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, December 24, 2016

They saw his glory too: A meditation on Exodus 24:9-11 on Christmas Eve

Then they climbed the mountain—Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel—and saw the God of Israel. He was standing on a pavement of something like sapphires—pure, clear sky-blue. He didn’t hurt these pillar-leaders of the Israelites: They saw God; and they ate and drank.” Exodus 24:9-11, The Message

In one of the most amazing texts in the Bible, these men saw God.” Walter Kaiser, Jr

They trembled too...but it was just acting
In the Bible, to “see” God is no small thing. In fact, the few that had such a numinous experience with glory wrote afterward about it as if they had a brush with death but lived to tell of it: Gideon, Manoah, Isaiah, Ezekiel. All of them describe being whelmed by a wave of terror. Think Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tinman and the Cowardly Lion (and Toto, too) approaching dreadfully into the throne room of the “great and terrible Oz” except in this case it's not fiction and there is no friendly little man over in the corner behind a curtain working the levers. On the mountain when Jesus is transfigured before a few of his closest disciples, just the sound of God's voice is enough to cause them to hug the ground as if being caught in a barrage of artillery. All that to say it is no light thing to stumble across glory.

After a little more than three months of sojourning from Egypt, the people of Israel had finally arrived at the mountain, “the mountain of God” as it is referred to a couple of times in Exodus. Author Bruce Feiler notes in his own tracking of his ancient ancestors' footsteps,

The Israelites, who for centuries were enslaved in the flatlands of Egypt, had not encountered mountains as high as the Sinai for at least six hundred years. The Bible says they “trembled,” and seeing the red granite mountains in the southern Sinai, one of the leading possibilities for the site, one can understand why.

Rising 7,455 feet above the plain Jebel Musa (the traditional site of Mount Sinai) is not a particularly tall mountain as those things go but “its barren face is dramatic...As the American visitor John Lloyd Stephens wrote in 1835, 'Among all the stupendous works of Nature, not a place can be selected more fitting for the exhibition of Almighty power.'” (Walking the Bible: A Photographic Journey). Add to it thunder, lightning, thick billowing smoke, fire and the very mountain – mountain! - “trembling violently” (Exodus 19:18-19) no wonder the people pleaded with Moses to go on their behalf. They were certain their lives hung in the balance before such Power.

His invitation to Scrooge is an echo of the one offered to them
Over the next few weeks, Moses will make that trip up and down that mountain several times during which time he will receive the foundational Ten Commandments (20) and the complimentary Book of the Covenant (21-24) as well as the design plan of what was to be his dwelling place among them in their travels through the wilderness (25-31). After the people heard the terms of the Covenant and agreed wholeheartedly to them, Moses records that he then solemnized the moment with sacrifice, sprinkling the blood upon the them (24:8). And then God extends his remarkable invitation to Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu and the seventy elders to join him upon the mountain for a meal. I think of the Ghost of Christmas Present in A Christmas Carol who beckons Scrooge in his bedroom to “come in here and know me better, man” as this kind of moment. But instead of a jocular giant cajoling a frightened Scrooge to make his acquaintance it is the King of all the earth whose very presence has made the mountain shake all the way down to its roots. “Scared” is so inadequate a word to describe their frame of mind at that moment but do they dare decline an invitation from the Deity?

All that is preserved for posterity from that awe-ful moment, however, is a sparse two sentences that state the main facts: that they went up and saw God; that the most they could or bothered to describe was the color of the pavement he stood upon, a blue like a clear, blue sky; and that they sat down and ate and drank in his presence (24:9-11). No one bothered to record what was on the menu. Not one thing that was said – if anything was said at all – was written down later. Clearly the most astonishing thing about this episode as far as they were concerned is that they did not die.

Something like this
When our kids were little, we used to have a tank with seven gold fish in the boys' room. As God's creatures go, the gold fish is a pretty simple creation: they swim, they eat and they poop. If I remember right, we didn't have a filter or an air pump. It was just a tank full of tap water with some pretty rocks and underwater decorations. After awhile, the water got murkier and murkier and the onus to clean the tank and change the water became increasingly greater with each passing day. Soon, the water was so green all you could see was a fin or a tail or a faint glitter of gold now and then. The time had come and an intervention was at hand. Linda and I didn't draw straws or rock-scizzor-paper-it; I was simply the first to cave.

I set to work. First with a little net I gently gathered up the small school of fish in a large plastic bag full of tepid water and set them aside. Then I got cleaning: I scrubbed the sides of several weeks' worth of algae, I rinsed the little rocks of gravel and made sure every sign of filth and muck had been washed away. Then I filled the tank afresh with clean, lukewarm water and gently reintroduced them to their former habitat. And instantly six of them bellied up and died. Just like that.

