Thursday, May 25, 2017

Treasure in a field

It's so easy to miss the good stuff.

In this transition time, I find myself at loose ends, especially when it's been raining a lot and I can't drive truck in the beautiful fields of southeastern Minnesota. So, since I am curious about the world and wonder what's out there beyond truck driving and pastoring, I've spent a lot of time the last few rainy days on job boards.

Yesterday the walls were closing in and I needed to get out of the house, so I went to downtown Red Wing to find a coffee shop. Lo and behold, what I found! The largest Caribou store in the chain (the manager explained to me) and a gorgeous old building that used to be a railroad depot, then was a restaurant, and now is an amazing, spacious, two-level beautiful coffee shop with a fireplace and a conference room and dark wood and brick and oh, my goodness.

You never know when you're going to run across a treasure. I rearranged a bit of my day today to come back here and enjoy the ambience. Delightful.

Thing is, I've driven by this Caribou dozens of times. It's a coffee shop. They're all the same, right? Wrong. So wrong. This picture doesn't really do it justice. I mean, you get the whole standard thing with their best coffees -- the Obsidian and the Mahogany and the Starlight all lined up right next to each other on the shelves, and the custom coffee mugs, the apple fritters and espresso beans and chalkboard and leather chairs and all of that. But there's something about the space, the luxurious space, that is just joyous. Welcoming.

It's a treasure. I don't know how to put it better than that.

So what do you do when you find a treasure?

You can walk by, or drive by, and smile and nod. Most of the time we do. Or you can rearrange your schedule, your circumstances, your life, and let yourself be shaped by the encounter.

One of the refrains that regularly haunts my life comes from a poster in a student lounge when I was in college. It said: "The secret of life is this: To be ready at any moment to give up all that you are for the sake of all you may become." That thought is both inspiring and terrifying.

The other day a friend said he was struggling with a question. "When was the last time I did something for the first time?" he wondered. Too often we wear ruts in the soil of our lives and miss so much.

Are you keeping your eyes open for the treasures God puts in your way? Jesus told that story, you might remember -- that the kingdom of God was like a man who found a treasure in a field, and in his joy, he went and sold all that he had in order to buy that field. It's easy just to blip over that story and not take it very seriously. But if you think much about it, it's a very challenging story.

Here's one shot of the Caribou in downtown Red Wing. It doesn't do the experience justice, but you get a little idea. It's worth the trip!

Monday, May 22, 2017

Pondering Sunday's sermon

Went to church on Sunday.

With a make-hay-while-the-sun-shines job, that was a rare pleasure out of the last few weeks. Seems like contrary to Minnesota's regular habit, Saturdays and Sundays this spring have been bright, sunny, and good for being in the field. So I haven't been in worship much lately. I've been in scripture and devotional readings and prayer and even some pretty meaty theology, often while sitting behind the wheel of an enormous truck (but not when it's moving).

But Sunday was rainy and wet and I went to church. Traditional Lutheran service. I wasn't at Faaberg Lutheran (the church where I was raised) but it was very much the same kind of thing. Fifty people in worship (including me and the pastor). Traditional hymns. Traditional liturgy. Traditional prayers and benediction. It was good.

I choked on the sermon, though. Not just because, in a sermon that used children repeatedly as illustrations, the pastor when he intended to talk about a popular restaurant slipped up and said, "Kentucky Fried Children." I can forgive that. Lord knows I've slipped up enough while preaching!

The thing that choked me was how this preacher took Jesus' words in John 14 -- "If you love me, you will obey my commandments" -- and made them into a non-specific sermon that could be summed up as follows:

Be good, or Jesus will be sad. (That is actually a direct quote from multiple points in the sermon.)

No definition of what, exactly, Jesus meant by "my commandments." No discussion of why the heart of God is impacted by sin. No parsing of what an adult is supposed to do with morality designed for five year olds ("Don't write on your little brother's face with permanent marker." Another direct quote. That and "Don't stick a knife in an electrical outlet.") No thought to the developmental stages of human beings and how, in our teen years, we undergo a major shift in how we understand "being good." No acknowledgement that more often than not, "being good" is held over people's heads as a tool to impart guilt, and thereby to maintain control.

