are for good reason referred to as the “plugged in” generation due to their penchant for electronic gaming and all things to do with their phone, how good it is to remember that a game of tag can still bring joy to a child's face.

4 year-old & 3rd grader
Every VBS that I've ever been a part of over nearly 24 years here in Chetek has a different vibe and flavor to it. Boot Camp (2009) transformed the grounds of The Refuge into an army base – complete with guards! SonCastle Faire (1999) turned Advent into a castle right out of the Renaissance and last year we were digging in the sand at Chetek United Methodist at SonTreasure Island (2014). But one of the things I appreciate about this latest segment of VBS is its intimacy. Kids weren't broken into groups based on age; rather, they were a mixed lot so that a fourth grader might be in the same group as a 4-year old. That's where smallness worked for us. The larger number of children you have to herd the greater the possibility that the weakest among you will be literally run over. But at Outback Rock that didn't happen. “Big kids” were looking out for “little” ones and – wonders of wonders – they were all having fun together.

For the second year in a row, Refuge joined the host fellowship for a combined worship service. Last year, we joined Chetek United Methodist the morning before VBS began that evening. This year we joined Advent on the day after Outback concluded. We do this together why shouldn't we celebrate together? Besides, it's good to be reminded that we are part of something way bigger than our own fellowship; that “those people over there” are not them; they're us. Their worship service simply has a different flow to the one we're used to but the same Spirit. As my wife remarked to me over dinner Sunday afternoon, “We only sang a few songs but I felt such a strong presence of the Lord while we did.” Absolutely.

I agree with Francis Schaeffer: in the kingdom there are no little people or places. Right now in our county a certain congregation is “it on a stick.” They have a brand new building complete with coffee bar and their ranks have swelled (among them a few disaffected Chetek people). Signs that promote their fellowship seem to be everywhere. Good for them. May the Lord bless their efforts to expand the kingdom in our county. But what they may do on a large scale, we are doing here in fit-to-order scale. In the kingdom what in the end do words like “big” and “small” really mean? Nazareth was a small town. So was Bethlehem. So was Lystra (Timothy's hometown). So was, by comparison to Jerusalem, Capernaum where many of the early disciples hailed from. Jesus still finds people who will trust and follow him in 'burbs just like that. It reminds me that I'm a part of something significant that is way bigger than me and who knows what fruit will come from the seeds that were sown this past weekend in the hearts of “ankle biters” (an Aussie term for children) – and those who cared for them – in the outback. And if my Australian slang is correct, that's aces. 

To see more images from Outback Rock follow this link: Chetek's Multi-Church Vacation Bible School

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The VBS that almost wasn't

Children are the living messages we send to a time we will never see.” Neil Postman, author and cultural critic

We are a little under 48 hours away from the commencement of this year's edition of Chetek's Multi-Church Vacation Bible School. This annual tradition which began long before any one of us was a part of it pools the resources – human, physical and financial – of five different fellowships in our community: Advent Christian, Chetek Lutheran, Chetek United Methodist, Northside Christian Fellowship and The Refuge. Every year it moves to a different location and, at least in theory, representatives from each fellowship begin praying and planning for this annual outreach to the children of Chetek. This year Advent Christian is our host and Pastor Norm has opted for a weekend VBS: Friday night, Saturday morning and done. It's a flash in the pan that hopefully will light a spark in the hearts of the children who will come.

2008: Jerusalem Marketplace
For most of the 22 campaigns that I have been a part of in my time in Chetek, we have usually run a traditional week-long morning VBS capped with either a Friday picnic lunch or an evening program that night. What helped us was that summer school didn't begin until the second week of summer so we normally jumped on that first week the kids were out of school. But that has since changed and now we are in competition, at least programming-wise, with the school district. A couple of years ago we tried an evening, family VBS with mixed results. Last year it was a three-day venture which began on Sunday evening but ran all day and concluded Tuesday afternoon. With the exception of Chetek Lutheran, we are mostly small churches but Advent is especially small and that's why Pastor Norm thought a Friday night/Saturday morning event would work best for them.

2009: Boot Camp featured a real, vintage Korean War-era jeep

Usually planning for VBS begins while there's still snow on the ground back in February. This year because of various schedule challenges, however, we got a late start and then a few of the participating fellowships didn't have representation at the initial planning meetings. In fact, attendance was so low and enthusiasm so lacking that three weeks ago Norm sent out an email informing everyone that he was canceling the event altogether for just this reason. Having sat where he has sat before and knowing what it takes to put on even a small VBS, I sympathized with his decision. Why knock yourself out when it is perceived that no one else cares to do the same? I hated making that announcement that Sunday. A 30-year tradition apparently was now over.

