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.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

This little light of mine: A meditation on Exodus 1:17-21

The king of Egypt had a talk with the two Hebrew midwives; one was named Shiphrah and the other Puah. He said, 'When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the sex of the baby. If it’s a boy, kill him; if it’s a girl, let her live.'”

But the midwives had far too much respect for God and didn’t do what the king of Egypt ordered; they let the boy babies live. The king of Egypt called in the midwives. 'Why didn’t you obey my orders? You’ve let those babies live!'”

The midwives answered Pharaoh, 'The Hebrew women aren’t like the Egyptian women; they’re vigorous. Before the midwife can get there, they’ve already had the baby.'”

God was pleased with the midwives. The people continued to increase in number—a very strong people. And because the midwives honored God, God gave them families of their own.”
Exodus 1:17-21, The Message

After a year and a half in the Gospel of Mark, I have turned to the Book of Exodus for my personal Bible reading to begin the new year. Exodus is all about departure from what was reality for the people of God then – slavery, bondage, endless servitude – into something entirely new - freedom. It's about God at long last making good on his promise to Abraham four hundred or more years before to bring them back to the land that was their inheritance (see Gen 15). It's a book that includes episodes of God flexing his arms and laying down the law (literally!) in epic proportions as well as his unending forbearance with his people who even try his patience (and that's saying a lot!)

Exodus 1 starts something like this
The first chapter of Exodus reads something like the opening crawl of any of the Star Wars films i.e., “It is a dark time for the rebellion, etc., etc,” It is a dark time in the life of the people of God. They are slaves in Egypt. For the last four centuries that has been their lot. The heroic deeds of Governor Joseph have long since passed out of record. Now the powers that be – specifically, the power, Pharaoh – view these sheep-herders far differently than how they were regarded “back in the day.” Once given the fertile land of Goshen due to their profession now they are, as Donald Gowan puts it, “just aliens with an alarmingly high birth rate” (Theology in Exodus). Like an infestation of cockroaches, something must be done about “them.”

As the author of Exodus tells it, the first thing the king tries is back-breaking labor. In fact, in verses 13 and 14 of chapter 1 we're told the Egyptians work them “ruthlessly” (13), make their lives “bitter” (14a) and use them “ruthlessly” (14b), an unusual word, I've learned, that is used only five times in Scripture and all referring to circumstances of hardship and oppression. But despite his effort to stifle their birthrate, it has the opposite effect: they multiply like rabbits.

So, he resorts to Plan B: infanticide, gender “cleansing” at a woman's most vulnerable and powerless moment, when her baby emerges at long last from the safety of the womb. Imagine this scene where Pharaoh, dressed in all the magnificent robes of his office, sitting ensconced on his throne instructing two peasant midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, to do his dirty work. “If a woman gives birth to a girl, let it live; but if its a boy, kill it” (16). Standing before him, they are nothing; he is everything. They bow their heads and place their arm over their chest as a sign of willingness to submit to his will. But if we look closely the fingers of their other hand behind their backs are crossed. They have no intention of following through with this ridiculous command.

Quietly, without proclamation or fanfare, they defy Pharaoh, considered in that neck of the woods to be something akin to a god on earth. But the narrator tells us that they fear Another (17), the implication of course, Who is greater even than Pharaoh himself. They continue to help the Hebrew mothers at their birthing stools bring their male babies into the world. And after awhile when it is clear that Pharaoh's “Final Solution” is not working, he calls them on the carpet to give an accounting why the Hebrew population is growing and not declining. You would think that when summoned to the king's throne room they would be as scared as Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion are when led into the presence of the Great and Terrible Wizard of Oz. But instead of being daunted by him they play him for a fool. Essentially, they tell him a bald face lie that when they are summoned to a birth they are forever showing up late, a picture of complete incompetency (19).

You would expect Pharaoh to act like Caroll's Queen of Hearts and cry to the guards “Off with their heads! Off with their heads!” seeing through this flimsy excuse as so much cockamamie nonsense. Instead, he dismisses them from the throne room. The king of the world, with all power and might, has just been trumped by two lowly midwives who fear God and are willing to tell a fib for a greater good. Which I think is the author's way of telling us an inside-joke concluding his comment about how God rewarded them for their faithfulness with a wink and a nod (20-21). As J.A. Motyer puts it, There is a wealth of irony running throughout these opening chapters...for all his 'greatness', Pharaoh is left unnamed, while the midwives (whom he regarded as mere tools of his policy) are remembered individually. This is Exodus' perception of who is important and who is not” (The Bible Speaks Today: The Message of Exodus, p. 29).

