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, January 28, 2006

An unpleasant cocktail

The ingredients presently being mixed into the cocktail that is middle-east politics may eventuate in an explosion of such magnitude that we will find ourselves on the brink of Armageddon. And what will be needed, on all our parts, in the midst of such a storm, will be the capacity to sift with discernment the many voices we’ll hear. They will range from calls for unquestioning support for Israel, to calls for wholly bio-diesel transportation by 2015, to the destruction of Palestine, to unquestioning support for Palestine. There will be calls to arms, calls to prayer, calls to stockpile, and calls to fear.

For these reasons, I’m presently studying Islam; her history and ideals, her theology and practices. I’m doing this with an eye towards teaching on matters related to the middle-east sometime this summer, with the goal of helping our congregation discern the times, and respond with the heart of Christ in the midst of any crisis that may ensue. Crisis times create panic, and history shows us that the undiscerning church often passively adopts the survivalist politics and posture that prevail during such times. However, there are also luminaries shining in the midst of such darkness – always. These are the ones whose convictions are shaped, not by the prevailing winds of the times, nor by fear, nor by an a-priori commitment to personal safety and prosperity, but by a commitment to being the presence of Christ in the world. Such preparation will entail not only familiarity with Islam, but more importantly, Christian ethics and eschatology (what God has to say about the end of history).

If you’re interested in such studies, you can learn gain an overview of eschatology at this web site. In addition, I’d recommend a couple of books about Islam and politics, including Why the Rest Hates the West, and In the Shadow of the Prophet. But however you begin to look into these things, I’d encourage you to look in – because when the ingredients in the cocktail include a destabilized Iraq, and nuclear Iran, a Hamas controlled Palestinian government, and the sudden stroke of Israel’s prime minister - your cocktail is more than just flammable – it’s a fragile bomb, the slightest nudging of which could send us all hurtling towards the edge. Let’s prepare to be people of hope and spirit.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Waking Up is Hard to do....

“Arise, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Chris shall give you light.” These are words from an ancient morning hymn, open to vast arrays of interpretation. A new slant came to it for me on Tuesday:

The sun had been in hiding for a month. I basically hadn’t been out my own front door in more than three days because of the flu. I was much better, but still in recovery. Work was overwhelming, not because of any one thing, but because of dozens of little things, each of them draining my spirit a little bit, making me weary. Somehow the convergence of all of this was sucking the life force from me. Motivation? Lost. Enthusiasm? Absent Hope? Evaporating.

Then on Tuesday, the strangest thing happened. The sun came out. Like a distant relative who only shows up for funerals and weddings, I knew I’d seen that ball in the sky before – knew the color blue was a familiar friend, but couldn’t place the last time we’d met. Having work to do, I shut the drapes; easier to focus.

But by late in the afternoon, the petty discouragements had piled so high that I fled into the outdoors, running shoes on, and sought to join the living again. It was a different city than the one I remember when I fled to my cave with the flu last Thursday night. The whole place had woken up. I made my to the lake near our house, where I usually run, but I was still weak, moving slower and slower until I finally stopped. Stopped.

I don’t know if it was the virus afterburners still in my body, or the sheer beauty of the moment – probably the former. But when I stopped, and looked, and saw – heron, ducks, trees in dormancy that I knew would soon return to life – everything changed. I couldn't move - couldn't run - couldn't walk. As I gazed through a tree out on to the water, inhaling the beauty with all my senses I couldn't move. One the way home I stopped and watched the sun set, and then met two friends on their bikes before returning to the cave – e-mails to answer – a phone meeting.

I can’t explain anything. There’s no direct cause and effect relationship between being out there and knowing soul healing and refreshment. Or is there? I think that's the meaning of the ancient hymn. Wake Up! Open your eyes. Absorb the sermon that's going on around you - in the wind and the rain, the sun and wildlife, your children, your coffee, your breathing. Let the sermon HE is preaching fill you. And Christ will give you light. I hadn’t been waking up lately – showing up for work, and family, and bill paying? O Yes – showing up. But not waking up. It’s the waking up that’s needed if we’re to receive the light from Christ that heals.

The rain is back tonight – and the weatherman says it’s ‘here to stay’. Lovely. Really. I'm not kidding. But I’m not going to sleep through it any more.


PS - the podcast of my teaching on homosexuality is available here - if you live in Seattle and read the news, you'll know why I'm posting it.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Dear Reverend Ken: Enough already

The recent Seattle Times article regarding one of our local pastor’s call for a boycott of major companies (Microsoft, HP, Boeing) has been the talk of news radio and editorial pages for a week or so now.

