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...

Saturday, October 29, 2005

SNOW...and needed metaphors

So I wake up this morning and decide that a hike would be a good thing - not too long a hike because I have several other things to do with this Saturday, but a hike nonetheless. The flu, and weekend obligations have kept me homebound, out of the mountains for quite some time and I can feel it. I check the weather report and discover that snow is predicted for 4000'. I know a place where I can hike just up to that elevation and so I pack my bag with clothes for rain and snow and go.

On the way up there, the Amy Grant song, "Breath of Heaven" is playing, and I'm mindful that Mary embodies that insane calling of birthing God into the world. Because of it she will be inconvenienced, misunderstood, and will endure great suffering. But also, because of it, she will know deep love and intimacy with God, and enter into the life for which she was created. I think about how her calling is like the calling given to the rest of us because, whether we're in vocational ministry or not, all of us who claim to follow Christ are charged with the responsibility of birthing God into the world. We do this through our life, and our life together.

What I love about the Amy Grant song is that she's struggling with the weight of her calling without running from it, and embracing the joy of her calling without unduly darkening it. I need to identify with her. I think if the words of Anthony Bloom in his great book, "Beginning to Pray":

Are we faced with inifinite possibilities and at the same time unable to realize any of them bevcause we are so deeply wounded? Are we healed, and yet confronted with a vocation so great that it humbles us to think of it because it is beyond us?

Two questions - and I answer them on certain days this way: Yes. Yes. I am humbled by the calling to be a shepherd for this flock at this time in history because the challenges are remarkable. Even in the midst of growth and transformed lives, we continue to wrestle with what it means to live faithfully as community. Since we are an institution AND an organism, the challenges that exist as these identities stand in conflict with each other is nearly continual. Forget our true vocation as the body of Christ and we are nothing more than a philanthropic corporation at best, and a self serving social club at worst. But forget about the realities of finances, facilities, communications, and all the rest of what is infrastructure and the organism is suddenly deeply ineffective. Leave organizational neglect in place and the organism will mutate into something far less visible, perhaps less effective in birthing God's life at this time in history. The challenge of leading in such a way that these two identities are held in proper proportion and tension is, to say the least, challenging and humbling. And all of these matters are brought to the forefront right now because we're in the midst of a building project, the very kind of project that causes us to ask these important questions on a regular basis. And so I call out to God quite a bit these days.

Then today, as I'm hiking into the snow, I realize that the journey from snow to rain holds some of the keys to embracing my calling as shepherd with full passion and willingness and even some the keys to understanding how the church can be organism and institution at the same time. The hike was through the fog and into the light - and the landscape was one of transformation from green to white. There's a whole story in that transformation, but I'll save it for another entry later in the week. Monday I head off to Canada, but will try to offer entries while away. If not, check back next weekend~

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Study: The First Element of Practice

The first of ten elements offered by the Aidan Way as a means of building consistent habits and discipline into one's weekly life is study:

It’s vital to develop the habit of being a learning in every situation – for both humility and a desire to change are inherent in the learner. My aim is therefore to approach all of life as a learner – but with an understanding that there are three central sources of learning that are to be priority for me…

  1. the Bible – along w/ all the journaling, writing and teaching related to it
  2. prayer and meditation (more on this later)
  3. creation
  4. people
  5. literature and the arts

Just as learning is vital, learning is also dangerous. There’s a tendency to view information as an end in itself, and the scriptures warn of those who are ‘always learning, but never able to come a knowledge of the truth’ – This is a real danger for me, and for many of us in our educated culture. We think we need more information, when most often what we need is a heart soft enough to respond to the information we have.

One example of this that comes to mind: A pressing need that arises occassionally in our congregation is for people to practice hospitality for the poor and marginlized who find their way to our church. We know Jesus words about this. We know what we ought to do. But will His reign find rest in my heart or not? I wrestle with these things as never before in my life, because never before in my life have I been face to face with these kinds of needs and issues. When I travel and teach, I'm dealing with 'inner issues' among students. But here in the city, God is bringing people to us who, like Jesus, have 'nowhere to lay their head'. What are we to do?

