Pastoral Musings from Rain City

it's about 'what is church?' it's about whether 'emergent' is the latest Christian trend or something more substantial. it's musing on what it means to live the city, in America, in community, intergenerationally, at this time in history...

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

How Great Thou Art

Tonight, after the evening meeting, our worship leader goes up to the piano and leads us in this hymn, "How Great Thou Art". (warning: don't click on the 'play song' button - it will kill the moment for you!) Of course, you had to be there, to really appreciate it, because context is everything. But on this night, heaven opened for many of us who were there. I'm trying to think of why it opened for me and I can think of several reasons:

1. I first heard the hymn when I was at a Billy Graham conference in Fresno in the early 60's, and now that Billy Graham has preached his last crusdae, the end of his era, and the end of a ministry marked by incredible integrity and devotion to Christ, makes me long for eternity when we, all of us from the differenat ages and generations, will be together.

2. The day was filled with conversations having to do with the suffering of this world, and that verse about Christ coming and taking us home (home, where there's no more cancer, or crying, or divorce, or war, or injustice, or poverty, or AIDS) filled us all with a collective longing for Christ to just step in, any time now would be find thank you, and bring His reign to culmination, so that all of the mess might be done away with.

3. The verse about the forest and birds singing has been very real this whole trip, as the song birds have been spectacular, both here and at the place we stayed in San Francisco. Of course, the mountain grandeur is here to, as I look at my window to 9000' peaks across the creek, as we sit here at 5k. God's majesty is heavy in this place.

And finally, time alone, away from any family has the effect of making me long for that final closure, that final time when there is no more separation, only reunion; no more sickness, only healing; no more dying, only resurrection life. Then we will all be gathered together at the feet of Christ worshipping this One who will finally bring peace and glory to His creation.

Yes, it's tough preparing a sermon on homosexuality, and preparing a budget for the coming year as we face the challenges and opportunities of a new facility, and dealing with the sea of human hurt that is ever present in pastoral care and ministry. But tonight, for some reason, heaven opened up, as we sang the song that allowed me to set all my cares aside for a little and just say, with a full heart of gratitude: Indeed. How Great Thou Art!

Monday, June 27, 2005

Earthquakes and srong foundations

I'm speaking at Forest Home this week, and I always enjoy the chance to spend time with Ridge Burns, my friend who directs this ministry. Today, after returning from lunch with Ridge, I was sitting in my room, doing some writing when I felt what I'm pretty certain was an earthquake. It was short. It was small. But it was still an earthquake. Ah, it's good to be back in California.

Earthquakes always remind me the passage in Hebrews, where we're reminded that God will once again shake the earth, so that the things which cannot be shaken might remain. Of course, the writing is cryptic enough that none of us knows exactly what is being spoken of, but it certainly has many applications. Anytime things unfold differently than anticipated, we say we're shaken. Health, finances, relationships. We'd hoped for, or expected things to unfold in this certain way and instead they are unfolding along a completely different path, and suddenly we feel adrift - the future feels uncertain.

The promise given to us is that Christ is the source of security in the midst of shaking. He is really the One thing which can never be shaken, our Rock, as He's named in the Psalms. The shaking today was mild, and the cold I'm fighting this week is a mild kind of shaking. It means I won't go swimming in the morning, and I'll eat less junk. But real shakings rattle things loose, shaking away the superficiality so that we can cling to that which really matters. I wonder if there are any thoughts about how best to prepare one's life for future shakings? Prayer and Bible study, fellowship, simple living, moving to Montana and living in a bunker with a cache of weapons? Maybe we should just pretend that things will alays go on as they are now, buying and selling, building and planting, harvesting and enjoying life? Oh wait, that's been addressed. What's your take on preparing for the shaking yet to come?

Sunday, June 26, 2005

In Sickness and in Health

Yesterday my nephew's wedding unfolded in the hills just north of the Golden Gate Bridge (where my daughter and I ran on Saturday morning...just one of those things I wanted to do before I die!). Every wedding has it's own moments of power, and this one had several, but the most powerful thing that occured for me was in watching the relationship of my mother in-law and father in-law. He has alzhimers, and as a result, struggles with being disoriented, and forgets everything, both future plans and recent events. The questions, his own struggles with knowing that he doesn't know something, and the general anxieties of wondering how the disease will unfold all serve to take their toll. But I want you to know that, in the midst of this enormous trial, the two of them continue to demonstrably love each other.

