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.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Out among the sheep

When he finally arrives, blazing in beauty and all his angels with him, the Son of Man will take his place on his glorious throne. Then all the nations will be arranged before him and he will sort the people out, much as a shepherd sorts out sheep and goats, putting sheep to his right and goats to his left.

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Enter, you who are blessed by my Father! Take what’s coming to you in this kingdom. It’s been ready for you since the world’s foundation. And here’s why:

I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.’

Then those ‘sheep’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?’ Then the King will say, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.’

Then he will turn to the ‘goats,’ the ones on his left, and say, ‘Get out, worthless goats! You’re good for nothing but the fires of hell. And why? Because—

I was hungry and you gave me no meal,
I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,
I was homeless and you gave me no bed,
I was shivering and you gave me no clothes,
Sick and in prison, and you never visited.’

Then those ‘goats’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or homeless or shivering or sick or in prison and didn’t help?’

He will answer them, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you failed to do one of these things to someone who was being overlooked or ignored, that was me—you failed to do it to me.’

Then those ‘goats’ will be herded to their eternal doom, but the ‘sheep’ to their eternal reward.”
Matthew 25:31-46, The Message

On the first Sunday of Advent, I showed a movie at the weekly gathering of our fellowship (see Problem or Opportunity?Martin the Cobbler is a claymation classic based on Leo Tolstoy's short story Where Love Is, God Is There Also wonderfully narrated by his daughter, Alexandra. It's a simple tale of a lonely old man who wiles away the hours of his day in his little basement workshop. Life has been unkind to Martin and when a priest asks him to repair the binding of his Bible he at first declines as “the Lord and I have not been getting along of late.” At the priest's persistence, however, he agrees to the task and finds himself drawn to the reading of Scripture time and again. As he dozes one afternoon he has a dream in which he is certain the Lord tells him that he will visit him the following day.

During that day he is visited but not by the Lord Jesus. Instead, five unexpected guests come to call – the old man whose job is to shovel the snow from the walk, a poor young woman and her infant child and an old woman and a young boy who has tried to steal an apple from her basket. In each case, Martin welcomes his guests by offering a small gift – hot tea to drink for the old shoveler, a warm shawl for the shoulders of the poor woman and kindly words to the old woman who is irate with the young boy for his attempted thievery. They are simple acts of kindness offered to those in need. At the end of the day, however, Martin is disappointed as the Lord did not show up as he had expected. He then has a vision of sorts of each of his guests and hears the Lord say, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25). After all is said and done he is reminded that his dream had, in fact, been fulfilled and his Savior had truly called on him three times that day and each time he had received him.

The lesson is clear: go and do likewise. The interruptions that come our way in our hurry to get to church or get to class or get to work may, in fact, be golden opportunities to minister to the Lord Jesus. As Mother Teresa once prayed, “Dearest Lord, may I see you today and every day in the person of your sick, and whilst nursing them, minister unto you.” I don't think this isn't anything we haven't heard before. But hearing and doing often don't go together. We know these things but too often are inconvenienced or a bit miffed at the prospect of getting involved in someone else's trouble. It's why it's good to be reminded of this simple yet profound truth from time to time.

The "Giving Tree"
This past Advent season, some disciples of Jesus I know who are part of Refuge did minister to the Savior in simple and practical ways. One spent several nights working on the car of a guy in our midst recently released from prison. I know of another who felt inspired to make three quilts for the individuals she trusted the Lord would lead her to – and did. Each quilt was carefully and painstakingly made and then prayed over before they were gifted to their recipient. One makes a habit of taking his guitar to a local retail store every year and sing Christmas carols while manning a bucket for the Salvation Army. A number of us made or bought pies and then served them to the residents of our local nursing home. A handful of us banded together with a few others from two other fellowships and bought hot chocolate, candy canes, Christmas cards and
personal care products for the gift sacks we annually put together for the inmates at the county jail. Still others bought gifts of food and clothing for a young mother of three we know of presently going through a divorce and delivered them to her much to her joy. A farewell dinner was thrown for the Belizean men who live in our town who were about to return to their families. And these are just the ones I know about. As a rule, most people I know don't blow their own horn about things like this.

Loading the sacks
I'm not bragging about our good deeds. I'm sure that in Christian fellowships all around similar things are done in the name of the Lord Jesus at this time of year. I'm just proud and thankful to be identified with people such as these, servants of God and sheep of His pasture. As Mother Teresa reminds us, in the end “we can do no great things; just simple things with great love” demonstrating once again that we belong to him.