Where I really wanted him to go was Galatians, where Paul says that the Law is our "paidegogeia," our tutor or nanny, designed to tend us until we mature and are ready for the loving freedom of the gospel. But that is dangerous and uncomfortable territory for those of us who have been raised on guilt.

The pastor did actually, to my great joy, talk a little about how we need both Law and Gospel, we need both the rules of God's Law and the freedom Jesus won for us at the cross. But that was sort of an aside, along with a nod to Bonhoeffer's idea of "cheap grace."

So what we all left with was a basic lesson in morality:

Be good, or Jesus will be sad. Like your mom was sad when you misbehaved. And it's okay for her to let you feel the weight of her sadness. It's okay for her to say, See? When you did that Mommy felt sad. Strap on your codependent guilt and get back out there, kids.

I left worship thinking about how so much preaching in the church today comes down at about that level. It lands at the level of "You need to be good" -- be good or God will be sad, be good or you'll get in trouble, be good or you're going to hell, be good or you'll miss heaven.

Isn't there more than this?

Why did Jesus go on and on about the kingdom of God? Why did he focus on that SO MUCH MORE than focusing on people going to heaven? (By the way, "kingdom of heaven" which is used primarily in Matthew's gospel is just his way of saying "kingdom of God" and doesn't necessarily have anything to do with some paradise you go to after you die.) Does "be good" really help us grow into the love of God?

Sit through an average church service and you'll hear, be good. Because Jesus wants you to.

It makes me sad. It's not the good news of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen from the dead. It's not the gospel. It's probably not even Christianity.

It was good to be in church on Sunday. There were powerful words spoken, powerful messages in the liturgy, in the hymns, in the baptism, the Lord's Prayer, the benediction. It was good to be reminded of those saints at Faaberg and of so many other gatherings of God's people. So good to be wrapped into a fellowship of believers, even if I arrived during the welcome and left during the closing hymn. It was good to hear scripture read in public, and to hear the words of Jesus lifted up in some form.

And I am pondering, pondering how we might preach, teach, live more true to Jesus' own words, to his own proclamation.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Eclipsed by glory

I had coffee with my friend Matt today. He is a vibrant young man who has been a great supporter and friend of mine for many years. I have also had the privilege of being a close friend of his family for more than a decade now.

A few years ago, Matt faced some excruciating health crises. One morning a few days before he was to go into surgery, I was praying like mad for Matt and sent him a text that included these words, quoting a popular worship song:

He is jealous for me
Loves like a hurricane, I am a tree
bending beneath 
the weight of his wind and mercy

When all of a sudden I am unaware
of these afflictions eclipsed by glory
And I realize just how beautiful you are
And how great your affections are for me

I have thought often about these words, especially the line about how "I am unaware of these afflictions eclipsed by glory". What are "these afflictions" in my life (or yours), and how do they get "eclipsed by glory"? And how could this glory of God "eclipse" them to the extent that I am "unaware" of them?

I don't know about you, but when I am in affliction I tend to get absorbed by, consumed by, totally overwhelmed by, my own suffering, whatever form it takes.

I had a long conversation with my niece the other day about loneliness. Being an introvert from a family of introverts, you wouldn't think loneliness would be an issue for her, or for me. I spent almost a week one year ago in the Boundary Waters on a solo trip, and I didn't see another human from mid-day Monday through mid-day Friday. I reveled in the solitude. I loved it, lapped it up. Never missed human company and never regretted my choice to go out into the backcountry alone. In fact, I was sad on Friday to come to the landing on Round Lake and have to talk to people. One of the ideas I've toyed with during my current time of transition is, why not take a month and head into the BWCA solo? Spend a couple thousand dollars on a good canoe and provisions, and just head out? Some small part of me yearns for that kind of solitude. At the moment, though, my guess is it wouldn't be a wise choice.

But I digress.

My niece and I talked at length about loneliness. She's got a new baby, and her husband works long hours. She's often alone with the little one in their apartment, and the lack of human companionship can be crushing. Absolutely crushing. I have a ready cadre of friends and family that I try to stay in contact with, but at times the loneliness of my days (especially rainy days when I'm not driving truck and boredom rears its ugly head) is still crushing. For many people, the worst kind of isolation, the worst loneliness, is what they experience in a crowd.