What crime or crimes committed by this unholy corporate trinity have led to this? Are chemicals being dumped in our rivers? No. Are workers being exploited in sweat shop conditions? No. Racism? No. For some, perhaps just the fact that these are large multi-nationals would be crime enough, and yet that isn’t it either.

The problem you see, is that these three corporations want to make sure you can’t discriminate when hiring, and the good Reverend, backed by many conservative Christian organizations, is encouraging people to boycott in order to make certain that the right to discriminate remains in place.

And so once again I find myself putting my pastor suit in the closet, and putting on something else (maybe Seahawk Blue this week?) because I’m embarrassed by the association. I want to recover the dignity of the calling, want to infuse the words “Christian” and “Pastor” with associations that are joyful, just, generous, and forgiving. I want to – most days. But these spats of misfocused energy and misallocation of ecclesiastical power sometimes send me into a relapse.

The man is wrong on so many levels…

  1. First, there’s the issue itself, which I’ve addressed elsewhere (see July 4th by scrolling down on this link). I’ll see if I can get the teaching available for podcasting.

  2. Second, there’s the issue of our primary and secondary callings, as articulated by Jesus Himself. He takes all the complexity, all the power politics, all the theological posturing, and denominational complexities, and sweeps all of it away as just so much rotting waste. Instead, he offers this: Love God – Love People. How is threatening to boycott a company that wants to mandate all applicants be treated equally in any way close to the heart of Jesus’ teaching? And this from a man who should know better than the most about the price of discrimination.

  3. The early church was conspicuously lacking in political power of any kind (left or right) and yet somehow found a way to turn the world upside down. This was because she stood firmly on the ground of #2 above. This ground is fast disappearing in all corners of the religious world, as political power becomes the tool of choice for religious agendas. Pushing those who think differently than we do to the margins of the culture has no precedent with Jesus, though we’ve seen it done plenty of times throughout history in His name.
I think boycotting has a place. When workers get sixty cents a week to harvest a product and can’t afford to clothe or educate their children, perpetuating a crisis of poverty, I’ll look at a different brand of coffee. When shoes are produced on a similar wage scale, with a similar profit margin, and similar disregard for the well being of workers and the environment, I’ll just do it in a different shoe. These small actions won’t save the world, and every company, no doubt, falls short of the true moral high ground. Further, I’m complicate in the sins of the world every day, so that any boycott which creates an air of self-righteousness in me makes me uglier than if I just kept shopping. But for all that, I still think there’s a time to take a stand and say enough.

But today, I’m not saying ‘enough’ to Boeing and Microsoft. I’m saying ‘enough’ to Reverend Ken. Enough rhetoric. Enough inciting, intentioned or not, of self-righteousness. Enough creating division. Let’s try a different road. If the Samaritan could feed and clothe someone who was different than him, and he's held up as an example, maybe I can find it my heart to hire the best person for the job. I think it's what Jesus would do.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

I've Got Rhythm - sort of

The seventh and final definition for the word rhythm in the freedictionary is: Procedure or routine characterized by regularly recurring elements, activities, or factors. And it is just this kind of rhythm that I seem to be missing right now, as I head into the 6th decade.

The Celtic Christian tradition placed a great emphasis on the seasons, and on finding a rhythm of work, rest, and prayer. This meant taking the Sabbath seriously, getting enough sleep, finding time for genuine conversation and restorative activity. It also meant working hard, being engaged in the creative endeavor to which one is called be it cooking, building, writing, leading, or even wearing the multi-faceted hat known as ‘pastoring’.

I do all three – the work, the rest, the prayer. My problem is that word rhythm. For example, two weeks ago I enjoyed intense rest on holiday with my wife for 5 days. It was so restorative that when I came back home I forgot to rest at all – up early Saturday, a break for watching football, and then up late. Then on Sunday – well Sunday’s in these parts are both enjoyable, energizing, and really hard work. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday – each day began early and included an evening meeting so that I wasn’t home until around 10 each night; intense work.

Friday I woke up with chills, nausea, and 102 fever. It was so nasty that I not only missed skiing Friday, but I missed a silent retreat on Saturday I’d been looking forward to for a long time, and today I’m missing preaching for the first time in many years. And worse than all of that - no time or energy to blog!