It's not impressive to know a lot if the knowing doesn't change the way we live. And for this reason, I think study, as an end in itself is dangerous. Perhaps that's why the healthiest movement down through the ages have always been a spirit designed blend of study, prayer, service, and hospitality - a lot like the Aidan practices I'm working on. Now - to actually do them!

Monday, October 24, 2005

The naked truth about inerrancy debates

In 1837, Danish author, Hans Christian Andersen, wrote a wonderful fairy tale which he titled The Emperor's New Clothes, the story of the Ruler of a distant land who couldn’t see real truth because his entire reputation hinged on his a false truth. The story goes like this:

One day two rogues arrived in the village, posing as gifted weavers. They told the Emperor they could weave a miracle cloth, a cloth which could only be seen by the pure in heart. Wanting some of this cloth, the emperor employed the weavers immediately, and they began their work on empty looms.
When they had finished creating a new royal robe, a parade was planned for the Emperor to display it. But of course, when he looked at the cloth, he couldn’t see anything. The weavers raved about the beauty of the cloth – and the Emperor, not wanting to be revealed as a man of impure heart, also raved. Then he appeared before his people - - all of whom cheered and clapped because they all knew the rogue weavers' tale and did not want to be seen as less than pure of heart.

The whole story reminds me of debates that exist about the Bible –

Maybe we work too hard trying to defend things that don’t need defending, and that probably can’t be defended honestly anyway. There are two big tragedies that occur when we go down this road: 1) our finite energies are expended in the wrong areas – instead of loving our neighbors, and loving God, and building bridges to a lost world through friendship, hospitality, dialogue, and beauty – we’re busy arguing w/ each other about these kind of things - the battle for the Bible – the inerrancy debates (click here for a detailed consideration) – questions of authority, and inspiration, and the meaning of that passage in Timothy which says that the Bible is GOD BREATHED. 2) When we’re busy fighting these battles, the testimony we show the world is absurd – like the naked emperor, and lands us three steps further away from credibility than we would have been, had our focus been on the things Jesus invites us to care about.

This isn’t to say that there is no place for asking questions about the weight of authority the text should carry. Such questions have their worth. But we run into grave difficulty when we try to prove whatever our final views might be on Scriptural authority through scientific methodology – because absolute proof eludes us. We don’t have original manuscripts. We don’t have perfectly accurate translations. Perhaps what’s needed is some sort of declaration that declares the value of the Bible, rather than seeking to define the weight of authority each word in the text has. Maybe doctrinal statements should read something like this: The purpose of the Bible is to equip people to be in right relationship with God, and to give them the vision and power to live according to His plan.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Right beliefs demand Right Practices

Down through the ages, Jesus followers have frequently perverted the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ by reducing the faith to a set of rules. Whether simple or complex, a set of rules is a means of bypassing relationship, with the result that there is nothing left but empty form.

At times the church, recognizing this, has sought to recover the primacy of relationship and the result has been a focus on liberty in Christ. But sadly, this liberty, this authenticity, also has a tendency to disintegrate: it tends to become nothing more than a thin veil of words, hiding a heart that is unsurrendered to Christ's reign.

Neither of these caracatures can have the effect of helping us be salt and light. What is needed is a primacy of relationship the naturally finds expression in certain practices and habits of the heart. Evangelical Christians, having driven stakes of error deep into the ground of both the libertarian and legalist camps, is in need of both a perspective shift, and a culture conducive to developing the needed habits.

This is where the development of a rule, whether that of Benedict, or Richard Foster, Aidan, can prove very helpful. I have entered into a loose fellowship with various followers of the Aidan way, because I find that the Celtic streams of Christian expression are more holistic in their view of salvation, and have a greater emphasis on our role in creation stewards, than their Roman Catholic counterparts.

Over the next little while, I'll be offering entries on each of 10 practices that constitute the Aidan Way, with thoughts on how these practices are working in my own life, and what they might mean if they were practiced together in a community. I encourage you to consider your own life and the question of whether your faith is primarily a set of beliefs embraced, or if those beliefs are bolstered by a life changing set of habits that grow out of intimacy with Christ.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

What kind of evil are we supposed to fight?

