Disclaimer: I serve as the Senior Pastor at Calvary Lutheran Church in Golden Valley, MN. However, these blog posts are not endorsed by Calvary, and they reflect my own opinions. Feel free to post comments or responses to these posts!

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Pondering the 4th of July

For a wide variety of reasons, I have not been posting much here lately. One of the biggest reasons is that my day job has been all-consuming lately, in a really good way. This morning I find myself with a few hours to relax, and time to ponder. It's good.

And so I am thinking about the 4th of July. Independence Day. The United States of America. Patriotism. The cost and responsibility of freedom.

One of the more instructive experiences of my life has been hearing people from other countries express their patriotism. I think of the privilege of listening to a Canadian praying in great thanksgiving for God's hand on his country, for the privilege of living in that amazing nation. I have heard Hondurans singing their national anthem with tears in their eyes as they express their gratitude to God for the privilege of living in that beautiful place. I've talked deep into the night with Filipinos who agonize about how best to be stewards of the privilege of living in the Philippines with all the wonder and all the challenge facing that great country. I've listened to Mexicans talk in depth about the political future of the country they love so much as they debate political candidates and parties, yearning for their country to experience the very best future it can possibly have, and speaking with pride and thanksgiving for its noble history.

It puts the 4th of July in a different perspective.

It doesn't make me any less thankful to be part of the United States of America. It does help me see that just because I love this country doesn't mean that other countries aren't wonderful and amazing as well. America is a great nation. And there are many other great nations.

So -- and this is always my question -- what is God up to in all this?

So often we believe that for us to be great, everyone else has to be less. This mentality gives rise to the desire to push everyone else down in order that we might emphasize our greatness. I don't think that is a responsible attitude for a Jesus-follower to have. Instead, I think Jesus-followers in the United States have to look at our patriotism as a question of stewardship. We have been given much. What will we do with it?

Will we climb over the top of other nations or other faiths to emphasize our own greatness? That certainly contradicts what Jesus taught. Will we be critical and judgmental of others to push the rightness of our own beliefs? Again, that seems contrary to Jesus' example.

Maybe the word I'm looking for is humility.

How can one be a humble patriot? How can one be a humble, yet faithful, Jesus follower? What does humility look like on the 4th of July?

As I've been rereading the gospels these last couple months, I've noticed again and again how Jesus lived in tension with the nationalism of his own time. I see over and over how Jesus grieved for the political attitudes that he knew would result in the Romans destroying Jerusalem in a few short decades. He called his own beloved people to repentance and humility. "If only you had known the things that make for peace!" he said (Luke 19:42). Jesus recognized that an arrogant nationalism would create strife and bring destruction. Yet he himself recognized the very special identity of Judaism and the nation of Israel, perhaps more than any other person ever has!

It's worth pondering on this Independence Day. This is the spirit of the hymn that is not so much a tribute to America's greatness as a prayer for God's help:

O beautiful for patriots' dream that sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears!
America, America, God mend thine every flaw
Confirm thy soul in self control,
Thy liberty in law!

Friday, May 1, 2015


Mostly I eat a low-carb kind of diet. Not strictly, you understand, but for very practical reasons. I find, as a type-1 diabetic, that a low carbohydrate diet helps me regulate my blood sugars. I have gone round and round with my doctors about this over the years. For years they told me it was unhealthy, I was going to get high cholesterol (my cholesterol has never been above 160, and usually hovers around 140 or so. The 160 was when I was eating lots of carbs.) So I live on eggs and summer sausage and bacon and nuts. I eat very little bread and almost never drink things like fruit juices and such. I avoid oatmeal because of the blood sugar spikes that follow, even though oatmeal is a delicious gift from God. Yesterday for both lunch and supper I had a pork chop on a stick along with some veggies. Low carb.

But once in a very great while it is an amazing pleasure to have a piece of apple pie for breakfast.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Mexico trip

For almost 20 years, Calvary has had a relationship with a mission in the Mazahua Valley northwest of Mexico City. The Mazahua are an indigenous people group native to that part of Mexico. They tend to live in poverty or on its edge. They have made significant strides in the last few decades to create better lives, greater infrastructure, and economic possibilities in their area. Parallel to that growth has been the growth of evangelical Christianity among the Mazahua. Mazahua Valley Ministries is an organization that provides encouragement and modest support to 50-60 evangelical churches and their leaders within the Mazahua Valley area.

Pastor Tacho Dominguez is on staff at Calvary as an associate pastor. He grew up in the Mazahua Valley and has a wide and deep knowledge of the history of both the region and the people. It was a real privilege to have him take me and Alan, the third member of our group, on an extended week long tour of the region. Alan had been to MVM three previous times and has a deep love for the people there. He doesn't speak a lot of Spanish, but has been a loyal volunteer there and also serves along with his wife at the Spanish language worship service at Calvary.