It's not the demonstration of passions associated with youth and health, but the demonstration of loyalty and sacrifice, borne of commitment and compassion and honor. It's the manifestation of a depth of love that can only be seen when refined by the trials of fire. There is she is, watching out for him, caring for him in countless small and large ways. Somehow, the cumulative effect of those thousand acts of mercy, carried out with grace and patience, was the love that blessed me the most over the weekend - and the love that challenged me.

I glanced at the two of them, gray haired in the front row, while vows were being spoken. "In sickness and in health" the young and vibrant bride and groom both said. Of course, I now know that nobody understands exactly what that means when those vows are offered. But I wanted to stand up shout: "If you want to know what faithfulness looks like, look at that couple in front row! Those grandparents are living it out for you."

Ours is a world that has defined beauty cosmetically. And while it's legitimate to rejoice in the beauty of creation (Psalm 19) and the beauty of the human body (Song of Songs) and the beauty of good music, or good coffee (OK - no verses for these but give me a break, they are their own forms of beauty), we need to work hard at recovering and exalting the beauty of things like faithfulness and fidelity, servanthood and mercy. Because when you see these things, you can't help but be reminded of Christ.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Lay Your Burden Down

How DO we lay our burdens down?

The picture above is from the recent trip on Shuksan and has me thinking about removing burdens. It seems that this precisely where we need to begin in the Christian life. There are burdens, plenty of them in each of us, that need to be released, and it’s right here at the idea of letting go, that I think we can learn from our friends in the east and their teachings regarding non-attachment. Yoda, the supreme Buddhist in my opinion, speaks of the dangers of attachment in the recent finale film.

Like heavy packs for mountaineering, burdens have the effect of turning us inward so that our energies are diverted from our primary callings to love God and other people. This is why, I believe, Jesus invites us to exchange our burden for His. He reminds us that His yoke is easy and His burden is light. And as mountaineering so aptly demonstrates, its traveling light that enables us to go farther, serve with greater liberty, and enjoy life more.

For me, this means letting go of a lot: expectations, ambitions, and unhealthy desires.

And yet, it’s critical to remember that Christ calls for an exchange, rather than an utter relinquishment of all desires. When ALL desire is vilified, emptiness becomes the goal. But Jesus didn’t exemplify one who killed desires. He wept over death because he desired life. He sweat drops of blood in the garden because He his desires were not for the cross. He expressed to his disciples that their last supper together was the culmination of a long standing desire of his to share his heart fully. Christ lived with desires – but let go of them when it was needful to subjugate his own will to a higher purpose. And that isn't desired destroyed. That's desire transformed. He asks nothing less of us.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Going Home and Changing

I’m down in Fresno for a couple of days, spending time with family. FRESNO. The local news highlight is the trial of a man who killed all his children. The temperature is in the mid-90’s. You can see the air, but not the mountains. And yet for all that, it’s still where the roots. I drive by my high-school and remember the buses meeting in the parking lot that took us to San Francisco for parades when I played in a bagpipe band, and to Los Angeles so that our band could catch a flight to Europe, where we toured for 21 days between my sophomore and junior years.

Returning home always reveals paradox, the more so as I grow older. When I’m here I’m aware that I’m a different person than who I once was. But I’m equally aware of how much I’m still the same person as always. The paradox reveals to me what I believe to be two different dangers with respect to transformation, because coming home serves to highlight both the transformations that have occured in my life, and my ongoing need for transformation.

How do we deal with our need to change? Denial is one pathway. Pretend that no transformation is needed because everything was fine all along. Activities and addictions become the make-up which covers the festering emotional sores that need healing. This is a popular path.

On the other hand, it’s equally tempting to make transformation the goal. While this might seem healthy at first glance, I sometimes wonder if a fixation on transformation doesn’t have its own liabilities. Are there things to be faced and issues to be overcome? Yes. But Christ invites people, not to transformation per se, but to relationship. His promise is that it is out of the context of relationship with Him that substantial transformation and healing can occur.