They wouldn't comply with the king's command either

These women, more than likely representative of many more scattered among the Hebrews, had no power, no influence, no connections, no money. All they possessed was respect and love for God and with that defied one of the greatest powers of all time. Like Daniel's three friends Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego many, many generations of Israelites later, they were unwilling to bend their knee to the equivalent of Nebuchadnezzar's statue in their day. And like those boys, God honored them for their willingness to go out on a limb for him and delivered them from the fire smoldering in Pharaoh's eyes. Instead of the firing squad, God blessed them with families of their own while Abraham's descendants continued to rapidly multiply.

Speaking of the first two chapters of Exodus Motyer says, These...are the bare bones of a great story. It is a story to delight in, showing how the weak and powerless of the world overcame the strong and mighty; a story to horrify because of the terrible suffering it portrays; and a story to encourage because of the sure, providential care of God” (p. 30). As I reflect on this, I'm reminded of complimentary quotes by two individuals as opposite as night and day. First, Mother Teresa, the saint of the poor of Calcutta, who once said, “We can do no great things. We can only do small things with great love.” The other is by no less a darkened soul as Frederich Nietzsche who once commented, “The essential thing 'in heaven and earth' is...that there should be long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.” God rewards acts of faithfulness whether they are considered “great” in the eyes of the press or, as is most likely the case, go on undetected and unrecorded for posterity. During the dark days of World War II, Christians like the ten Boom's of Holland's Haarlem defied the “pharaoh's edict” of that day by hiding descendants of Abraham as long as they could. All of them suffered for that choice and went to their reward before war's end save Corrie who spent the rest of her life traveling the world and telling the story of what God had done in the camp where they were imprisoned. They did what they could and their story is still told all these years later.

This Little Light of Mine”, the gospel song we were taught as children, is a call to battle. Every week at the conclusion of their weekly service, the Lutheran fellowship of which my parents are members of sing this as their benediction. By the sound of their magnificent pipe organ accompanied by an odd assortment of tambourines and music makers spread throughout the sanctuary they sing this to one another as they return to the lives "outside":

This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine!
This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine!
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine!

Hide it under a bushel, NO! I'm gonna let it shine!
Hide it under a bushel, NO! I'm gonna let it shine!
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine!

Won't let Satan blow it out, I'm gonna let it shine!
Won't let Satan blow it out, I'm gonna let it shine!
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine!

As I read their story again I am challenged to let my little light shine in this neck of the woods. The world will always have its varieties of pharaohs seeking to intimidate the "little people" into compliance. The people of God overcome such blowhards and braggarts by fearing and loving God quietly, persistently and faithfully regardless if their lives seem out of step with the culture around them. It is the kind of defiance that we have always been called to regardless of who's in charge or calling the shots.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Why I'm running for office the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” Jeremiah 29:7, NIV

In case you hadn't heard the news, I'm officially one of three candidates running for the position of mayor of Chetek. The primary in mid-February will narrow the field to two and the general election will be held in April. Whether or not I will be able to add “mayor” to my resume remains to be seen.

Since “going public” with my decision on Facebook a few weeks ago, I have had a regular stream of “attaboy!”s, “go for it!”s and enthusiastic support whether in person or by responding to my post or, surprising to me, many of my friends on Facebook re-posting my original post on their wall. This past week in the Chetek Alert, our local newspaper, it was front page news and several times since the paper came out I've been stopped by friends and acquaintances to wish me well and to ask me why. Why do you want to run for mayor? And the implied question as well, How did it come to this?