We visited several churches each day, meeting with leaders and often sharing meals. We heard about the work of larger, more established ministries and the struggles of fledgling churches that have only been in existence a short time. I worked on my Spanish skills and enjoyed actually having a couple significant conversations in that beautiful language. It's a little strange to realize that I have a harder time talking about what to eat for breakfast than I have talking about the relationship between the gospel and politics. Not sure how that happens.

One of the things that excites me most about Calvary (there are lots) is this business of mission partners -- whether locally or globally, Calvary is tied to many organizations like MVM and the individuals who give so much time and energy to building the kingdom of God in some way through these partnerships. What a privilege to be a part of such things! What an honor as senior pastor of Calvary to be able to connect with brothers and sisters who love and serve Jesus in other places!

Here are a couple pictures from the trip.

Above you see Manuel, Pastor Tacho's cousin, talking with people at Gilgal, the site I mentioned in my previous post. Manuel was a university professor who retired and is now giving his time to mission work. The girl in the light blue dress in the foreground is a bright-eyed, joyful helper who has become a key part of the work of Elsa, the missionary who has made the closest contact with these people. As you can see, dogs are everywhere.

This is Alan teaching a group of pastors and their families (especially the kids) about morse code. It was a fascinating demonstration using some of Alan's ham radio expertise and equipment.

This is a common sight -- mostly empty plates and full bellies. Around the table, left to right, are Alan, David (who works at MVM), Isidro (an ex-cop who did a great job of driving us up from Mexico City and back into the city -- driving in Mexico City requires a special kind of courage!), and Tacho.

This was a photo op as we were driving up to Gilgal. In many areas this is a common way to bring water back to the home.

Roca de Salvacion (Rock of Salvation) is one of the largest evangelical churches in the valley. There are about 1400 members in this church. They have a  beautiful sanctuary, a dedicated leadership team, and a heart for missions. It was humbling to be prayed for by this leadership team in this beautiful sanctuary!

Tacho standing in the midst of a group of pottery creations near a church known as "The Potter's House." The church has helped some of the people in this area take advantage of the presence of high quality clay to create beautiful pottery and bring in a few pesos. We watched this potter creating a number of different items in his backyard. 

I had to laugh when people asked me if I enjoyed the heat in Mexico. It never got above 70 degrees, and that was only on the middle of the warmest afternoon. Nights were cold. Here David is bundled up to function on a morning when it was certainly under 40 degrees. With no insulation and no heat in the buildings, I was much warmer once I got back to Minnesota!

Monday, February 16, 2015

Mexican adventures

I returned a couple days ago from a week in Mexico. The first question everyone asks me here in Minnesota is, do you miss the warmth? I tell them I was colder in Mexico than I am in Minnesota. We were in the Mazahua Valley, up around 9,000-11,000 feet depending on location, and the nights got plenty cold. In uninsulated homes without heat, it was chilly.

But it was a great experience. I was the guest of Mazahua Valley Ministries, a long-time ministry partner of Calvary. Pastor Tacho, who grew up in the Valley but now is on staff at Calvary as well as maintaining close ties with MVM hosted me and another guy (Alan).  We visited a bunch of churches and a Bible school and experienced the great hospitality of these people. Everywhere we went we were greeted with grace and affection and food. Lots of food. Excellent food!

In the coming days, my hope is to share with you some of the pictures and experiences of that week, along with some of the reflections about the mission of the church, the changing nature of missionaries, the task of crossing cultures, and more.

For now, here's a picture of a delightful pair of ladies I met on a mountaintop called Gilgal above Ixtlahuaca.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Quiet, busy days

I'm in the middle of an odd experience. Julie and her siblings are doing a fantastic family reunion of sorts on Maui for two weeks. It's exciting for her to have the opportunity, and it's a little weird for me to be living solo for this long a stretch. We've certainly spent time apart before, but up until recently there were always kids involved somehow. Now the kids are off being adults (what's with that?) and I have a big house to myself for two weeks.

Decidedly odd.

In the middle of this odd experience I get to have a bunch of plumbing work done, since we discovered that our kitchen drain line has rusted through underneath our concrete slab. So there will be plumbers and other skilled people coming and going, busting up my concrete and repairing stuff. I wonder sometimes what they thought in 1965 when they put those metal pipes down into the soil ... did they think, "In 50 years someone will do something about this" or did they assume their work was permanent? Or was it simply the best option they had at the time? Hard to say.  But I'm hoping that the work will be completely done and beautiful again before Julie comes home.

At home and at work these quiet, busy days I do my best to discern God's voice and lead in his direction. That kind of following makes life exciting as God opens up new opportunities and new adventures. And in the middle of it all I have a quiet house (when I'm not running around busily) that seems both emptier than usual and also more full of God's Spirit, waiting not so much to speak as just to be recognized, to keep me company.