Sheep from three different flocks but from the same fold

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Oh, God - Save Us from Behaving Badly: An Advent Reflection and Prayer

5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

6 Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!
9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.
Philippians 2:5-11, NIV

Every year without fail the headlines speak of political leaders who are revealed to be scoundrels or, at the very least, people who should know better who have been found out behaving very badly. This is the fodder of American news cycles. But recently bad behavior among people of influence and power has reached epidemic proportions where seemingly everyday another morning talk show host or Congressman resigns for “improprieties” or outright infidelities. We older types shake our head in disbelief as we hear the breaking news while working on our first cup of coffee of the day. Our kids, however, are more than likely tweeting or snap-chatting their friends some snarky commentary that boils down to, in so many, words, “w.t.f. is wrong with people?” We may not approve of their vocabulary but we definitely agree with the sentiment: What the heck is going on?

Personally, I think the lion's share of our frustration arises out the apparent disconnect that we observe between a person's personal behavior and the office of trust he or she holds. We accept as gospel that “nobody's perfect” but that doesn't give anyone a pass to act badly. There will never be a perfect president or congressman or television anchor - or pastor or mayor or coach, for that matter. We are all people with clay feet. But when we use and abuse our places of influence for personal gain or for covering up personal foibles, that's not a shame. That's wrong (even if we can legally wiggle our way out of whatever pickle we're in).

If there is one constant about the followers of Christ through the millennia is that we have a difficult time getting along with one another. We love God heart and soul – it's just we don't like each other too much. As great a movement as the Protestant Reformation was for the world an argument can easily be made that one of the great legacies of that era is our capacity (as Christians) to form and reform along doctrinal lines. “If you have a doctrinal emphasis we have a denomination for you!” It's just my opinion but as much as theological perspectives separate disciples into various camps the interaction of personalities plays an even stronger role in our propensity to divide.

The Apostle Paul knew as much and dealt continually with Christian people who loved Jesus but not each other very much. As evidence is his propensity in his letters to exhort people to “pray for one another”, “be patient with one another,” “love one another,” and “bear with one another.” He's not just engaging in religious banter. He's addressing groups of Christians who are trying to find a way to get along. In his letter to the Philippians some feel he borrows from a common Christian hymn at the time (although he could have very well penned the words himself) to underscore his point. If I was ever wondering how I should conduct myself as a person in authority (be as it mayor, pastor, or coach) it's not complicated: Christ, though God, became nothing through a series of digressions and separations – by becoming a man, by living a servant's life and then by dying ignominiously on the cross. This is humility with a capital H.

So in the incarnation not only do we have a wondrous, miraculous, once-in-a-universe event but we have a practical life lesson in how we should live and treat each other, whether we hold office or parent children or live with our spouse or work alongside others. Jesus the Christ, firstborn of all Creation, born under the radar of the powerful and elite of his time come to serve us that we might do the same to one another. To that end I'd like to offer a prayer for the Body of Christ in our area at this time of year: 

Oh God, save us from behaving like so many people in power these days and help us have the same mindset that you have, who came to serve and not to be served. It's not all about us after all. It's all about you. I'm sorry, Lord, but too often we just forget that and when we do trouble and scandal are certain to follow. In your mercy hear our prayer.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Problem or Opportunity? Looking for other ways to "do" church

Houston, we've had a problem.”
Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell to Mission Control usually erroneously quoted as “Houston we have a problem” (April 1970)

Back in August our worship coordinator and her husband (and her brother as well) moved to Madison to attend the university there. It's a common enough circumstance in our little town in northern Wisconsin: kids graduate from high school and soon after head off to college or the military. In this case, Kayla and Cody had been students at UW-Barron County, a two-year community college, and had reached the end of the line. It was time to move on in pursuit of the rest of their college degree. But in the move we lost two worship leaders, our sound guy and a deacon to boot. In a small fellowship like ours that's a tough pill to swallow but, as I have said already, it is the way of all the earth in these here parts.
Moving on
Our leadership team had prayed all summer that God would either raise up others in our midst or bring in others to fill the vacancies their departure would be creating. I can tell you, we were pretty well in earnest as we prayed but after a summer's worth of praying that request was not answered. The last Sunday in August arrived, Kayla led us one more time to the altar (while Cody made sure the sound was balanced in the booth) and Noah, Kayla's brother (and an equally talented worship leader himself), accompanied his sister. We prayed over them, commending them to the Lord's care, and hugged them all good-bye. With no up-and-coming worship leader in the bullpen our leadership team came to some decisions – or these decisions were thrust upon us.

