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.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Prayer, cursing the fig tree and all that (a meditation on Mark 11:20-26)

In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!” “Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.  And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.” Mark 11:20-26, NIV

As I have slowly trolled the waters of the Gospel of Mark for the last year and a half, I've been increasingly struck by the fact that those closest to Jesus were frequently baffled and perplexed by him. He said and did remarkable things. He incensed religious authorities, defied social conventions, even persuaded his family to think he had lost his marbles. Just when you think he will do one thing, he does another. Early in the Gospel he spent a day and a night praying for the sick and demonized (Mark 1:29-34). The next morning when the healing lines begin to fill up even before the sun is up, he informs the disciples it's time to go (v. 38). Late in the Gospel he enters Jerusalem with triumphal flair (11:1-10). There is a feeling that history is about to be made, a loud pronouncement given, some powerful demonstration of God's power, only for him to simply look all around the Temple complex and then leave the city “since it was already late” (v. 11). He never does what you expect him to do nor say what you thought he would say.

The way Peter, Mark's witness, remembers it, the day that Jesus prophetically caused a dust-up in the Temple courts began with their small entourage coming upon a fig tree fully leafed out and Jesus checking its branches for figs. He was hungry and wanted something to eat but since figs weren't yet in season there was none to be found. It would be like one of us looking for apples in May when we know that they don't come until August or September. And yet, he pronounces a curse on it for being barren. Significantly, Mark tells us “his disciples heard him say it” (v. 14).

The next morning as they make their way back down the Mount of Olives to enter Jerusalem (again!), they come upon the tree he had cursed only to find it withered and dead. Peter (it's always him, isn't it?) draws Jesus' attention to it I'm positive in a state of bafflement. What does it all mean? And here's where I become baffled myself. Instead of pointing out to his followers that the cursing of the tree was a prophetic act to signal that the Temple and its inner workings day was done, he gives a short teaching on the necessity of having faith in God. Instead of clarification he points them along another tangent.

I'm struck by the juxtaposition of what seems the “petulant” Jesus the day before – cursing the fig tree and then moving with alacrity through the Temple courts right afterward disrupting the flow of commerce and traffic within it – and the meditative Jesus who calmly looks at the very tree he had cursed the day before and using it as a teaching point for faith. It is – or would seem to be – unsettling. Who is this guy? One day he has fire in his eyes, the next he seems to recline on a lotus leaf as he talks about faith and prayer. What gives?

As I frequently do, I walk through my Scripture studies in the company of others both contemporary and ancient. In all the sources I have consulted, there seems to be a general consensus that the cursing of the tree for what seems no apparent reason is the key to understanding what is really going on in the Temple when he is overturning tables. I follow that train of thought. But what I don't readily get is how he segues from cursing and cleansing as prophetic acts to how they become a basis for having faith in God.

Okay, this is a bit silly but you get the point
In my early years of discipleship, I recall this passage being preached a lot especially the part that begins with “...I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe you have received it...” The “Word of Faith” movement was revving up back then and had hit our fellowship full on. Some thirty-five years later while I don't remember the text (although it may have been this one) I do recall the three points of our pastor's sermon one Sunday morning: 1) Conceive, 2) Believe and 3) Receive. In other words, conceive what you want, believe God will grant it to you and receive what you have asked for. For those of us who are from those days that kind of teaching led to all kinds of foolishness in Jesus' Name (although, to be fair, the “Faith movement” was not all bad).

Today, three and a half decades later I don't agree with the hermeneutic my pastor used at the time but admittedly I struggle to find a better one. I'm pretty sure Jesus is not saying, “You're children of God. He gives you a blank check. Fill in whatever amount you wish and wait until your order is filled.” If that was so there would be, it seems to me, a lot more God-loving people living in higher rent districts and driving later-model cars. I get the fact that he is employing hyperbole at that specific moment to make a point: With God truly the sky is the limit so “have confidence in him.” As Peterson translates it:

This mountain [that is, Mount Zion], for instance: Just say, ‘Go jump in the lake’—no shuffling or shilly-shallying—and it’s as good as done. That’s why I urge you to pray for absolutely everything, ranging from small to large.” (v. 24, Msg).

