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

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

Wednesday, November 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. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

I Coach: What's your superpower?

The Coach's Cup
If you want to run fast, run alone. If you want to run far, run together.” - an African proverb

In my career arc as the pastor of a small church, I've worn a lot of hats. It comes with the territory. From time to time when I am asked by some telemarketer if I am the senior pastor I quickly respond, “If you mean I am the only pastor – yes.” Over twenty-four years of ministry, at times I have also been the main Worship Leader, the Youth Pastor, the Executive Pastor and if need be – like this month, for example – I also sweep out the place. Every guy or gal who's ever been assigned to a small fellowship knows what I'm talking about. You do what needs to be done.

Members of the 2015 Team
For the last eight years, one of the hats I have been blessed to wear has been “coach” of the Chetek-Weyerhaeuser High School Cross Country team. Since 2008 from mid-August to late-October I have had the opportunity to hang around some wonderful young people every afternoon between 3:30-5:30 p.m. Cross Country is one of those sports that most people really don't get. For one thing, it's scored backwards where the goal is like golf - to get as low a score as possible. For another, unlike football or basketball we have a clock that simply runs. No timeouts or substitutions. And finally, it's a sport that most people associate with discipline. There's a reason why an old saying in Cross is “Our sport is your team's punishment”. If Coach Knickerbocker, our Varsity football coach, doesn't think his boys are giving enough effort in practice, what does he do? Send them out on a run (in pads, no less!) It doesn't work that way in Cross Country.

So in a small town like Chetek, where football (for the guys) and volleball (for the girls) rules, a kid who comes out for Cross automatically goes against the sub-culture he's a part of. I mean, who after all, just “runs for fun”? But Cross Country kids embrace this and wear it as a badge of honor. And because of these factors, the 18-22 kids who come out every season feel very much a part of a fraternity of brothers and sisters connected together by sweat, tears, a little blood and the joy of running. In fact, the phrase that most of them use to describe their experience is “being a part of a family” and as their coach I am the head of that tribe.

Winning Timm's Hill in 2012 will be a special memory

In high school, my goal was to be a State champion wrestler and I found Cross Country by accident. My first year in Cross I viewed it as a means to an end, primarily to get in shape for wrestling. Instead, I found a sport I loved and an environment I thrived in. Looking back, I don't have a lot of fond memories from my wrestling days and the closest I ever got to State was the year I worked the tournament as a student volunteer. But I have a plethora of moments that I hang on to and retrieve from time to time of those three seasons I was a member of the Madison LaFollette Cross Country team - mostly of my teammates and some of the crazy stunts we pulled and especially of our coach, Tom Sisulak.

Who will ever forget the 2009 "snow" run?
About a dozen years ago there was a United Methodist minister in a neighboring community whom I knew that I learned coached their high school Cross Country team as well. Finding that out was like a seed being planted in my heart: perhaps I could do that too one day. Four years later that seed bore fruit when the position opened up here and I began my tenure as Chetek's (later Chetek-Weyerhaeuser's) Cross Country coach.

"It's not good to be dumb" (thus saith Alex)
Like the kids I coach, I have been a work in progress. I've had my own learning curve to traverse. Along the way, however, I've made a few discoveries the main one being that coaching is a lot like pastor-ing: you come alongside someone intent on learning a craft, give them some basic tools to be successful and then as they meet challenges encourage them to persist and not give up. I am certain that my calling as a pastor makes me a better coach because a pastor always has to hold on to the big picture: we don't want people to just thrive in the short term; rather, we want them to be successful over the long haul as they are intent on following Christ.

Ostrich races, of course
A fellow Cross Country coach in our conference who also coaches track once said to me, “I coach track because it needs to be done but Cross Country is what makes me come alive.” Me too, Coach O. Me too. As much as I love this sport, however, I am very cognizant of the fact that it is just a means by which I may contribute to the nurturing and development of some wonderful human beings. Because that it is my primary goal – not winning a championship, for example, just for the sake of bragging rights – intuitively over the years I have added certain “traditions” to our season among them the “Stud Muffin-of-the-Week” award, “the Monday Minute” and “the Circle”, an activity that puts a capstone on our season.

