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, June 28, 2016

Sometimes God is a Calvinist: A meditation on Exodus 13:17-14:31

 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites to turn back and encamp near Pi Hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea. They are to encamp by the sea, directly opposite Baal Zephon. Pharaoh will think, ‘The Israelites are wandering around the land in confusion, hemmed in by the desert.’ And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them. But I will gain glory for myself through Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord.” So the Israelites did this.”

Exodus 14:1-4, NIV


In Exodus 14:2 the Israelites were directed by God to backtrack to a precisely specified place. If ever an act of God must have seemed unloving this was it, for all too soon they found that they had apparently been led into a trap, which rapidly closed upon them (14:9). And it was their God who had put them there! They were helpless, caught in a vice, and when they looked back on that day, they probably said, as we frequently find ourselves saying, 'We didn't know which way to turn.' What can the Lord have been thinking about?” The Bible Speaks Today: The Message of Exodus by J.A. Motyer, p. 181

There are more than a few opinions on which route they really took
I am a person who generally defines myself as a Christian first. I will quickly add a brief disclaimer that I am a pastor serving a congregation in the Pentecostal tradition but that's only to help an inquiring mind know where to place me. But while I rarely go there to clarify the matter, I generally consider myself an Arminian. That is, I put a lot of emphasis on man's right to choose his eternal destiny, heaven or hell. When things go south, as they sometimes do, I'll wrack that up to the toll of living in a fallen world, sinful free will agents acting out as they are wont to do or the influence of the devil and his minions or a combination of all three. It's not that I believe that God takes a “hands off” approach to what goes on “down here.” Rather, it's the logical conclusion of the conviction that if it is God's will that we choose to acknowledge him willingly of our own free will than that choice involves the risk that we won't. And then stuff happens and bad things with it.

But reading Exodus 14 reminds me that try as we do to nail him down like he is some candidate running for political office, God resists neat little boxes, such as Arminian or Calvinist, that will define him. In fact, the way Moses tells it, God, God and therefore he does what he wants for his own reasons that usually at the moment make sense only to him.

Take that climatic moment of the exodus from Egypt, for example. The ten plagues have passed and just as God had promised Pharaoh had had a belly full. He was so done with these Israelites that essentially he evicts them from the country. “Get out of my sight! And watch your step. I don’t want to ever see you again. If I lay eyes on you again, you’re dead” (10:28, Msg). These are the last words he speaks to Moses (that may have been spoken about the same time as his words recorded in 12:31). And thus 400 years of captivity come to an end. What a sight and a sound it must have been the morning following the night of the plague on the First Born. While the multitude of Israel departed in orderly fashion they left behind a country grief-stricken to the core, the air torn with “wild wailing and lament” (12:30).

Beginning around 13:17, there is what I would describe a definite deliberateness in how God leads the people. Instead of taking them up the main highway toward Canaan, he leads them toward the vast unknown of the wilderness. But he has good reasons for doing so which Moses shares with us: they don't know a thing about fighting and if they go straight north they will very shortly run into battle ready troops and quickly rethink the entire venture (vv. 17-22).

But Chapter 14 reads as if God is the Great Puppetmaster, pulling strings and yanking Pharaoh's chain for all it's worth. He instructs Moses to lead the people to a specific place - “near Pi Hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, directly opposite Baal Zephon” (v. 2) – like a chess master setting the board or an angler setting the hook. He deliberately backs the people into a corner so that under any other circumstances they appear ripe for the picking. As with the case in choosing the desert road, Yahweh shares his reasons with Moses: “Pharaoh will think, ‘The Israelites are wandering around the land in confusion, hemmed in by the desert.’ And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue themBut I will gain glory for myself through Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord” (14:3-5, NIV).

Naturally, things play out as Yahweh has foreseen. After Egypt is emptied of its labor force, Pharaoh awakens from his emotional hang-over and realizes he has made an incalculable error and sends a battalion of chariots after his slaves to round them up and drive them back to Goshen. When the people see the rising cloud of dust and hear the rumble of hundreds of chariots bearing down on them understandably they freak out. “How could this be?” “How could God do this to us?” “Moses, what were you thinking?” “Didn't we tell you to leave well enough alone?” But what seems like hell unleashing upon them is in fact the set-up for an incredible, never-to-be-repeated wonder that will be remembered for the ages: the same wind that brought the locusts (10:13) now splits the sea and drives it apart (14:20-21). Once again, Yahweh confides in Moses that it's all a part of a larger Plan, a Plan to teach Pharaoh a thing or two. After all that was the opening salvo in the plague narrative, Pharaoh's contemptuous reply to Moses' message from God: “Who is the LORD, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD and I will not let Israel go” (5:2, NIV). By the time he sees one of his entire battalions of one of the most fiercest weapons of the ancient world swallowed whole by the collapsing walls of sea water he has been schooled sufficiently in who Yahweh is and why it's a good thing to listen to what he says.