A culture obsessed with entertainment tends to numb the heart of ever seeing the need for healing. A culture obsessed with therapy tends to so fixate on its need for healing that it loses sight of the healing that comes from living, and work, and especially from Christ. Our culture has both obsessions at the same time! Double jeopardy, as they say. In my own story, at least, I've found that turning to Christ is foundation out from which healing will come. But of course, this path too, is fraught with trouble, because 'God words' have done more harm than good in many lives. The words that Paul said are true.

Tomorrow, on a different note: BATMAN

Monday, June 20, 2005

Zelary: An insight into Eastern European thinking

My wife and I watched, Zelary last night, a Czechoslovakian film about the life of a woman who worked in the resistance during WWII. Without giving too much away, let’s just say that a series of circumstances force her to move from Prague to the mountains where, in order to save herself, she must blend in and adapt to rural customs and mores.

I’ll warn you that there’s some violence (too much for some people I know), but I’ll also say that, if you want to understand why Europeans are more skeptical about hawkish military doctrines, this is a good movie to watch. As I travel through Europe, I’ve had the privilege of developing good relationships with local people in several places, and have heard their stories. If it’s true that everybody has a story to tell, it seems that, still at this late date, every European has a story to tell about 'the war' that is not only personal but geographical, because of course, this was a war that was fought, largely, on their real estate. For many Europeans it’s not a question of pacifism – they’ve seen too much to embrace that kind of ideal. Instead, it’s a question of propriety: Having fought a war on their own soil, and having stories of loss that include not only soldiers, but mothers and infants, they are more hesitant to jump in to war. It’s vital, at the very least, to see how the kinds of experiences shown in this movie have shaped the European world-view.

But this film also functioned as a reminder to me that, even in the darkest of times, there are moments of beauty and grace, for those who have eyes to see, and hearts to live with humility, gratitude, and simplicity. The horrors of war are juxtaposed against the beauty of nature, the love of the land, and the mysteries of how a man and woman grow to trust and love each other. Seeing this glory and living this glory in the midst of a world reeling from the results of the fall is our calling, not just in war time, but every time; every day, and hour, and minute.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Abortion and mystery of consistency

I’m interested in feedback on the subject alluded to in today’s teaching on abortion. Why is that the left appeals to the autonomy of the individual and freedom of choice when it comes to matters of pregnancy, but as soon as a child is born appeals to communitarian ideals, invoking a commitment to common good as the basis for public health care, environmental sensitivity, and economic accountability? Meanwhile the political right argues for autonomy in all matters, reasoning that free market forces will result in the greatest common good. And yet, in the same breath the political right will declare that it’s the responsibility of the state of to protect the unborn, who have no voice of their own.

Both parties, it seems to me, need to come to grips with their own fundamental inconsistencies. Of course, the issue of abortion is less a question of precept and doctrine than it is of our communitarian commitment to helping those who are in need. And this issue, especially, highlights the needs of the marginalized, both inside and out of the womb. We need, rather than looking for a simple precept, to cultivate a culture that is committed to compassion and life, and then seek to apply this culture consistently to lives both within and outside of the womb. When we do this, all political systems are weighed and found wanting, and the beauty, redemption, and power of God’s reign shines forth as the real hope for our collective future.

Post Abortion Care: A Resource

For those who have had an abortion: A woman pointed me to this resource of the 2nd service this morning. It looks helpful as a tool to help woman work through the many deep issues that arise out from having an abortion. It's called Healing Hearts.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Why this?

The question is sometimes asked of pastors: "Why are you preaching this particular series?" or "How do you decide on preaching topics or series?" Here's an answer:

Practioners of the Aidan Way are challenged to pursue a 'rhythm of work, rest, and prayer' every day. The challenge of rhythm expands to also include a preaching/teaching ministry, because the Bible has always seemed to be this strange blend of comfort and affliction, rest and work, poetry and precept, life and death, celebration and mourning. As a mirror of life, this is appropriate. When it comes to preaching/teaching, then, it's important to avoid fixation on a certain bent in the Bible. Such fixation leads a community to perhaps, a very clear identity as a certain kind of church ("oh that's the church that always has altar calls" or "that's the church that talks about gender issues" or "that's the church that is all about art, or social action, or...etc. etc.") but misses the long term balance needed for real health.