Maybe after weeks of living in dirty, low-oxygenated water to suddenly breathe rarefied air was too much for their nervous system? Or (as someone who heard me tell this story recently suggested) it was the Windex I used to clean the glass? Whatever the reason, instantly six were translated to gold fish heaven. And the seventh? He lived and seemed happily content to be back in his old surroundings (later that spring we brought him out to some friends of ours' goldfish pond where “Freddie” - as they came to call him – happily lived on for several more years).

Ever since then that image of six croaked fish floating on the surface of the water seems to me to be an appropriate metaphor of what would become of any of us were we to be suddenly translated into the Presence of God. Sinful from the get-go, rebels the whole lot of us, one moment of being exposed to heaven's gamma rays and we're dead men. Recall, several chapters later in Exodus when Moses boldly asks Yahweh to see God's glory (33:18), God curtly replies that he will be allowed to see his back but not his face “for no one can see me and live” (v. 20). Which makes Exodus 24:9-11 all the more remarkable. Except for Moses, these guys are not overly spiritual – Aaron will be complicit in the making of the Golden Calf a month or so later, Nadab and Abihu will be dead by holy fire early on in their travels for being reckless (and probably drunk) carrying out their priestly duties and all of these elders (unless Joshua and Caleb are included among them) will die in the wilderness on account of rebellion. And yet, reports Moses, they sat in the Presence of God and saw Him.

Of this moment, theologian John Mackay says that these “representatives of Israel are given a foretaste of what heaven is like when they are permitted this audience with the King” (Exodus: A Mentor Commentary). Nearly a millennium later at the occasion of another sacred meal, Philip asks his rabbi and teacher, Jesus of Nazareth, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” To wit Jesus will astoundingly reply, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:8,9). Many years later, John, who was at that dinner, will write those words that will be read at most Christmas Eve services tonight,

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth...No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only...has made him known” (John 1:14, 18)

Um, sorta like this
A thousand or more years before seventy or more guys sat down to a meal and lived to tell of it. Perhaps that they could has to do with the fact that prior to that moment they had been sprinkled with blood and their sins had been covered. Without that, they would have been melted just like those two Nazis were in Raiders of the Lost Ark when they dared to open the Ark of the Covenant. Poet Annie Dillard once reflected how pedestrian we can become in worship, reciting the liturgy by rote without pausing to think about what we are intoning:

On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god (sic) may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god (sic) may draw us out to where we can never return.’” (Teaching a Stone to Talk)

And yet this same God who shook the mountain and caused it to tremble and quake before Him is the one who has come close to us in Jesus allowing us to enter his presence, sit down and enjoy his friendship.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The tragic case of William Freeman: A lesson in courage

The witnesses for the State...have presented themselves to you gentlemen, to this court in the cynical confidence that their testimony would not be doubted, confident that you gentlemen would go along with them on the assumption... the evil assumption that all Negroes lie, all Negroes are basically immoral beings, all Negro men are not to be trusted around our women. An assumption that one associates with minds of their caliber, and which is, in itself, gentlemen, a lie, which I do not need to point out to you. And so, a quiet, humble, respectable Negro, who has had the unmitigated TEMERITY to feel sorry for a white woman, has had to put his word against TWO white people's! The defendant is not guilty - but somebody in this courtroom is. Now, gentlemen, in this country, our courts are the great levelers. In our courts, all men are created equal. I'm no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and of our jury system - that's no ideal to me. That is a living, working reality! Now I am confident that you gentlemen will review, without passion, the evidence that you have heard, come to a decision and restore this man to his family. In the name of GOD, do your duty. In the name of God, believe... Tom Robinson.” Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird

While it would be difficult to pin me down to a favorite film, To Kill A Mockingbird is certainly in my Top 5 (next to, say, The Shawshank Redemption and The Best Years of Our Lives). It's the movie based on Harper Lee's 1960 Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the same name. Atticus Finch is the heroic lawyer who is willing to defend Tom Robinson, a black man who has been falsely accused of raping a white woman in Jim Crow Alabama. He does so at great risk to his local reputation as well as his children's lives but defends the man anyway because, well, it's the right thing to do. Predictably, Tom is found guilty and before Atticus can file an appeal, Robinson is shot in his attempt to escape. It's a story that 50-some years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 still speaks powerfully to matters of social justice and moral courage.

A great read
I've recently begun to read Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin and just this morning read a portion of a chapter which focuses on the four major contenders (Lincoln among them) for the Republican Party's nominee for President of the United States in the 1860 election. Among the four was William H. Seward, an ambitious and affable politician from New York who got caught up in a similar moral storm as the fictional Atticus fifteen years before.