First off, as much as we would like to do as much we could not afford to stipend anyone local to come and lead worship for us on a regular basis. What's more, I had no interest in returning to the early days of my term here at Refuge when I was the “everything” pastor – you know, led worship, preached, and facilitated youth ministry on Wednesday nights. In my 20s and 30s that was a lot of fun. The thought of returning to such a routine now in my mid-50s frankly is death to me. However, I would be willing to do “double-duty” one Sunday a month. Kayla's parents, David and Paula, wonderful worship leaders themselves, while not interested in picking up the Sundays her daughter normally would have covered were willing to do one Sunday a month as well. Two of the four Sundays were now covered but what of the other two? 

At my suggestion that perhaps on those particular Sundays we “pipe worship in” via, say, YouTube it was clear that this was “a non-starter”. We would have live worship or not at all. So, if you can't draw from your own talent pool and you can't hire someone to come in and your leaders resist the idea of any kind of remote worship experience, what do you do? “Then maybe its a gift,” replied one of our elders. Maybe the vacancies were opportunity to experience God's presence and experiment with other ways of “doing” church.

This is what a lot of us think when we think
of liturgy
Every place has its liturgy. Even us Pentecostals and Charismatics who pride ourselves in not putting a printed order of service in the bulletin have a liturgy. It's the beaten path we trod every time we gather together in the Lord's house. Liturgy in itself is not a bad thing. It's comforting to know the gist of where we're going each week (even if we complain now and again of church being same-o, same-o). But in a small congregation there are other ways to do “it” and with the blessing of our leadership team I began to plan Sunday morning gatherings with different formats.

People love ThanksBringing
The Sharing Circle
One of the first kinds of gatherings we tried was a format that we were familiar with. For many years now we've had this event in early November we call “Thanks-bringing”. It's fairly simple. We organize the chairs (for the hundredth time I am so glad we don't deal with pews anymore) into an oval and following the psalmist's command we give thanks to the Lord for he is good (Psalm 107:1). For over an hour and more people share stories of God's faithfulness that they have experienced in the past year or list for the fellowship all the things that they are thankful for. When things have pretty much run their course, we close in prayer and then the sanctuary is reordered (again) as we set up tables for turkey dinner with all the fixings. I like to think we're just following in the steps of Moses and the elders who sat down to eat in the presence of the Lord (Exodus 24). So, what if we set up the chairs Thanks-bringing-style and the week before exhort people to come ready to share a hymn, a song, a story – anything that would honor God and build up the Body? The first time we did this I called it a 1426 Gathering after 1 Corinthians 14:26 wherein Paul counsels the Corinthian believers in the following manner:

What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.” (NIV)

Larry brought props
I was prepared for one of the shortest services Refuge has ever had but my worries were for naught. When we opened up the floor, the very first guy to stand to his feet was perhaps the most quietest of our group. And he even brought props! He no sooner finished and then maybe the next quietest of our fellowship shared the words of a hymn that means so much to her. On it went for nearly an hour and a half at which time I made a papal decision to close the gathering if only because I knew the Children's Church volunteers were more than likely at the end of their rope in the lower level. But people were inspired and encouraged and expressed the desire to do it again (which we did just this past Sunday but now named the “Sharing Circle” gathering).

A teenager, a college grad, a middle-aged couple
and a couple of grandparents - a GREAT small group
Small Group Sunday
A few weeks later we tried another way of doing church: what if instead of preaching the Word we broke into small groups and studied the same text together? In twenty-six years of pastoral ministry I had never preached from Haggai and my hunch was that most of them had not read Haggai in many a year. This would guarantee that we would be a little bit off balance together as we approached the text. I gave them their “homework assignment” the week before (which was to read Haggai in its entirety - all 38 verses of it) and then prepared a small group study for the following Sunday. Knowing that over half of the congregation trickles into the worship gathering during the first twenty minutes of the weekly service I asked my daughter, who had happened to be home that weekend, to lead a short worship set at the beginning of the gathering. After our preliminaries of offering
and announcements, I then instructed them in what we were going to do. We would subdivide into groups of 5-7 people apiece and each group would be responsible to pick both a facilitator and a reporter who would be responsible to report back to the large group when we were done. We ended up with seven small groups and each group studied Haggai 1:1-15 following a series of questions I had prepared (and, if I'm honest, had lifted almost entirely from the Serendipity Bible that sits on my shelf in my office.) In addition I had written up a brief introduction to Haggai 1 to help set the context of the study.