But God has other reasons in bringing his people to this specific locale. Not only is it to witness his once-and-for-all defeat of Egypt (Stand firm and watch God do his work of salvation for you today. Take a good look at the Egyptians today for you’re never going to see them again v. 13), not only is it answer definitively Pharaoh's query (“And I will gain glory through Pharaoh and all his army, through his chariots and his horsemen. The Egyptians will know that I am the Lord when I gain glory through Pharaoh, his chariots and his horsemen” vv. 17-18) but to underscore to his own people that while he is good he is also to be feared (“And Israel looked at the Egyptian dead, washed up on the shore of the sea, and realized the tremendous power that God brought against the Egyptians. The people were in reverent awe before God and trusted in God and his servant Moses” vv. 30-31).

Says Motyer:
But where the Israelites saw only an unwanted disaster, the Lord had a purpose that would minister to his glory, give them assurance of faith and secure the future from the menaces of the past. For on That day the LORD saved Israel from the hands of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians lying dead on the shore (14:30). At
this demonstration of the great power of the LORD...the people feared the LORD and put their trust in him (14:31) and in his promise that The Egyptians you see today you will never see again (14:13). So there was a purpose after all. God was working his purpose out, bringing his people a benefit which they did not know they needed and dealing with a danger which they thought was past but he knew was not.

Let us learn the lesson: it is the will of God that gives purpose to life. There is always the 'bigger picture' of which he is aware and we are not. There are dangers and menaces, unknown to us, from which he is guarding us, and, above all, there is his conflict with Satan, within which, in ways we cannot possibly know or understand, the joys, sorrows, battles and testings that come upon us are playing their part. Had Israel not been caught – baffled, terrified and helpless – at the Red Sea, there would have been no final defeat of the power that had enslaved them. (The Message of
Exodus, p. 181)

I rarely know what God is up to in my life – why certain prayers don't seem to get answered, why certain things I try don't seem to work, why people I love and care for continue down a path of trouble despite my counsel or earnest prayers to the contrary. He is God and I am not and while I can understand people making bad choices (myself included), I don't comprehend why he wouldn't want to rescue them especially when they begin to suspect they have done wrong. Re-reading Exodus 13-14, however, reminds me that God remains the Red Sea-splitting God he has always been but he always has a Plan, most of which involves provoking me to holy fear and abiding trust in Him regardless of the circumstances of the road I travel.

And all the people said "Amen"

...I believe in the Holy Spirit,
      the holy Christian church,
      the communion of saints,...”
The Apostles' Creed as found in the "Red Book" (Evangelical Lutheran Worship)

This past Sunday Refuge “shut-down” at our locale at the corner of 8th & Leonard and traveled two miles out of town to gather at Luther Park Bible Camp to worship with Chetek/Dovre Lutheran Churches (ELCA). Luther Park was the site of this year's edition of Chetek's Multi-Church Vacation Bible School and since this two-point parish had already planned a combined service out there we decided to “crash” the party (of course, we let them know we were coming.)

For several years now, Refuge has made a habit of doing just this sort of thing. In fact, to date we have preempted our own weekly gathering on Sunday morning and joined the folks at Prairie Lake Evangelical Covenant (ECC), Northside Christian Fellowship (CMA), Advent Christian (ACGC) and Chetek United Methodist (UMC) one or more times for various celebratory reasons. And now for the very first time we've joined the Lutherans (at least, the ELCA ones) in our community.

Love this man
Sunday's gathering was memorable in that it was held in the “sanctuary of the pines” on a beautiful summer morning in northwest Chetek. There was worship, a baptism, there was a selection of songs from VBS, a children's message delivered by myself and then Pastor Guy shared the Word and led in the prayer for the saints. For people like ourselves who generally go until “it's over” I was personally wowed by the fact that as scheduled the service concluded at the 11-bell. Following the gathering, we strolled on over to the dining hall for a pot-blessing meal together. It really was a wonderful gathering from opening song to the last lick of the ice cream cones served in the dining hall after lunch.

Territorial as humans tend to be, whenever we do this sort of thing we never get full participation from our membership. Some people just can't abide stepping out of their comfort zone and entering another fellowship's worship area. As every pastor knows, it's hard enough to try and challenge people to sit in another row in their own sanctuary let alone entering the domain of another. But, we probably had two-thirds present which, I think, is pretty good as those things go.