In 1846, Seward at forty-five years of age had already served New York as governor for two succeeding terms and had returned to private practice. In his home town of Auburn, a black man by the name of William Freeman had gone on a rampage and brutally killed a wealthy white man, his pregnant wife, their young daughter and his mother-in-law. The sheriff was lucky to get Freeman to the jail before a mob could lynch him. No one would take up his case and the locals threatened any lawyer with physical harm if he would dare to try.

As Goodwin tells the story: "When the court asked, 'Will anyone defend this man?' a 'death-like stillness pervaded the crowded room,' until Seward rose, his voice strong with emotion, and said, 'May it please the court, I shall remain counsel for the prisoner until his death!'"

He immediately was censured and criticized by friend and foe alike. Why would he be so foolhardy to jeopardize his future career in politics by taking on a case he was sure to lose? But he took the case all the same. His investigation revealed that Freeman had spent five years in jail for a crime he did not commit and that while incarcerated he had been flogged repeatedly which had left him deaf in one ear and mentally unstable. He had confessed to the crime immediately upon his arrest but in Seward's estimation he was criminally insane. In his closing argument before the jury he pleaded "...he is still your brother, and mine, in form and color accepted and approved by his Father, and yours, and mine, and bears equally with us the proudest inheritance of our race—the image of our Maker. Hold him then to be a Man." “I am not the prisoner's lawyer,” he reasoned, “..I am then lawyer for society, for mankind, shocked beyond the power of expression, at the scene I have witnessed here of trying a maniac as a malefactor.” He begged the jury not to seek the death sentence. Rather, he should be committed to an asylum for the rest of his life adding: "there is not a white man or white woman who would not have been dismissed long since from the perils of such a prosecution.”

He expected to lose his case, despite persuaded of the justice of his cause - and did. But unlike Atticus in Monroeville, later won on appeal. Sadly, before Freeman could be moved to an asylum he died in jail.

At the heart of the storm, with public opinion against him and risking his future career, his wife, Nancy, stood by her man and wrote their son that “there are few men in America who would have sacrificed so much for the cause of humanity – he has his reward in a quiet conscience and a peaceful mind.” I'm sure Harper Lee didn't have Seward in mind when she wrote her novel (actually, she was thinking of her father, Amasa “A.C.” Lee, an attorney and Alabama state legislator, whose 1923 defense of a black client is the partial backstory of the novel's trial) but in reading Nancy Seward's sentiments about her husband I can almost hear a faint echo of Aunt Maudie telling Jem, “...some men in this world are born to do our unpleasant jobs for us...your father is one of them.”

I'm inspired by Seward's display of moral courage, to do the right thing because it's right not because it's expedient or, God forbid, will look good on a resume. In Goodwin's estimation, his choosing to take this case as well as several other stands he took in his early political career on the grounds of social justice eventually cost him his party's nomination for president. Is that a small price to pay for a clear conscience? He seems to have thought so.

At the close of the Freeman trial, as this distinguished man labored to persuade men whose prejudice made them tone deaf to his argument he spoke, if you will, a prophetic word: “In due time, gentlemen of the jury, when I shall have paid the debt of nature, my remains will rest here in your midst, with those of my kindred and neighbors. It is very possible they may be unhonored, neglected, spurned! But, perhaps years hence, when the passion and excitement which now agitate this community shall have passed away, some wandering stranger, some lone exile, some Indian, some negro, may erect over them a humble stone, and thereon this epitaph, 'He was Faithful!'” More than a century afterward, Goodwin observes, visitors to Seward's grave at the Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn would find those very words engraved on his tombstone.

As much as I like Gregory Peck and all things Mockingbird, Seward's story is true. He was a man who lived in a time where both north and south, people were ambivalent about the intrinsic worth of any person not of European descent. For his part, long before the Freeman trial he was already persuaded that slavery was an evil that needed to be eradicated from the country. While he wasn't alone in his sentiments clearly many of his contemporaries were not willing to risk so much for the life of a crazed man who had brutally killed a local family. In this he displayed remarkable fortitude and courage and is a reminder to me that there are certain hills worth risking failure for – or worse.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Good grief

Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?”
Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:55 quoting Hosea 13:14

When my maternal grandfather, Roman Edward Janecky, died in 1995, my aunt asked if I would speak at his funeral. While his pastor would preside and officiate, I would give the message. I was happy to do it not just because I had loved my grandpa but I was a pastor after all and it's what we do. I had been in the ministry only four short years then and if truth be told I was a little eager to show-off my preaching prowess to the relatives.