Admittedly, it wasn't a home run but we didn't strike out either. For nearly 45 minutes our fellowship was studying the Word together, sharing their thoughts and listening to one another. During the large group debrief following the small group time it was clear that some of my questions missed the mark and at the same time different personalities glean different perspectives of what they read. The same thing happens in preaching. Over the years several times I've had different individuals share with me something God had spoken to them during one of my messages – something that has nothing to do with the text – but they leave encouraged and blessed. After each group shared their findings I made some summary comments and then had them pray for one another in their group and then called it a day.

Did we have guests on that day? We did. In fact, we had four of the Belizean guys who frequent our fellowship when they are working in Chetek. I don't know what they got out of the study but in each fellowship they were being spoken with and prayed for. I call that a win. We read the Word, we meditated upon it, we listened to one another and then we prayed for one another. Sounds like church to me.

There's more in there than I recall - or knew!
We tried this format three times this past fall and worked our way through Haggai. Each time we did it, I tweaked the format a little. I'm still not satisfied that we have arrived at an acceptable “Small Group Sunday” liturgy for us but I think its worth trying again. As much as we would like people to do this sort of thing outside of Sunday morning reality is – for us, at least – people's lives and schedules do not allow it. They're working (a lot), they're raising their children, they're attending their kids' athletic events and whatever free night they may have they're pretty much spent and would rather spend the night in and not go to someone's house for an evening of fellowship. I think we're kidding ourselves if we think we're going to come up with a time outside of Sunday morning that works for a lot of us. The culture is against us.

A classic
Movie Morning
The third kind of Sunday morning format that we tried this past fall arose out of the same question we leaders ask ourselves about any other gathering we do: “Why do we do church?” As I understand it, the purpose of coming together regularly is to hear the Word and encourage and pray for one another, looking for creative ways to “provoke one another on to love and good deeds” (Heb 10:24, NIV). What if we saw the message and discussed it afterward? When the youth center we helped start back in 2000 closed a year or so ago, we ended up with the theater popcorn machine from the place. So on the first Sunday in Advent, we set the pop-corn machine up in the back of the sanctuary and one of the guys made up several batches of popcorn. We then watched a Veggie-Tale cartoon followed by the twenty-three minute claymation classic Martin the Cobbler, a short movie based on Leo Tolstoy's Where Love Is God Is There Also. The first Sunday of
every month is Communion Sunday for us and we keep the family together (i.e., no Children's Church on that Sunday). So I deliberately chose something admittedly on the light side for our first go at this. A few in our midst absolutely loved this way of doing church. It spoke to them of what “church” is – the family of God gathering together in God's living room to enjoy his company as well as everyone else's. There was no whining but some people obviously thought this kind of thing was better for a “fellowship gathering” as opposed to a “worship service.” We may be talking semantics but experience has taught me that once people
egress our building on Sunday morning the likelihood that we're going to come back that night for a “time of fellowship” is slim and none. And besides a visual culture has a hard time of hearing an oral message no matter the skill of the preacher. In this case, this little film was a meditation on Matthew 25 and what it means to minister “to the least of these.” Upon reflection, this isn't a children's message; this is a life lesson that God wants to inscribe deeply on our hearts.

Grateful for the team we have

This guy too

We didn't use these formats every Sunday. There were Sundays we did church the way we are accustomed to doing it. But at the end of three months of this sort of experimentation admittedly there is a general feeling of disorientation about us. Its sorta like the first Sunday the pews went out and the chairs came in. Mythological
Pangaea opened up and no one quite knew where to sit for awhile as some of the former “continents” (i.e., pews) were not just in another place – they were altogether gone. Eventually people claimed different parts of the sanctuary but for a brief time people felt off balance. Some love the variety of it all. A few want to know when things will get back to “normal”and if I'm ever going to, you know, preach-preach again ('cause I really didn't work unless I preached?) I appreciate this group so much and their willingness to roll with the different settings we have served up to them lately. They really are wonderful people. Maybe one of the best things to arise out of this season we find ourselves in is that the elders feel compelled to pray together more regularly than we have been doing. And only good can come from that.

