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...

Friday, February 24, 2006

The Sunday before Lent... why you should care.

Last year, the Bethany family was encouraged to enter into some form of self denial during the 40 day period leading up to Easter. To participate in this ritual is to stand in the stream of church history that goes back to the church’s earliest days, for as Ken Collins writes, “Lent is a season of soul-searching and repentance. It is a season for reflection and taking stock. Lent originated in the very earliest days of the Church as a preparatory time for Easter, when the faithful rededicated themselves and when converts were instructed in the faith and prepared for baptism. By observing the forty days of Lent, the individual Christian imitates Jesus’ withdrawal into the wilderness for forty days. All churches that have a continuous history extending before AD 1500 observe Lent. The ancient church that wrote, collected, canonized, and propagated the New Testament also observed Lent, believing it to be a commandment from the apostles” (

Some gave up a particular food to identify with Christ’s sacrifice and self-denial. Many others ‘made room’ in their lives by setting aside some activity (such as watching Simpsons reruns, for example) and spending that time in either prayer or service to Christ. I had considered soliciting testimonies of the great things that happened for people when they participated in this discipline, but decided that this kind of solicitation is too utilitarian, too pragmatic, for something such as Lent. Lent (the word comes from a root word that means ‘spring’) isn’t a self-improvement program, though self-improvement may happen. But there’s something more foundational that needs to call us to the practice: We’re called to identify with Christ.

Paul the Apostle says that he does his share in ‘filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions..’ (Colossians 1:24). We could argue about what this means, but when coupled with Paul’s admonitions about running the race ‘to win’ (I Corinthians 9:27) and his warnings about people ‘whose god is their stomach’, we begin to see that gaining control over one’s time, and thoughts, and appetites is a sign that we are becoming more like Christ, which of course is the whole goal. And so the sacrifice, the making room, is a way of drawing near to the One who sacrificed, and made room for me. And greater solidarity with Christ is the reward – whether such solidarity results in weight loss, lower blood sugar, better family time, or not isn’t the point.

I’d encourage you to consider a Lenten discipline – a sacrifice or a making space. It may be as simple as skipping a TV show, or as grand as fasting and Bible study/meditation in place of the meal. Whatever your discipline is, make it hard enough that you’ll be challenged, but easy enough that you’ll have a chance to succeed, at least most of the time. Then write it down, share it with a friend or family member, and embark on the journey of transformation. If you’d like to share a story of your Lent experience last year, please e-mail at .

When the day is done, it’s all about becoming like Christ, and the discipline of Lent is one of the church’s oldest and best traditions to help move us there.

Monday, February 20, 2006

The pure Genius of Isaiah

As we approach the season of Lent, I’m preparing to re-enter a preaching series on Isaiah which I began in the fall. The genius of both Isaiah, and Jesus (both working for the same boss) was that they lived and preached paradox: interior holiness/exterior justice; mourning over a world held steadily in the grip of death/ rejoicing over a future that bursts forth with life at every level; righteous anger, used a voice for those who have no voice of their own (the poor and disenfranchised)/ quiet submission when one’s own reputation is on the line.

Their model is “not like the one-world liberals who view the present world as the only one, nor like the unworldly who yearn for the future with an unconcern about the present. There is work to be done in the present. There is grief work to be done in the present that the future may come. There is mourning to be done for those who know pain and suffering and lack the power or freedom to bring it to speech. The saying is a harsh one, for it sets this grief work as the precondition of joy. It announces that those who have not cared enough to grieve will not know joy” (from Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination)

And this of course, is what the community faith is to pursue – grief and hope, both alternately and even simultaneously, in order that the Christ’s reign might find further footing, both in the deepest recesses of our hearts, and in the deepest caverns of oppression and injustice. What do you think are the biggest barriers to the church becoming this mourning, celebrating, justice seeking community?

Friday, February 17, 2006

A Movie, A book, and A Real Life

There have been a convergence of events and experiences this past week that have me both thinking and learning a great deal about ethics and leadership:

The Ninth Day is a German movie, a true story about a German priest’s temporary release from Dachau, and the ensuing dilemmas that come to him as he makes ethical decisions which appear costly to those he loves, no matter which choice he makes. The key issue with which I can identify is how every person seems convinced, at some point, that they are standing on the moral high ground: The priest who dissents, the priest who complies with the Reich, and the SS man who seems persuaded that Christ’s words of hope to the Gentiles and disdain for Judaism are the foundation upon which Hitler is building his plan for a master race - all think they're onGod's side, and of course that God is on their side. And there is a priest in the middle of it all, whose choices may determine the fate of other pastors, or his family, or himself. It's a movie about ethics. If we fail to discern properly, all we have are voices all around us, and our basis for choice becomes pragmatic at best or worse, purely self-serving. The multiplication of such shady, unprincipled decisions, are exactly why wars start.

