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, September 28, 2005

What is Church?

The definition of “Church” found in Protestant Confessions, that it is the communion of saints where the Word is rightly taught and the sacraments rightly administered, grasps only two of the points. It overlooks the foundation, the communion of saints.

Soren Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard points out that our creeds focus on the practices of worship and vertical relationship that believers have with God, but misses all the horizontal elements of relationship: caring for the poor, practicing hospitality, loving one’s neighbor, and living in fellowship with one another. While our creeds have value in that they articulate foundational truths about God and how we relate to Him, they bypass the very thing that Jesus indicates is our source of validation before the watching world.

This is a subject close to my heart in these days because relational wounding, alienation, and betrayal is all around us, right in the midst of church life. There are so many stories, so many victims and victimizers (and incidentally, discerning victim from victimizer is usually impossible, and probably not our job). But all these stories of wounding have affected me. I'm increasingly convinced the REAL church is, as Jesus indicated, hidden as yeast, scattered throughout the institutions we call Christianity; small as a mustard seed - yet inexorably doing it's work to bring hope and healing to the world. So I'm not as impressed as I once was by churches of thousands - nor as disparaging. Their size is less relevant than ever. What IS relevant is whether I’m making room for the both the horizontal and vertical aspects of my faith. Loving God and loving people… easy to say…but sometimes its like moving mountains to do.

Monday, September 26, 2005

How Rich are You?

Jeremiah 9:23 offered us warnings about the rich, the strong, and the wise; warnings about not boasting in those resources. It might be tempting for many of us to dismiss the admonitions written to the rich because "we can't afford season tickets", or because we "shop at Nordstrom Rack instead of Nordstrom", or because we "don't eat out more than once a week." But wealth and poverty should really be assessed at a global level, and a good tool for seeing where you stand in relation to the rest of the world can be found here. Let me know what you think after you've run your own numbers. For myself, I can say that the knowledge has diminished my sense of envy, and increased my sense of responsibility for the use of my resources to care for the huge part of the world living with so much less than me.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

AFRICA and movies

I left America this weekend, and visited Africa. I watched “The Constant Gardener” with my wife and friends last night, and “Lord of War” tonight with my son and a friend. I hadn’t been to two movies all summer, and now two in a weekend, and both of them are heartbreakers about Africa. (R- and be warned - violence - sexuality - extensive language and drug use, particularly in Lord of War)

But they aren’t really about Africa… they’re about greed, and violence, and lust, and dishonesty, and the death that men know even while still living because of the ten thousand lies we tell ourselves, and because our self preservation and self advancement can only be bought at the price of our soul. They’re movies about everyman. Yet somehow it seems the poison nectar that is the fruit of greed and corruption flows like a mighty ocean through every corner of that continent. And what can I do? What shall I do?

We’re having the conversation, my wife and me, about what it means for us to live generously, and serve, and love – because the place that I can change the most is the space of my heart, and our heart as a family. There are more, yet unknown ways we will be changed – but the things we’re talking about tonight are concrete responses to conviction from Christ, as we ask the questions about how we can embody the kingdom more fully here – and now.

There are resources to help guide our thinking and acting. But when the day is done - meaning when the movie is over and I’m back at home, lying in bed with images of injustice and poverty, greed and violence juxtaposed in my head so powerfully that I know I can’t remain the same – when the day is literally done, I can only sit with Christ and pour out my heart. Pouring one’s heart out like this doesn’t lead to a simple or immediate action plan, but to a broken heart – maybe that’s the most important thing.

Christian argue about seeing R or G or PG-13. I understand the importance of the argument. I also understand being particularly sensitive to violence or language and therefore needing to stay away from movies like these. I wouldn't commend a movie to someone without knowing their sensitivities. But the real issue for me in deciding on a movie is story. I watched these movies because I live in a world that largely insulates me from global suffering and find that the imagery of film speaks more powerfully than sanitized news because it tells a story, or two, or twenty-two, and it's the stories that lead to conviction and transformation and action.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Garden State: The Soundtrack

Last night each of the several times I passed through the living room, my daughter was doing her math homework to the inspiration of some very good music. Each time I was in the room, it was a different artist, but always in the genre whose name I don't know, the genre formerly know (to us boomers) as folk. You know the stuff: Coldplay, The Shins, Iron and Wine. After several passes through the room, I came in once more and it was Simon and Garfunkel's "The Only Living Boy in New York". Unbelievable! I hadn't heard that song since high school, and here is my daughter soaking it up while she solves some bizarre graphing equation. I asked. "Garden State soundtrack" she said.