In order to avoid this fixation, I try to think of the Bible broadly in terms of inhaling and exhaling. Inhaling has to do with receive things from God, taking the nourishment that He offers us into ourselves, and allowing the promises, the forgiveness, the healing, the blessing, the mercy, the strength, and the lovingkindness to fortify, bless, and transform us. The first half of Ephesians seems, for example, to be purely, 'inhale'. In it, Paul articulates blessing after blessing, and simply says, (in my words), "Look. This is who you are. Wake up and celebrate your identity in Christ."

But of course, endless inhaling is impossible. There's only so much one can take in until one needs to live it. So I think about the need to exhale. Again, Paul does the same thing in his letter to the Ephesians. Chapter 4 of that letter begins with the call to exhale, to live it out in one's experience, and continues that way through the end of the book.

That's what governs my own thinking in preparing for a year of sermons. Are we inhaling enough? Exhaling enough? So, based on the need for both, and praying about our community and the things we're facing, the inhale exhale paradigm leads me to:

June July '05 - Exhale (Ethics)
August Sept '05 - Inhale (Psalms)
Fall '05 - Exhale (Isaiah - at the very least, a vision for exhaling!)
Winter '06 - Inhale (II Corinthians 1-5)

And so it goes. Inhale. Exhale. A rhythm to the whole thing. And indeed, through it all, the prayer is that Christ will, indeed, be the air we breathe.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Vocation - A broader view

Frederick Buechner, one of my favorite authors, says that our calling is where the world's need and our deep gladness meet. What refreshing contrast from the misrepresentation of calling offered in the Pietist framework. One of the unfortunate consequences of the Pietist movement was the tendency to split reality into two fields, much like Plato, with the result that 'spiritual work' was deemed a higher and more satisfactory calling than mere 'physical work'. There are at least two tragedies in this line of thinking:

1. It steals God given dignity from those who work their craft well, be it law, construction, medicine, the arts, engineering, or any other endeavor. "The earth is Lord's" we are told in the Bible, and because of this all things related to the earth are worthy of our best work, so that both our life, the life of the community, and the testimony of creation can be strengthened.

2. The natural reaction to the first point, is that some who are in such 'physical vocations' begin to divide their own life into meaningful (avocation) and that which I do to make meaning in order to support the meaningful part (my vocation, stuck as it is in the mundane physical world). This divided field of reality mirrors Plato's error, and can only lead to unsatifactory results in the heart of the worker.

Here's a better way. One the glorious things about the Christian life is it's spaciousness. We are invited to contribute to the well being of the whole earth, and so anything that contributes to making our world more beautiful, or more just, or contributes to the healing of bodies or souls, all of it becomes calling - all of it can be vocation worthy of worship.

One of the best stories ever written to articulate this is the true story about the Man who Planted Trees. Enjoy it!

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

What's your theological bent?

If you have a few minutes, you might try taking this test, to see where you land on the post-modern, neo-orthodox, fundamentalist spectrum of things. I'd be interested in hearing scores from some of you who take the test. I think you'll find that, not only are we an ecclectic community, but many of us are ecclectic even within our own self-contained worldviews!

Kingdom Ethics: A Source for thinking about these things

For those who are interested in diving into the deeper waters of Christian Ethics, one of the best books available on the subject is "Kingdom Ethics" by Stassen and Gushee. It's been a primary source for shaping my own thinking in these matters, primarily because it directs the conversation away from purely disecting the text, inviting us instead to wrestle with applying the broad principles of Jesus' kingdom ethics in various situations. As the book says, "Jesus did not frequently adjudicate rules and exceptions." He taught principles. On the other hand, they do an excellent job of calling the reader, continually, back to scriptural authority, so that we don't simply dismiss Scriptural authority as irrelevant at whatever point it contradicts our own desires.

Of course, through all of this, the big matter in each of our lives is the extent to which we allow these things to actually shape us. By God's grace, we will have increasing opportunities: a prayer walk on Aurora planned for later this summer, plans for reaching out to a group on the margins in our city, and challenges to make space in our lives for celebration, hospitality, spiritual disciplines. When these things begin to occur in our hearts and our life together, the kingdom of God begins to find real expression. And this is what makes the Christian life the great adventure that it is!