We cannot fathom the wonder it was
I still don't follow Jesus' line of thought from cursed tree to having faith in God but perhaps the location where he delivers this teaching is part of the key to understanding what he's getting at. He says these things in the shadow of the Temple courts. Americans have no equivalent to how a good-hearted Jew felt about Jerusalem and the Temple mount in the days of Jesus. Maybe Roman Catholics do when they make their way to St. Peter's Square in Vatican City if they are fortunate enough to do so. But for we Protestants, the more schismatic part of the family of God, there is no commonly held revered “Center.” Lutherans point to Wittenburg where Luther pounded his 95 complaints upon the door. Methodists revere Aldersgate, Pentecostals (or, at least, some of them) hype up Azuza Street. But for a God-loving Jew Jerusalem was the place where heaven touches earth. David Garland says as much when he writes,

    Most Jews regarded the temple as the place where prayer was particularly effective...A late rabbinic commentary on Psalm 91:7 reads: “When a man prays in Jerusalem, it is as though he prays before the throne of glory, for the gate of heaven is in Jerusalem, and a door is always open for the hearing of prayer, as it is said, 'This is the gate of heaven' (Gen 28:17).' ...By contrast, Jesus assures his disciples that the effectiveness of prayer has nothing to do with the temple or its sacrifices. When he dies on the cross, access to God is not closed off but opened up for all. His death creates a new house of prayer, a temple not made with hands, which will be without barriers or limitations (see John 2:18-22; 1 Cor 3:16-17; 12:27; 2 Cor 6:16; Eph 2:20-22; 1 Pe 2:4-5). (The NIV Application Commentary: Mark by David Garland, p. 442)

Like so many other things Jesus said when he was with them, they wouldn't get the significance of this comment about having faith in God until much later. But clearly three decades later Peter remembered it and made sure Mark noted it for posterity. “By the end of the week,” says Jesus, “this Temple and all its doings will be irrelevant. It will be but a legacy of elder days and how you used to have to do things. From herein out, you will have access to your heavenly Father just as I do. Sacrifices will no longer be necessary. The liturgy of the Temple will be out-of-date. It's a brand new day so have confidence and faith in Him.”

And maybe this also points to why he is so incensed when he comes upon a tree that appears to be healthy and fruitful only to find it pretending to be so. The Temple was supposed to represent access to God and how he had provided a lamb for sacrifice for sin. Instead over the generations barnacles of pride, oppression and injustice had grown upon the hulk of the Temple mount. The very place that was supposed to represent liberation in reality now was about control and submission. I think that would push most of us over the emotional edge. 

Thankfully, I don't have to travel to some sacred place for God to hear my prayer. I don't have to posture myself in a certain way or even pray a certain prayer in order to for my request to appear on the monitor of heaven. The only thing that is required is that as I pray (in my case) that my children honor him with the way they conduct their lives, that my son's 20-year-old car keep running or that he would be blessed with a better running one, that my daughter's foot be healed in its entirety, is that I ensure I am not holding out on anyone (v. 26). Otherwise, I'm going to put my confidence in the fact that God my Father hears me while I keep on asking away about “big” things and small.

    ...The power of prayer has subdued the strength of fire, bridled the rage of lions, silenced anarchy, extinguished wars, appeased the elements, expelled demons, burst the chains of death, enlarged the gates of heaven, relieved diseases, averted frauds, rescued cities from destruction, stayed the sun in its course and arrested the progress of the thunderbolt. In sum, prayer has power to destroy whatever is at enmity with the good. I speak not of the prayer of the lips but of the prayer that ascends from the inmost recesses of the heart.
    Chrysostom, 4th Century Archbishop of Constantinople, from his homily, On the Incomprehensibility of God as noted in The Ancient Christian Commentary on Mark, p. 162

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

She treated me right: In memory of Robin our neighbor, who used to serve me ice cream

1.the quality or condition of being busy.

2. lively but meaningless activity

We were on vacation last week and while we were gone some stuff happened here that makes me sad. A 45-year old lady from neighboring Cameron drowned out on the Chain. I didn't know her but her nephew used to run Cross for us. A family has been robbed of their loved one way before her time. Next, much to the surprise of everyone in the circles I run in, the Chetek City Council decided to approve the sale of Knapp Haven, our 99-bed nursing home, to a for-profit corporation. The hope of those who worked there, some of whom belong to our fellowship, was that the council would lease the facility to a faith-based non-profit down the road from us but instead chose to go with some big firm from New Jersey. And thirdly, our neighbor Robin died at the age of 54 of brain cancer.

Xtreme is the Best
Admittedly, I didn't know Robin well. She didn't live next door or across the street from us. She lived a few blocks away. A few winters ago on a snowy day, she got stuck in her own driveway and with the help of some guys from youth group we got her unstuck. But mostly I knew her from Dairy Queen. When your worship facility sits directly behind the DQ, you tend to frequent the place a lot more than you would if it were located on the far end of town. We got to know each other by name and by my preference of Blizzard (usually, a Chocolate Extreme).

