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, November 26, 2005

Advent...or Advertising?

Of course you probably read about the insanity that occured yesterday throughout the country when the doors opened for shopping. Police were called in to several Wal-Marts where fights broke out over limited sale items. A few people were trampled on when doors opened. One woman I watched on the news fell to the ground, where her wig fell off. People literally stepped on her as she sought to pick herself up. And at the very least, the shouting, traffic, and parking woes raised blood pressure, shortened tempers, and created a conspicuous absence of 'comfort and joy'.

We weren't made to live this way. Personal and interior inadequacies lead us to look for more stuff to fill the void in our sterile lives, and so desparately do we want the stuff that we're willing to go to war to get it, even if the war is nothing more than a parking war, or shouting match. It's illustrative of the deep void in our national phyche, and the tension found therein. Materialism isn't cutting it, isn't feeding our souls well. And yet, all of us are indebted to the system in one way or another, benefiting from the buying and selling of goods even if we didn't fight the mall wars yesterday.

I'm pleaing for a recovery of advent - that season of looking deeply into our longings so that we identify with Anna who was longing for the coming of Christ. A deep look into our longings necessitates taking the time to look beyond our superficial material longings, and looking instead for Christ to come and fill the real voids that are in our lives.

Our longings for authentic intimacy, close friendships, peace in our relationships, love for our neighbors are all important. Our longings for a lifestyle that embodies the 'simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ', and for a healing of the environment, and for peace among the nations, and for water for villages in Africa. All of these longings are, at the root, longings for Christ.

Too often, it is these real and deep longings that don't find a voice or space in our hearts because they are trampled like the lady with the wig, as we rush off in fulfillment of the next holiday obligation. Enough already! Make space for longing. Pray. And you'll find Christ filling up new spaces in your heart... new light shining in the season of darkness. That's just like God - always ironic!

Personal notes...
1. I commend to you once again the movie "Millions" as a thought provoking film for Advent - and good for the whole family.

2. Looking for a tree? We found a good farm in Isaquah yesterday when we did our traditional family outing. What a rush to be out in the rain tromping through the forest to find a tree, cut it down, and then stand by a blazing fire, as the heat vaporizes the rain in our soaked clothes, with a cup of cider and meet the folks who run the "Keith and Scott Tree Farm". (scroll down on this link for directions)

Happy Advent.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Full Scope... rediscovering the real power of the gospel

Nt Wright has written a provocative book, "The Challenge of Jesus" in which he advocates that we never stop learning and seeking in our quest to better understand and know that One we love and claim to follow.

This is especially true among we who have grown up in such linear environments: "10 Steps to Spiritual Maturity" "4 Laws for Salvation" etc. Such thinking has the effect of extracting all mystery from relationship, leaving one with precepts but no relationship. And the effect of such an emasculated relationship is a powerless faith, almost wholly private in its orientation. The author says, "It is not enough to say one's prayers in private, maintain high personal morality and then go to work to rebuild the tower of Babel." This, it seems, has been a great strategy of Satan. If he can reduce the gospel to something wholly personal and wholly interior, then the power of the gospel to change economics and political structures, to heal environmental degration and resore communities, that power will disappear. When that happens the gospel becomes less threatening to power structures, and wholly irrelevant to most people. If you're up for a challenging read, and want to be in touch with some of the latest scholarship regarding the person and work of Christ, don't forget to put this book on your list.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Joy and Contentment - their time has come!

I had a great conversation yesterday with someone from our fellowship about how we evangelicals have a tendency to fixate on denial, suffering, loss, mourning. Her problem, she went on to share, was that she was in a very good place in her life, physically, emotionally, spiritually, and socially. And the strange thing is this - It seems that this 'good space' in which she finds herself has feeling out of step with the Christian community.