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Thoughts about "Just War" / Pacifism

If you heard the sermon, you realize the problem: Jesus is a clear advocate of non-violence whenever he is speaking of the kingdom he calls us to embody, and yet Paul speaks of the need for the government to bear the sword as an instrument to curb evil. Through the ages, the church has sought to reconcile these two things and has often done so by embracing one truth at the expense of the other. I'm of the conviction that we need to wrestle with the tension inherent in the teachings and seek to become people of peace who understand that, in a fallen world, the day may come when we will be called to war for the sake of preserving the life, dignity, and freedom of either our own nation or others. This position too, creates many problems, but we need to be willing to live in these tensions if we are to be faithful.

Here are few questions to provoke our thinking on this issue. If you missed the sermon, you'll be able to get it online on June 14th at the Bethany website.

Feel free to share, regardless of where you stand on the just war/pacifist continuim, how you see the following issues:

1. What are the main reasons you hold the position you do?
2. What are the challenges inherent in your position? How do you deal with them?
3. How can a community dialogue together on these things if the community is diverse in their beliefs on these matters?

Friday afternoon on Shuksan. Sun invited us to the glacier. Rain kept us off the summit.

Summit or not... what could be better?

Thursday, June 09, 2005

News Fast and Loving People

Today I decided that, beginning today, every Thursday would be a 'news fast' for me. I digest a lot of news (Time magazine, sometimes NPR, sometimes, sometimes other odd sources), but it can get overwhelming. Our calling to be involved in the world leads us to pray for situations in various places, and act when we are led by God to do so, but there is so much that we don't act on, so much we can't do. We are among the first generations to gain more access to information through media sources than directly through living life. And this can be paralyzing. So I decided to fast.

And then, only hours into my fast, I received an e-mail from someone in our church asking us to pray for the situation in Bolivia, because Heather Coaster, who is part of our Bethany family, is serving there as a missionary. And because it was Heather, because it was someone I know and care about, I immediately looked at the report. Somehow news is no longer just news when it is regarding someone you know - it becomes something elsle; it becomes personal.

It's tempting to think that knowing information is what will change a life, that if I can only get the content correct, everything else will follow. But I watch the news, fill my head with information, and it often has the effect of simply numbing or depressing me. By this experience today, though, I'm reminded once again that relationships are more powerful than ideas. When I know someone, care about them, and am connected to them, nobody has to prod me to become informed or have compassion or act on their behalf - it comes naturally. Not that I should be blind to all the other news, but the news from people I know is the most important kind of news - because the relationships contained therein will make us people of action.

Lenin had ideas. But when he was fnished, he posited that what Russia actually needed, instead of his ideas, were 10 men like St. Francis of Assissi. In other words: Give us lovers of people. They will change the world.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Real Sex

Real Sex is a book that finally seeks to honestly answer the search for an honest rationale for chastity and sexual purity. For too long the evangelical community has offered shallow platitudes, or guilt inducing law as the primary means of keeping its ranks sexually pure. The weakness of the rationale seemed to have been an opening for a contrary, liberated view which cast off all restraint. How refreshing to find someone who presents chastity as a calling and gift, while not shying away from the challenges contained therein. She also deals honestly with the reality of desire and the need for us to ask God to change our hearts.

I intend to encourage our "20 something" group to utilize this material and will certainly recommend it for all engaged couples as well.

Friday, June 03, 2005

The End of Poverty - Worth Reading

"The poor you always have with you" were the words that Jesus said. His words have subsequently been used to justify everything from economic oppression to benign neglect of our responsibilities to care for the poor. But it is just such misuse of scripture that has often created an unhealthy division between spirit and body, and between poverty of spirit and poverty of pocketbook. "Blessed are the poor in spirit" Jesus said in his sermon from the mountain in Matthew. But in Luke he said, "blessed are the poor." Not surprisingly the default choice for studying the sermon on the mount material is the Matthew passage in west, while in many parts of developing world the focus is on Luke's version.

But when one steps back from particular verses and looks at the themes that run through the Bible, one of clearest themes becomes the calling for people with means to care for the poor and marginalized of the world. This is where we have the opportunity to become co-laborers with people from many faiths, as we work together to serve the common good of humanity. Of course, we do so in Jesus name and carry our own story of faith into every relationship, but equally important as the 'in Jesus name' part of the equation is the 'doing of it'.

Towards that end, I recommend Jeffrey Sacks work on ending poverty in our lifetime. And please don't quote Jesus words about the perpetuity of the poor in order to justify our continuing on the same path. He was simply reminding us to continue worshipping Him, not endorsing neglect of global poverty.