Refuge belongs to a non-denominational network of Christian fellowships in the Pentecostal tradition (the Fellowship of Christian Assemblies or FOCA) that while sharing a common statement of faith leaves all the other particulars to the local fellowship. We encourage expression in our worship gatherings (although as a group we're a pretty laid back bunch). The Lutherans are maybe slightly more reserved than we are. We welcome a bit of spontaneity. The Lutherans pretty much stick to the script. As a rule we don't baptize infants. We dedicate them. And while save for the basin of water the two acts look very similar, they have very different meanings to their constituents. More broadly, the ELCA took a stand in August 2009 recognizing same-sex marriages as well as choosing to ordain ministers of homosexual orientation. By comparison, the FOCA has no such document. That being said while not a betting man, I would put money on it that you would be hard-pressed to find any of the 300 participating congregations of the FOCA who would support the ELCA's position on these matters. In fact, I know that some of us would be dead-set against them at least in principle. Under what terms can groups as different as ours come together in a meaningful way?

For me, it comes down to our mutual confession of the Apostles Creed which we recited together under the tall pines above Prairie Lake on Sunday morning.

I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
Maker of heaven and earth.
And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died and was buried.
He descended into hell.
On the third day He rose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven
and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.
From thence He will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy Christian Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen

Admittedly, we disagree on a lot of things none of which I will say are minor or trivial to either group (i.e., us or them). But we do confess our mutual love and devotion to the Lord Jesus, his suffering, death and resurrection and for four days in late June 2016 we – along with our local Methodist, Advent Christian and Alliance brothers and sisters – pooled our resources and joined hands to share the gospel with nearly 90 kids from our community. It's an act that I think God is pleased with and all his people, regardless of their differing opinions and convictions, can say amen to. 

Monday, June 13, 2016

Preaching to the choir

"Preach to the choir"
to talk about something with a group of people who already agree with you; preach to the converted.

Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2003

Note: If you choose to read this please understand that this is not a rant against those who choose to practice an alternative lifestyle. This is definitely not intended to shame anyone into the arms of the Church. Rather, it's a personal observation that more and more the Church reflects the culture and not the wisdom of heaven.

As I understand it, there are two different ways to “do” church these days. There is what I would refer to as the traditional approach where your target audience is essentially the already-converted. And then there's the trendy “seeker-friendly” style that assumes that many of the folks out in the pews are still contemplating the claims of Christ. Both are valid. Both have merit. But as I heard Bill Hybels once say at a Willow Creek conference I attended, you cannot do discipleship and evangelism in the same setting. You will do one or the other but you can't do both. For our part, though we consider ourselves a non-denominational, contemporary Christian fellowship, in our weekly worship gatherings we most definitely opt for the more traditional approach. While our service is open to anyone and everyone, more likely than not the people who attend and frequent the gatherings are the already converted. In other words, I spend an inordinate time preaching to the choir.

This is as high tech as it gets at Refuge
I personally don't believe the Sunday service is a good way to throw out the big net and reel in a sinner or two that needs catching. It has happened now and again but if so it's definitely a God-thing. Our worship is low-key led by some of our members who delight to share their musical talents. We have no whistles, no bells, no klieg lights. We do project the words of the songs we sing onto the wall through the use of an LED projector and I have been known to use movie clips now and again in my preaching, but our audience is us – insiders through and through. Our gathering is a time to be refreshed, to be encouraged, to be renewed and experience love, acceptance and forgiveness before returning to wherever the rat race is for each of us in hopes we will be Christ's love and light in those places that we frequent.

I think that's pretty standard, especially for fellowships around here. I am not the only one in this community that spends an inordinate amount of time preaching to the choir. But increasingly I am troubled by what I see happening within the Christian community and it makes me wonder aloud if the choir remembers or even knows the score they are supposed to be singing. After all, a choir, by definition, is a group of people singing the same song together in a melodious manner. Some may be tenors, some altos, sopranos or basses but everyone combines their pitch into one harmonious sound thereby creating something pleasant to the ear. Our daughter, Emma, is a mezzo soprano in one of the choirs at the Christian college she attends and she assures me that if by chance she chose to sing the alto part the result would be a “death glare” from her director. Imagine what a choir made up of people singing whatever part they wanted to sing would sound like. Yeah, it wouldn't be good nor pleasant nor melodious by any standard whatsoever.

As time goes by, I am finding that so long as I reserve my preaching to matters of God's unconditional love as demonstrated in the sacrificial death of Jesus, of his continual presence with us regardless of our circumstances and things such as these the members of the choir nod their head and depending on the particular piece we may be singing tap their toes in beat with the music. I even get an “Amen!” now and again. These are the kinds of things that all Christian fellowships regardless of their denominational bent concur with. But if I choose to preach on individual behavior I find that before I start on the downbeat I have to set up my remarks with all kinds of caveats and clarifications ahead of time lest I offend someone unnecessarily.