There’s a group of us who meet about every three weeks to discuss doctrinal issues. The time is always stimulating, and yesterday’s discussion centered around the subject of angels – fallen and unfallen (the good kind and bad kind), and what role, if any they play in the earth’s history in general and humanity’s in particular. The argument (among those who believe in such things at all) is between those defining evil forces as impersonal spirits who empower structures (such as governments and families), and those defining evil forces as personal spirits who empower people (as in the case of demon possession, or some entrenched phobias and destructive patterns in one's life).

Some theological arguments can seem meaningless, but not this one. The implications are rather profound, leading one to focus energy either on social reformations OR personal evangelism and the transformation of individual hearts. For centuries, it seemed that choosing one invariably meant excluding the other and there was great divide among Jesus’ followers. Now, thankfully, a tribe is rising that is less inclined to either/or positions on such important matters. Among this group, Jesus’ words about setting the captives free are viewed both literally and spiritually: the bondage of demon possession, the bondage of fear and lies believed, the bondage of addiction, AND the bondages of poverty, slavery, prostitution, greed, injustice, isolation.

There are two important effects that come from embracing this holistic approach to battling principalities and resisting the devil:

  1. We are all struck, immediately, with the realization that we can’t fight this battle alone – it’s enormous global scope means that some will be on the battlefield of tribal warfare in Africa, while others are working with addicts in New Hampshire, as others do prayer counseling in Bakersfield. This is one of the most compelling arguments for identifying with a faith community, for Jesus’ mantle is too heavy for anyone to carry alone – and I am strengthened by joining together with others to do what I know I can’t do by myself.
  2. The ‘evil structures’ are suddenly seen to be, not communism, or dictatorships, or democracies – but rather the spirit empowering them. A quick look at history shows every system tending towards emptiness and oppression – even the best of them.

Consider a favorite passage of mine from Malcolm Muggeridge's "A Third Testament":
Standing on the Berlin Wall I tried to imagine what would have been Dietrich Bonhoeffer's feelings if, instead of being martyred, he had lived on into post-war divided Germany. Eastwards, I could see the familiar scene of desolation and oppression, the bedraggled houses, the empty shops, the somehow muted traffic and people in the streets; westwards, the other sort of desolation and oppression, equally familiar, the gleaming neon and glass, the exhortations to spend and to consume, the banks for churches and the erotica for dreams. The pursuit of power versus the pursuit of happiness, black-and-white television versus color, the clenched fist versus the raised phallus, guns before butter and butter before guns. And in between, the no-man's land or limbo of vigilant sentries on watch-towers, dogs and land-mines and armed patrols. Was there anything here to risk eternal damnation for, or for that matter to live for? The strip-tease joints and the garish posters announcing the mighty achievements of the triumphant German proleteriat, equally fantasy. Plastic flesh and fraudulent statistics - where's the difference? Perhaps, after all, the limbo is the place, lurking among the land-mines

The battle for meaning, beauty, intimacy and freedom is global and local – inward and outward – societal and personal – spiritual and physical – and we who follow Jesus are called to fight on all fronts. Don’t try to fight alone. Celebrate the victories along the way. And remember the end of the story!

Tuesday, October 18, 2005


Thursday - aches and pains - but still at work
Friday - day off - cancelled hike to stay and home rest
Saturday - feeling worse -
Sunday - preached 4 times but didn't do anything else
Monday morning - tried to go to work... big mistake
Monday afternoon - aches/fever/chill/moving from bed to kitchen feels like running a marathon
Monday night - after a day of semi-coherence, finally ate and then watched baseball (2 outs...2 of 9...down by 2... 2 on...elimination game... and then HOMERUN)
Today... feeling better

Of course, lacking the energy to carry out our normal responsibilities, there's a sense in which illness is limiting. On the other hand, there's something about enforced silence, and staying in bed because walking to the kitchen is too much, that open's one to hear from God in a way that's powerful because the usual business that crowd's out God's voice is gone. Yesterday, though I felt like I'd been hit by a car, while the rest gives the body a chance to work hard at evicting the virus, that same rest gives the spirit a chance to bring things up for review - personal agendas carried out in God's name - a busyness that avoids Divine Presence - fears - ambitions. The spirit uses the enforced silence (the headache was so bad even music soft music was too much).