I know what she's talking about: There's this sense, almost like an atmosphere, among evangelicals, that joy and contentment are somehow states that fall short of God's purposes. The result is a failure to enjoy the gifts God has given us and the seasons of grace that belong to our lives. That's sad and sick enough to make us weep. Why would we think that joy and contentment shouldn't belong to those who are in Christ? But what's sadder still is that our failure to enjoy the gifts that God has given us make us exponentially more vulnerable to destructive expressions of those same gifts. So the Christian who can't enjoy sexuality and sensual pleasures in his marriage becomes a prime candidate for pornography and infidelity. The person who can't enjoy good food becomes a candidate for anorexia. And my failure to see the sunrise, and taste my incredible coffee in the morning means that I'm depriving myself of the rich store of memories that should be mine when I am led into the value of the shadow.

Eugene Peterson says it this way in The Message: "This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, frave-tending life. It's adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike, "What's next Dad?" God's Spirit touches our spirits and confirms who we really are. We know who he is, and we know who we are: Faith and children. And we know we are going to get what's coming to us - an unblievable inheritance." Romans 8:15-18

Or how about this one... "Seize Life! Eat bread with gusto. Drink wine with a robust heart. Oh Yes... God takes pleasure in your pleasure. Dress festinely every morning. Don't skimp on colors and scarves. Relish life with the spouse you love, each and every day of your precarious life. Each day is God's gift. It's all you get in exchange for the hard work of staying alive. Make the most of each one." Ecclesiastes 9:7-9

So please... can we lighten up in the midst of our ongoing transformation and taste our coffee - drink our wine - see our sunrise - laugh - sing - give thanks. We may not be able to do any of it tomorrow! This, I hope, will become our testimony of hope in a hopeless world.

Carpe Deim...

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Switching... or blending

Pastoral Musing - The calling of the pastor requires a capacity for what appears to be switching: people orientation/task orientation... left brain/right brain... long range/crisis... eternal destiny/practical problems.

Today I went from a meeting to discuss financial matters on our facilities expansion project to a bedside time with a family whose patriarch was passing away. The rest of the day included wedding schedules, correspondance, some work on Sunday's sermon, some prayer time for the opening of Advent, and a lunch meeting with a person from our congregation.

I've come to the conclusion that switching is the wrong word. It's wrong because it implies that we are either one or the other at any given moment - it's people or task... eternal perspective or temporal etc. That's a bad way to look at ministry. Such bifurcation leads to caricatures that are destructive to every endeavor, as we're always being one thing at the expense of everything else. Instead, it seems that we need to be bringing the spirit, the eternal, the left brain, into all of our objective endeavors. And we also need linear thinking, long range perspective, and practical considerations to our bedside pastoral matters.

Blending is a better word than switching, and I'm not sure blending can be taught. I think its more a matter of needing to live with a conscious sense of dependency on the Holy Spirit for a moment by moment provision of wisdom, words, strength, and conviction. One doesn't know, in pastoral ministry, what a day will bring. But one does know that the Holy Spirit is avaiable to provide whatever is needed for that to which we're called.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Rocks of Remembrance...

In the Old Testament God encourages those who follow Him to erect markers at significant moments in their lives so that they might have them to look back on and remember. Days will come, God knows, when we forget His goodness; and it's on those days, especially, that we'll do well to look back. Jacob does that. So does Mosess. So does Joshua. Rocks of remembrance.

I have my own rocks of remembrance, and I was privileged to visit them this past weekend. I'm down in California visiting my mom and in-laws. The days ahead look quite full and challenging and many levels. There are issues with aging parents as well. As our church grows, the challenges of keeping Christ first, and letting His reign increase in lives, both personally and corporately, is challenging. I left for Fresno feeling tired.

But on Saturday afternoon, with all this and more on my mind, I was able to make my way up to the camp where so much that was significant in shaping me happened. The camp is only a few minutes from the gate of Yosemite, located in the marvelous altitude where the aroma of Manzaneta is thick. That smell is my childhood, my formative years spiritually. As I drove up to the camp, countless memories filled my mind, both noble and ignoble, but two significant ones stand out...

1. The chapel where I had a deep encounter with God was still there. I remember that day, just over two years after my dad died, when I prayed in the snow and committed to making knowing God the main pursuit of my life. To this day, my commitment made there has become something of a reference point. When confused - turn towards knowing God. He'll change you, make you all that your supposed to be. I remembered the moment, and confessed how often and easily I lose the reference point.