Take sexual sin, for example. Recently Trey Pearson, lead singer of the Christian band Everyday Sunday, came out of the closet and tweeted that he is gay. In an interview that he gave on the daytime TV show The View (that was tagged to my wall by a Christian friend with remarks to the effect that this “was a beautiful story”) he shared poignantly that after years of trying to live with his attraction to men, he decided that the best thing – the thing God wanted him most to do – is be who he is, a gay man. According to him, his wife lovingly hugged him, they quietly divorced and now are co-parenting the children they share together as he seeks to live out his new found freedom in embracing what he believes is his God-given identity.

Do I sound like a hater yet? Or a homophobe? Let me try and clarify. I don't know this man's story. In fact, up until a week ago I had never heard of him nor the band he is the lead singer for. I certainly am not calling for anyone to pick up stones today to cast in his general direction. But what bothers me about this moment is the fact that lots of people (presumably Christian people among them) seem to be “cool” with his confession, and are heartily “liking” the video of his emotional interview. God loves all people, after all, and his sin is no different than the sin heterosexuals commit. I couldn't agree more. But there is a huge difference between falling into sin and then repenting of it and embracing a lifestyle that the Scripture labels immoral. A person can be forgiven for shoplifting in a moment of covetousness but if he persists in that habit he will go to jail for it because that behavior is illegal. It's not a perfect analogy but you get the drift.

I'm not a biblical scholar. I have no letters after my name that make me an expert in any field of interpretation. But as someone who has read and preached the Bible for over thirty years I think I can say on good authority that there is absolutely no text in Scripture that recognizes same-sex unions as normative and something to be celebrated. Whether it be Moses (Genesis 2) or Jesus (Matthew 19) or Paul (Romans 1) or John (Revelation 22), all of them concur that homosexual behavior – check that, any sexual behavior outside the marriage covenant between a man and a woman – is out of bounds, immoral and an act that earns the disapproval of heaven. That is the score. That our society and – it seems to me increasingly – more and more branches of the Church – are singing a different tune says more about us than the veracity of the Word. And what about the fact that cohabitation is the norm of the land now? People professing Christian faith and devotion to the teachings of the Bible now live together with no sense of embarrassment despite never sharing public vows. They come to our fellowships, they raise their hands in worship, they speak in tongues, they testify of God's goodness in their lives and yet live in a relationship that the same guys I quoted above call by a different term: “fornication.”

Mind you, this is not a rant against those who are outside the Christian faith. The law of the land says you are free to cohabit and shack up with anyone who is willing to do so with you. I fully agree that yelling at someone who has embraced a lifestyle contrary to what Scripture calls “normal” serves no purpose whatsoever. But my concern is the kids growing up in our fellowships who attend public school and are subtly trained to accept that all sexual choices – straight, gay, trans – are morally neutral: people are who they are and they can't help feeling the way they are. I applaud the school for reminding our kids that everyone deserves respect and consideration. Be that as it may that kind of thinking does not jive with Holy Writ regardless if the home office of a certain denomination says it does. 

God showed me this vision: My Master was standing beside a wall. In his hand he held a plumb line.

God said to me, “What do you see, Amos?”

I said, “A plumb line.”

Then my Master said, “Look what I’ve done. I’ve hung a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel. I’ve spared them for the last time. This is it!
Isaac’s sex-and-religion shrines will be smashed,
Israel’s unholy shrines will be knocked to pieces.
I’m raising my sword against the royal family of Jeroboam.”
(Amos 7:7-9, Msg)

As my wife can testify, I'm not a man with skills but with a little help from Bob Vila I've learned that a plumb line is a simple tool used time out of mind to gauge whether a wall is plumb or not. If a wall is not plumb, doors don't work right and if a foundation is not plumb the structural integrity of the building is threatened. So, it's a big deal. Amos, a rustic from the southern Kingdom of Judah shows up in Samaria in the northern kingdom around 930 B.C.E. to announce that Yahweh has dropped his plumb line among them and found that they are not “true”. Hence, judgment is imminent. They, like their southern neighbors, are the people of God and therefore considered “holy”, set apart to represent Yahweh upon the earth. But by persisting in disobedience they are risking the structural integrity of their society. Just as we are within the Church today.

In a town near us there is a Mennonite community that is death on musical instruments. They make music and worship the Lord but they do so all a Capella. I've not heard them but I'm assured on good authority that they do so beautifully. We who worship with the aid of all kinds of electronic instruments and amplification think those folk a bit odd, a bit behind the times. But more and more I'm pretty sure that's exactly how others are going to view people like me who hold to an “old school” view of things, who hold to the “original score”, singing the song as God intended it to be sung.