I listened - really listened. I'm not the kind who can tolerate background music with lyrics very well, because it always seems to come into the foreground of my mind. So I stopped doing other stuff and listened. Wow! I'd seen the movie, and remember thinking at the time how every generation captures the emptiness and angst that is part of our heritage as wealthy, educated, choice laden Americans, but I hadn't really remembered the music. It's excellent. I was heartened to realize that some good stuff is being produced and, apparently, listened to. It was bizarre to spend the morning studying Isaiah, and then during lunch listen to Frou Frou's "Let Go" and realize that the invitation to jump in is exactly what God is calling us to in relationship with Himself. Hmmm. The poets are the prophets, sometimes, without even knowing it.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Sounds and Silence

On Friday night I went to hear the Seattle Symphony play a benefit concert for the victims of Katrina. This was the second time I'd heard the Symphony in the wake of a national tragedy, the previous occasion being the 1st anniversary of 9-11, when the Symphony played Mozart's Requim at Safeco field.

These two concerts will forever be etched in memory as two of the most powerful events of my life. This recent concert was held at Benaroya Hall, and our esteemed conductor, Gerard Schwarz, ascended the podium and began, immediately, with a stirring rendition of Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man. This was followed by masterful Bach, a Faure Cello Piece, and the powerful Brahms 4th symphony. The event was made the more meaningful with the knowledge that: a) the musicians, ushers, and all other parties involved were donating their time for the evening, and b) there were two members of the Louisiana Symphony playing with our Seattle musicians.

Our sports teams aren't very good (though the wins this past weekend are a refreshing break from the drone of defeat that has so often assaulted us these past autumns). But our symphony is world class. Our maestro said that this concert was (in my paraphrase) 'our small offering - doing what we can to help those in need'. Bravo. It's marvelous that these people, Death Cab for Cutie, and several other local artists and musicians are simply offering their gifts to contribute to others in need. It's marvelous that the 'Fanfare for the Common Man' (my favorite Copland) was the opening since it's the common man that suffered the most in the hurricane. The theme, shared between trumpets, horns, and timpani, is hopeful, and no conductor seems better equipped to draw hope from an orchestra than Schwarz. The Brahms finale was equally powerful, and in between the plaintive cello solo allowed called one to reflection and mourning. It was a treasure to share the time with my family, the symphony, and all others gathered - all of us there to offer what we could to alleviate suffering and to be reminded that music can speak of hope and mourning in the same evening, the same piece, even the same phrase.

The book recommended today's sermon was The Way of the Heart by Henri Nouwen, and will direct you toward developing the disciplines of silence, solitude, and prayer - a trinity of qualities in desperately short supply in our world. I hope you read it.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Breakdown as a Portal of Hope

What a decade. We’re only halfway through, and already we’ve been hit, globally, by more tragedy than we’re able to digest. The towers fell and ushered in the age of global terrorism, with Spain and London tragedies following the same path. The rise of China as an economic superpower has led to a large increase in global oil consumption, straining resources and pushing costs. North Korea and Iran are rapidly acquiring the capacity to produce, and sell if necessary, nuclear weapons, even as the threat of dirty bomb, easily made by acquiring directions on the internet, becomes more real. And let’s not even get started on the habits of genocide and the tragedy of AIDS, both of which are conspiring to destroy an entire continent. Did I mention the threat of bird-flu… national bankruptcy (read Running on Empty if you want a reality shock – it’s written by a former Republican Secretary of Commerce, and addresses the debt crisis with hard facts)?

It would be easy to stop reading right here, because "Richard is talking about things ‘unrelated to church’". Keep reading and you will find that nothing could be further from the truth, for it is always the context of the times that determine the forms in which the gospel will be expressed. And these days of darkness call for serious consideration of where we will place our allegiances, for careless drifting will inevitably lead us towards darkness.

