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, 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