This is not the kind of rhythm I need. I need a rhythm that is sustainable. I wonder if that means limiting the sum total of evening meetings in a week? Perhaps it means breakfast meetings can’t be scheduled the morning after evening meetings. I don’t know. Maybe we just all get sick. But I do know this: If we don’t work at developing a sustainable rhythm to our lives, we’ll have nothing to offer. I’m working on this on many fronts – silence, solitude, Sabbath, diet, exercise, sleep – and now scheduling. Is Christ sufficient for the work? Of course. But he’s the one who taught us to come apart for a while and rest.

Ask me if I’ve got rhythm and I’ll say, “I can play the drums. Musically I’ve got rhythm. But now – it’s the rhythm of life I’m working on. Developing consistent routines of work, rest, and prayer and vital for all of us, but perhaps even more so in the 2nd half of life!

Friday, January 13, 2006

Aroma... and memory

We travelled last Friday, from Twisp to Seattle. It's a long way.

The lunch stop happened to be Wenatchee, and rather than opt for the standard fast food fare, we found a Chinese Buffet and helped ourself to a wide variety of foods (I never knew tater tots were Chinese). When I put my lips to the hot and sour soup and inhaled, my nostrils were met with some spice which I'd not encountered for about 37 years. I don't know it - this spice from the past - but somehow the link between scent, nostril, and memory, is so powerful that I immediately felt like I was in the cafeteria at Fort Miller Junior High in Fresno, California.

And so suddenly, in this restaurant, I'm feeling all the emotions of Jr. High that have been buried since since before the Vietnam war ended: Is Linda W___ going to Bible camp this summer? Shoud I ask her to the 9th grade dance? Will I be the starting centerfielder for the Babe Ruth all star team? So much angst and excitment is wrapped up in the resurrection of that era, all to the backdrop of the Beatles, "A Hard Days Night"

The link between memory and smell is powerful. Maybe that's why Paul says what he does in II Corinthians 2: "But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place." If aroma triggers memory, it seems that Paul is suggesting that our calling is to fan into flame the primal memory of the life and world God had in mind.

The Bible also says that God has "placed eternity in the hearts of men". This isn't hard to fathom. Everywhere we look there are longings for justice, for mercy, for peace, for intimacy, for truth telling and authenticity, for forgiveness. These longings are eternity in the heart of man and woman. It's these longings, if followed, that will lead us to both union with Christ and the capacity to step into God's purposes for us and make this a better world. What brings those eternal longings, often buried deeply under layers of pain and greed, lust and fenzied activity, to the surface? A whiff of Christ!

I need to smell Jesus on the breath of others, and be that aroma for others as well. I got a whiff of Jesus on the breath of MLK when I listened again, last night, to his final speech. The primal memory of a just world was fanned into flame simply by hearing him say once again, "I have seen the promise land..." The vision of all people, joined together, is resurrected in my heart, and I am emboldened to speak louder for those who aren't able to speak for themselves, all because of one small whiff of the kingdom. The power of smell!

I pray that the aroma of justice, mercy, compassion, hope, joy, and peace, might be on my breath today - and yours. Who knows what primal memories will be resurrected in those who we encounter?


Thursday, January 12, 2006

Turning 50 - Not a time for sadness... at all.

I've been thinking about the best way to answer the question that is inevitably asked at this time in life: "So Richard, how does it feel, now that you've hit the big five-zero, the half century mark?" AARP stuff will start coming in the mail any day now, reminders that I'm in my sunset years.

Here's what I have to say about turning 50 (at least in my case):

The downside: it takes longer to recover from exercise, and fried foods don't taste good very often any more.

The upside:

1. more at home in my relationship with God - more aware that I'm in the game at all because of grace and mercy, so that every day, every sunrise, every chance to share His word or share His life, is seen as a gift - something entirely undeserved. It's overstating it a bit, but it almost makes many days feel like Christmas - "Wow - another moment of beauty, or good conversation, or great cup of coffee, or Bible study, or chance to meet with God in prayer. Another good read. Another good... whatever. Thanks be to God!"

2. more at home in my relationship with my wife - everything's better. It's as if we're now enjoying the fruit of those years of trust building that come from misunderstanding, callous comments (90% made by me), insensitivities, and insecurities, the result of which, when worked through, lead to a more genuine intimacy for having been tried by fire. We enjoy all of it more now, and are better at it - truth telling, forgiving, love making, dream weaving, serving, laughing, planning.