So things are a bit messy around here, the chairs are out of order and so is the order of service but what of it? If we are “shaking things up” for some kind of notoriety or because we're bored and we're trying to inject a little spontaneity into our weekly gathering, ultimately I think we will be disappointed. People will figure out soon enough we're just trying to be trendy or something. But if the goal is to foster community, know one another better and therefore love one another more truly how can God not be pleased with that sort of thing? Maybe in a culture like ours that resists people making connections with one another one of the best things we can do is help cultivate a healing community of faith. 

Friday, December 15, 2017

Ain't that rich

Ah, there's a story that goes with this pic
What liberty a minster enjoys in the disposition of his time! No other man but the retired millionaire is such a monarch of his day as is the minister. He can read on Monday morning, or write, or walk, or mingle all three, just as he deems best. On Tuesday morning he can attend to his correspondence, or catalogue his library, or eat the heart out of some new book, or meet a company of friends, just as he decides. The order of his going out and coming in is largely at his own discretion. Within wide limits he is the monarch of all the hours he surveys. Such liberty is dangerous; it has spoiled its thousands.”
The Minister as Shepherd by Charles E. Jefferson (1860-1937)

I may have been in charge of this gathering
but these dear ones really stole the show
It's Friday afternoon and as I look back on the week that was I'd say overall its been a pretty good week. I've chaired a city council meeting at City Hall and participated in an elder's gathering at the home of two of our elders. I've enjoyed prayer alone and also prayer with others – at a prayer cabin in rural New Auburn with fellow ministers and with fellow coaches at a home in town. I subbed a day at Roselawn Elementary and also read to kids at the same place as I am wont to do a couple mornings each week. I led a service at Atrium (our local nursing home) on Wednesday and enjoyed lunch at The Center with an elderly couple from town on Friday. I've taken opportunities to read as well as to meditate on God's Word. I took my wife out for lunch yesterday afternoon and then attended the wrestling match between C-WPF and Bloomer-Colfax last night. Tonight I plan to attend a dance recital of the daughter of some friends of ours and tomorrow night a group of us plan to go caroling downtown. If variety is the spice of life, well I guess you could say my week has been fairly well seasoned.

This was a few weeks ago where the mayor was asked to speak
on municipal government at Roselawn

I love what I do. I'm so grateful that I don't punch a clock nor have to walk the same beaten path day after day. While I keep my leadership team well-informed of my comings and goings I do this without any sense of obligation or feeling that someone is looking over my shoulder. Years ago I asked my leadership team for a job description to wit they replied (in so many words), “Why would we want to do that? We want you to tend to the things you feel God has given you to do.” The more I think on that moment the more thankful I am that they refused to give me what I asked for – and for the trust that is implied in that refusal.

Cross is one of my favorite times of year
When it comes to pastoring, I don't have a lot of expectations that I labor under other than the usual suspects – lead the weekly worship gatherings of the fellowship I serve, preach, teach, visit those who are ill or have become infrequent, lead the regularly scheduled leadership meetings - you know, the pastorly things we expect pastors to do. If I chose to, I guess I could lounge around all week at home and do as little as possible for the building up of the church. Maybe that is what Jefferson is alluding to when he says that the liberty of my time is a pretty precarious thing. But what a boring life that would be – and how narrow. Throughout the course of the year I'm coaching high school and middle school athletes (in the fall and the spring), reading to elementary kids, hashing through civil and community matters, ministering to inmates at the county jail, preaching and teaching the Word, leading our monthly deacon's meeting, subbing at school, and participating in all kinds of prayer gatherings. And this is to say nothing about the plethora of lunch or coffee “dates” I'll have with others throughout the course of a given year or the pop-in visits that I regularly experience (and enjoy). No, I'm pretty lucky for the freedom that I enjoy doing the work that I feel I was born to do.

"Bar-hopping" (a caroling experience) is always fun
I'm not going to get a raise this year from Refuge. They can only give out what they take in and frankly, it's not been a good year. But while they can't compensate me financially beyond what they do now Jefferson is so right when he reminds me that “no other man but the retired millionaire is such a monarch of his day as is the minister”. So true. By that definition, I'm a pretty wealthy man and grateful for the trust that I have been endowed with. Here's hoping and praying I'll continue to honor God with that liberty as I continue to seek the shalom of the city I have been carried to (Jeremiah 29:7).

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The Road to Hell and All That: A Meditation on John 13:21-30

Then he dipped the crust and gave it to Judas, son of Simon the Iscariot. As soon as the bread was in his hand, Satan entered him.”

What you must do,” said Jesus, “do. Do it and get it over with.”

 “No one around the supper table knew why he said this to him. Some thought that since Judas was their treasurer, Jesus was telling him to buy what they needed for the Feast, or that he should give something to the poor.”