I'm amazed at the human body's capacity to deal with these nasty viruses, and grateful that God redeems the forced rest.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Clearing away the fog –

Our shoes are on, and the trail is ahead of us, but the trail is just about all we can see. My wife and I have packed our lunch for this glorious outing because all the books say that from Hannegan peak, one can see the good mountains around us: Challenger and Ruth, Baker and the Pickets, along with the endless expanse of mountains just to north in Canada whose names are unknown because our map ends at the 49th latitude. So we’re hiking upward, switchback after switchback. All the while, we’re building up a sweat, so that the biting wind chills us to core if we stop, even for a few seconds. And yet, body becomes furnace with each upward push so that we become hot if we continue to hike. And did I mention the biting wind?

Why do people do this for fun? It’s all about the seeing – or the hope of seeing – or because we saw once and feel the need to see again. People do this art of gentle suffering in hopes of encounter; with both creation and their companions – and if there were no hope of encounter – there would be no motivation whatsoever to continue. On this particular day, we saw nothing beyond 10 feet our so. But we’ll be back, because we know that, if we keep coming back often enough, eventually we’ll see – even in the Northwest.

Church life is really quite similar. There’s the hard work of relationships, the chill of change, the perseverance of serving, and the simple act of showing up week after week, in the same way the hiker shows up step after step…all of at must happen for a reason.

And ultimately, the reason should be about seeing Christ. As we keep showing up in His name, and listening for His voice in worship, and learning, and confession, and fellowship, something happens. What happens is that we see Him. Sometimes gloriously in praise and worship, sometimes clearly in His Word, and sometimes just a glimpse in another’s confession, or in receiving a helping hand. Of course there are other ways of seeing too, too many to name; they have to do with healing, and intimacy, and pain, and celebration. But we see the Lord – see His glory, if only in glimpses, and if only through foggy glass. And it’s the seeing that changes us forever, because the promise is that the seeing results in our transformation. Hope displaces fear. Beauty casts out ugliness. Honesty overcomes duplicity.

I don’t see on every hike. And I don’t see in every worship service, or every meeting, or every encounter with someone. I’m too spiritually near sighted to see consistently. But I have seen. And the seeing has changed me forever, and so I’ll keep showing up – keep serving, worshipping, confessing, forgiving, and giving. Why? Because out from the seeing comes the change – the move closer to the person God made me to be.

Leadership in Christ's church is really about helping people see, and that entails leading them up the mountain, and encouraging endurance and humility. But too often, it feels as if the pastoral community has resorted to promotional skills as motivator in hopes that we’ll all put on our boots and slog up the mountain. I’m not going to do that. I’m simply going to say this: In showing up to be the part of Christ’s church He invites me to be, I’ve seen – and this seeing is worth everything. And my hope then, of course, is that others will not just show up, but also see – Christ’s heart.

(Thanks to Larry Bushnell for the picture)

Sunday, October 09, 2005

The Book

Here's the link for the book that was referenced in today's sermon. Her life and writings are a good reminder of our calling to live fully in our pain and glory, rather than seeking to erect a safe, gray space where there is neither great suffering nor great pain. My own life has been filled with trials this week, and I'm still some distance from considering them pure joy, but I am making progress, learning to be fully present in the suffering and trials rather than wasting energy complaining, or working hard to avoid the pain. By the way, reading a book like hers is an interesting exercise in itself for many evangelicals, who might be put off by her promiscuity, and so miss the marvelous message that her life offers in other ways. I hope we can be discerning in everything we read, because reading with discernment and wisdom will open up vast new categories of learning for us. We don't need to, nor should we, swallow everything from anyone... and that probably includes me too! Discernment and reading or conversing with wisdom are two of the greatest assets we can have in our Christian life.

I didn't find the 5PM service very appealing because it was dark, and I realized that when I don't see the listeners, I get frustrated, and just presume that I'm not connecting. It's amazing how much dialogue goes on between speaker and listener that's purely based on the body language of the listener!