How is this affliction eclipsed by glory? Maybe the more important line in the song is "I am unaware" -- in other words, it's not that the affliction goes away, but that the glory of Jesus eclipses the affliction. Ever seen an eclipse? I've watched a few, both lunar and solar, and they're pretty amazing. Either the moon moves between the earth and the sun (solar eclipse) or the earth moves between the moon and the sun (lunar eclipse). The image in the song means that the glory moves between your view and the affliction. So the glory of Jesus somehow moves between you and your affliction.

So what does it look like for the glory of Jesus to move between me and my loneliness, for example? What does it look like for his presence, his glory, to eclipse my affliction?

First option is that somehow, in my devotional time, in my prayer, or in some other encounter, Jesus becomes so present to me, I experience his glory in such a tangible way, that it cuts me off from a preoccupation with my own struggles. You can read about such experiences in the writings of John of the Cross, or Teresa of Avila, or others who have focused deeply on the life of prayer. They had these kinds of experiences, and such a present, tangible sense of Jesus' presence is certainly available to believers today at times. The story goes that when Thomas Aquinas, who wrote thousands of pages of teaching that still guide the Roman Catholic Church today, who basically reinterpreted Christian theology so it could take account of the newly rediscovered writings of Aristotle -- when Thomas was near the end of his life, he slipped into a vision and upon coming back, is reported to have said, "I have seen things that make all my writings seem like straw."

But most Christians never experience that kind of direct revelation of the glory of God, at least not in an enduring way, though we may be stricken by God's glory for a moment watching a sunset or experiencing worship in a powerful way or watching a baby being born or something like that. But it's fleeting at best. And in my experience, those moments are difficult to hang onto. It is interesting that as soon as the Transfiguration was over, Jesus called Peter, James and John to come down the mountain with him, back among people. It's like he didn't want them to focus on remaining on that mountaintop.

The second option, and a much more common one, is that the glory of Jesus comes to you and me hidden, embodied, incarnate in the life of another person who bears the image of God to us. In other words, God sends you a human being to be his image, the representation of his glory, to stand between you and your afflictions, to eclipse them. This is why the fellowship of other believers is so critically important. If you have eyes to see, it can be an incredible thing to see the presence of God in someone who loves you well, who stands even for a moment between you and your hurt, your lack, your pain. In my sense of isolation today, I had no less than eight people step between me and that loneliness, eclipsing it for a few minutes or for a few hours, letting a deep, Jesus-centered connection with them make me unaware for a time of my afflictions. Most were people with whom I interacted in the flesh; a precious few were loved ones whose faces and memories I could bring to mind in the moment, cherishing their presence in a life-giving way. And if we are paying attention, these loving, lovely people who embody God's glory to us not only give us a few minutes' respite. If we are attentive they can help us to reinterpret our afflictions, to see them in a new way.

At the end of the day, I can still be overwhelmed by a sense of sadness and isolation. But -- and this is what I choose right now -- I can also focus on the glory, on the embodied glory of God in each of those individuals who carried God's image into my life and eclipsed my afflictions for a time. It can be a beautiful thing to be unaware of our afflictions, to have them eclipsed by the glory -- present and tangible -- of Jesus.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Pondering again

It's been a while.

Some of you know that I have been in a significant time of transition these last few months. To quote from The Princess Bride, "Let me explain ... No, there is too much. Let me sum up."

I am no longer serving as a pastor. I resigned my post at Calvary in March. My professional and personal life has been in something of a freefall since that time, for a variety of reasons. I've moved outside the Cities, which has been a great relief to me. I realize more than ever what a farm kid I am, and how much I need to be out in open fields to stay healthy. I've been living on my younger brother's small farm near Red Wing, MN and driving truck for an agricultural supply company in southeast Minnesota. I have loved being out in the country and dealing with farmers again. What a gift.

At the same time, I recognize that my exit did a lot of damage to the church and to a lot of people that I care deeply about. While there is a complex backlog of reasons why I've done the things I've done, the damage I've done is huge, and I carry the weight and remorse of that every day. Yes, there is forgiveness in Christ. Yes, I believe Romans 8:1 ("There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus") as much as I ever have. Yes, I have huge regrets for relationships broken and friendships lost and colleagues alienated. Absolutely. At the same time I cling to Jesus who forgives sinners, who redeems our brokenness and brings great good out of terrible evil. Including mine.