Judas, with the piece of bread, left. It was night.” John 13:26-30, The Message


“As a secret sign to John, Jesus says it is the one to whom he will hand the bread after dipping it in the Passover relish. This would indicate that Judas is sitting on Jesus' immediate left. In Judaism this was referred to as the place of the intimate friend. There is a possibility that Jesus and Judas were far closer friends than any of the Gospels can bring themselves to say.” John: The Gospel of Wisdom by Michael Card

Would you trust a guy who looks like this?
Judas Iscariot. His name is synonymous with treachery. Not one of the Gospel writers have anything good to say of him. The asides and descriptive phrases that John uses to describe him belie a hardness that seems out of place for the apostle who wrote so much about the love of God. In film he usually is portrayed as someone who has a dark, miserly look about him presumably to telegraph to the audience that this a guy not to be trusted. He's Grima Wormtongue of the Golden Hall only (perhaps) better looking.

Yeah, I wouldn't trust him either

Somewhere along the way he had become their fellowship's treasurer delegated to dispense gifts to the poor and buy what was needed for food and sundries. In church circles, the person who ends up as treasurer of a church is usually someone whom the fellowship considers “real good with money” and who possesses a character totally above board. When that trust is betrayed, as it happened to a parish in our area recently to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars, the outrage experienced by the rest of the congregation is acute. Everyone knows that thieves steal but when you have seen them in church and made small-talk with them only to learn later they were lining their pockets with money you gave to God how can you not feel duped and stupid for considering yourself their friend?

That's Judas in the middle whom
Satan is devouring
Could it be that instead of the dark, brooding, scheming guy that he is often made out to appear in film and literature (think Dante's Inferno infamous Ninth Circle denizen), he was, in fact, a pretty likable and otherwise friendly fella that you would enjoy having coffee with? Case in point is John's version of that moment when Jesus announces to the group that someone in their inner circle will betray him (John 13:21-30). The way John puts it Jesus becomes “visibly upset”. The Greek word that John uses (tarazzo) doesn't speak of a man quietly putting on a stoic mien as he faces his nemesis. No, it's more like a washing machine agitating as if it were about to be launched to the moon. What else but betrayal by a close and trusted comrade could provoke such a response in the Lord? After all, he knows these guys having chosen them and done life together with them for the past few years. A knife in the back couldn't cut as deep.

When Peter from across the room motions to John to ask Jesus just who the culprit is uncharacteristically Jesus answers straightforwardly: “The one to whom I give this crust of bread after I’ve dipped it” and immediately he so dips his piece of flat bread into one of the common bowls upon the table and hands it to Judas. He might as well have pointed at him and simply said, “him.” I find it curious that neither John nor any of the others at that moment (except, of course, Judas) have a clue of what is going on. He hands Judas the bread and cryptically says, “What you must do, do. Do it and get it over with” and all that some of them can surmise is that Judas has to run a few last minute errands on the Master's behalf before Passover begins. No one guesses that he leaves their intimate gathering only to make a beeline for the Sanhedrin because a guy like Judas could never do such a thing. Later that evening when he shows up in a procession of Temple guards in the garden and gives Jesus the fated kiss of greeting they are all stunned at his duplicity which is maybe why later as John tells his story of his life with Jesus he can't help but reveal his jaded opinion of the man he and everyone else once regarded as Jesus' close friend.

What if this was Judas and Jesus during better times?

The lesson for me is this: don't be too hasty to judge Judas. Walk humbly and don't put any confidence in titles or experiences. I don't want to contemplate it but if push comes to shove I could succumb to the same temptation he did. I want to insist that never in a million years would I sell out the Lord of glory because, well, I'm a good guy, a pastor, and been a Christian for most of my life. But then I think of all that Judas saw and experienced and heard as a member of the Twelve and yet after all that his heart remained a stone within, unmoved and unpersuaded of the truth that was right in front of him. Judas is, in fact, a fearful warning to us all. As Bruce Milne puts it: “There is, tragically, 'a road to hell at the very gates of heaven' in the sense that it is possible to resist even the prolonged, personal appeals of Jesus Christ and turn away at the last into the darkness. There are those whom even Jesus cannot, and will not, save. Not that his grace is insufficient for them. On the contrary, it truly is 'enough for all, enough for each, enough for evermore', as Charles Wesley eloquently declared. But they will not come to receive it. The corollary to the stress on the crucial importance of faith in this gospel is the seriousness of unbelief, the refusal of faith. Hell is no mere theoretical possibility. It is an awesome and fearful reality. To refuse the light means to choose the darkness where no light will ever shine again” (The Bible Speaks Today: The Message of John, pp. 203-04).