Saturday, October 08, 2005

A letter to leaders of established churches...

Carpe manana - Seize Tomorrow. Somehow this mindset needs to sink in to every leader of every church in America. Pastors and leaders of established churches (churches more than one generation old) often have property assetts and paradigm liabilities. The paradigm liability has to do with the predisposition to favor history and preservation of form over emerging life. This new life always brings with it the cultural values of a new generation, and with it, new values and priorities for the church. If I, as a 49 year old, insist on preserving the values and priorities of my generation, I will miss the chance to offer input into the church of tomorrow. That's why every leader of established churches should be a student of youth culture at some level. What are the songs of emerging generations and leader? What are the films? What are the values and priorities.

New churches are too often the result of new leaders feeling disenfranchised by established leaders, who hold the strings of power, and too often insist that the emerging generation replicate the forms of previous generations as a precondition for sharing resources. Such a mindset is one of several easy ways to alienate emerging leaders. And so, I humbly offer what I consider to be important priorities if we who lead existing churches are to pass the torch of leadership to a new generation in any meaningful way:

1. Be a learner first, a teacher second. I love to learn what young people listen to, what they watch, what they value. They are my teachers. It's vital to see that the motivation for such learning has nothing to do with some superficial attempt to be relevant. To the contrary, the learning comes from the acknowledgement that the emerging generation has strengths where my generation has been weak. This is particularly true with respect to their commitment to authenticity, relationship, and the elevation of image as a means of communication.

2. Lay worship forms on the altar. What constitutes worship? That question should be asked, and answered anew, with each generation. My younger friends have values with respect to worship that are often different than those of my chronological peers. When such is the case, the burden of flexibility should rest with the older folks (though there are some conditions to that, which I'll address in another letter later next week). An older man in our congregation visted our evening worship a while back and said, "This certainly isn't the way I worship... but don't even think about stopping this" as he looked around at the 20-somethings gathered together. That's the attitude that's needed if the resources of established churches are to be effectively transferred in the coming years.

3. Work together - People in their 20's are serving as our church leaders alongside people in their 30's, 40's, 50's, 60's. Such a context provides the mutuality of ministry that is absolutely vital to passing the torch effectively.

I count it an incredible privilege to shepherd a community that is intergenerationally engaged. We could do better than we do. But there aren't many effective models around, and I, for one, am grateful that our leaders practice these principles. The fruit of that includes a diversity of generations, and music, and ways of relating and doing ministry, all working together for Christ's purposes. Lacking these practices, countless established churches are graying and dying.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Too early for sword melting?

This past Sunday (10-03-05), in Isaiah 2, I was discussing the picture of humanity's future painted by God; nations joining hands and streaming together up the mountain of God, drawn together by their passion to know Him and His Law. It is this love for God, and submission to His rule that will finally be the source of peace on earth, as foretold by the angels on that holy night so long ago.

But in the meantime there's the reality of wars and rumors of wars. This reality, foretold by Christ, has spawned several different ways of thinking about war and non-violence among Christ's church. One school of thought sanctions participation in war and world powers because "Jesus predicted war." Obviously, another school refuses participation in any war because of a commitment to embody, in some small measure, the reality of Christ's future reign - a reign of peace - right now. My own understanding is that neither position can be upheld consistently, as both positions have inherent dangers. Elevating either pacifism or nationalism and military might seem to run amok of some scriptures. Thus it seems that we are once again driven back to the primacy of relationship with the King - believing that our ethic must be derived from obedience to His heart as it is revealed during any given situation. My own sense is that such a position will often lead one towards the ethic Jesus spoke of in the sermon on the mount, but that Christians may also, at times, carry the mantle of just war, or the curbing of evil, in obedience to a particular calling in the police or military. After all, the one person who 'got it' during the crucifixion, and really understood who Jesus was, was the soldier.

I am alarmed that many of the discussions of these important ethical issue are framed in wholly pragmatic terms, arguing the merits of pacifism or militarism as isolated ideologies. Such thinking elevates the ethic, whichever is chosen, to a place above the Author of the ethic. And the only name for that is idolatry. Tough issues? I think so... and I don't see them going away any time soon. What are your thoughts?