At the same time, I’m preparing to teach on the book of Esther this week which, ironically, has an anti-Semitic plot at its core and is about, like the movie, one’s willingness to live, or die, by the courage of your convictions. I love the story because of it’s earthiness – a beautiful woman who uses all the resources entrusted to her by God to make a difference, but whose use of those resources are a clear illustration of what Jesus said: “Live as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves”. We tend to live like one or the other – either naïve foolishness or continually contriving.

And all this studying and movie watching is taking place against the backdrop of pastoral/relational dramas where I’m reminded that moral courage and ethical wisdom are not just needed in palaces and prison camps. They’re needed right here in Seattle – right now.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The River is fed by many streams

This past Sunday, in speaking of people who lived by the courage of their convictions, I mentioned Ronald Reagan and Caesar Chavez, men with very different convictions and political world views. I thought I saw people wince, some at the name of a Republican president, some at the name of a farm labor activist. We like white hats and black hats. We like our party, or hero, or ideology to have all the answers – and we feel better about our own positions if we can paint the other side as so dangerous that the future of western civilization will hang in the balance of the wrong side wins an election.

Rubbish. The reality is simpler than that: Every leader will have blind spots and shortcomings – but not every leader will leave a mark of redemption. And those that do leave a mark should be honored for the mark they leave, and we should learn from their mistakes as well. If you grew up in Eastern Europe in the 70’s and 80’s, Reagan is your hero – he confronted totalitarianism and gave a voice to people who though they had none. The world is better for it. But Reagan wasn’t your hero if you grew up picking grapes in the central valley of California. Those people needed Chavez, who confronted then Governer Reagan about the plight of the laborer.

Each hero sees as 'in a mirror dimly', as the Bible says. That means no single leaders has all the answers. That’s why we need both courage and humility: the courage to name the evils of our day and the humility to recognize that the drum I’m banging, be it AIDS, the environment, homelessness, sexual purity, or poverty, isn’t the only instrument in the symphony that is God’s kingdom. We’ve much to learn – much to repent of – much for which to stand, if we’re to be a river of living water in a dry and thirsty land. But the streams that feed and pollute that river will come from the left and the right, and I need to have the courage and humility to live with that.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Free Indeed

Just a quick note before going out the door, into the incredible sunshine, for a little morning skiing up at the pass. Yesterday, in the midst of pastoral care I found myself talking with someone who's relatively new to faith, and the subject of freedom came up. I had pointed out how much I love those verses in John 8 about freedom, and observed especially, the promise of Jesus: If the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed. Wow! Those are powerful words. We were both observing how, in this world, it's a lot easier to change addictions than to actually become free. How incredible is this promise that, in Christ, the freedom available to us is complete.

Like Gandhi's struggles in India, or Dorothy Day's in America, freedom doesn't happen in a day, either inwardly or structurally. But if stick with it, keep seeking our calling, our destiny, keep seeking truth, freedom comes. The bonds will be broken. And what's true for the individual becomes true as well for systems, so that slavery, and apartheid, and genocide, and all that reduces humanity to less than our glorious calling, is broken. This is the promise.

It's tempting to begin with therapy or politics. But the Scriptures say that we should begin with Jesus, allowing him to renew our heart, receive love, and then work outward from their towards our own deliverance. Then, armed with capacity to love, we're called to carry that freedom into the world and become agents of such freedom for those unable to find their own voice, for whatever reason.

Here's what's crazy: I think I'd forgotten just about all of that. But in the course of conversation with this one hungry soul, I found myself getting excited about all of it once again. Thanks, Lord, for opportunities to share with others, such as happened yesterday. This is what helps me stay refreshed in Christ. May we all find chances for a good conversation today, tomorrow, no later than the next day, so that we can become excited about the possibility of being 'free indeed'.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Fear in the Mountains of Faith

“Don’t be afraid!” We shout the words to our novice climbers as we prepare to ascend the glacier. After all, what is there to be afraid of, other than rockfall, crevices, avalanche, altitude sickness, hypothermia, snowblindness, dehydration, and falling to your death because you took a careless step?