2. I walked over towards office from the chapel wondering if it would still be there, and it was. When I was about 8 I drove up to this camp for the first time, dropping off my sister. My dad got out of the car and walked over to a water fountain, made of stones, and said, "This is the best water on earth. You can never get enough." He drank. I drank. And he was right. But something about the smell of Manzaneta, blended with the pure mountain water, and the crisp, pine air created a sense of deep contentment. Every year I went to camp, the first thing I did was drink from the water fountain. And over the years, I've thought often of that stone fountain, making it my rocks of remembrance. That living water pours out from these rocks is only fitting.

I hiked through the mountains on a trail I'd taken many times as a child and prayed, remembering that God has been faithful and forgiving. My Rock. My Living Water. And I was reminded to seek God and drink from His Life.

Do you have a rock of remembrance?

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Deeds + Relationships + Images + Humility = postmodern

Postmodernism didn’t just happen overnight. It began in the middle of the 20th century in architecture, and then evolved into other sciences, literature, and eventually theology. Here’s a link that will help you get a more detailed overview of the movement as it applies to theology and the church. But a humble summary seems appropriate at this point.

The collapse of objective certainty, particularly with respect to science, has changed what we value. In an age when we thought that certainty could be achieved through scientific method, we were intrigued by study, evidence, words, theories, thesis statements and their support, anti-thesis etc. etc. Theologically, this kind of world loved charts, systems, propositional truths, proofs, and ‘evidence that demands a verdict’.

Recent generations however, have become disillusioned by all this. They’ve watched people declare words, and live consistently in utter contradiction to them. They’ve listened to pastors and theologians pompously declare when the world would end, and then sat and watched the sun rise and set on the predicted day of doom. They’ve seen the Christian West use God Words to justify slavery, holocausts, corporate greed, and degradation of the environment. They’ve listened to couples use God Words to promise faithfulness in their marriages, only to see those words evaporate as meaningless too.

A generation is coming into its own who are, understandably, weary of God Words, even suspicious of them. So when we use lots of words to motivate there are often questions in the minds and hearts of the hearers: 1) Does this person believe their own words? 2) Are they living by them? 3) Is there any way I can know, really know, whether or not they’re true? And “Yes” answers are hard to come by.

So if Words and Ideas can’t be ‘known’ substantially. What can be known? The answer in this age is simple: experience. You can’t prove (in the sense of absolute knowing) to me that Jesus rose from the dead. But you can prove that you care for me by spending time with me, listening to me, and entering into my life, making my joys and concerns your own. You can prove to me that you love the world, by loving people, and caring for the environment, and working for justice, and showing compassion to the downtrodden. And if you do these things in Jesus name, maybe, just maybe, then I’ll take the leap of faith and believe in Jesus.

That’s postmodernity in a nutshell. The more you try to prove it with words, the less I’ll listen. The more you simply share your life, generously and honestly, the more likely I’ll be to believe. It almost seems that, once we stop caring about producing fruit, and start caring about loving unconditionally, fruit will come. But fruit is the promise; NEVER, in a sense the goal. In the old movie, “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” St. Francis is confronted by Bernardo at one critical moment. Francis is rebuilding a small chapel – brick by brick. He’s not doing much preaching. He’s just stacking bricks and caring for poor people. Bernardo says, “I can help you!” to which Francis replies: “Words Bernardo. Words. There was a time when I believed in words.” And then he turns back to his work – brick by brick. The work isn’t contrived. It has no agenda other than love. And the words, when he uses them, carry the weight of credibility because they’re backed by life.

This must be our way too, if the gospel, the real good news is to take root in our city. People have had their fill of words. What will we, together, do in His name to be the hands and feet of Jesus?

So what do you think? What are the dangers and opportunities inherent in the shift to postmodernism? Love to hear your thoughts. Don't worry...words are still important too, a point I'll be addressing soon.