Grandpa used to serve me up a scoop of vanilla
in a cake cone
The visitation was going to be held an hour before the service at the same church that Janeckys in Racine, Wisconsin had attended time out of mind. When we arrived, his pastor wanted to go over details of the service so I dutifully followed him into his office while the rest of the family visited and greeted the well-wishers who had come to pay their respects. Meanwhile Grandpa's pastor and I talked away in his study – the same study where my parents had signed their marriage license in 1958 and, no doubt, where other Janeckys had signed theirs in years past as well – about the ministry, about our families and other such pleasantries. He then took me step by step through the order of service explaining not just what would happen but the why behind it. I gathered he was something of a liturgist in that he wanted to revel a bit in the richness of his denomination's tradition with the young nondenominational hick from upstate sitting across from him. Time was passing. Soon they would be closing the casket in the narthex and I had to yet to have my own viewing of Grandpa. As it turned out, I had time enough to get a quick glimpse of him just as they were lowering the lid.

Emmanuel - as it looks today except the church has now closed

I don't recall how I did. Everybody said I did a good job but you know, at a funeral people usually aren't there to critique the sermon especially if you're a grandson trying to honor your granddad. But for me, I was mad. I was mad at myself for allowing my vanity to rob me of an hour I should have spent as a grandson instead of as a professional readying myself to perform my duty. I was mad at myself that I didn't have the gumption to politely tell my grandfather's pastor that as much as he enjoyed talking about his preference for “intincture” in ministering communion, I really needed to be with my mom at that moment. All he really had to do was give me the nod when he needed me to get up and preach. I was angry for weeks after that and I recall making something akin to a vow that from that time onward I would be less eager to officiate at a family member's funeral.

I think I miss Jim more today than
when we first lost him
That being said, I've been called upon frequently over the years to minister on behalf of the family. I spoke at Grandma Janecky's funeral in 1998, Grandma Martin's funeral the following year in 1999, and at both my godparents' funerals, my Aunt Nancy (2001) and Uncle Norm (2007). But in each of those settings, I deliberately approached those gatherings with the mindset of a relative rather than a reverend. It seemed to help me grieve better. When my brother died suddenly in 2001, the most I was willing to do was share a greeting on behalf of our family for those who had come to honor Jim. Otherwise, I let his pastor – Pastor Dick – guide our family through that service of committal. In fact, it was from Pastor Dick that I learned something valuable about grief that I have since come to pass on to others.

Jim would have been thrilled that
the Cubbies are now World Champs

A couple nights before the service, Dick came to my parents' house and visited with them, my sister and I. He had been my parents' and Jim's pastor for over two decades and had known him well. Before he left he gently admonished us that each of us processes grief a different way so that no one has the right to say to another: “Get over it.” You're 'over it' when you are, whenever that might be. In retrospect, I'm really glad he shared that with all of us because the next week, while at my office back in Chetek, I had something of a meltdown. I didn't really cry a lot at Jim's funeral but that afternoon I began blubbering like a baby at the loss of my brother. It was just grief working its way through my soul. By contrast, my parents had far more frequent laments and bouts of grief than I did for that first year after his passing.

My ministry as a pastor these past twenty-five years has confirmed Pastor Dick's wise counsel to us that evening back in 2001. When people experience loss – the loss of a loved one or divorce or bankruptcy or some other kind of trauma – while they are going through it at the same time they are going through it differently. And because that's so, it's important to extend grace to each other when grief comes out as anger or curtness or inconsolable mourning. Back in 1994, one of my best friends lost his arm in a farming accident. It turned his world upside down. But after a few weeks of feeling down about the matter, he put it in his rear-view mirror and went to work on the rest of his life. No sense crying over spilt milk, right? But his wife – his ex-wife – had a far more difficult time in processing what had nearly happened to her. “I came within a millisecond of being a widow at 24 and having to raise two small boys on my own,” is how she put it to me a few years later. It created something of a 'faith-quake' within her and it exasperated the already latent issues that existed between them before the accident. They had both experienced trauma that day on the farm but how they processed that loss was entirely different and unique to the people they were at the time and eventually became a wedge that drove them inseparably apart.

The man loved - and prayed -
for his grandchildren
My father-in-law, Darrell D. Redders (or DDR), died a few weeks ago. This past July, a month before his 80th birthday, they found a tumor the size of a fist on his liver. In mid-August, his doctor explained to my mother-in-law and him that it was inoperable. Not too long afterward, the cancer had metastasized and moved into his lungs. On Friday night, October 21, he climbed into bed after listening on the radio to the high school football team that his son coaches win their first play-off game. A hour or so later, he breathed his last with his wife, his other son and daughter-in-law at his bedside.

I coach our high school's cross country team and one afternoon in late September while at practice my phone rang. It was Dad Redders and so I told my kids I had to take this call. His voice was low and his breathing labored but carefully he asked me if I would do his funeral. Of course, I said I would. Our history together over thirty years of being married to his daughter has been mostly good. We didn't choose each other but love for the same woman had brought us together. And our mutual love for the Lord Jesus and Linda and our four children had kept us together. I would have been just fine for his pastor to preside and sit by my wife's side and hold her hand while we were comforted by Scripture, prayer and the words of others. But since he asked me how could I say no to such an honor?