Of course, “don’t be afraid” isn’t a literal statement because there’s a healthy fear, that could perhaps instead be named, ‘deep respect for consequences of apathy’ in this setting. 80% of climbing accidents happen on the way down. My guess is that 80% of our falls from grace also happen on the way down, after we’ve been blessed, become comfortable, wealthy, even bored. We’ve ‘made it’ so what need is there for walking carefully anymore? That’s when it will happen – moral decay, ugly pride, a closed heart. Some of the falls are visible, some so hidden that even the victim is unaware.

Suddenly it makes sense that God says to us both, “Fear the Lord”, and “Do not be afraid.” I’m called to conquer debilitating fear through faith and obedience, stepping onto the mountain of my destiny in spite of the risks. But never, either on the way up or down, must I allow that walk to become casual because I think I’m beyond danger. It’s this blend of moving forward, and maintaining a fear of the consequences of complacency that enables Gideon, and Jeremiah, Job, and Paul to continue on their journey.

The mountains of faith are calling, and we’re afraid of what it will cost us. But be careful; to remain in base camp, singing hymns and talking about the mountain is the greatest loss of all – and thing we’re called to fear the most.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Ba'al - then and now

I studying Ba'al worship today in preparation for this coming Sunday's teachings about Gideon, who was called by God to confront Ba'al worship, among other things. It's an interesting topic today, because the overwhelming weight of the commentaries explain that Israel capitulated to Ba'al worship because of her tendency to blend devotion to Yahweh with worship of the gods in the prevailing culture. Of course, in the Old Testament, God had declared that only in uncompromising loyalty to Yahweh would Israel find peace. That was easier in the wilderness (and even there they complained) because in the wilderness there were no resources other than God. But in the new land, there were other 'gods' to whom one looked, to whom the surrounding culture looked. And Israel sought to incorporate those gods into her worship. Ba'al, being the diety associated with the productivity of the land, was the god to whom offerings were made, in hopes of gaining material prosperity. These worship ceremonies included indulgence in ritual prostitution and sexual orgies, which may have added to their appeal.

Hmmm... sex and money woven into the fabric of worshipping the true God resulting in an unholy trinity, created to the satisfaction of the prevailing culture, the false priests, and the masses. I wonder if I'll be able to find any practical application of this stuff to our day?

Monday, February 06, 2006


Three dropped Passes
Two missed field goals
One Interception
...and a terrible towel in a pear tree

The good news: The sun still came up this morning (actually, came up better than it has in weeks). Running around Greenlake is still beautiful at 7AM. The Kingdom of God is still at hand, and each of us have the opportunity to bless and serve our broken world in Jesus name - and to be shaped by the loving hand of Christ - and to breathe in the glory of God, as revealed in creation and fellowship, celebration and beauty, discipleship and justice.

As Mike Holmgren's wife said in response to the question of why she would miss her husband's big game, choosing to be in Africa instead: "his game is big - but it's entertainment. What we're working on is life and death." Let's get on with it.


Sunday, February 05, 2006

Cartoons and Calling - What do you think?

Let's take the violence out of the equation for just a moment. Pretend no embassies are burning, and there are no death threats being made to Scandinavians whose only crime is living in a culture where freedom of speech allows insulting editorial cartoons. Forget about the intensity of the response for a moment (though it's a topic worth pondering because it provides insight into both the differences and similarities between fundamentalist movements in Christianity and Islam. Do you remember "The Last Temptation of Christ?" Islamic fundamentalists burn. Christian fundamentalists boycott. - but I digress)

My question has more to do with the limits of free speech. Who decides what is free speech and what is a hate crime? And are cultures consistent in their enforcement of their own definition? It's easy to villify the Muslims involved in this situation because we can't relate to their response; but can we relate to their being offended?

Our editorialists mock Pat Robertson. Many Christians understand that. What if it were Billy Graham? What if it were Jesus? I promise you that though bullets wouldn't fly, ink would. And the paper publishing the cartoons would be boycotted, along with the advertisers.

My point is that it's easy to judge Islamic extremism because the violent response is so reprehensible to our culture. But we have our own tools to define the limits of free speech, and when a minority in our country (race, religion, gender orientation) is mocked, there are buckets of ink spilled in the response, and economic grenades launched at the perpetrators and their associates.