When she didn't return to work after Christmas and after several trips to the DQ, I asked what had become of Robin only to be informed that she did not work there any longer for reasons they didn't feel inclined to share. I don't recall when it was that I learned that she had cancer but my intention was to stop in from time to time if only to see how she was doing. Robin lived alone with her three cats. I don't know if she belonged to any fellowship but several years ago when we used to hold monthly healing services she had called to ask for prayer for her mother who was dying of cancer and living with her at the time. So that might have been an indicator of latent Christian faith or a cry for help.

About a month ago, her sister called the office asking if I knew of anyone who might cut her grass for her as she had become too weak to do it herself. As it turned out, I did know of someone who was available and drove over to her home to share with her that he would be coming shortly to cut her lawn. Her sister and a couple of nieces were there and while puffy from the steroids she was on, she seemed in fairly good spirits. I asked her if perhaps I might come back at another time to spend some time in prayer for her. She welcomed that and seemed to think that would be a great thing “once her company was gone.” In retrospect, I should have insisted on praying right then and there regardless if it had caused a temporary awkward moment with her relatives.

What pains me most now as I think of that lost opportunity is that right up until we left town, I passed her house every day as I traveled to and from my office. And every time I reminded myself how I needed to stop in and pray with her. But of course, every time something more pressing was on my radar screen and I would tell myself, “Tomorrow. Tomorrow I'll stop in and visit Robin.” I certainly don't hold myself responsible for her death. Many people who get cancer do not recover from it despite all the prayers to the contrary. Everybody, in the end, dies of something. But I do regret that I considered 15 minutes of my time too valuable to spend on a neighbor who could have used the peace and comfort that visit would have afforded a lady who always treated me well when I ordered my ice cream.

Except my donkey is redder, bigger and faster

I'm not trying to belabor the point but I behaved like one of the priests in the Good Samaritan story. Here's a guy who's been mugged and left for dead but, as Jesus tells it, “luckily, a priest was on his way down the same road.” But instead of running to the man to help him in his affliction, when he determined he was a foreigner he “angled across to the other side” of the road (Luke 10:31, Msg) leaving him in his pitiful condition. Okay, I didn't avoid Robin because she wasn't a member of our fellowship or because of something in her life that I found personally reprehensible. I had plenty of good intentions but I just was too busy. At what? you ask. I'm sorry to say that a few weeks later I don't even remember. Most likely with nothing out of the ordinary except for whatever was on my agenda for that day. She could have used the company and heard the reading of Scripture during her last days on earth.

For her sake, I hope she rests with God. I hope her faith was in Jesus whatever the conduct of her life may have been. I will say this: she made good Blizzards and always provided polite service. I hope one day when the Kingdom comes in fullness, and if she's there and I'm there, that she'll forgive me for being in such a hurry to get nowhere in particular. And then maybe we could enjoy a Blizzard together on me.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Sunday morning beach party in Chetek

How wonderful, how beautiful,
    when brothers and sisters get along!
It’s like costly anointing oil
    flowing down head and beard,
Flowing down Aaron’s beard,
    flowing down the collar of his priestly robes.
It’s like the dew on Mount Hermon
    flowing down the slopes of Zion.
Yes, that’s where God commands the blessing,
    ordains eternal life.”
Psalm 133, 
The Message

This past Sunday a few fellowships in our town gathered at Phillips Park (known to all the locals as “Beach Park”) to worship the Lord together. It was a part of our community's annual festival – Liberty Fest – and billed in all the promotional material as “Let's Do Church! - The Chetek Community Church Service. In the very place where the day before lots of folks had gathered to jam to the music of the Altered Vision Band at the annual Chetek Beach Party, about 125 people gathered to celebrate at a very different kind of party at the same waterfront locale.

The idea for gathering together during Liberty Fest didn't arise out of any pastor's mind maybe because it had been tried before with limited success. Granted that was in the last century (i.e., the 20th Century) but as one of the pastors who had participated in those gatherings I can testify that they were sparsely attended by a majority of folks who perhaps “had” to be there – you know, pastor's wives and their brood and a few faithful others. But Monica, a mother of six (and a wife of one), who was not around back then believed it would be a glorious thing if the entire Body of Christ in Chetek could gather at the beach in one accord during our community's busiest weekend of the year. One morning this past April she showed up at “the Breakfast Club”, the weekly gathering at Bob's Grill of pastors and ministry leaders who gather together for coffee, breakfast, conversation and prayer, and shared her dream with those of us present. I won't speak for the others but I admit that my knee-jerk response could be fairly characterized as “been there-done that.” It's not that I'm against corporate gatherings of the Body of Christ. Just a few weeks ago our fellowship shut down and joined Advent Christian in celebration of a successful conclusion to VBS (see In praise of latex balloons and painting rocks). No, I just lacked the confidence that people would come.