I think I did okay. I did wear a suit and tie (for an occasion like this Darrell would have expected no less). I did share Jesus and the hope and consolation he brings to those who trust in him for their salvation. And while I presided at the gathering I kept myself unscripted to underscore the fact that I stood before the 200+ congregants who were present not as the officiant but as the son-in-law who is a pastor and was trying to comfort his family.

Sorry, Dad, but your military honors
were real special
Right now the only regret I have is where we had to leave him. The night before Madison had received 2” of rain resulting in the vault trucking getting stuck persuading the cemetery folks to inform us that under the weather conditions no graveside committal service could be held. So we had to leave him in their chapel beneath a large depiction of Catholic monks waving incense above him. It's about as opposite him as can be but hopefully the full military honors he received at the church prior to driving out to the cemetery more than made up for it.

Two weeks later, we are in processing mode. It helps that Linda and I have each other to talk to when talk is needed. I didn't lose my father. Linda did and so understandably tears come at odd and random moments. Like the night before Halloween when Linda, Charlie and I were carving pumpkins at the kitchen table when suddenly Charlie turned to his mom and said very gently, “I'm sorry that Grandpa Redders died.” Me too, Charlie. Me too.

So we mourn now. We don't mourn as if he is gone for good or that we will never see his likes again. Our mutually held Christian faith tells us differently. As DDR would put it:

First off, you must not carry on over them like people who have nothing to look forward to, as if the grave were the last word. Since Jesus died and broke loose from the grave, God will most certainly bring back to life those who died in Jesus.”

And then this: We can tell you with complete confidence—we have the Master’s word on it—that when the Master comes again to get us, those of us who are still alive will not get a jump on the dead and leave them behind. In actual fact, they’ll be ahead of us. The Master himself will give the command. Archangel thunder! God’s trumpet blast! He’ll come down from heaven and the dead in Christ will rise—they’ll go first. Then the rest of us who are still alive at the time will be caught up with them into the clouds to meet the Master. Oh, we’ll be walking on air! And then there will be one huge family reunion with the Master. So reassure one another with these words.” 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, The Message

I know Paul is right but for my part what I will miss most of him not being with us any longer is knowing with certainty that my name is lifted up before the Father daily. Death comes to all of us in time. We know it is the requirement of heaven that we die. Every time we stand at a graveside or gather for a funeral we are reminded that the wages of sin is death but – thank God – the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 6:23). So, in that our grief, in time, is turned into something good.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

True Story: Twenty-five years ago October 1

"Some luck lies in not getting what you thought you wanted but getting what you have, which once you have got it you may be smart enough to see is what you would have wanted had you known." 
Garrison Keillor

“True story.” That's what Chetek Lutheran/Dovre Lutheran's pastor Guy Redfield always says before he tells a joke. He deadpans it setting you up for what you think is a quaint pastoral anecdote only to pause at the right moment before a “gotcha” smile grows on his face. It's one of the many things I like about Pastor Guy. But what I'm about to share really is a true story. No joke. Some of you have heard this tale before and before I repeat it again, I beg your pardon. But it is, I think, too good not to repeat again.

It goes like this: in the summer of 1988 I was heading north to Duluth to attend a pastor's conference there. I was accompanying my pastor, my father-in-law, and a friend of mine who at the time was serving as an associate pastor at the fellowship we were all members of. We had been on the road for several hours when Pastor, who was our driver, pulled off Highway 53 and drove to the outskirts of a town I had never heard of before – Chetek – to gas up and give us an opportunity to stretch our legs. We pulled into a gas station with a quaint sounding name – the Keg 'n Kork – and we all got out while pastor gassed up. I remember leaning against the side of his white Cadillac looking down the main drag while he was speaking conversationally about our fellowship having a sister congregation in this community (The Refuge which prior to 2007 was known as Chetek Full Gospel Tabernacle). And while he spoke I distinctly recall thinking to myself, “I'd never want to live in a town like this.”

I'm not making that up. For some odd reason that moment is forever seared in my mind – leaning against a white Cadillac filling up at the Keg 'n Kork musing of all the small towns in the world this was the last place I'd like to be.

I have on more than one occasion thought about thinking that thought and wondered why I thought that. What was it about that view that provoked me to wish myself away from here? Just the other day I drove out to the Keg 'n Kork and stood near to where I stood in August 1988. As I looked down Second Street I pondered to myself again what was it about that view that made me wish I would never darken the streets of this town again.