It's a little odd, but I like it.

And Julie will be back before long, and I'm tremendously excited about that.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Gratitude and team building

Tonight Julie and I are hosting a gathering for Calvary's staff. What a privilege to pull as many of these people together and honor them! I'm so grateful for each one and what they've done to make Calvary what it is today.

I also think it's incredibly important for a ministry team to spend time together doing purely relational things -- getting to know spouses and families, talking about the Christmas past, joking, eating, teasing, playing. It's not just a job, and if it is, that's a problem.

It's especially appropriate, I think, on this ninth day of Christmas, second day of 2015, and just a few days before Epiphany -- after most of the holiday chaos and before the New Year really gets ramped up. Take a deep breath. Try the meatballs. Have another glass of wine. Relax. Enjoy these people.

What a privilege! But right now, I have to go get the house ready. (Yes, my hip is recovered enough that I can do housework. A tiny little part of me misses being waited on, but mostly I'm grateful for that too!)

Monday, December 22, 2014

Jeff's personal update

Recovering from hip replacement surgery is a lot of work.

Not physical work, you understand, since there's very little I've been able to do physically for the last three weeks plus. Mostly just a lot of being unable to do stuff, but breathing hard anyway.

Like climbing stairs. Our house is a four-level split that was designed by a malicious physical therapist, I think, so that every time I want to do anything of consequence I have to go up or down a half dozen steps. Then for most of the last three weeks I'd stop and breathe for half a minute before proceeding.

It's gotten better, and everyone tells me I'm moving wonderfully. And I feel better than I did pre-surgery, so that's a good thing.

It just takes a long time to heal.

I've started back to work more-or-less full-time now, which means that I am mostly focused on preparing and delivering sermons. Thankfully, a lot of the administrative detail that usually demands my attention is a) being taken care of by others or b) hiding in the nooks and crannies until after New Year's. I'm happy with either solution at this point.

So to hit the particulars, for those who have been paying attention:

My swelling, so pronounced after surgery ("Does this surgery make my butt look fat?") has gone way down, in fact is pretty much gone. This is a great blessing.

My incision is healing nicely. Nobody really wants to see it even when I offer. That's probably good.

The anemia that has been my biggest problem is slowly, slowly, s-l-o-w-l-y going away. Iron supplements and a high protein diet and even liver and onions are doing what they can to bring me back to a normal state of hemoglobinness. (Spell Check decidedly does NOT like the word hemoglobinness.)

I'm starting to be able to do normal tasks again occasionally, like buying groceries, carrying firewood and moving storage bins and cooking chili. All of these have been attempted with great success. Sitting in a glider rocker, however, seems beyond me as yet since I got bucked off one yesterday afternoon. Amazing the reaction from a roomful of people when the hip surgery victim falls off his chair. No damage done except to my dignity. I have been persuaded that other normal tasks should not be attempted as yet, like moving furniture and climbing on the roof.

I have seen my physical therapist, and unlike most of his tribe he doesn't seem to take great delight in causing physical pain. He is, in fact, a long-time friend of our family and has a pretty good idea of my pain tolerance. So he told me, "You are a lot like my dad. His colon basically exploded and he said it was a little uncomfortable. So if your pain goes from a one to a four ... no, wait, a three ... I want you to stop doing these exercises." So far I haven't had to stop, except to breathe.

I am surrounded by the most wonderful people, from the very core (Julie and my family) and working outward. If love alone could heal a man, I'd be dancing. Well, I never have been much of a dancer. It's an expression.

I'm suffering a terrible internal debate about my annual observance of The End Of Bowhunting Season, which is one of the most notable holidays on my personal calendar. It happens to coincide with New Year's Eve in this part of the world and I'm debating if I'll be well enough to go sit in the woods. Of course, sitting in the woods, done properly, involves climbing into a tree stand. And a tree stand, properly set up, needs to be a far bit above the ground. See above about "normal tasks." The debate goes on.

Thanks for all the prayers and expressions of concern and sympathetic jokes. As I said above, if love alone could heal a man ...

In the meantime, today is the shortest / darkest day of the year. And in many ways, not in my personal world but in so many other ways, the world seems like a pretty dark place. I am wrapped and consumed in the joy of proclaiming Jesus this season -- Jesus who didn't come to be a cute Christmas-card cover, but rather who came to be the physical, human expression and form of God's love in the midst of God's creation. Jesus, whose arrival caused a slaughter of innocent children in the area around Bethlehem. Jesus, whose family became refugees, crossing the border (probably illegally) into Egypt. Jesus, over whom an old prophet spoke that he would be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel.

There's a lot to ponder this season. Catch your breath and take some time this dark evening to think about the one who comes as light into this world.