The proverbial road to hell

Could Judas have said no? Could he have refused the part he was given to play in the passion of the Christ? The Arminian in me says of course he could, he wasn't a patsy or a fall guy destined to fulfill Scripture. I don't believe for a second that there are some people born doomed to be damned. For all time God has filled the universe with free-will agents whom he desires will choose him of their own volition. That being said I also think that the more we resist the grace of God the greater the chance our character will become permanently bent away from him. While only God knows where exactly it lies there is a point of no return, a place to use Lewis' turn of words where God says to a human being “thy will be done.” It's a sobering thought. Of Judas says Milne: “he was within arm's reach of Jesus through occupying the place on his other side, the host's left, the place of special honor. For one last, lingering moment Judas' destiny hangs in the balance as the love of God incarnate shines one more time into his benighted heart. But the moment is no sooner present than it passes, as Judas in a final act of defiance closes his heart against the light, and turns away into the darkness that has no end” (pp. 202-03). May God keep me - and the rest of us - far from such a place.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Keeping it on the down-low: A meditation on John 7:1-13

His brothers said, 'Why don’t you leave here and go up to the Feast so your disciples can get a good look at the works you do? No one who intends to be publicly known does everything behind the scenes. If you’re serious about what you are doing, come out in the open and show the world.' His brothers were pushing him like this because they didn’t believe in him either.”

Jesus came back at them, 'Don’t crowd me. This isn’t my time. It’s your time—it’s always your time; you have nothing to lose. The world has nothing against you, but it’s up in arms against me. It’s against me because I expose the evil behind its pretensions. You go ahead, go up to the Feast. Don’t wait for me. I’m not ready. It’s not the right time for me.'”

He said this and stayed on in Galilee. But later, after his family had gone up to the Feast, he also went. But he kept out of the way, careful not to draw attention to himself.” John 7:3-10, Msg


Genie: Phenomenal cosmic powers!
[shrinks down inside the lamp]
Genie: Itty bitty living space!
Genie in Disney's Aladdin

Genie could do a lot of cool stuff
What if you could wield the same power Jesus did? To what end would you use it? To empty out the local hospital and special care unit at the nursing home? To work such wonders within the county jail that in a single day the sheriff would have to lay-off staff as there were no more inmates to supervise? To visit every household where a hospice nurse was keeping vigil and essentially raise the dead? Or what other miraculous deed could you imagine completing with the cosmic powers of the Most High at your disposal?

Not once and for all but an ongoing reality
I'm a Pentecostal and by definition and implication I believe in the Holy Spirit's ongoing ministry in the world today. The Day of Pentecost, the historical birthday of the Church, is not just a day we commemorate annually; rather, it is – or, at least, supposed to be - an ongoing reality. Jesus told his first disciples not to leave Jerusalem but “wait for what the Father has promised. You heard Me speak of this. For John the Baptist baptized with water but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:4-5). And a week and a half later his promise was made good when the Holy Spirit rained down in buckets upon them and about a hundred others. The courage they had lacked they now had in abundance. Boldly they proclaimed the message of Jesus to whomever would listen to them. A professional, lame beggar is wonderfully healed and a decidedly dead woman is brought back to life. Nothing, it seemed, could stop them now. But it didn't end with them. The ministry of the Holy Spirit is not a movement regulated to the early half of the First Century AD. He's alive and well and working in the earth today.

And yet, in over twenty-five years of pastoral ministry, truth be told, I have seen and experienced few of what John Wimber used to describe as “power encounters”. I've not seen anyone raised to life. I've never seen a person in a wheel chair rise out of it and run. Once my wife and I were personally used to exorcise an unclean spirit out of someone and while the person knew she was delivered of the thing when it was over, it was definitely not a Linda Blair-like a la The Exorcist event. For a six-year period our fellowship held a monthly healing service and while we prayed with lots of folks who ultimately felt comfort, encouragement and love, we really didn't rack up significant stats to submit to Charisma. Nevertheless, I remain a committed Pentecostal believing fully that if we see little demonstration of the power of the risen Savior in our midst the problem isn't with heaven. It's somewhere on this end of the equation. Or is it?