That view really hasn't changed much in twenty-five years
Honestly, that view hasn't changed that much in twenty-five years. Certainly Keg 'n Kork looks a lot different today than it did in '88. Several years ago they added their wood-siding to their station. But looking north it looks much as it did back then. Of course, Verizon wasn't there and Stirling Bank was years away from their remake. Kwik Trip was still back where Six Lakes Reality now operates and the neighborhood (and tennis courts) where Kwik Trip currently stands were still there but I couldn't have seen that from my vantage point at the pump of the Keg 'n Kork. Nope. For the most part, it's the same view as it's been for the past two and a half decades.

Pastor paid for his gas, we all got back into his car and we continued on our way to Duluth and at the time Chetek was forever in my rear view mirror. That all changed three years later in the summer of 1991 when I returned to Chetek to interview with the folks of the Gospel Tabernacle and wonders of wonders, they extended a call to me. A call, I should add, that I nearly missed. After we candidated here, we drove to Hutchinson, Kansas to interview at a congregation there (a place we both knew we didn't belong in) and then spent a week vacationing in Iowa (a story in itself!) We were tenting it in
I have yet to get there
August, the campground directly opposite a cornfield. The plan had been to stop in Dyersville, home of the Field of Dreams, on the way back only my breathing was becoming more and more labored on account of some kind allergic reaction I was experiencing presumably because of ragweed. So we just made a beeline for home. While we had been away, the Chetek congregation had voted to call me as their pastor. But I hadn't bothered to tell them we were going on vacation and so every time the president of the congregation had called me all he got was our answering machine. They finally sent me a certified letter informing me that if I did not return their message by a certain date they would just assume I was not interested in the position. That day, as it turned out, was the day we arrived home.

Hilda was a big encouragement to me in our early years here
In retrospect, Linda should have driven me directly to the emergency room my breathing had become so shallow. But all those blinking lights on our answering machine beckoned and so before we went to the hospital, I listened to one after another of the messages, hastily scribbling down the number of the president, a guy named Art. I then called him and fortunately he picked up. Through labored breathing I explained we had been on vacation and would like to speak with him further but first I really needed to get to the emergency room. He kindly acquiesced and told me to call him back later.

At the hospital they put me on a nebulizer which opened up my lungs, prescribed me some medication and then sent me home. I no sooner got home that I picked up the phone and called Art back and said, without any further deliberation, “I'd love to come and be Chetek Full Gospel Tabernacle's pastor.” We talked a little further and then hung up. Before I could call my folks or Linda's folks to share the news, we still had our car to unpack from our week's camping trip.

A lot of those kids today are married and have kids of their own

She still swings but dances while she does it
It's sure been fun

We drove into town on the evening of October 1, 1991, just as it was getting dark. I was driving a 24-foot U-Haul (towing an 8-foot trailer) with Linda following in our station wagon packed to the gills along with our two children, Christine and Charlie. A crew from the fellowship was awaiting us and worked until nearly 11 o'clock unloading all our stuff and helping us get situated in the rented house at the end of Banks Street just a block and a half from our home today which we have owned since 1993.

They called it the "Super van"
Over the past twenty-five years, Chetek has been our home. We have raised a family here – Ed (1993) and Emma (1995) came along a few years later – worked here, shopped here, lived here. Through the different seasons of my ministry here I have started a youth ministry, served on the PTO, chaired a referendum committee, read to kids at school, been a chaplain at the county jail, coached both middle school and high school athletes, volunteered for both the Chetek Food Shelf and the Salvation Army, helped start a youth center and Kinship of Chetek. I've performed in community theater on several stages in Barron County and had the opportunity to travel on ministry trips to different corners of the world. And most recently I was elected mayor of that town I thought back in 1988 I'd never want to live in. Ain't that a kick in the head?

Garrison Keillor ends his 1985 best seller Lake Wobegon Days with a short tale of a guy who hazards a trip into town in the middle of a blizzard to buy some smokes. On the way home he is reminded of how dumb this trip really is as in the middle of a white-out ends up in a ditch. As he crawls out of the car he also realizes that those cigarettes he was so desperate for he left on the counter of the bar.

A pretty dumb trip. Town was a long way to go in a blizzard for the pleasure of coming back home. He could have driven his car straight to the ditch and saved everyone the worry. But what a lucky man. Some luck lies in not getting what you thought you wanted but getting what you have, which once you have got it you may be smart enough to see is what you would have wanted had you known. He takes deep breaths and the cold air goes to his brain and makes him more sensible. He starts out on the short walk to the house where people love him and will be happy to see his face.”