Here's a brief time-line of how I got to the place I now stand:
  • About five years ago, Tom Stamman, an evangelist who ministers in the personal prophetic spoke this over me: “You should run for mayor.”
    (Those familiar with Tom's ministry know that Tom says a lot of things and not every one is "gospel truth". In fact, my understanding is that the New Testament function of the gift of prophecy operates far differently than it did in the days before Jesus. What I have come to do with his “words” is jot them down, hold them lightly and see what happens.)
  • Six months or a year later he came through again and shared the same 'word' with me.
  • During the last six-eight months there have been more than one or two conversations that we're eye-brow raising to me as I have not been spoken of this matter to anyone except my wife from time to time. For instance, I was at the funeral of my wife's cousin in Madison when the best man in our wedding chose to introduce me to his adult children in the following manner: “Jeff's the mayor of that town up there.” Or this past fall when our daughter Emma and I were speaking of our home town when she volunteered, “Dad, you should run for mayor.” It was, at the very least, curious and left me scratching my head a bit. Was God saying something or was I just seeing what I wanted to see?
  • I've played a mayor before at the Red Barn
    But what really put things into motion were two relatively recent conversations. In a town like Chetek, it's the town clerk that really runs the show. She keeps a low profile and diligently goes about her work but anyone who is paying attention knows that the reason things usually work as smoothly as they do is because of Carmen. Our girls had gone to school together so Linda suggested I speak to Carmen about this and so I stopped in at City Hall the week after Christmas and asked her to set me straight and pour cold water on this smoldering idea. Instead, I emerged 45 minutes later from her office with candidacy papers in hand. As she described just what the mayor does in Chetek she described someone with my skill-set – the ability to work with others to achieve certain ends, the ability to communicate with the public and to be the ambassador of our town, to name three.
  • The second conversation preceded the one I just referenced and it is far more significant to me. In mid-December, our fellowship held a 24-hour prayer vigil simply because I felt we needed to hear from God. The morning the vigil began I turned my phone on and received a text from Duane. Duane is a career missionary with Youth With A Mission and someone I hold in high regard as a man of spiritual discernment. This is how his email read: “Got message from Greg and Rachel regarding prayer [for the mayoral vacancy]. I know nothing about the city and Knapp Haven issue. Their message triggered dream I had some days ago suggesting you consider running for mayor.” Understandably, that got my attention. When Duane and his wife, Lois, showed up to pray later that evening the three of us conversed about this matter. Until that moment, I had not discussed this with anyone other than my wife. In the midst of that conversation, Duane in his usual nonplussed manner shared this little nugget: “Jeff, you're history tells you where you are going.” I can't underscore enough how profoundly this affected me. Frankly, I had never heard it put just this way (apparently, as Lois explained, this is one of many common “Duane-isms”). I don't want to overstate it but it was something akin to Peter's rooftop vision in Acts 10 that freed him to begin pursuing the Gentile mission. The big net he saw was essentially a paradigm shift and nothing could ever be the same after that.
The way we were 1991
We have lived in Chetek for 24 ½ years now. When we moved here, we were a family with little kids. Now we're essentially empty-nesters. During this time, we've raised a family, bought and remodeled a 120-year old home, and led a local Christian fellowship through the seasons and the years. Our kids have marched in the Libertyfest parade as members of the Chetek (later Chetek-Weyerhaeuser) marching band and most of us have at one time or another have ran or walked in the Fishy Four. Over twenty-four years of pastoral ministry I have served on numerous boards (the Knapp Haven board, the Kinship board, the Chetek Food Shelf board and most recently the Community Center board), began and led a community youth ministry, was a founding participant of the Chetek Youth Center Project (aka The Garage) that for 15 years provided a safe, healthy place for kids to gather on Friday and Saturday nights, and chaired the Facilities Improvement Committee that helped bring about a successful school referendum in 1999 that brought 10 million dollars worth of new construction and remodeling to our school buildings. For 20 years I've read to kids at Roselawn. For 8 years I've coached high school Cross Country and middle school track. For 4 years I've been a sub in our district, mostly at the elementary school where I am still taller than most of the kids in that building.

All of these things don't necessarily mean I am qualified to serve as mayor but it does underscore the fact that Chetek is far more than the post I man. It's the home I love. 

The way we are today
You're history tells you where you're going” said Duane. In that moment that he shared this with me, all the things I have been about since 1991 flashed before my eyes and suddenly it wasn't such a long walk around the block to imagine serving my adopted home-town as its mayor if that's what the voting public desired. So, that's how I got here.

Okay, the way we really are
Back in 1992, during a personal prayer retreat, the Lord spoke to me through Jeremiah 29. I had retreated to a friend's cabin in the woods in hopes of hearing from God for a sermon series. While I did get inspiration and (as I recall) got three good messages from it, in retrospect I really think what I heard was the word of the Lord for me, specifically verse 7: “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile...” That, in a nutshell, is one way of summing up my ministry in this community all these years. I have consciously and intentionally sought to do just these things whether it was helping raise money for new playground equipment on Roselawn's playground through the PTO or writing gas and food vouchers on behalf of the Chetek Food Shelf for those in need.

I'm indebted to Eugene H. Peterson's comments on Jeremiah 29:7. The word translated “peace and prosperity” is the Hebrew word shalom. As Peterson puts it:

Shalom means wholeness, the dynamic, vibrating health of a society that pulses with divinely directed purpose and surges with life-transforming love. Seek the shalom and pray for it. Throw yourselves into the place in which you find yourself, but not on its terms, on God's terms. Pray...