The original Stud Muffin
In 2011, at the Bloomer Invitational, a senior who by his own admission “hated running” accidentally ran an extra loop in the 5K race and remarkably did not come in last. As he put it, “Who knew you could get lost running in a circle?” By my estimate he ran an extra 1000 meters that afternoon but to still not be the last man in is noteworthy. The next day I showed up with a chocolate-chocolate chip muffin from Kwik Trip and the tradition began. Every week of the season since, “stud muffins” (or muffinettes) have been given out for efforts that go above and beyond the pale. The kids are free to nominate someone they feel is deserving and aspire to do something that is stud muffin-worthy whether on the course (like achieving a long sought after goal) or off it. A simple bakery item has become now a coveted mark of character.

The 2011 Season was also the season I began what I refer to as my “Monday Minute”, motivational and reflective talks meant to speak encouragement into my runners' lives. Some time they consist of stories I find on the internet. At others, they are talks addressing certain character issues in life like practicing thankfulness or the necessity of persistence. Of course, they are always longer than a minute but on those days where time is pressing and I have to punt to share it on another day the kids always notice it and want to know when they're gonna get their “Monday Minute.”

Eric with the "sharing chicken" 
At the close of the 2010 season, my son's senior year, I decided to have the kids circle up during the last week of practice. The Sectional race was a day away and the likelihood was this was our last time to be together. If this had been a religious setting, I would have asked the kids to “pronounce a blessing” on one another. But since it was Cross Country practice we went around the circle and I asked them to say some positive and uplifting things about each other. Despite the fact that we were right outside the gym where volleyball practice was going on and we were continually being interrupted by people walking through, the kids took to it right away. The following year, I moved that practice to the sanctuary of Refuge and ever since “the Circle of Encouragement” - or, as one of my guys calls it, “the Fellowship of the Ring” - is one of the most looked forward to practices of the entire season. It's in that circle that we affirm one another, build each other up, and reflect on the true strengths of a person that is so much more than how fast someone is or how much hardware they collect over the course of a given season.

Another season is now in the books. It was a great one. The kids bonded well, made a lot of memories and one of our own made it to “the Big Dance” - the State Cross Country meet in Wisconsin Rapids. But more importantly, these kids epitimized sportsmanship throughout the season. At the end of a very challenging race on Spooner's grueling course, spontaneously some of the kids formed a cheer line on the other side of the finish line and began to cheer the remaining runners in. The official in charge of the meet, an old salt who has been ref-ing for years, was sincerely moved by that demonstration of sportsmanship and shot off a letter to the WIAA, the governing board of high school athletics in our state. Here's what he wrote:

At the Spooner Cross Country Invitation, I noticed and was deeply impressed by the 10 or so runners, both boys and girls from Chetek-Weyerhaeuser, that were at the end of the chute shouting encouragement to all the runners finishing the race. Most impressive were the facts that they not only continued to cheer encouragement for all runners, but in particular they stayed right to the end of the race to encourage a special needs runner with Autism from Hayward. And to see how that cheering picked up the pace of that Hayward Austistic runner finishing the race just made your heart melt. This runner was finishing well behind everyone else and to see the Chetek-Weyerhaeuser runners cheering him on simply took your breath away. NEVER before have I seen such a genuine exhibition of sportsmanship at a cross country event before. These kids deserve to be recognized for their sincere effort to encourage the best performance from all runners, not just the select few in the top ten.

The cheer line

This is why I coach. In my eight seasons so far, we've picked up a few trophies, won the home meet a couple of times, sent four kids to State and had a handful of all conference runners but all that pales to the real work of building people. Before they know it, they'll be “big” people, working somewhere, settling down, and starting a family of their own. As they're heading there I'm grateful for the chance to help them on their journey as well as plant seeds for the Kingdom of God.  

These guys rock