All that to say that while I really don't believe in luck, I sure feel like a pretty lucky man. A fellowship took in an awfully green pastor and stuck with him as he progressed through the learning curve (a curve he knows he's still on). They let him be himself, even though he was nothing like their previous pastor or some of the other older pastors in our community that the people loved and respected. And that is a wonderful thing. They let him make changes, make mistakes, and try again. In short, they loved him, his family and especially his children and for that he will always be grateful.

A few weekends ago they threw us a big party in honor of twenty-five years of service. It was great. On Saturday afternoon, it was a community open house and for several hours that afternoon, people from town stopped in to share a piece of cake and congratulate us at this milestone. And then the next day they held a service of blessing which means that after a time of worship, they opened the floor and for the next hour or more people came to the mic to express their gratitude for us and for our ministry here. It was both incredibly honoring while at the same time sincerely humbling.

Those kids aren't kids anymore

Let someone else praise you, and not your own mouth;an outsider, and not your own lips” (Proverbs 27:2). For the most part, I've tried to live by these words throughout my time here in Chetek. If any lasting good has come through my efforts well, honestly, to God be the glory. In the end, as everyone of us in ministry knows, the Lord knows what we've done and takes note and will reward accordingly on that Day we are all earnestly looking forward to. In the meantime, I remain grateful – grateful that Refuge continues to maintain the call to me as pastor, grateful to call this place home, grateful to serve this community as mayor, grateful to be here.

Still happy and grateful to be here

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Led not lost: A meditation on Exodus 15:22-27 and disappointment

Ayun Musa, the traditional site of this site
Then Moses led Israel from the Red Sea, and they went out into the wilderness of Shur; and they went three days in the wilderness and found no water. When they came to Marah, they could not drink the waters of Marah, for they were bitter; therefore it was named Marah.” Exodus 15:22-23, NASB

Hope deferred makes the heart sick...” Proverbs 13:12, NIV

Philip misses his dad - as we all do
Several years ago, a 54-year-old man in our fellowship who didn't like the way the heart medicine he had been prescribed made him feel, decided to go off his meds and “trust God for his healing.” Within a few months of that decision he had a fatal heart attack and died while driving home one afternoon. While his wife has weathered the storm well enough, his fifteen-year-old son remains in the thick of it angry that he has been robbed of his dad before his time. In his own words pasted on his Facebook wall recently, “Obviously whoever said that it will get better has never lost their father. #goingdownNotup#missdad.”

They are an amazing couple
A young couple from Refuge, who have been trying desperately to have a child for over a year, with joy shared with all of us on a Sunday morning a few weeks ago that at long last they were with child. The woots and the applause were spontaneous as everyone knew they had been trying to conceive for some time. Last week, when they went to the doctor for a check-up, their joy was popped like a soap bubble in the summer air when the ultrasound revealed that their baby had died a few weeks ago.

The future is uncertain - but then, it always is
Back in June, my father-in-law went to see his doctor due to issues he thought had to do with his stomach. But after a series of tests they learned that he had a malignant tumor the size of a fist on his liver. Just the other day when he and my mother-in-law sat down to discuss the action plan with the surgeon they were informed that he had, in fact, Stage 4 cancer, and given that the tumor had already metastasized to his lungs the best plan of action was no plan whatsoever. Whatever news they were expecting to hear this was not it.

All of us who follow Jesus know that these vignettes are not extraordinary or unusual. Things like this – and worse! – happen to followers of Christ all the time. In fact, just as Jesus reminded his first disciples, stories such as these are fulfillment of his promise: “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33, NIV). Disappointment and hope waylaid are at times par for the course.

One theory of which way they went

I think of the Children of Israel fresh from their deliverance from Egypt. They had walked through the waters on dry ground and watched the liquid wall collapse like an avalanche upon the pursuing chariots of Pharaoh. The sight of some of the bodies of the men who but a short time ago were in hot pursuit of them now washing up upon the shore like so much flotsam and jetsam was certainly part of the inspiration for the song of victory that arose shortly afterward (Exodus 15:1-21). But now, safe on the the other side of the sea, what do they find there? Nothing. Nada. Zilch.

Author Thomas Cahill describes the Sinai peninsula as “one of our planet's most desolate places. It would be hard to conjure up a landscape more likely to lead to death – a land bereft of all comfort, an earth of so few trees and plants that one may walk for hours without seeing a wisp of green, a place so dry that the uninitiated may die in no time, consumed by what feels like preternatural dehydration. By contrast, the gentler Judean desert of John the Baptist seems almost an oasis” (The Gift of the Jews, pp. 132-33). Bruce Feiler adds that the Sinai has often been “referred to as '24,000 square miles of nothing'” (Walking the Bible, p. 203). When I hear the word, “wilderness”, something out of a John Muir sketch comes to mind, beautiful mountain vistas crossed now and then with sparkling glacier streams. But in the Sinai I should think the moon, desolate and empty.