Beyond Capitalism - Beyond Liberation - Yet Present, not Beyond

Read this article, (by clicking the link) but only if you have 20-30 minutes to digest a critique of Capitalism, with incidental critiques of Liberation Theology scattered throughout. The question at stake is this: Is the greed that is so systemic to what motivates capitalist machinery good because of the results it produces, or because it's the least evil option among evil options? Or is it good at all?

The article is thought provoking because it invites us to consider the ethics of the Kingdom as that which we order our lives by as followers of Christ. Provoking article? Yes. Fully compelling? No. Here's why: In order to live the economic ethic of the kingdom 24/7 (as the author seems to suggest) all of us would need to quit our jobs and move into communities where the clothes we wear are handmade, and the food we eat is grown locally and organically. And we won't be driving anywhere - nor will we fly - nor will we use the internet to do things like I'm doing right now. All these ammenities are the by-products of capitalism. And though capitalism is admittedly flawed, the critics nevertheless continue to consume the riches of the very system they critique, inviting all of us to receive a kingdom economic ethic as the higher ground. But the invitation comes across as economic utopianism.

Of course we need a kingdom economic ethic. But how much? Are we willing to become isolationist so as to remain 'untainted' by the world. Such thinking seems to me to forfeit our calling to be salt and light in any meaningful way (at least among capitalists). No; I think the better alternative is to commit to working out our kingdom economic ethic while at the same time acknowledging that I live in the midst of an economic system. The fact that I live in it means I'm called to do just that: live in it. I'll acknowledge the weaknesses and work to overcome them (for example: how can democratic capitalism work to overcome the reality of so many millions without health care, and the reality that homelessness and families living in poverty continues to be on the rise? - The answer lies, in part at least, with an acknowledgement that capitalism is flawed in its thinking that self-interest will always result in betterment for all people - it simply isn't happening right now - better for some, and better relative to Darfur for most - but not better in the sense of enobling, empowering, or satisfying. Thus we need to legislate in ways that mitigate unbridled greed. We could speak so much more of this... but alas no time). But though I'll see the weaknesses, I'll still live in the system because the system is both where I live, and is itself not so wholly evil as to be of no value. Consider that for all its flaws, those living under some measure of capitalism still enjoy greater access to health care, greater life expectancy, and greater freedom to use their resources, be they limited or abundant, for God's kingdom purposes, than people living under so many forms of totalitarianism . But the loud question we must be asking and aren't is this: What are we doing with all this wealth that we have? As soon as we begin to ask this question, we begin to question both our personal lives and the liabilities of capitalism itself. And both need to be critiqued!

All this is to say that capitalism isn't the kingdom of God, and we're to seek the kingdom first. But we're also to acknowedge that we all are called to take up residence somewhere, in time and space, in this fallen world. And it is there that I need to live - feed my family, practice hospitality, work to improve the well being of those around me. Deconstructing capitalism by enjoining us to live 'in the kingdom of God' sounds nice, but you still need to drive to work, or ride a bike, or take the bus. And if you do... you're in the system. Be SALT and LIGHT right these in the midst of the flawed system, recognizing that the system, for all its flaws, is where we live.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Two matters of import

First: The statistics quoted in yesterday’s sermon about the difficulties facing North American Christianity were taken from The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, and are well documented in that book for those interested. My concern is not to castigate the church, but to ask the question: “What is it supposed to be that characterizes us as different from the prevailing culture?” The answer, Jesus tells us, needs to have a lot to do with the quality of our relationships with the human race. This means that we will be about hospitality and reconciliation, about offering hope and mercy, and about doing so without strings attached because our love in Jesus name is as unconditional as God’s love toward us. There’s nothing new here, except that this is not how the church is generally seen by the culture at large. Instead, we’re often perceived, in the present as militaristic, bigoted people who have largely bought into the values of our prevailing culture (individualism and wealth) with a dose of arrogance thrown in. Though these perceptions aren’t wholly accurate, they’re rooted in enough anecdotal evidence and statistical weight as to be quite popular. The way we’re perceived by the world will change only when the way we invest our collective lives changes as well. There are more hopeful signs within our little flock towards this end than I can mention, but one example would be the over 180 people who signed up yesterday to help with a new ministry for hosting homeless women on our church property. This is but one of several encouraging signs that God's reign is taking up residence in human hearts and communities!