Monday, October 03, 2005

Truth, Goodness, Beauty

Truth, Goodnes, and Beauty Of the three, it seems that the reformers (with the notable exception of Jonathan Edwards) marginalized beauty at the expense of their focus on the other two. This, I think, was a grave dis-service to both the Christian community and the world at large. In two weeks, I'll be preaching on Isaiah 6 and this passage, before it is anything else, seems to me to be an encounter between Isaiah and 'the beauty of holiness'. And that encounter was central to Isaiah's transformation, and his willingness to enter into the future God had for him.

There is something about beauty, whether the beauty of creation or the beauty of relationship, that calls us to eternity. This was central to CS Lewis' conversion experience, as articulated in "Surprised by Joy". And it certainly has been my experience again and again. Last night, between the 5PM and the 6:45 service, the clouded skies were flaming as the sun dropped over the Olympics to the west. From the staircase to the balcony, one could look at the buildings downtown, transformed to beacons as they reflected the setting sun. In the wake of the rain, and with the trees drenched with autumn color, the moment was as holy for me as any moment in the worship service - a gift from the Creator, who lavishes beauty on the earth as a kindness intended to draw us to Himself.

Because these moments are plentiful in life, and because we tend to marginalize and miss them, I'm sensing a need to articulate a more fully developed 'theology of Beauty'. As one sees the value of beauty, one is drawn into both creation and creating. Both are means of grace, offering the opportunity for transformation and divine encounter for those who turn to God - or hardness and ignorance as the reward for resistance. This is the same as any Divine encounter: Word, fellowship, prayer and meditation are all means of grace, the experience of which will lead to either transformation or hardness.

As I'm writing this, I'm out on the deck in the back yard, watching the 'dusking' sky change the color of the redwood tree, and inhaling deeply the crisp, rain cleansed air. The moment is a gift, and I'm called to the Source - of the air, and the tree, and breath of life - called to praise, and cleansed by the praising.

With a little further reflection it can easily be seen how greed and injustice give birth to ugliness. But for now... I'm simply enjoying the gift of beauty. Autumn does that to me.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

If all goes well...

If all goes well… maybe you’ve said it as the preface to some future plan. It’s a way of saying, “if everything goes according to the plan, then I’ll reach my goal.” Maybe it’s the season of life; maybe it’s the time in history – maybe it’s the convergence of both – but I’m coming to doubt the wisdom of that saying.

Whose plan ever brings the realities of living in a fallen world into their consideration? Too many marriages evaporate in the heat of life’s contingencies. That’s never ‘according to plan’. Aging parents mean different things to different people, whether financial, or time, or emotional hardships, or sometimes all three. Add to that, the reality that stroke, or Alzheimer, or diabetes are never ‘according to plan’. And let’s not forget avalanches, and deaths at the hands of drunk drivers, and sexual abuse. What does this phrase mean: ‘according to plan’?

It seems, increasingly in my world of pastoral care, to mean very little. In fact, holding on to one’s plans too tightly seems a sure fire way to miss God’s plan, which always includes some untidy and unwelcome intrusions so that the cross can do it’s work. I think I’ve wasted a lot of energy being disappointed because my own expectation of how something would turn out was unmet due to unforeseen issues. Maybe such disappointment stems from holding on to plans too firmly. Too tight a grip means that every unforeseen event is disruption, intrusion, threat.

Maybe there’s a better paradigm: Maybe the art of life isn’t in simply meeting one’s goals, but in manifesting the character of Jesus in the midst of the effects of our fallen world; showing hope in the midst of darkness, and grace in the midst of disappointment seem to be more in keeping with the whole point of it, than merely having ‘everything go according to plan’.

It’s been an incredibly intense time pastorally and personally over the past days, and the activities aren’t over. Much, for many people, including me, has not gone ‘according to plan’. But today, as I write this, I need to say: who cares! The real point of it isn’t to live in a world hermetically sealed from suffering, but to triumph in the midst of everything that’s coming down all around us. Learning that, and helping others do it, is a big part of what it means to be a pastor.