In such a moonscape like the Sinai water is everything. So three days after the Red Sea crossing, at the limit that a normal human body can tolerate before risking death by dehydration, the sojourning people of God spy an oasis creep up over the horizon. Their spirits must have soared again knowing that soon their thirst could be slaked and their bleating livestock watered. Did some of them race ahead to get first dibs at the watering hole? But no sooner do they arrive than they discover that the water is undrinkable and bitter, like being teased by a mirage but worse because a mirage isn't wet. Their disappointment is palpable and the discontented murmur of thousands must have sounded like a hive of angry bees suddenly overturned.

Moses, the focal point of the people's ire and dissatisfaction, cries out to Yahweh and he provides an unusual solution: “God pointed him to a stick of wood. Moses threw it into the water and the water turned sweet” (Exodus 15:25). There are some commentators who write a lot about certain kinds of trees that have restorative powers when thrown into brackish water but personally it seems to me in their rush to demonstrate that what we are reading inside the pages of Holy Writ is scientifically provable they miss the point: once again, with their backs against the wall, God had provided for them in a miraculous way, just as he had at Pi Hahiroth (Exodus 14:1). Yahweh had asked Moses to take a step of faith – throw a stick of wood into the water – and watch what happens. The moral being that at the crossroads of disappointment and unbelief, trust and faith are always required.

But something else happens at the place that they would later call Marah: they learn something new about the Lord who had delivered them from the hand of Pharaoh:

That’s the place where God set up rules and procedures; that’s where he started testing them. God said, “If you listen, listen obediently to how God tells you to live in his presence, obeying his commandments and keeping all his laws, then I won’t strike you with all the diseases that I inflicted on the Egyptians; I am God your healer.” (Exodus 15:26)

As Karen Lee-Thorp paraphrases the same moment,

Trust me, obey me, and I will take care of your physical needs. Ignore me, and you are at the mercy of the climate, the food supply and of things called “germs” that you know nothing about. Yahweh must have felt like the parent of two million two-year-olds, with only one eighty-year-old nurse to commiserate with (Story of Stories, pp. 51-52).

Hundreds of years before at the top of Moriah Abraham had learned a new truth about Yahweh – that He was the God Who Provides. In the nick of time, He had provided the ram for the sacrifice in response to the Abraham's act of trust. Now at the bitter waters of Marah God reveals that He is the God Who Heals. Just as he healed the waters, he is able to restore those who choose to honor and hold true to him even when their hope has been waylaid. In fact, while obedience won't necessarily give us a free pass from hardship he promises that when it comes it won't be considered judgment. Rather, it will force our true colors to come out, revealing how deep our confession really runs.

There is something else I missed before but those more studied in these matters have since pointed out to me: they were led to Marah. That's where the Cloud, the physical manifestation of the Lord's presence among them, took them. They didn't stumble across the bitter waters of Marah by “accident.” Rather, it was by design to prove what was in them. As J.A. Motyer observes,Every move in whatever direction, every stop and start, every turn of the pathway was by the will of God. Whether they were in the comforts of Elim or in the dire straits of Rephidim, it was because the Lord had led them there.” (The Bible Speaks Today: The Message of Exodus, pp. 177-78).

As Lee-Thorp puts it:

This whole desert journey was the beginning of a school. Yahweh had trained Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jacob's sons as individuals; now he had to put more than a million people through the same course. Some of them weren't even Jacob's descendants and had heard of Yahweh only a few months earlier. Nearly all of them had grown up as slaves and children of slaves. This stage in Yahweh's plan was about transformation...

...To change from slaves into servants, the people had to learn fear – and at the same time trust – Yahweh more than any other gods or human. One might expect that the plagues, the Reed Sea miracle and the constant physical presence of the cloud would have convinced them, but dry mouths and growling stomachs proved otherwise. Hence, Yahweh deprived them of the sources of their basic necessities to force them to depend on him. Then each day he provided just what they needed, so as to reinforce an attitude of daily dependence (Story of Stories, pp. 52-53).

So trouble and difficulty is all a part of the journey and the story that God is writing with our lives. Whether the place we're at is Marah where our hopes have gone awry or at the copious springs of Elim (Exodus 15:27) where it is so easy to be at peace with our lot in the world God desires that we trust his goodness and his purpose to lead us through the harsh terrain ahead. I hope that fifteen-year-old boy finds comfort on the other side of his present rage. I marvel at the woman who just lost her baby as she expresses to me her gratitude that she and her husband could be parents. But I am not surprised when my father-in-law shared with all of us this past weekend gathered for his 80th birthday that whether he is healed or not of the cancer presently growing within him, he will “trust the Master.” It's the way he's talked for as long as I have known him, a confession that arises out of a habit of faith.