And yes, I am still in close fellowship with God and in various shapes, with his people. One of the things I'll no doubt be writing about in the coming days if I decide to keep posting to this blog is my changing ecclesiology -- what I believe about the nature and purpose of the church. I've been learning and thinking a lot about that recently. And I still support, in a variety of ways, the mission of Calvary Lutheran Church, and of the Christian Church in more general terms.

I've also been brought face to face with myself -- with some of the things that are deep in my core, things that make me who I am, things that I thought I could just set aside to do a challenging job at Calvary. I intentionally laid aside much of what is at my core as a farm kid, as a hunter, as a guy with deep rural roots, not to mention as a writer. I had friends who would occasionally call me on that, and rightly so. How could I live on a postage stamp suburban lot in the inner suburbs? Moving to Zimmerman in 2003 was a stretch toward a more urban environment than I wanted. So when in 2014 I moved into the first ring suburbs, they rightly challenged me. Seriously? Jeff was going to live in the city?

And it didn't go well.

There are lots of factors in this transition, lots of things for me to learn, lots of things I have learned already. I don't intend to bring them all out and process them on this blog -- I have more appropriate venues for that reflection, and friendships in which I can do some of that sharing and thinking, thank God. I am continuing, as I will throughout life, to grow into what it means to be the beloved child of God, to live into that Romans 8 authority as his beloved son. I continue to have lots to learn in that arena.

But at the same time, I know that is the core of my identity, and I have to embrace who he has created me to be. I have missed sharing my reflections in this format. I have missed the chance to ponder in print in a more disciplined sort of written reflection and to let other people interact with what I've been thinking. I miss writing in a way that impacts the world, at least a little bit. So maybe there are still a few die-hard blog-followers out there, and maybe not; but at any rate, this kind of writing demands a little more disciplined approach than a simple journal, and I'm excited to occasionally post a little of what I am pondering and learning.

I'm still obsessed with the same questions. What does it mean that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not? What does it mean that in his death, Jesus conquered the powers that so dominate our lives? What does it mean that Jesus sent his followers to proclaim his kingdom, and how is that going in 2017?

Looking forward to pondering with you.

Saturday, December 12, 2015


We've been having lovely October weather in Minnesota the last few weeks. It seems a little odd to be writing this on December 13th and looking out the window at green grass. I have always been a lover of winter. When we lived in Seattle in the early 1990's I missed the snow and cold of Minnesota. I have snowshoes hanging on my garage wall that seem to me to be pining for use. So I find myself in an odd place, looking at the forecast (which says it MIGHT get down to freezing on Monday -- what's with that??) and waiting for winter.

In ninth grade, my parents bought me a pair of cross-country skis. I spent that winter skiing across the pastures and fields through the long moonlit evenings. I learned to love the winter in a whole new way. That year and a few years following, we had great snow. I came to take it for granted. So many years lately snow has been hard to come by. So I enjoy the novelty of green grass in December, but I am still wishing, still waiting for snow.

Waiting. It's not a bad way to spend Advent. Waiting for winter. Waiting for Christmas. Waiting for Jesus. The days get shorter, the nights get longer, and the world seems like a dim and dingy place. We wait for light. Add some cloudy days like we've had lately and the Seasonal Affective Disorder alone can send you over the edge. The world itself seems dark. We watch the news and hear about another bombing, another shooting, another riot, another earthquake, and we wait for light. We wait for hope.

That's Advent. It's supposed to be a time of waiting. Almost in defiance of the growing darkness, we string lights and greenery. We light candles. We wait.

Imagine for a moment what Advent would have been like before Thomas Edison placed artificial lights in our homes -- when a kerosene lantern or even a candle was all you had. Imagine living week after week without even light enough to read a book decently. You can see why storytelling became the activity of choice during these months. That's probably another reason why so many of our best loved stories are tales of waiting, of struggle, and of fighting through the forces of darkness. It resonates with our need this time of year. Not that the world is sweetness and light during the summer, but we feel the weight of the darkness so much during these Advent weeks.

We are waiting.