Jeremiah's letter is a rebuke and a challenge: 'Quit sitting around feeling sorry for yourselves. The aim of the person of faith is not to be as comfortable as possible but to live as deeply and thoroughly as possible – to deal with the reality of life, discover truth, create beauty, act out love.' Run with the Horses: The Quest for Life at Its Best

This is one of the hats I've worn - the day we broke ground 
Early on in my ministry here I received another seminal 'word' from a guy who was speaking at a pastor's gathering in Duluth. At the time, Jerry Cook was something of a big deal in the Pacific Northwest and was making the conference circuit. I was enamored by many of the things he shared that day and bought his book, Love, Acceptance & Forgiveness: Equipping the Church to be Truly Christian in a Non-Christian World. I've read it a couple of times since then and one of the bucket-fulls I've drawn from this well is this:

I was praying one day for the Lord to give me the community and the Lord stopped me. “Never pray for that again,” He said. “I'm not going to give a community to you. Instead I want you to pray, 'Lord, give me to the community.'”

This was how I finally awoke to the fact that God didn't want us to be a separate subculture, He wanted us to penetrate every segment of the society in which He had placed us.

This counsel has kinda been my marching orders ever since.

I'm not telling people, “It's God's will that I run for mayor.” Rather, I'm simply telling people I'm persuaded, based on all the things I have just shared, that I should pursue this – win or lose. I'm not asking people to pray that I win. While I'm humbled that a lot folks (who, by the way, can't vote for me anyway) believe I'd be a great mayor, I want them to pray that the Lord directs my steps. “A man's heart deviseth his way: but the Lord directeth his steps” (Proverbs 16:9, KJV). If at the end of the day the citizens of Chetek choose another man to fill our present mayoral vacancy, well and good. I won't take it personally. It's not like I got nothing better to do. But for the time being, I'm running for office and feel a remarkable sense of peace about it. In fact, I'm actually having fun.

We'll see
A month or so ago, while eating at the Lake Buffet in Rice Lake, my fortune cookie that night read: “YOU ARE ABOUT TO EMBARK ON A MOST DELIGHTFUL JOURNEY!” At the time, I opined aloud to Linda if perhaps another trip to Africa was in the near future. Maybe a different kind of journey is now in store. I really don't take a lot of stock in these computer-generated pithy sayings but back in 1995, on the eve before my ordination, Linda and I were sitting in the little Chinese restaurant in Madison we used to frequent before we married. That night my fortune cookie read: “YOU TAKE A REVERENT ATTITUDE TOWARD LIFE AND ARE MOST CAPABLE IN GUIDING OTHERS.” Divine guidance? I guess that's for the folks who frequent Refuge to decide but I sure find it scintillating. 

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

A healing service for one

Theoden: [upon being exorcised] Gandalf...
Gandalf: Breathe the free air again, my friend.
Theoden: [stands up from the throne] Dark have been my dreams of late.
[looks at his hands]
Gandalf: Your fingers would remember their old strength better... if they grasped your sword.
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

If the enemy can't have you on his side, he'll make sure you're no good to the other. But he doesn't dare attack you openly in case it might rouse you to take some meaningful action against him. So instead he pushes you by slow, calculated degrees toward the darkness. Working from the angle of truth, he gradually distorts it, bit by bit, until you believe nothing but lies. He uses slow poison to weaken your spirit until you are no longer a threat to his kingdom.”

Such is the case with Wormtongue.”
Walking with Frodo by Sarah Arthur, p. 98

This past Sunday evening, Refuge held a Service of Healing and Wholeness at which only one man showed up to be prayed for. A week or so before I had created a Facebook event page and invited at least 40 of my local friends to the gathering. Last week I posted a press release in our local paper listing the time of the gathering and its purpose. I sent a notice via email to all the participating fellowships in our local ministerial asking my fellow pastors if they could share this with their congregation. And I exhorted the folks who were present at the weekly worship gathering that morning to come and be prayed for and still only one individual arrived a few minutes before the service began in search of prayer. Blame it on the extreme cold. Blame it on the Packer play-off game that this service was attempting to preempt. But whatever the reason, my appeal had clearly fallen on deaf ears.

Noah leading worship at our gathering

We waited another ten minutes or so for any late-comers to straggle in but when they didn't, I gave Noah, the young man from our fellowship whom I had asked to lead worship, the nod to begin. We were a congregation of five – Noah leading us in worship and invoking the presence of the Lord, Ben, the man from our fellowship who had come to receive healing prayer, Troy, one of Refuge's elders who was present to assist me, my wife, Linda, and myself. The sanctuary was essentially empty but the more Noah played, the more it seemed to me that the presence of the Lord filled the place.