There have been numerous times in world history when the church has functioned as a bastion of generosity, education, hope, beauty, and healing, in the midst of a world gone mad. Perhaps that’s too strong a statement. Most of those ‘eras of madness’ were addressed by two different churches. The church of the status quo always sought, along with the weight of prevailing culture, to do anything necessary to keep the ships of commerce afloat and preserve things intact. If things remained intact, they were, at least in the eyes of the world, ‘the winners’. But always, there was a church that was marching to the beat of different drummer, a church that was storing up spiritual resources for impending famine. Those resources included a cultivation of simplicity, community, generosity, and peaceable relationships. It happened with the Celtic church in the early days of the dark ages as they stood apart from the powerful Roman culture and Roman church. It happened in among the Waldensians during the days of Catholic corruption in the 11th century. And it happened with the confessing church in Germany during the Nazi reign. There have always been a few who have stood against the prevailing winds of greed and power, offering a different vision for the future, a vision more in keeping with the kind of kingdom Christ had in mind.

As we begin a new ministry year, my heart is burning with the sense that addressing the future realistically, and responding properly are high priority issues. And just what will that proper response entail? We will, no doubt, need to take seriously our calling to seek the kingdom first, which means making priorities of assessing and responding as Christ speaks to us about:

  1. Our relationship with the King – love relationship, spiritual formation, ethics
  2. Our relationships with each other – community, honesty, reconciliation and grace
  3. Our relationships with our world – servanthood, stewardship, celebration, hope

These are the three issues I’ll be addressing in the coming weeks in the Isaiah series at Bethany. For now, I trust that you will join with me in praying that God would raise up testimonies of hope for the days ahead, and that Bethany will be one of those places as we listen to the voice of the King and follow Him wherever He might lead us. Challenge, change, adventure and blessing await us!

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Staff Retreat...see you Thursday

We’re on a staff retreat this week, meeting up at a cabin in the Cascades. Last night I slept out on the deck. The sensuousness of close encounter with the earth comes home to me when I’m outside the city, and if I can, I try to spend as much time outside as possible. The moon set early last night, leaving the millions of stars to punctuate the heavens. Dew was hanging heavy in the air, and this morning when I woke up to go for a short run, mist was rising off the pond as the early rays of sun filtered through the trees. I love this time of day, when the earth is fresh – anticipating. And I love that it’s this way no matter which political party is in office, and it will still be this way when our nation drowns in our own debts. Creation is resilient, and there’s room for the glory to break through.

But of course, creation is neither immortal, nor benevolent. Creation groans because we cut down the forests and pollute the streams; we fill the air with too much carbon and the soil with too many chemicals. Species die. The atmosphere heats up. What's more, creation groans all by itself; lava buries cities and hurricanes sweep the landscape clean. We suffer the effects of creation, even as creation suffers the effects of us.

But still… in the midst of it all, the sun rises – the glory breaks through – and the Lord uses the testimony of creation, both in its glory and terror to invite us to the Maker.

Lord God of Creation – open our eyes to your glory. Let us receive and steward the glory that you reveal through your creation, in order that we might, ourselves, more clearly display your glory through our lives. Shake us, mold us, heal us, teach us – so that mercy may shine like the stars, and justice rise like the mist, and healing waters flow through us to bless a thirsty world. In your matchless, creative name. Amen.

Friday, September 09, 2005

fools... or buffoons?

This morning, on my day off, I spent a little time watching the US Open tennis tournament, and during the commercials was playing with the clicker, and I found a pastor explaining the symbolism on the back of the dollar bill while it was displayed on power point. He was explaining the meaning of the star made of stars, and I’m watching this guy declare so confidently the linkage between America as a chosen nation, and Israel as chosen people, and the twelve tribes, and the 13 colonies, and blah blah blah.

I quickly flipped back to tennis, and though an inane Geico insurance commercial was playing I decided that even this was better than watching the preacher. The whole brief encounter though, has me thinking about the meaning of Paul’s phrase about the gospel being foolishness.

Of course we’re foolish when we loudly and quickly blame disasters on God and/or sinners as evidenced this week when Christians have blamed the losses in New Orleans on abortion (because the hurricane eye looked like a fetus!), homosexuality, and general godlessness. (It's interesting that injustice and the plight of poor didn't show up on the radar screen of channel 18 preachers as a cause of judgement). We were foolish when we said Jesus was returning in 1974, or that Gorbachev was the anti-Christ, wearing the ‘mark of the beast’ because he has a mole on his forehead. The one’s who say these things say them so boldy, so arrogantly, with such assurance. It’s not only foolish; it’s shameful, and why I resist being called ‘pastor’. I don’t want to belong to the club that says this stuff and behaves this way.