Boot Camp

2012: Journey Through Narnia

2014: SonTreasure Island

A brief journey in the Outback
But a few days later while in prayer, God spoke to him to not give up and a subsequent email was sent informing everyone that our next planning meeting would be the following Tuesday as originally planned. Just like that we had people on board from every participating fellowship and this lumbering cargo plane seemed to get airborne. Crafts. Games. Food. Teaching. Design. Music. All. We now have the staff the question is will we get the kids?

Here's what we did back in '11
There's no time to run an extensive ad campaign in the paper. Ditto to running a scrolling announcement on local cable. There will be no big tent in the yard next to Advent so rain or shine the show goes on. Because of their location on the main drag of our town, they are the best place to make known what is going on and over the years we've had some creative props in the yard to draw attention to VBS. This year all we have is a promotional sign attached to their building – a sign, however, that just went up a week ago. When I think of previous schools over the years it definitely feels we are behind the 8-ball.

Working on the backdrop
As much as I enjoy VBS I enjoy the run-up to VBS: the planning and praying, the brainstorming and working through the hiccups, creating the sets, setting up the grounds, just the coming together of Jesus followers from the various fellowships in our town for the sole purpose of advancing the kingdom of God in the hearts of children. We do it together and that's important. We all do things to help our particular fellowship function and that's fitting that we do. But in the end, Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come” not “My kingdom grow” and the way we do it seems one answer to that prayer.

I can't speak for other communities but I think I know Chetek pretty good. We're losing ground with the next generation. We have less and less kids in our fellowships. There are a little over 400 kids at our elementary school. Of that body, a small percentage go to Sunday School or Wednesday night kids' clubs either at a fellowship in Chetek or elsewhere. As for the rest they are at the open gym at the high school, or involved in sports or dance or 4H or more than likely at home gaming, watching TV or sleeping. In and of themselves these things are not bad – my kids have been involved in all of them over the years (all at the same time!) But come Sunday morning, come Wednesday night the rule of thumb around here seems to be go anywhere but a faith-based event. So, for many of our churches they look more and more like a gathering of senior citizens who lament the fact that there are no grandchildren in our nurseries.

Someone could make the observation that VBS has now run its course, that it is so passe, that maybe we need to “get with the program” - whatever that may be - and move on. Perhaps. I personally think, however, that it is symptomatic of growing secularism in our society, even in the Heartland of the good ol' USA. For the most part, we're raising good kids, even good citizens. But we're not bringing them to Jesus while we do those things and that is a sad commentary about us.

We all know the story about people bringing their kids to Rabbi Jesus for him to bless (Mark 10:13-16). The disciples, behaving more like handlers and security personnel, give these people the wave-off. Mark makes a point of Jesus' reaction. He is “indignant”. He's offended that his people would get in the way of children coming to him. So he rebukes them and says, “Let them come to me. Not only do I care about them but they demonstrate the weakness and vulnerability that is required of those who would follow me.” Before long a passel of them are sitting in his lap or at his knees and I'm pretty sure he's smiling and laughing while they crawl all over him.

Kids will come. We've prayed. We've ask God to send us kids. We've put some posters up around town, talked it up in our respective fellowships and run an ad or two in the local newspaper. Kids will be there. It might be a small turn-out – after all some people get out of Dodge on the weekends in the summertime or their kids are playing ball on Saturday – but small gathering or not, Jesus will be there too. And we best do our best for them and him.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Unsettling thoughts about the rich, young ruler

Looking at his disciples, Jesus said, 'Do you have any idea how difficult it is for people who “have it all”to enter God’s kingdom?' The disciples couldn’t believe what they were hearing, but Jesus kept on: 'You can’t imagine how difficult. I’d say it’s easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye than for the rich to get into God’s kingdom.'” Mark 10:23-25, The Message

It ain't those parts of the Bible that I can't understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.” Mark Twain

The story of Jesus' encounter with the guy we usually refer to as the “rich, young ruler” has bothered me for quite a while (Mark 10:17-22; also Matthew 19:16-22 and Luke 18:18-23). As a citizen of one of the wealthiest countries on the planet how can it not? I agree with David Garland when he says that people being people “we always manage to fall below an imaginary 'riches danger line,' so that we comfort ourselves that Jesus intended this lesson for someone else” (Mark: The NIV Application Commentary, Zondervan. © 1996 by David Garland, p. 401). I don't consider myself “rich” by any way we define the term in these here parts. I don't live on the lake nor own a pontoon nor have access to a cabin in the woods. I'm just a “poor preacher” scraping out his living in a small town in northwest Wisconsin. My vehicles are old. My home needs improvements. I don't have a pension nor stand to collect one from the parish I serve at any time in the future. I don't know if Twain had this saying of Jesus in mind when he made his laconic observation but despite my moderate means of living this passage still vexes me.