So, I'd argue, all cultures have their limits. All people have their limits. What are your limits? I'd argue that Jesus invites us to have few limits when it comes to being personally reviled or slandered, but that we be diligent in preserving the dignity of others, especially those unable to speak for themselves. I wonder though if God Himself falls into the category of 'those unable to speak for themselves'? I don't think so. Jesus' example of entrusting Himself, and His reputation to the Father, who He knew would bring vindication and the revelation of truth in the proper time, seems to be our example. (read the whole passage, especially v21 to the end).

Once we clear away our revulsion over the violence, it's easy to see that all peoples, including Christians, are tempted to lash out in some form when mocked or marginalized. What sets Jesus' ways apart from others is his invitation to love the very ones who mock us, rather than set their embassies on fire or boycott their newspapers and theaters. Love your enemies? Yes, the road is narrow indeed.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Blue Green Addictions

I’ve been aware, during this past week, of the power of addictions. During a typical year, I probably listen to KJR 950 Sports Talk Radio, a total of less than ninety minutes. Because I enjoy the Seahawks, I’ll listen to a Monday morning debrief of the game on my Monday drive to work. If the University of Washington Huskies go deep in Baketball’s March Madness, I’ll listen some more. When the Sonics Basketball club was good, rather than whining, I’d listen. But always just in tiny bursts of five minutes here or there.

This week, however, I’ve been addicted. I listen while driving around town – driving to the mountains – in the kitchen when cooking – in the morning when eating breakfast. I want to know everything I can about the Pittsburgh’s defensive schemes and what we’re doing to outsmart them. I want to know the latest injury reports, and what our team ate for breakfast. I want to know why there are so many Pittsburgh fans in America and so few Seattle fans. I can’t stop listening.

It’s absurd actually. In any other year, I hate pre-game hype – hate the corporate nature of the super bowl – hate the loudness of it all. I enjoy the game, but wish that the half time show was a marching band. The whole thing feels excessive, indulgent, over the top. Can’t we please just play football, and leave the movie stars, and football gurus and messiahs out of the equation?

That’s how I usually think, but not this year. Sports Radio – Sports Page – Sports Illustrated. The mild mannered sports fan has become a junkie. And I don’t like it. I’m a better person when the radio is turned off on the way to work – a better person when I peruse the sports headlines and move on – a better person when I play the piano when I get home instead of turning on sports radio and cruising web pages to see if the Seattle’s practice session went well today and listen to press interviews. The whole thing is insane. I know that. Soon it will be over – thank the Lord. Starting tomorrow at 3:30, I’ll be able to be me again; A guy who enjoys relaxing by watching a good football game, screaming a bit, getting bummed at zebras and coaches, and moving on. Go Hawks.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006


It's an accounting term of some sort. I don't know if it's a technical term or just the term we use in our board meetings, but it describes what we 'actually' did with the money as opposed to what we said we'd do in the budget. We also use it to describe how much money 'actually' came in, in contrast to what was expected.

Wendell Berry has always been interested in actuals. He's one of the authors that always reminds me to get up and actually do something - because the solutions to the worlds problems lie, not in grand schemes, but in millions of individuals stepping up and taking actual responsibility in their lives. In a delightful essay, found in a delightful book, he writes, "That will-o'-the-wisp, the large scale solution to the large scale problem, which is so dear to governments, universities, and corporations, serves mostly to distract people from the small, private problems tha they may, in fact, have the power to solve."

This is especially potent in the wake of last night's speech on the state of our country, offered by president Bush. He spoke of grand ideas with respect to energy - and how we will, through technology and R&D tax credits, become a fuel cell based society, and reduce our dependency on foreign oil by 75% over the next twenty years.

This, it seems to me, is precisely the kind of distraction about which Barry warns us: Grand ideas, dependent on someone else's ingenuity and initiative, have the effect of blinding me to the practical things I can do right now - things like taking the bus downtown, and riding my bike to work, and working locally towards safer bike paths, and turning down the thermostat (I like sweaters anyway), and supporting local agriculture so that less of my food comes makes the average 1200 mile journey to my plate, with its commensurate use of fossil fuels. I can take my own bag to the grocery store.

All these things are small. The counter argument goes like this: To make a real difference, such gestures would need to become habits of the whole populace. My response: Precisely- and perhaps we can move in that direction if our leaders cast a vision that calls for personal, small initiatives, rather than simply grand government schemes. Do you want the whole Berry essay? It's "Word and Flesh" beginning on p. 99. But maybe you don't need to read it all... maybe you don't need more thinking planning... maybe you need some actuals - actual conserving, actual hospitality, actual involvement in the well being of your neighborhood. Because it's the actuals, not the plans, that ultimately matter.