There's an openness, an innocence, to waiting. There's a gracious lack of control in waiting. Hope is the most fragile of things -- it can easily become cynicism or jaded bitterness. But when we allow ourselves to wait, hope springs up like a flower in the snow. Do we, in this day and age, dare to be open-hearted?

I don't know what you're waiting for this Advent. Hopefully something more than snow. I wish you blessings on the anticipation -- growth in the hopefulness -- joy in the discovery. May you be blessed in these days of waiting!

Friday, September 18, 2015

Mid-September reflections

Tomorrow is one of my favorite holidays. In Minnesota, it is opening day of small game hunting season, grouse hunting season, and archery deer season.

I'm not a big early season hunter. Usually there are too many mosquitoes, and the leaves still on the trees make it difficult to see game. One has to weigh that against the fact that you can go into the woods without risking frostbite. There are pros and cons to everything, I guess.

Still, there's the promise of something wonderful in the air these days. Maple trees here and there are starting to go colorful, and some mornings you wake up and you can imagine it will freeze hard (take that, mosquitoes!) in the next few days. There's a smell and a feel to September days that is simply wonderful.

Julie and I took some time to go to the Boundary Waters in August. Paddling across Lake Saganaga, right on the Canadian border, I was amazed to see a slope of alders already turning yellow. Now that wave of color has come south to the Twin Cities. It's the beginning of something glorious.

It makes me think of what Paul says in Romans 8:

"For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us." 

That's verse 18 according to the ESV. This translation says "to us" -- that the glory will be revealed and we will get to see it. Other translations (NIV for example) say "in us" -- that the glory will be revealed in our bodies, our character, our discipleship, and that others -- the world, maybe, or all creation if you go with the following verse -- will see it. Both are legitimate ways to translate the Greek, and both are supported elsewhere in the New Testament.

Both, I think, are true. God's glory is certainly revealed to us, whether in fall colors splashed over a curbside maple tree or answered prayer. We see it and rejoice. God's glory is also revealed through his people, especially when they suffer without striking back, when they endure trials without losing their focus on Jesus, when they live as Jesus lived. Paul points here to suffering as one of the primary places where God's glory shines through us.

It's interesting to think that the glory of September is really a glory borne of suffering. The resplendent leaves are slowly losing the life that courses through them. The smell in the air these days is at least in part the sharp tang of plant matter beginning a decay that prepares the soil and the root systems for winter. There is a death coming with the snows, but the descent into death is a great opportunity for glory.

And the promise of God is that resurrection is coming. This is one reason I love living in Minnesota. The seasons are such a clockwork witness to the good news of Jesus!

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Family Camp

I had the privilege last week of preaching at Family Camp at Mount Carmel Bible Camp near Alexandria MN. What a great place, deeply rooted in the Word of God -- both meaning Jesus as the Word and meaning the Bible as the Word. 

It was fun to be at Mt. Carmel in part because that camp and Calvary share some great DNA. There's a common spirit between the two places, a desire to see people transformed by God's Word, drawn deep into relationship with Jesus. One of the greatest things about Family Camp at Mount Carmel is seeing all generations -- from infants to wheelchairs -- and all kinds of definitions of family, from singles to parents and kids to grandparents to multiple layers of cousins -- sharing camp together. It's fantastic to see six year olds and sixteen year olds enjoying age appropriate activities, young adults and octogenarians digging into Bible passages together.

John Bjorge, a pastor from Seattle who has deep Minnesota roots, was teaching last week on the Old Testament book of Daniel. It's been a very long time since I did any in-depth study of Daniel, and John really pulled out some great applications to today. He's such a good teacher that he takes very deep ideas and truths and applies them in what look like very simple ways -- but when you start to chew on what he's saying, you realize just how challenging these ideas are!

I served as preacher last week. Family Camp at Mount Carmel includes teaching time in the morning for the adults while the kids have age-appropriate programming, then scads of free time with optional structured activities in the afternoon (think fishing, ropes course, waterfront, soccer, naps) and a whole-camp worship time in the evening with occasionally a talent show or other special event thrown in. It's fantastic, relaxing, renewing time. I preached during the evening services on John 9 and the story of Jesus healing a man born blind. It was great fun to see how the Holy Spirit coordinated themes between John's teaching on Daniel and my preaching through John 9. Lots of common themes!