I pretty much know the song by heart
I'm fairly persuaded that God is not a communist, that he's okay with us owning stuff and using it as we see fit. I also know that there are some very generous wealthy people – even around here – while at the same time I also am aware that some poor people can be remarkably stingy and selfish. Which is to say having the ability to acquire and maintain wealth does not equal the mark of Cain and neither is being poor a mark of godliness. In and of itself money – Mammon – is morally neutral. It could be evidence of greed or wisdom, of arrogance or generosity. Paul reminds me that if, like Tevye, I were a rich man and gave everything away to “the poor” without a hint of love in my heart for them it would mean absolutely nothing (see 1 Corinthians 13:3). So, why am I troubled by this hard saying of Jesus?

My African friends told me all their zebras were kept in the zoo

I've been to Asia. I've been to Africa. I've been to Mexico. I've been to Pine Ridge. What do these places have in common? Gross poverty juxtaposed with gross affluence (save for Pine Ridge which just knows gross poverty). After my first trip to Africa in 2012, the kids at our local elementary school who I read to each week wanted to know if I saw any elephants, lions, zebras or any of the other wildlife Africa is famed for. I had not, I informed them, but then walking to the sink in their classroom I showed them something I have come to believe is truly marvelous. I opened up the tap and just like that clean, cool drinking water poured out with just a flick of my wrist. I then shared with them that nearly every day as we drove around to different villages and towns I would see children their age and older standing in line at a bore hole with their assorted cans waiting for their turn to draw water. The water they drew would be used for drinking, cooking and bathing. The next day they would be back to follow the same routine all over again. But in this country that we call home if we're thirsty, we just go as far as the kitchen sink or the water fountain in the hall to get a glass of water. Or we set our washing machines and then press a button and clean water fills the tub. Amazing. When nature calls, I go into the bathroom and then flush when I'm through. I may not consider myself wealthy by any means but by comparison to some of my African friends how can I affirm that I'm poor either?

A Ugandan boy with his "jerry" can

Truly a modern marvel
I know that not all of Africa or Asia is like this. There are parts that are as modern as they are here in North America. But the majority of our “poor” enjoy clean running water and indoor plumbing. What's more, the infrastructure of roads and access to emergency health care and rescue and lights that come on (so long as our account is current) and stay on is fairly standard. Our populace, by comparison, is better educated and healthier than many of our neighbors in developing countries. It makes me very grateful to live in the place that I do.

Got a canoe - does that count?
I don't feel a lick of guilt about it. Why should I feel guilty that I live in a country that values clean drinking water, good roads and a basic education? And I don't think we're to spend a lot of time apologizing to our less affluent friends because we have it so well off here. But then I read Jesus' statement: “Do you have any idea how difficult it is for people who “have it all”to enter God’s kingdom?” (v. 23). I don't know about you but having seen a little bit of the world “out there” it's hard not to put myself in that category of “having it all.” Sure I don't own anything that speaks of status in our culture (unless you consider our modest home) but all those simple amenities I take for granted every day like clean drinking water, indoor plumbing, and a police force that goes about its work honestly spell affluence to me.

Waiting in line at the bore hole in Kakira
So, am I to inform Linda that we're selling the house and the cars down-sizing to an even smaller living space if only to alleviate my guilty conscience for living in such a spacious home? Am I to send whatever profit we could garner from the sale of our home overseas to one of my struggling African friends? I don't think so. I don't think this is what this passage is about. Instead, I think Jesus is asking me to do some inventory. Do I like the amenities so much that I would refuse a call to move to where I would not have such easy access to them? Have I set my boundaries of where and where I will not heed his call to follow? Do I love my lifestyle more than I love the Lord from whom these blessings have come to me?

It comes in handy
A few years ago, I struggled with a decision to buy a John Deere wagon to pull behind my John Deere tractor. I could buy a similar one at Farm 'n Fleet in black for a lot less than what the implement dealer was wanting for an authentic green one. But I also have learned the hard way that you pretty much get what you pay for. If you go cheap you save yourself money in the short run but not necessarily in the long. I have a few friends who are heeding God's call on their life to serve him in a cross-cultural manner. Would it be right to spend a lot of money on a piece of equipment when they were struggling to provide for their families? I shared this internal struggle with one of them and instead of consoling me and giving me his blessing he simply said those kinds of decision are personal and are supposed to be difficult. In the end I bought the green trailer and have used it for so many things over the years. I don't lose any sleep over owning it. But my friend is right: what we choose to do with our disposable income, whatever that amount may be, is very personal and – if we take this passage to heart – to involve some degree of struggle. Do I really need it? Or am I just getting it because I can?

Yeah, it still bothers me. But maybe its supposed to.