But that, I hope, isn’t what Paul meant. I think he meant that those who follow Christ will embrace a value system utterly contrary our world’s values of self-preservation and self-service, values which lead to domination, injustice, lust, abuse, and the host of other ailments. The follower of Jesus comes along and, to the extent that the heart of Christ wins his/her heart, begins to adopt a different value system. That value system embraces hospitality instead of isolation, and works to bring hope, beauty, reconciliation, and justice into the world in Jesus name. That follower, therefore, gives money away, cares for the marginalized and aged, speaks truth rather than flattery, and so much more that is contrarian in our world – foolish.

Sadly though, we’re more often known for the wrong kind of foolishness – the
theological circus that’s carried out in a world completely out of touch with the kind of people with whom Jesus rubbed shoulders. That we’re called to be fools is fine. That the foolishness we embody is more buffoonery than foolishness is embarrassing. I hope I’ll get my focus straight and live attune to Jesus’ foolishness rather than my own.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Saints and Soldiers

If you're looking for a good way to spend an evening, rent Saints and Soldiers. My wife and I did just that last night, and I found it to be nearly everything I look for in a movie: a well written script, good acting, layered character development, all combining to force consideration of difficult issues. The issues that this film raises are surrounding the relationships of faith and war, God and suffering, and how outward actions are often indefensible until the underlying story is understood. I found it helpful at another level, as this comning Sunday I'm preparing to teach on Jesus' ethic regarding enemies. I'm reading an essay from CS Lewis "Weight of Glory" this morning, entitled Why I am not a Pacifist, and considering once again the role that we are called to play in this world as peacemakers, and how that relates to the realities of living in the midst of evil. What does 'overcome evil with good' really mean?

On another subject, we're working on ways to respond to Hurricane Relief opportunities, and will be posting information on the church web site by the end of the day. There are ways to help locally in Seattle or by travelling to the South. Also, GOOD clothing will be accepted this coming Sunday at Bethany, as we have a member driving down with specialized underwater equipment who will be setting up shop to help however he can. His truck has room for clothes.

How do these two themes tie together? It doesn't matter whether it's war or flood; bad things will happen. But our response will either deny or confirm the credibility of Christ's claims.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

A plea for single mindedness

These are times when even those with deeply held faith in our American government are suddenly seeing things from a different perspective, and beginning to ask important questions. David Brooks, normally a defender of the current administration, was overflowing yesterday with anger, not directed at a political party, but directed at the whole way we are doing things in America, and what we're becoming. Of course one could argue that the scope of the tragedy was unanticipated. Of course one could argue that natural disasters will take their toll. But the unarguable reality is that the poor and the sick, the 'least of these' among us were exposed, no longer hidden away in alleys and shelters where we don't need to think about them. They were outside, huddled together, dehydrated and sick, for all the world to see.

I realize that pundits will be writing about this stuff for a long time, and that the full effects of the crisis remain to be seen, but this morning there was just one little moment where I suddenly saw, at the very least, a small part of the problem. I was looking up something on the net, and right there on my news home page was this picture of the disaster, but right next to it was an ad for online shopping with a picture of some crazy chocolate cake and the words, "Isn't it time for some guilty pleasures?" How are we suppsed to keep switching back and forth between compassion and indulgence, between a call to service and self-interest, between the horror of what is happening, and 'guilty pleasures'. I'm not sure we can keep switching. Jesus hinted that it would be tough, impossible actually, to puruse security and upward mobility while also pursuing the kingdom of God. I need to point my life towards one kingdom, one master, and commit to that master's value system.

What does serving one master mean? How does single hearted loyalty affect my financial choices, vocational choices, sexual choices? The answers aren't systemitized for us in the Bible and I don't think Jesus is calling us to a life of austerity. But once one begins to ask the question, the results always lead to an actual change in the way we live. I for one, don't want to watch another story, hear another plea, and then when the commercial comes, or when I turn the news off or close my Bible, revert to mindless pursuit of Ceasar's values and ideals, especially when tragedies such as these reveal the hollowness of Ceasar's words and promises.

I'm glad we're going through Isaiah this fall. The dual calls to pursue the King and the Kingdom of God will, I hope, ground us deeper in these matters, with the result that we will come to display the heart of Christ with greater clarity for our city and to the desparation found even within our own borders.