My personal devotions have been in the Gospel of John this year. Unlike the other gospel accounts where Jesus will frequently work acts of power, the way John tells it Jesus will perform a miracle now and again but under the radar, as it were, and frequently - if a miracle can be described as such - in a demonstratively subtle manner. In chapter 2, at a wedding where he is a guest he transforms water into wine, an event that Michael Card refers to as “one of his most unmiraculous miracles.”

There was no waving of arms, no calling attention to himself. Jesus simply takes the water of the old orthodoxy and unassumingly transforms it into the wine of the new reality. His other miracles in John will follow the same pattern, except for one:
    1. In chapter 4 he will heal the official's son in abstentia.
    2. In chapter 5 he will cause the lame to walk by simply saying “get up.” This man does not even know Jesus' name.
    3. In chapter 6 he will feed the five thousand by simply pronouncing the blessing over the meal.
    4. Also in chapter 6 he will walk on the water. Mark observes that he was walking past them, his purpose simply to get to the other side of the lake (Mk 6:48).
    5. In chapter 9 he will heal the blind man, also in abstentia.
    6. The single exception of the rule in regard to Jesus' unmiraculous miracles is the raising of Lazarus in chapter 11. This he accomplishes by means of a loud shout. (John: The Gospel of Wisdom by Michael Card)

Jesus at the Pool of Bethesda
A well-meaning and sincere member of our fellowship once affirmed to me that if we had the power of God like Jesus and the first disciples had we could empty out Lake View Medical Center (the largest hospital in our county.) John's testimony seems to suggest otherwise.

In John 7, the Feast of Tabernacles has arrived and as was the custom Jewish men were to make pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate and remember their ancestors' wilderness wanderings. While people are packing and making ready for the journey south, curiously Jesus goes about his business as if it's just another day of the week. His brothers chide him and remind him that if he's serious about being a public figure than he shouldn't be hanging around the backwaters of Galilee. Jerusalem is where the limelight is and where stars are born. “Work some of your magic there,” they opine, “and watch how your following will grow again” (recall that at the end of John 6 a lot of people “unfriended” him with his Capernaum sermon about the necessity of “eating his flesh” and “drinking his blood.” You'll have that.) But Jesus won't be manipulated by them or anyone; he'll go when he feels the time is right and not a moment before.

Obi-Wan sorta looks like Jesus, too
Of course, as soon as his brothers leave town, he gathers his things and begins the journey by himself. In my mind, I envision Jesus making that ninety mile trip incognito, dressed like some First Century Jedi complete with hooded cloak. He lingers on the fringes of the caravan, hearing the occasional camp fire conversations about him whether or not he is a good man or little more than a snakeoil salesman. Like the genie in Aladdin's lamp, phenomenal, cosmic powers are at his command within the “itty bitty living space” of himself. But he doesn't wield them dramatically like a light saber or as Master Yoda might by raising an X-Wing fighter
If you've seen the movie,
I think you get it
out of the muck of a Dagobah swamp. He doesn't because as he asserted with the audience that gathered around him following the healing of the man at the Pool of Bethesda, “...the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does” (John 5:19, NIV). And as the feeding of the multitude outside of Bethsaida demonstrated, miracles don't normally spur people on to true faith. Quite the contrary. As Bruce Milne puts it, “Hunger for spectacular signs is the enemy of real faith, since it leaves the fallen, self-centered heart untouched and unrebuked” (The Bible Speaks Today: The Message of John).

I used to feel inadequate when a sick person came to me for prayer and despite my most sincerest intercession “nothing” came of it. They were still sick after the fact. Most people don't blame their ministers for not making them better. They know it doesn't usually work that way. (I do recall a very distraught woman who called me once and cried electronically on my shoulder about her husband who had left her. When I tried to comfort her with a “I've been praying for you” remark, she screamed into my earpiece, “WELL, IT'S NOT WORKING!” Admittedly, she had had a bad week.) I still pray for healing. I still believe that the Jesus I follow has real, phenomenal, cosmic power that if he so chooses can cause dead limbs to be whole again and set bound persons free from unclean spirits. But as John's gospel tells it, our Savior came serving. “When the disciples were hungry, he fed them. When their feet were dirty on the night of Judas' betrayal, he washed them” (A Better Freedom by Michael Card). This reminds me that as I go about my ministry which frequently seems to major in little more than in handing out cups of cold water in his name (Matthew 10:42), it is no little thing after all to emulate the One who usually sought a low profile and did not try to make the headlines – until it was absolutely necessary.

Granted, he didn't do this all the time