Second: There’s something about running at 5 in evening on these November nights that is conducive to worshipping the Creator. Maybe it's the blend of color and light, the interplay of clouds, setting sun, trees, leaves, headlights, waxing moon, and the beautiful variety of people at the lake that makes one glad to be alive, glad to be in this city at this time in history. Where the cosmos dances with the cosmopolitan – this is where I find it easy to perceive God. The Celts said that November was a ‘thin’ month, meaning that the barrier between spirit and flesh seemed more permeable somehow. On my run early this evening, I found it to be true.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Something to Fear when there's nothing to Fear

It seems as if we're not only more aware of what can go wrong these days, but that we're also more inclined to find danger where there is none, and to create danger where danger doesn't exist. I'm not a big Michael Moore fan, and though I forced myself to watch the movie about Columbine High School a few years ago, I felt the misinformation and propoganda was so blatent that he lost credibility on his valid points. One of his valid points was this: We Americans are a fearful lot. I don't know why this is... but I do know that we who follow Christ need to consider these matters differently. In the Old Testament God tells Joshua to lead without fear. In Proverbs, unfounded fear and anxiety are seen to be the characteristics of fools. When the angels herald the coming of Jesus their first words are 'fear not', and when Paul writes towards the end of his life, from jail, he tells us to be anxious for nothing.

I'm hoping that we'll be willing to wager everything on the calling God has given us to embody His Kingdom. I'm hoping move into each moment of the future fearlessly, whether that moment takes us up mountain peaks, onto the streets at night to serve and love, into the darkness of confronting spiritual forces, opening our hand in generosity, loving our enemies, or simply getting on a plane. God is with us. Who can be against us? What have we to fear? (other than signs with sharp edges).... need to run to class. I'll try to post tomorrow a bit more about transformation.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

A Worthwhile Reign to wash out pettiness

Why do we pastors beat people over the heads with Bible passages, hoping that our precepts, propositions, and systems will somehow lead to their obedience? I’d like to suggest that Jesus did it a different way. One of my favorite stories Jesus tells is the one about a guy who goes out to look at a field he’s considering buying. While there he discovered a buried treasure in the field, and when he uncovers the treasures and realizes it’s value, he buries it, goes and sells everything he has, and with his liquidated assets he buys the field.

The story is one of the most important ones in the Bible because it reminds us that if we find something we value, we’ll invest in it. I think many Christians are stuck in low level living, either preoccupied with some trinket that has, over time mutated into an addiction (television, porn, x-box, getting rich, ___??), or simply being bored – alone – alienated. Either way, it seems to me the problem is that we’ve not yet uncovered the treasure in the field. The Christian life is nothing more than a set of bland precepts. Such a perspective won't get us very far.

Today, while studying in preparation for my sermon on Sunday, God gave me a fresh glimpse of the treasure. We who know Christ are invited to embody the hope, beauty, justice, mercy, and transforming power of His Kingdom reignright here and right now. This looks different for different people, and varies from geography to geography, but the calling is there for all of us. Step into the reign of Christ and begin to get involved in what He’s doing. The story Jesus told reminds us that, if we really see the kingdom, and see its value, we’ll be willing to make all other interests subservient to that great treasure.

As I am studying today up in a room in Canada, my window looks out on a bay between this island and Vancouver Island. The wind had been howling all day, and just I was reading about the lion lying down with the lamb, my eye caught a bald eagle gliding across the sky in huge circles. Such glory – such play – such a foretaste of the beauty that will transform the whole created order when Christ’s reign is fully realized. Until then, I want to cast my lot and invest my resources in seeing His reign made visible in some small measure right where I live. And this endeavor evicts pettiness, wasted time and whining, almost automatically. Have you seen the treasure of God’s reign lately? I hope so… it’ll change you forever!