3. more at home in my relationship with my vocation - the word 'pastor' bothered me a lot in the past, primarily because of guys like Pat Robertson (see two entries ago) who give us all a bad name. But I have never enjoyed ten years more than the previous ten - the chance to teach and learn in the midst of a gracious and forgiving community, in the city I love. What did I do to deserve this? I can only thank God for His faithfulness in allowing me to shepherd and teach in the context He's given me.

4. a growing love for young people - I don't want to stop investing in the next generation any time soon

5. more chances for adventures with my kids - Colorado - Budapest - California - Austria - Mt. Baker - wherever... it's good to be at that time in life when I'm travelling with grown up kids.

6. I'm cherishing things that I didn't before - silence, writing, contemplative prayer -

7. I'm still strong enough to do the things I love - though slower and less. Hiking, skiing, climbing, and enjoying the outdoors remains a big part of life for me. How I thank God for the days I've been given and the health to enjoy it all.

I realize that I'm incredibly fortunate and blessed by God with a full measure of health and a great wife and family. I realize too that the blessings bring responsibilities. I realize too that this is just the way my season of turning 50 is playing out - every person's experience is different. And finally, I realize that it's just a season - that it will change someday. But in the meantime... this is the day which the Lord has made - I will rejoice and be glad in it - even though the AARP card is in the mail.


Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Monism or Dualism? It all depends on where you're standing

I'm out snowshoeing and cross-country skiing this week in the North Cascades with my wife, complements of the Bethany community church's kindness, as they've given us this week as a gift for our ten years of service in Seattle. What a great time we're having so far.

Yesterday, while snowshoeing along the ridges of the glorious Methow valley, I was disengaging from the pain I was feeling by thinking about how eastern religions encourage us toward the realization that 'all is one', that the distinctions between myself and yourself, between tree and bird, between any 'this' and any 'that', are only illusions. When we see reality, all distinction melts away. This doctrine is called 'monism', in distinction to the 'dualistic' world view, which sees the distinctions as real.

But things get trickey for we who follow Christ, because the reality is that espouse a form a monism AND a form of dualism.

MONISM - Christians reject (or at least should reject) the dualism that was such a part of Gnostic thinking and the teachings of Plato. This dualism sees the world as matter and spirit, the latter being pure and former being corrupted. To the extent that this idea crept into the church, much that is good, created by God, and earthy, became suspect (good food, sexuality, enjoying the sunrise, etc.) There were lots of other destructive ways this dualism played out, but that's for another time. The result was that the church wrestled with this dualism and came to the conclusion that the dualism which villified all things material by drawing a harsh line between spirit and matter was false. Thus the church, when standing next to a gnostic, is monist - flesh and spirit are both good, both from God, all part of the same cloth of creation.

But when we turn to the east and face the deep monism of Buddhism and Hinduism, the church becomes dualist, because the church says, "Wait. I am me, and you are you, and neither of us is God, who is the creator of all of it. There is good and there is evil. There is right and there is wrong." The consequences of these ideas are huge. If I'm monist in the eastern sense, I'm forced to acknowledge that everything I see is illusion. If everything I see is illusion, my senses can't be trusted. If my senses can't be trusted, why engage them in scientific enquiry? And I can't even mourn properly when bad things happen becasue evil as a category is as much an illusion as good!

So are you monist or dualist? It all depends on where your standing. But when I'm standing near the top of Patterson mountain, overlooking the Mazama valley, I'm thankful that all of it is shot through with God's glory (almost monist, but not really), and I'm thankful too that I am me, and not that deer over there. The bigger mystery for me is why I think about stuff like this while I'm snowshoeing.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Robertson Rants

If you read this article in the New York Times, you'll understand why it's embarassing, at times, to be called a Christian, though not nearly as embarassing as being called a pastor. The pastor who thinks gays in New Orleans were the reason God pointed Katrina there, who thinks that assisination of socialist leaders is justified, and who now thinks that Sharon's health problems are becuase he is seeking peace in the middle east is the pastor who needs a muzzle.

But what do you think about this comment, found in the article: many conservative Christians agree in principle with his comments about the Middle East - the Scriptures, they agree, call for a unified Israel.

If you believe that the scriptures call for a unified Israel, believe that the promises made to Abraham and David still apply to the literal blood nation of Israel today, then I'd venture to say that you agree with the quoted statement above. And if you agree with the statement, then you need to wonder, at least, why Sharon would give away land promised to his people by God in the Bible.

This is why theology matters! It effects how we view current events. If you're interested in unpacking how the church has viewed the nation of Israel over the years, check this out. In a nutshell, Covenant theologians see the promises of the Old Testament, given to Israel, are now received by the church, though in a different form. Dispensational theology sees the Old Testament promises given to Israel as still belonging to Israel to this day.