About fifteen minutes later, Noah concluded his short worship set and Troy and I circled some chairs around Ben to minister to him. Linda felt inclined to simply pray in the back of the sanctuary while we prayed with Ben directly. At first, Ben was somewhat overcome with emotion. “This is so humbling,” he said. “A service just for me.” Ben has been attending Refuge off and on for a couple of years now. He's a mountain of a man but years of brick-laying have really done a number on his back. But even more painful are the spiritual and emotional wounds he carries from his past.

I anointed him with oil and asked the Holy Spirit to teach us how to pray for our brother and for the next hour or so, we listened and dialogued, prayed and affirmed, read the Word and spoke the truth where our mutual enemy has lied to him about who he is and how God feels about him. Last winter, while out in the Taylor County forest, I unwittingly drove my car up a snowmobile trail and got stuck there. Random snowmobilers could not get me unstuck, AAA refused to come as I was not on a paved road, and my attempts to reach some of the guys at Refuge were a bust. But Ben loaded up his 4-wheeler and drove two and a half hours in the dark to extricate me from my dilemma. I will forever be grateful for his demonstration of love for me. While we prayed for him I recall the mutual feelings of genuine brotherly affection for this man while at the same time being angered at our enemy's attempt to keep this man in bondage to lies and half-truths. Freedom is God's will for our lives and our birthright as younger brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ. “Let my people go!” is still the demand of heaven to any power that seeks to enslave those who belong to God.

When it was over, Ben's face beamed with joy and the three of us shared manly bear-hugs with one another before we went back out into the cold. Later that night he sent me a text that read: “By God's grace my lower back feels better than it has in a while. Not as much pressure. Tonight was inspiring.” Personally, I attribute this to being released from some of the spiritual burdens and guilt he had been carrying for a long time. May the Lord bring release and healing to that part of his back that remains in need of restoration.

Mark 4-5 tell an interesting tale of healing that also centered on one guy. At the end of Mark 4, Jesus and the Twelve are in the boat heading across the Sea of Galilee. They are heading to the “Gentile part” of the lake and suddenly their boat is caught in a squall and nearly swamped. Awoken from deep slumber, Jesus stands up in the boat and in a loud voice tells the sea to “settle down.” Compliantly it does leaving the disciples just a little bit freaked out to be in such close proximity to the man who seems to have at his beck and call the wind and waves.

The beginning part of Mark 5, tells the rest of the story. They have made this foray into “enemy” territory to liberate a man held in bondage to a truckload of demons. He lives alone, a crazed individual, the local version of the “boogie man” whom nearby mothers threaten their children with if they are naughty. A power encounter happens right at the shore of the sea at which time that legion of demons is sent packing into a nearby herd of pigs rooting for grubs. Now filled with the unclean spirits, the pigs are driven mad and careen off the cliff and drown in the sea. When word reaches town of what happened, an angry crowd shows up demanding an accounting for the loss of the pigs. But when they see this formerly demented man “wearing decent clothes and making sense, no longer a walking madhouse of a man” (v. 15) their outrage turns to shock and awe. Who could work such magic to restore this man to sanity?

The townspeople demand that Jesus leave post-haste. They're mad about the pigs but they're even more afraid of the power wielded by the leader of this small band. Maybe if they had struck a different tone Jesus would have stayed for awhile and ministered to others afflicted in their community (and given how many places Jesus had ministered healing for long hours in the Galilee there certainly were others). But not welcome there he and the Twelve load the boat and prepare to return back home. The formerly demonized man begs to join their crew but knowing his ethnicity would compromise his mission, Jesus gives him a task to do:

As Jesus was getting into the boat, the demon-delivered man begged to go along, but he wouldn’t let him. Jesus said, 'Go home to your own people. Tell them your story—what the Master did, how he had mercy on you.' The man went back and began to preach in the Ten Towns area about what Jesus had done for him. He was the talk of the town.” Mark 5:18-20, Msg

Sometime later, Jesus will return to the area (see Mark 7:31-37) and healings will happen there because some had heard his amazing story and were provoked to seek out the miracle worker for himself.

I'm not disappointed that only Ben showed up Sunday evening to be prayed for. We're a small fellowship, after all, in a town with a number of small fellowships. Everything we do, by comparison, say, to larger communities is small by comparison. But in the Kingdom of God small never means irrelevant or inconsequential. Clearly, it what the Lord had ordered that night. Troy and I wanted to pray for the sick and God sent us someone afflicted in body and spirit to whom we could minister love and grace to. That was worth missing the second half of the Packer-Redskin play-off game and a whole lot more.