I've been a protestant my whole life, even before I came to know Jesus as Lord and Savior. It's only my opinion but when Catholics go on vacation, a lot of them still make it to mass in whatever town they may be staying in because grace, after all, is tied to the Eucharist. That's why attendance at St. Boniface tends to go up during the summer months when a lot of tourists are in town. But Protestants tend to think differently about those kinds of things. When they go on vacation that includes a break from whatever they normally do on Sunday which is why most of us see no “blip” in our attendance during the time of year when our town happens to be swimming with out-of-towners. Given that the 4th of July weekend is a holiday even for those of us who live here, some of us choose to get away and relax and join the throng enjoying the lake, the beach or their own cabin in the woods so that attendance tends to be a bit slim on that particular Sunday. Now factor in we would not be meeting at our regular place (and therefore people would not have access to their regular pew or chair), my hunch was that it would be a throwback to the sparsely attended gatherings in the '90s. But since no one else wanted to rain on her parade, who was I to do so especially when she is an active member of The Refuge?

Pastor Bert from Northside
There was not a heavy-handed pitch for this event. Monica simply contacted all nine pastors in town and asked if they would consider joining. I don't think any pastor told her no but in the end only three of them said “yes” – Advent Christian, Northside Christian Fellowship (formerly Chetek Alliance) and Refuge. The local YWAM campus – YWAM-Northwoods - played a key role in the gathering as well. There were no pre-event planning meetings where a carefully crafted liturgy could be hammered out. As she relayed to me, she simply prayed about it and God gave her the format: A small worship team (made of up of YWAMers from Brazil) would lead in worship,the three participating pastors would each briefly share and the head YWAM-guy would conclude the gathering. Pretty straight forward. Pretty bare bones.

Pastor Norm from Advent
For a worship gathering at the beach, the morning was warm enough that a few families showed up in their swim wear to not only “do church” but dip themselves in the lake while doing so. In these parts, there are not many Sundays in the calendar year when we can indulge both our spirit and our flesh at the same time and honor God while doing so. While 60 folding chairs were set up the event had been billed as BYOLC (or bring your own lawn chair). Given that the shade at that time of the morning primarily hugs Lakeview Drive that's where folks tended to sit so that the crowd of about 125 sprawled all over the beach area. The net affect of the heat of the sun and the shade that the tall pines provided gave the appearance that the beach area was rather full with worshipers of Jesus – maybe not Beach Party full but fuller than any of the participating fellowships would have been had we kept to our own friendly confines.

Leading the way
At 10:08-ish, Monica welcomed everyone, shared briefly about how this idea of hers came about and then opened in prayer. The Brazilian team of Jose, Juliana, Marco and Roberto chose four songs – two contemporary and two “old” hymns – for us to worship to. The first two, “Our God” and “Did You Feel the Mountains Tremble?” worship was a bit muted, maybe because a number of the folks there weren't familiar with those songs. But when Jose and team began to lead us in a blues version of “Standing on the Promises” there was a distinct shift in the atmosphere. We were no longer just singing songs, we were extolling the Lord together. The same could be said when Jose and team segued to “Amazing Grace.” It seemed at that moment we truly were “in one accord.”

Following worship, each participating pastor was given ten minutes to share, a time allotment that was generally honored, and then YWAM-Northwoods Director David Holmbeck brought the closing. None of us conferred with each other prior to the gathering as to what we would share. But putting all four messages together a common theme emerged: Jesus came full of grace and truth; we need God's help to have the same demeanor as we follow him in these interesting days we live in.

he gathering ended about an hour and 15 minutes after it had begun. Folks were encouraged to turn to some people in your general vicinity and pray with one another before they took off for the Craft Fair or the Vintage Auto Show. Many did so that a half hour after the fact folks were still lingering, sharing, and praying with one another.

It was a wonderful time together helped, in part, by employing a very simple liturgy. My personal hope is that it left a taste in some people's mouth for doing this sort of thing more than just once a year when we all get out our red, white and blue.