If you're dispensational, the whole land, including the west bank, and Gaza, belong to Israel.

How does one decide which way to believe? Which way do I believe? Why?

I'll give you a hint - both views have problems. But I hope you see this much: ideas and beliefs have consequences!

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

What is the gospel?

What is the gospel? I used to scoff at the question, wondering how anyone could ask it who'd been around church life more than a few months. But the older I get, the more I realize that it's really a profound and legitimate question. It seems that I keep discovering new aspects of the gospel, new factsw of light that penetrate previously darkened corners of my own heart, so that I now believe that I will never be able to fully articulate the gospel.

This doesn't mean that the gospel is unknowable. It beings with the knowable story of a God/Man who redeemed the world (redeemed: purchased it back) through his living, and dying, and rising from the dead. All of this makes relationship possible between man and God, and between man and man. This is foundational, and we can know it, understand a large measure of it, and embrace it by faith.

What I'm seeing though, is that the good news only starts there.

It's gladder than we realized. The imagery of homecoming and feast that premeate the Bible remind us that we're made for belonging and celebration and that every effect of sin that steals our intimacy and sense of community will ultimately be destroyed. The result will be a gladness that far trancends even our best moments of intimacy and community.

It's more restorative that we realized. Just what does it mean in Ephesians, when we're told that history is moving towards a climax described as 'the summing up of all things in Christ'? The phrase hints of a universe saturated with glory. Isaiah suggests that such a universe will change the predatory relaitonships in the food chain. Romans suggests that creation itself will finally enter into its truest identity.

It's holier than we realized. So complicit are all of us with sin that I really think we have no idea of a world untainted by fuilt, or shame, or selfishness, or lust. What does it look like when all of that is completely destroyed? It looks like wholeness - holiness. And even the poets can't really describe it, other than to say that there's no need for the sun anymore because the darkness is gone.

The point? On our best days we don't really get it completely. But if we know that we don't get it, know that even our hopes fall short; know that the real gospel is gladder, more restorative, and holier than anything we can even imagine, we become people of wild hope and joy, people who endure the sufferings of the present moment because we're convinced that history is moving towards a grand end.

What is the gospel? It's better thant I can imagine. This is a far cry from the dull gray religion of sour legalists, whose religion is reduced to a list of negations. Embrace the gladness of the gospspel for God's sake - and know the joy of His life every day.

Monday, January 02, 2006

New Years - Olympic Style

It's 2006, which means not only mid-term elections in the states, but the Olympic games. I'm always amazed when the games come around. While they're a display of athleticism, it seems to me that they are, more than any other event, a display of the power of commitment. The people that compete at this level haven't casually decided to make a run for a gold medal. They've counted a cost and made a conscious commitment to their goal. They understand that, while they're more just skiers or skaters, those identities have taken up the vast portion of their waking hours. Focus - Determination - Perserverance. It's a bit inspiring, or guilt inducing, depending on my frame of mind.

In contrast, the world is filled with people who are forever waiting to commit, whether vocationally, relationally, or spiritually, and so live lives of difused rather than focused energy. The results, often, are not pretty.

Every year at this time of the new year (and even regularly throughout the year) I find it helpful to revisit the question of exactly what it is that I'm supposed to be doing with my life. For me, the answers to that question come through prayerful consideration of the various roles God has given me at this time in my life, because I know that whatever my hand finds to do, I'm to do with all my might. So I pause to consider each of the roles that is on my plate:

1. Husband & Father
2. Leader
3. Shepherd
4. Visionary
5. Teacher

For each of these areas, I consider goals, asking the question of what it is that God would want me to be doing. I try to articulate these answers in terms of particular goals. While I'm not a big fan of management tools (I want to mock the Dilbert culture of the corporate world along with everyone else), I would say that this tool, found in Steven Covey's "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" has been one of the most helpful bits of counsel ever in terms of bringing order, focus, priority, and direction to my weekly and daily activities.

I'd encourage everyone to at least ask the questions: "What are the roles I've been given in life right now?" And the second question: "What particular endeavors am I supposed to be doing in each of these areas?"

Paul appeals to the Olympic games analogy in I Corinthians 9 when considering his own life. He says that he has no desire to be a fraudulant participant, so he focuses and disciplines his life, seeking in everything he does, to bring God glory by both the quality and focus of his days. He's a good example for those of us who are easily sidetracked from our callings.

What are your roles?